When I had settled on the Goecha La trek, I had decided almost at once that I would spend a few days in Gangtok after that. Apart from the Nathu La-Tsangu Lake experience, the main reason behind the decision was paragliding.
Facilities for this sport were launched in Sikkim only recently, in 2011 or 2012. I knew about it in details from subbing the copies from Sikkim. I thought being that close and letting go of the opportunity would be silly.
I searched all over the Net and finally found a way to connect to the Sikkim Paragliding Association (SPA) on Facebook. They have a page by that same name. Though my trip was well away in May 2013, I sent a message as early as January 28, asking them for contact numbers and if May-end was a good time for paragliding.
For the next three months, I got no reply. Finally, when I had nearly forgotten about it, I got a message from them on April 23, saying May-end was the prefect time for it and gave me the contact number of Rajdeep Thapa (09735017094) who I’d have to get in touch with once I was in Gangtok.
I left Yuksom for Gangtok on May 20 after the Goecha La trek and had planned the paragliding experience the very next day. My colleague in Gangtok had made all arrangements for me — car, lodging and sightseeing — and though he himself was out of station, had asked a friend to help me out with everything.
I called up this friend and told him I wanted to go paragliding. He — as well as my colleague — thought it was inadvisable. For one, the weather was terrible, as we had already experienced through the trek. Secondly, my feet were swollen beyond recognition. They looked like two puffy buns with five tiny bloated projections jutting out of the end.
In fact, not only were they swollen like balloons, my feet were all blistered because I had stupidly discarded by trekking shoes for a pair of floaters after the trek. I realised later that for swollen feet, shoes are the best option. They give it a good cushion and prevent further damage.
For the moment, however, my feet were not in good condition. But I was adamant about paragliding. And my colleague and his friend thought — for good reason too — that I was mad.
On the evening of May 20, this friend of my colleague called up to say he wasn’t being able to get any contact numbers for paragliding. I happily gave him Thapa’s number. After a while he called up to say it had been fixed and the car would pick me up from the hotel the next day, that is, IF the weather improved.
As they say, fortune favours the brave. In my 13 days of stay in Sikkim, I got good weather only on three days. In Tsokha during the trek — both on the way up and down. And, on May 21 — the day of paragliding.
It was nice to wake up to a sunny day when the weather was what mattered the most. My driver, Chandan, picked me up at the right time, around 9am. And we set off for Ranka, around an hour’s drive from Gangtok, where all the paragliding in Sikkim is done.
Before taking me to the paragliding office, however, Chandan stopped at the Ranka Waterfall Park, a tourist attraction, which, despite the fact that I simply could not wait for the paragliding experience, seemed pretty nice. Don't miss is if you go to Ranka for paragliding.
Chandan knew the way and after we left the park, he drove straight to the Fly Sikkim Adventure office at Reshithang in Ranka, East Sikkim. The place didn’t look like anything from where paragliding could be done and I couldn’t help but wonder how exactly things were supposed to go. Apart from the few paragliding offices that line the road, nothing else was to be seen.
I was given a grand reception at the centre, firstly because I was wearing the ‘Bloody Hell! I did Goecha La’ T-shirt bought at the trek and secondly, because I had to tell them I was a journalist when they asked me what I did for a living. At once, I had become a hero. They even clicked my picture, probably for their little ‘Hall of Fame’ gallery that’s found in most such touristy centres.
There were two options for paragliding — ‘medium fly’ and ‘high fly’. The charge for medium fly was Rs 2,200 and for high fly, something like Rs 4,000, though I don’t remember the exact amount. I opted for medium fly. I had wondered how I would take pictures while paragliding and now, they gave me an option. I could carry a video camera for an extra charge of Rs 500. I thought it was a good idea.
It appeared that I would have to travel to the spot from where the jump would happen in a car provided by the paragliding centre while my car would wait at the spot where we would land — the sports stadium in Ranka. The car was an SUV with an open-topped trailer and I’d never seen anything like it before.
I got into the car with six other men and there were another 8-10 of them in the trailer. Chandan, who I had entrusted with my camera, reassured me repeatedly that he would be there at the stadium and that I should not worry. I stifled a chuckle. I wasn’t worried. He was. And visibly so. Though I had no clue why.
I couldn’t help but wonder, though, why so many guys were needed for one person to paraglide. As we drove up a steep hill for around 30 minutes, the car stopped about midway at a small hamlet, where all the guys in the trailer got off. Now it made sense. These guys were hitching a ride — possibly a daily routine in a place where public transport is non-existent. I was the day’s first customer and hence, they had got their first ‘shuttle car’.
The car finally stopped in front of a huge structure that looked like another stadium. We did not go inside but took a flight of stairs going up the side. As the guys ran up the steps, I made my way up slowly, panting and grumbling. What is it with stairs and me, I thought dismally. I had returned from the trek — which had been all about climbing stairs — only two days back. And here I was, climbing more of them.
