Nepal: Where Eagles dare
By Jonathan Green (Alpha. magazine): The only sound is the eerie creak of nylon strings under the tension of my body weight. But then there is a rising whoosh and the barracking of fabric above us, as we are borne aloft, high up into the heavens, by an unseen invisible hand. Glacier-draped peaks drift away beneath our feet with vertigo-inducing thrust, the air temperature drops sharply, but still we continue to drift over the jagged Himalayan mountain range.
I’m slung beneath a slash of yellow fabric. Falling away between my hiking boots I can see terraced rice paddy fields, mountainsides choked with rhododendron bushes and small children playing outside shacks, who all drift away to become microscopic dots 1,000 feet below us. We are paragliding, seconds before we hit a thermal updraft. This is hot air rising from the earth’s sun-baked crust which produces lift, pushing us ever upwards.
Flying ahead like an F16 escort, his huge wings outstretched and taking advantage of the same thermal, is Kevin. He is an Egyptian vulture. And despite his craggy, gloomy face and balding pate, he has a sunny disposition. This is parahawking. The brainchild of the man I am strapped to, UK-born Scott Mason. It’s been his life’s work to train birds of prey to fly with paragliders. Right now, flying above the Annapurna range, I am soaring with them in their natural environment. It’s a wondrous feeling; gliding on the same thermals, weightless under a paraglider, bucking gravity too.
Kevin greedily eyes the bag of bloody buffalo meat slung around my waist. I tug out a worm-like piece of meat and jam it between the thumb and forefinger of the thick falconer’s glove that I am wearing. Kevin makes a long graceful, arcing turn behind us. I stick my arm out at a right angle and Kevin gives a masterful beat of his wings and lands on it. We are soaring at 70,000 feet and Kevin makes it look easy. He tugs on the meat in my glove, wolfs it down, gives me a look of gratitude and then falls off my hand in a stooping dive.
Yet my reverie is crudely punctured. Danger is lurking. “OK, now we’ve got trouble,” says pilot Mason. This causes me to reflexively grab the two carabineers, which attach me to the canopy. “There’s a Steppe eagle coming in to attack.” He tugs on one of the guiding lines and we bank left in a stomach-churning roll. Blocking out the sun to my right is a swirling column of birds of prey using a thermal to circle up to the heavens. Huge Griffon vultures with six-foot wingspans, Steppe eagles and other birds of prey regard this as their airspace.
At this time of year they are territorial. Kevin, the domesticated vulture, is an unwanted marauder in their hunting grounds. And causing me some undue consternation, too, is the creeping realisation that I am hanging about up here like a lost tourist on the Serengeti, lions prowling, with rump steaks hanging from my belt. Mason arrived in the Pokhara valley of Nepal sometime in 2001. A trim, tight-limbed man with a thick cockney accent and a wiry enthusiasm, he had dumped the London rat race for adventure and a round-the-world ticket.
The newly established mountain town of Pokhara throngs with Tibetan art shops, and overstocked tourist stores selling panoramic prints of the Himalayas and other tat. Raucous bars, where the floor is sticky from spilled pints and ear-splittingly awful Nepali bands try to play Led Zeppelin covers, attract 20-year-old gap-year students on the hippy, back-packing trail through India. The kingdom of Nepal, home to Everest, Annapurna and some of the tallest peaks in the world, is also an epicentre for paragliding. Mason and his girlfriend signed up as a way to while away an afternoon.
The next day Mason was dangling over the mountains flying with fellow Brit Adam Hill, who had also found nirvana in the mountain valley. He left everything to open a paragliding business. Mason, blown away as he was by the paragliding, was slack-jawed when he realised he was flying right alongside Himalayan birds of prey in their natural environment. For most of his teens and adult life, Mason has been obsessed with birds of prey.
While the bedrooms of other Essex 13-year-olds were stuffed with books about Grand Prix cars and footballers, Mason’s was filled with books on Buteo lagopus (the rough legged buzzard) or Falco tinnunculus (the common kestrel). At the age of 13 he bought his first barn owl, which he named Ghost. “I’d walk around town with a barn owl on my fist,” he says. “I’m surprised I wasn’t beaten up.” Mason became a fully fledged falconer and later joined the British School of Falconry as an instructor.
But it was here in Nepal where he found his true calling. Hill, the owner of Frontier Paragliding, asked if Mason might be able to train birds to fly with paragliders. As the two sat over a pint, Hill told his story. He too had turned up in Pokhara several years before and had fallen in love with the place. Hill discovered that he could fly between the valleys to speed up his work taking tallies of trees. He became the fastest forestry worker in the country. Word of the flying Englishman got about and villagers started to give him mail to take to Pokhara as he was so much faster than the mailman.
