Deal with the Devil
There’s something almost Faustian about signing a disclaimer for an extreme sport, especially in India where ‘health and safety’ has hardly been adopted into the local psyche. Nevertheless, I scribbled my signature without hesitation, imagining myself soaring on the thermals over the Himalayas for just 5200 Rupees (roughly 60 GBP). Paragliding in the Solang Nallah valley, around 14km north of Manali, was on the bucket list for me and my two travel companions. If you had asked me beforehand, I would have told you that the most dangerous part would be the flight, or perhaps the landing. I would have been wrong.
Before us sat a modest white Séat – a five-seater with no obvious space for three bulky paragliding chutes. One of the instructors, who doubled up as our driver, was a lean tanned man wearing a dark bomber jacket despite the glaring sun. He beckons us in and we realise there are no seat belts, and with greater disappointment, no air con. My friend takes a photograph of the numberplate, purely for precautionary measures. As we pile in, more men follow until there are seven of us shoving limbs wherever we can to fit. Thankfully, another instructor was going to meet us at the launch site. I ended up poised above the gear stick, but fortunately our driver barely found a use for it.
Our little car of bodies hurtled up the jagged mountain road, swerving around potholes, cow herders and chanting school children. A technicolour daze of brightly painted lorries, each with their own decorative horns, Hindi messages and Gods blazed passed on either side of us. Redundant saggy ski suits waved us by, impatiently waiting for the next snow season to appear. On our dashboard, Vishnu encouraged our driver onwards as he deftly slalomed his way around spluttering hulks of metal, defying both the narrow road and its blind corners.
White sunlight bleached our vision. A lorry speeds towards us on the outside of the bend as we hug the rock face on the right, leaving only inches for clearance. Our car turns slightly towards our adversary and he does the same, locking eyes to avoid staring at the craggy edge and solid mountain. A second bumper appears directly ahead. Nowhere to go. Our driver slams the brakes, his eyes transfixed on the diminishing road ahead. Dull horns echo in the valley. The first lorry hasn’t completed the bend yet. A hit is inevitable. I shut my eyes, thinking Solang could so easily be mispronounced ‘So Long.’ Bracing ourselves, a throttle grumbles and a cloud of yellow dust is kicked up to our left as a motorbike dives in between us all, creating space that simply did not exist a second before.
Laughter erupts from one of the men at the back and it reminds the rest of us that we can exhale. He recognises the motorcyclist. This daredevil is apparently my tandem pilot.
A yellow warning sign at the side of the road finally forces us to stop: ‘Sinking area ahead. Drive carefully.’ Stiffly departing from the car, we become heady in the cool thin air. The vivid colours so synonymous with India drain away as the green tree line dissipates into grey rock and white snow. The dominating skyline of the Himalayas silences the horns and engines as we creep over the broken road in single file.
Before I can properly absorb the view, ascertain the wind direction or even remove my flip flops I find myself strapped to the daredevil shouting, ‘Run to the edge! Don’t stop running!’ and we are flung up into the air. Safe.