20 جولائی، 2014

Taking flight: Surfing the air above Chitral’s mountains


CHITRAL: It is the simplest form of human flight—paragliding. All you really need is a wing, which is small enough to fit into a backpack. The only other thing you need is height and Chitral has plenty of that to offer.

It is here, amid the silent mountain air that you can look down on lush green fields and sweep past icy slopes. Chitral’s topography is so well suited to paragliding that international visitors have long been attracted to it, and in fact, they are the ones who made it popular with the locals around 2005 onwards.

One of the frequent foreign visitors is American Brad Sander, an expert pilot in the Hindukush region who has broken several records. On his second trip to Pakistan, for example, he set the distance record for paragliding on the Asian continent, flying 224km from Booni to Karimabad, as cited by Sports Illustrated.“It wasn’t until I came to Pakistan in May of 2007,” he wrote on his blog,“that I felt the overwhelming urge to combine my love of travel and flying in a commercial way so that I could share this adventure with others.” He urged people to come paragliding at Shandur 2014 where it has become a regular feature at the polo festival.

More and more locals are learning how to paraglide. Two associations operate in the upper and lower tehsils with over 50 members. Syed Muzafar Husain of the Booni Paragliding Club is keen to see more people come. “As with free-style polo, Chitral also has free-style paragliding, which helps promote tourism and sports in the region,” he said. Paragliders from Chitral have even been invited by the army to Swat after the army operation and later to Dir.

People from Gilgit-Baltistan are even showing interest in learning the sport from Chitral, according to the president of the Hindukush Association for Paragliding, Shahzada Farhat Aziz.“It started after they saw other people flying, and now it is a passion,” he declared.

Paragliding is an expensive sport given that a second-hand glider costs about Rs120,000 and a brand new one about Rs300,000. Many of the locals are taking off without even the basic equipment such as altimeters and GPS, added Aziz.

A majority of local paragliders in Chitral prefer to challenge themselves by covering high altitudes while the foreigners who come here are usually more interested in targeting a maximum area. There are no rules or regulations as such and you don’t even need a no-objection certification from the government. But the associations feel that it should be made mandatory.

While there are groups like the Terichmir Paragliding Club to help people learn the ropes, the experts lament that foreigners don’t come as much as they used to because of the changed security situation. There was an Austrian paraglider who had wanted to open a training institute but his untimely death left that dream unfulfilled. “The best way we train ourselves is by studying books and learning from the foreigners who come to Chitral,” said Syed Muzaffar Husain of the Booni club. One of their members added that while the sport can be dangerous if you aren’t trained, their parents had never stopped them from doing it because they love it so much.

“Though it is a little dangerous, it’s no less than an adventure,” said paraglider Farooq Hussain, adding, however, that they sometimes suffered from a lack of any training. For example, amateur paragliders can stumble and fall quite badly. They need to also know how to tackle thermal updrafts or vertical columns of rising air.

Nineteen-year-old Anas Mallick from Karachi did it for the first time in Gilgit last year. The three days of training and flying cost about Rs17,500. A local instructor called Naveed taught him how to balance, open up his shoot, land perfectly and not mess up mid-air. “The most important thing is balance,” Mallick said he learned.“The moment you lose it, you are gone.”

Three instructors help you take off, standing spaced apart with one at the back, one in the middle and one at the take-off spot, which is a hill you trek up to, say a height of 1,200 metres. You run and as you gather speed at the right point you open your shoot. “It’s like you’ve got wings,” said Mallick, who was otherwise at a loss for words to describe the incredible experience. “You are flying, even though you aren’t ‘flying’.”

Published in The Express Tribune, July 3rd, 2014.

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