Icarus' waxen wings came to mind as we soared into the blue Pokhara sky. Strapped behind pilot Stephen Shrestha before we lifted off the short runway, it occurred to me that microlight aviation is probably the closest experience to being birds that we humans have.not even para-soaring comes closer.
Both microlight and para-soaring are now part of what Pokhara offers to the adventure tourist. And what an adventure! As per advice, I had a light breakfast, and was thankful as my stomach swooped up to my throat every time Stephen banked over Phewa Tal.
Earlier, I had watched a single ground staff tow the 130 kg contraption out of the hangar. It didn't inspire much confidence: it looked like a pram balanced on a flagpole. Or a motorcycle with wings. And, as I discovered, wearing helmets is compulsory for both pilot and pillion riders like me.
"If the engine stalls, there's no where to land," says Stephen Shrestha, the Avia Club Nepal pilot as he did the pre-flight checks. That made me even more nervous, as I felt what sounded like a Volkswagen beetle engine come to life behind us.
Stephen was only half-joking: looking down there didn't seem to be many landing options in the hilly Pokhara terrain. The takeoff was so smooth I didn't even realise we were airborne until the runway started disappearing below my feet.
Far below and growing smaller was Lakeside and the Phewa. The less said about the view of Machapuchre and the Annapurnas to the north the better, since there are no words to describe it. And even pictures give you only the one dimension: it is a 3-D world out there, with the rush of wind, the sound of the engine and a feeling of being literally at the doorstep of heaven.
As a professional photographer who has shot pictures from airplanes, a hot air balloon and helicopters, I must confess the microlight took my breath away. The obliging pilot can reduce speed from the recommended 60-90 mph, sometimes down to a near-stall 40.
Maneuverability is key to taking pictures, so I unstrapped the top of my safety belt to swivel around. This was an adventure without any safety nets and the adrenaline sang through my veins. Stephen banked and rolled, doing a gentle under-over move with another microlight so I could frame the delicate wings against the backdrop of the Himalaya.
There was the peace stupa, serenely punctuating the ridge above the Phewa, the urban clutter of Pokhara's lakeside, and the looming presence of the Annapurna's northern wall. We cruised at 7,000 ft, watched the sunlight play on the clouds, reflect like diamonds off the lake and saw the morning flights from Kathmandu make an approach to the airport.
Then we got into thermals and the little craft was tossed about like a raft at sea for a while. Catabatic winds, the pilots call them: air forced up a mountain slope along the ridgeline. There are no barf-bags on board, so if you throw up it will rain down on the good citizens of Pokhara.
Neither are there any in-flight magazines or hot coffee, thank heavens. This is a gut-wrenching adventure: an open sky and no set co-ordinates. In fact, this is the airborne version of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The wind, the sharp clarity in the air, the light and an underlying edge of fear is a combination that made me want to shout. I think I even did, because a worried Stephen looked behind to see if I was alright.
With several rolls of film expended, we headed back to terra firma. Stephen aimed for the runway threshold and pushed the elevator bar, sending my heart once again to the vicinity of my throat, and my ears stopped working because of the air pressure. A gentle flare and we touched down with a squeal of tyres. The engine stopped, and the the lack of the sound was deafening for a while marked only by the ticking sound of the engine cooling.
I invited Stephen (pic, top left) for a chat and a cup of sweet airport chia: a sugar rush to counterbalance the incredible adrenaline rush. The 25-year-old is Nepal's first microlight pilot-license number 001-and an adventurer at heart. "I was always interested in sports and aviation, and microlights are a perfect combination of both," he says. He trained at Phoenix in Arizona, Tampa Bay in Florida and Moscow. He joined the Pokhara-based Avia Club Nepal in 2001 and is a qualified basic flight instructor. Stephen believes the full potential of microlights have not been exploited in Nepal.
The bi-annual microlight seasons in Pokhara are short: October through November and March to May, although spring brings more turbulence causing thermals and thunder storms. Microlights have yet to catch on like, say, the Manakamana cable car. Most Nepalis are reluctant to sample even a short joyride. Besides aerial tours, Avia is often called upon to shower visiting dignitaries with flowers from on high, and tow advertising banners. Recently it was featured in a Bollywood movie. With a touch of weary sarcasm, Stephen says that will probably get more punters in.
Durga Dutta Bastola is a 74-year-old farmer and patriarch of a family that includes 22 grandchildren, six married daughters and two sons. He is also the only person, and the oldest one, in his village of Puranchaur near Pokhara to have taken a ride on the "big butterfly" (pic, left). "I had Rs 1,000 with me, and I asked the pilot if he could let me fly," recalls Durga. For seven ecstatic airborne minutes he got his wish. Would he do it again? "Of course I would love to fly again but I don't think I can spare the money. And if I did, I'd let my grandchildren go because flying like that cannot be described in words. They have to experience it."
Avia Microlight Club, the only aviation club that exists in Nepal, flies the BIMAN-1 delta wing craft. Rides last between 15-45 minutes and cost between $50-175. Contact: Pokhara Airport.
Sunrise Paragliding, the first Nepali company to start commercial paragliding, has been in business in Pokhara since 1999 (Nepali Times, #77). More than 1,000 people have been airborne since then. Expect to pay between $50-120 for tandem rides of various durations.