Paragliding with vultures in Nepal

 

From hot air balloon to hang-gliding operators, plenty of airborne adventure outfits promise to let you "soar with the birds."

Few, however, deliver on the claim quite as literally or dramatically as Nepal's Parahawking Project.

An activity in which humans to fly alongside beautiful Egyptian vultures, parahawking is one of the more sensational flight experiences on the planet.

Flights take off from the lakeside town of Pokhara -- a jumping off point for whitewater rafting, mountain biking and other adventure activities in the Nepal's Annapurna region.

Thanks to the perennial presence of thermal gusts of air, traditional paragliding is an established and popular activity in the Pokhara Valley.

Many paragliding outfits operate tandem flights in the area.

But only the Parahawking Project offers two flight companions -- mine were named "Scott" and "Kevin."

Scott Mason was my human guide.

Like most Egyptian vultures, Kevin, didn't say much, but was extremely handsome, with sharp eyes and an adorable spiked hairdo.

The founder of Nepal's Parahawking Project, Mason employs two Egyptian vultures, his preferred breeds in the air, to accompany paragliders in flight. (Kevin's feathered colleague is named "Bob.")

Inspiration strikes over beers

Like other birds, Egyptian vultures conserve energy while flying by seeking "thermals" -- rising currents of warm air that occur when the sun heats the ground.

Thermals are also important to paragliders, who use them to stay aloft for longer periods of time.

Parahawking involves using trained birds to locate thermals.

Human paragliders follow the birds as they fly, rewarding the birds with a piece of meat after they've been guided to a thermal.

"The birds land on the passengers' gloved hand for an inflight reward," according to the Parahawking Project website.

The idea of using vultures to lead paragliders first came to Mason in 2001.

Mason says inspiration struck over beers with the man who kick-started Nepal's paragliding industry.

"The more beers we had, the better the idea seemed," he says.

"Luckily, it still seemed like a good plan in the morning."

Taking flight

Though a few other operators around the world have begun offering parahawking flights, Mason, who says he's always been "a bird guy," says his project is the original.

In the eight years since the tandem flights with vultures took off, Mason has had a number of interesting experiences.

One involved a client with no arms for the birds to land on -- a fact the man failed to mention until go time.

Then there was the vegan who decided, after jumping, that she couldn't bear to touch the buffalo bait.

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