Travel Writing Awards Entry

By Andrew Coker

 “Run.” Shouted Didier, one of his few words of English and we started running as fast as we could towards the edge of the cliff with this French man strapped to my back. I was in front and Didier, the instructor behind, we galloped towards the precipice like a hobbled, pantomime horse.

Why do I deliberately put myself in such frightening situations? This is the last time I do anything dangerous I tell myself as sternly as possible. Ahead of us the ground dropped away and we are eye level with the tops of the pine trees some 50 metres ahead.

But within seconds we were airborne and not impaled on an evergreen.  Soaring majestically over them, my feet dangling in empty space, there’s nothing in front except the view of the French Alps and Mount Blanc and above me the canopy of a tandem paraglider.

I adjust myself back into the surprisingly comfy harness that’s strung below the canopy. Relaxing my grip on the straps my weight is supported by the air currents. This is how in flight entertainment should be. Perfectly silent, hundreds of feet of legroom and wide screen, panoramic views.

I was having an action packed long weekend in the Alpine town of St Gervais, France. Clear mountain air and outside the tourist peak time, St Gervais offered a multitude of adventurous sports and activities. The four of us had hired mountain bikes for the long weekend, which were a perfect way of getting around town as well as exploring the more adventurous off road tracks. For a day off from cycling we went white water rafting a few kilometers from town. There’s endless scope for walking and cycling in the area. A pleasant outdoor swimming pool in town, as well as horse riding, tennis and canyoning near by.

For the paragliding we were passengers, there to take in the unprecedented view of the Valley.  Even the ride to the launching point had been an adventure in itself. Didier picked us up outside our apartment in St Gervais in his four wheel drive. I could tell immediately he was our pilot. As he walked towards us, his huge handle bar moustache trailed like kite tails either side of his face.

We drove to the edge of the picturesque old town. Didier then engaged four-wheel drive, opened the windows, undid his seat belt and in his best Marcel Marceau, mimed diving out of the open window in the event of an accident.

The road out of town was steep and twisting. And just when I thought it couldn’t get any steeper or twistier, the road turned into a dirt track, and got steeper. And even more twisty. The bonnet was pointing skywards and I could only see the road, which was only just wider than the car, from out of the side windows. Every now and then I would glimpse between the trees and my fingers, spectacular views of the valley and the rapidly receding town below.

Eventually we came to a clearing, where Didier parked the jeep precariously close to the edge. It was quite a relief to get out of the car safely but then it struck me, I’ve got to paraglide back down now. My instructions as a paragliding passenger where fairly basic and Didier used all his mime techniques to instruct me on what to do to get airborne.

Once we were up and as long as I didn’t dwell on all the “what if’s…” of being hundreds of metres up in the air, suspended beneath a parachute, I began to relax and enjoy the flight. The experience was unlike being in any aircraft as you are not actually “in” anything. There is only a slight noise from the wind rustling the canopy and supporting lines. And if we shared a common language, Didier and I would have been able to speak normally.

 This was flying as naturally as possible. There were no instruments to tell you your altitude or speed, it was all done by instinct and intuition. A paraglider must probably be the cheapest and lightest form of aircraft. Developed from parachutes they are just a few kilos in weight and folds up with the harness into a rucksack.

Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe was away to the left, and several hundred metres below, St Gervais. On the other side of the valley towered the French Alps.

Expert flyers, given the right conditions of wind and thermal updrafts have kept aloft for over 24 hours and some have traveled 200 miles and more. For paying tourists it’s a bit shorter. Before long and without enough lift we had dropped deeper into the valley. It was at about this time it occurred to me that Didier hadn’t mimed how to land.
We glided over the motorway, railway line and river and were aiming for a sports field on the edge of town. As we came in lower, Didier indicated I should move forward out of the harness and start running as we approached the ground. Keen to do my bit as the undercarriage of our magnificent flying machine, I started running with still about 20 metres of air between me and the ground, bracing myself for what I thought might be an energetic touch down. I need not have worried about the landing. Under Didier’s expert control, we touched down with hardly a bump and came to a stand still in just a few paces.