I reached the top — as usual out of breath — to a pretty scary sight. The top was a gravelly, inclined surface, with a sheer drop at one end. The guys were already at work, unfurling the parachute and preparing the safety gear for me.
I saw one of them ambling towards the sheer drop and wondered with some trepidation what he was up to. It appeared that he had selected that incredible spot to relieve himself. I marvelled at his choice. Of all the places we were in for the past half an hour — the office, the hamlet where the guys in the trailer got off, outside the structure where were now — he had preferred to take a leak from the edge of a sheer drop of a few hundred metres. “Men!” I thought.
Meanwhile, the guy who was unfurling the parachute had managed to entangle it in a wire fence near the top, eliciting a sharp glare and muted invectives from one of the guys. I guessed he was the pilot. I asked him if my guess was right. He said yes. “What’s your name,” I asked. “Tashi,” he replied. “Oh, I’ve already met another Tashi in this trip. Is that a common name here,” I asked. “Yes,” was all that came again. He wasn’t a man of too many words.
My phone, which was in my pocket, started ringing. It was Chandan, sounding very frantic. “Madam, have you reached? Are you safe?” he said in one breath. “Yes I’ve reached. Everything is fine,” I replied, still puzzled why he was so anxious for my safety.
By then, three or four guys were strapping the safety gear on me. I looked quite ridiculous with a small seat dangling behind me, at knee-level. And now what they said made my hair stand on end. I’d have to walk down that gravelly path towards the sheer drop and have to sit down in that seat just before the jump! My pilot would be behind me, of course, strapped to me and the chute. But that was little consolation.
I doubted if I could do all that. It sounded terrifying to say the least. But the guys allayed my fears very sweetly. “We’ll walk with you all the way to the edge,” they said. “Don’t worry. Everything will be fine,” they kept saying. “What if I can’t sit down on time,” I asked. “It will happen naturally,” they said. “There will be a jerk and you will fall into the seat.” It did not sound too reassuring.
Finally I told myself that if these guys could walk with me all the way without a parachute, I should be able to do it, for I at least had that benefit. All done, we waited for “favourable wind”.
That wait was one of the most nerve-wracking 60 seconds of my life. The video camera was already recording. It was at the end of a stick, which I was holding and was also strapped to my gear. When I see my expression now in that video, I can’t stop laughing. I looked like a goat being taken to the slaughterhouse.
And then suddenly, without a warning, we were all walking towards the drop. My heart was nearly in my mouth as I approached the edge, but then, without realising a thing, I had slumped into the seat. There was a lot of shouting going on around and I feared for a moment that the jump had gone wrong. But then, within a couple of seconds, we were in the air.
I let out whoops of delight as we soared a few hundred metres above the ground. Even as we were air-borne, Tashi adjusted the straps of my safety gear and the camera pole and asked me if I was fine. I was not merely fine. I was on seventh heaven.
I cannot say what it was like paragliding. I’m not eloquent enough to express that kind of feeling in words. It was like flying I guess, like getting wings. Getting a bird’s-eye view of the hills was only a tiny part of it. One of the best experiences I’ve had so far — on a par with the Niagara Falls experience. I did not stop grinning from ear to ear for a single second in the video.
I kept chatting incessantly with Tashi like one-way traffic. I doubt if he said more than eight words in those eight minutes. I see from the video now that he was constantly trying to figure out how to give me a good experience, take me close to the trees, reading the winds, adjusting the chute. He told me once he would take me close to the treetops. “Ok,” I said, “Just don’t get stuck in the trees.” And we laughed.
I believe Tashi gave me a longer ride that what was promised, which they sometimes do. Midway through the flight, he probably noticed my swollen knees and feet. “Can you straighten your legs,” he asked. I did it without a hassle. “Good, you’ll need to do it while landing,” he said. We went around the area in circles and I could see the stadium below where we were supposed to land.
As we came down circling through the air, he told me to straighten my legs when were about 20 feet off the ground. It was a smooth landing, like a plane. As it’s supposed to be, I landed on my behind, which was well protected by the seat. Everything had gone perfect.
I could see Chandan running towards us and told me very excitedly that he had clicked the pictures as I had asked him to. We went to the office, which was not even a kilometre away, in our car. There, I was given a CD of the video camera recording. I was also asked very politely if everything was fine and given a feedback form. They had not given me a reason to give low scores for anything at all.
Once we were back in the car, Chandan told me he was relieved to see me safely back. “But why were you so worried,” I asked. “Madam, you went off with so many men all alone. I was so worried,” he let it out. I started laughing. “This is their living Chandan,” I told him. “If people give a bad feedback, will they be able to run a tourism-centric business? They gave me absolutely no reason to suspect anything amiss.”
And it was true. If you visit Sikkim, the paragliding experience in Ranka is highly recommended for anyone with a spirit of adventure and stomach for heights.
Go fly. The sky is the limit.
Contact numbers for paragliding in Sikkim
Rajdeep Thapa: 09735017094
Arun Gurung: 09851588593
Fly Sikkim Adventure office: 09197207767