His dream was to open a paragliding centre. Later, when he applied to open a school he had to get an aircraft licence from the local government officials. “When I turned up with a paraglider in a backpack, they said, ‘You are crazy man. That is not an aircraft.’ I laid it out on the ground in the car park and they started laughing – ‘You cannot fly with that.’” They all went inside, chortling, but Hill was granted a licence anyway. At their meeting, Mason said to Hill, “You teach me to fly and I’ll teach you about birds.”
The next morning the two men set about fusing one of the world’s oldest sports, falconry, with one of the world’s newest and most extreme, paragliding. As fate would have it, they received a call that day from a neighbour who said that two black kites had fallen out of a nest. The local who had found them wanted to eat them. Mason rescued the birds in the nick of time. The first he named Sapana. She was only a week old. Over time he rescued many more and started the Himalayan Raptor Rescue Project. He declared that all birds he trained for parahawking would be rescued, not plucked from the wild.
One Nepali who worked in Hill’s paragliding store was adamant that it was ridiculous to train birds of prey. But as Mason’s methods began to work, the man fell silent. Shortly after, this man turned up to work with a crow in a basket. “I’m going to train him,” he declared. Now it was Mason’s turn to smile triumphantly. Slowly, Mason got the birds to fly to his fist. Then he got them used to paragliders by flying a huge kite in the sky. Within several months he launched his maiden voyage with Sapana.
Some birds showed no aptitude for it. A black kite, Goggles, was too wary of the chutes. And rescued a Hodgsons Hawk eagle called Eli is still much too nervous to fly with the paragliders. Kevin the vulture, rescued after he fell out of his nest during a monsoon, has taken to parahawking with alacrity. “A couple of times he’s flown into the lines of the paragliding, collapsing half the canopy,” says Mason. “But he’s a natural.” Kevin is weighed every day and maintains a perfect flying weight of 1,550 grams. “My only regret,” says Mason. “Is that he is not better looking.” Despite his appearance, Kevin the vulture has become a star. He even has his own facebook page.
Frontiers Paragliding, aside from its well-appointed offices in Pokhara, has a bucolic farmhouse on the road out of town with burnt cinnamon cottages and thatched roofs. Buddhist prayer flags flutter in front of the aviaries. It’s the epicentre of a hip paragliding scene. Wraparound-shade-wearing pilots from France, Italy and New Zealand, among other places, spin high in the sky, pulling acrobatic manoeuvres like the wing-over, synchro spiral and infinity tumble before landing on a grassy strip in front of the house.
Malcolm, a Kiwi mountaineering guide, has a close call. While pulling an extreme acrobatic stunt, the force tears all the strings out of his canopy. The only way to save his life is to pull the reserve chute. “I’m a bit shaken, I don’t mind saying,” he admits, somewhat queasily. The next day it was my turn. Also waiting, nervously, was Leeds ornithologist Roger Barnes. A 50ish, voluble man, he spends much of his life taking teams of dedicated birdwatchers all over the globe. “I never thought this was possible,” he gushes enthusiastically before we start. “I was just here birdwatching when I saw this parahawking thing.”
We clamber into Mason’s red jeep and head on up a dusty road to the top of Sarangkot mountain. Kevin sits in the back, pecking at some dandruff on my collar. From there, with the valley spread out beneath our feet, we take a running jump off the side of the mountain. The canopy billows up behind us as we soar off into the sky. Mason’s done thousands of flights and thinks nothing of it now. The one cause for concern is the gathering cumulus clouds building behind us. Paragliders have been known to be sucked up into clouds, never to be seen again.
As we swoop over rusty, corrugated iron-roofed mountain shacks – casting a long shadow over the mountainside – Mason tries to maintain his composure. He fails. “C’mon Kev!” he shouts. “Get out of there!” Kevin seems to hear him. He bucks in the air, folds his wings back and sets his vulture controls for warp factor 7. The Steppe eagle can only watch in vain as Kevin shoots past us as if he has switched to afterburners. Mason shouts with glee.
We glide in lazy arcs over the lake and begin a gentle descent to land. Kevin has outwitted the Steppe eagles. But whether he will outlive the hastening extinction of all vultures in Asia is yet to be seen. “You know,” says Mason, tugging on one of the guiding ropes and bringing us into land. “Kevin may the last of ’em.” Today, though, he lives. Kevin extends his scrawny legs to land, gives a triumphant squawk on the ground and tugs on a piece of meat I give him. I never thought it was possible either – to feel respect, admiration and well, kinship, with a vulture. He can be my wingman anytime.