By John Bishop
in the New York Times
THE air whistled past my helmet as I removed a cube of raw buffalo meat from the bag strapped to my paraglider harness and placed it in my gloved hand. While a soup of haze obstructed the views of the Himalayas one afternoon last spring, I was rewarded with tilting glimpses of the Nepalese city of Pokhara and of Phewa Lake below. The paraglider pilot seated behind me blew his whistle twice, and moments later, a brown Egyptian vulture swooped in an effortless arc, landing on my outstretched arm.
This was my introduction to parahawking, an adventure sport that combines falconry and paragliding, drawing both bird enthusiasts and thrill seekers.
“Many of our clients probably wouldn’t have done a paragliding flight without the birds,” said Scott Mason, a 39-year-old Londoner who created the sport. “Paragliding is fun and exciting, but for some people maybe that’s just not enough. They need something a little different to add the thrill.”
Mr. Mason, a falconer who as a child harbored fantasies of flying with the birds, arrived in Nepal in 2001 and spent five years learning how to pilot a paraglider while training birds to fly with him. Mr. Mason’s outfit took 350 tourists paragliding last season with rescued birds (which can no longer fend for themselves in the wild), and operates Himalayan Raptor Rescue, a rehabilitation center for injured birds of prey.
The parahawking season runs from Nov. 1 to March 31, and tandem flights can be booked at parahawking.com or through the Pokhara office of Adam Tours & Travels (adamtravels.com). Mr. Mason said he hoped parahawking would boost awareness of Nepal’s vultures, which face a formidable threat to their survival from Diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug that is widely given to livestock in the region, but that poisons the birds that feed off their carcasses. (Ten euros of the 130-euro cost to paraglide with Mr. Mason’s outfit goes to vulture conservation projects.)
Parahawking requires no expertise. My ride started at the dusty takeoff point on a hill about 20 minutes away from Pokhara. Mr. Mason helped me into my harness, and while we waited our turn, I watched other paragliders take off over the hills, their curved nylon canopies seemingly weightless.
We took our position, monitoring the windsock and tattered prayer flags posted at the takeoff point for signs of wind. And then, when it arrived, Mr. Mason yelled, “Go, go, go!” We ran downhill awkwardly, tethered by the tandem harness, straining against the weight of our inflating glider, until our feet left the ground.
One of Mr. Mason’s staff members released the vulture — Bob, he’s called — and he began his approach. Bob took his reward from my hand and then soared off in search of a pocket of warm air, which provides a lift to both bird and glider. We followed him.
For those who take the leap, little compares with the feeling of soaring hundreds of feet above a turquoise lake and forested hills in the company of a feathered guide.
“I was surprised at how easy it was to find the lifts following the vultures flying out there,” said Barnaby Walker, 24, a former accountant from Southampton, England, halfway through a two-year trip around the world. He examined the birds at rest in their aviary while nursing a post-flight soft drink.
“It’s fascinating to watch them,” he said. “I want to do it all over again.”