When I told friends “I’m going para-motoring,” their first response was always “para-what?” When I explained that I’d be strapping myself to an oversized fan and a giant parasail before attempting to fly, they said their final goodbyes. Undeterred I set off for Koggala on a cold, wet Friday morning. Driving in, the Sky Club hangar is a welcoming sight. There’s coffee, sandwiches and a dozen people running around. My eyes though are drawn straight to the beautiful machines lined up in the centre of the expansive space.
Pic taken by Mark Silverberg while in flight
Waiting for us is instructor Mark Silverberg. He reassures me by talking about (a) his ten years of experience (b) the risk averse, middle-aged family men who make up the usual paramotoring demographic (c) how the flight is so gentle and relaxing that he considers it “air therapy.” Most reassuring of all is that Mark himself will take me up today and do all the work – all I have to do is take in the view.
“It’s not about going from A to B, it’s about enjoying the air,” Mark says, explaining that they fly only in clear, calm weather. Though you can go as high up as 18,000 feet, it’s clear that flying low is the real pleasure in para-motoring – so low that the tips of your toes brush the tops of trees. Its interesting to learn that para-motoring lures in photographers, map makers and explorers because of the kind of unparalleled access it offers to wild places. It’s better than a plane for low flights, and cheaper than a helicopter, plus you don’t have the rotor backwash bending the trees in half and scaring away the birds.
I’m going on the Para-motoring Discovery Flight (US$70 for 20mins), but Sky Club also offers training – a week or roughly 20 to 30 hours will be enough to prepare you for your first solo flight. The course costs $1,200. I’m also excited to hear from Sky Club Sri Lanka CEO, Suren De Silva that they are going to offer sky diving classes and tandem sky diving for people who’d rather make the jump strapped to an instructor (they’re still figuring out how to make that more affordable). For those interested in para-motoring, the two-stroke gasoline engines come in different sizes depending on how much weight they have to heft. There’s the foot launch option for the single para-motorist, chiefly recommended for an easy take off in cramped conditions, and the stronger motors that can help two people seated in a three-wheeled frame lift off.
I now know all I need to know and Suren says the weather has cleared enough for us to attempt a flight. We head out to the bumpy runway, my helmet is already strapped on, my earpiece and mike sorted and as I stride bravely forward I allow myself to momentarily savour the illusion of being in the Sri Lankan edition of Top Gun. Soon I’m being strapped in to my little cloth seat – restraints across the thighs, another around my torso. Mark is saying soothing things in my ear set, but the roar of the giant fan whirring behind me has me clutching my armrests with sudden white-knuckled desperation. Mark’s partner (and Sky Club’s second instructor) Cesar Maldonado is jogging alongside us as we start to roll down the runway, he’s keeping eye on the parasail and ensuring it unfurls without an issue.
I’m certain we’re going to drive off the edge of the runway when I feel the tug and we rise steeply into the air. I can’t help whooping, deafening Mark and scattering a flock of white birds that choose to take off in a picturesque formation at the same time as us. Below me is the area around Koggala. To one side is a pure white, sandy line of beach and an emerald ocean, to the other the tranquil lagoon and its mangrove fringed islands cloaked in fog and mystery; just below the lovely white dome of a stupa framed by temple buildings. You’d think I’d be used to Sri Lanka’s beauty by now, but the view takes my breath away anyway.
Mark heads down to the beach, doing lazy spirals over a lovely expanse of ocean before flying low along the line where the curling wave meets the sand. The spirals and wing overs help him control height and it’s where the adrenaline junkies can get their fix. (Go up high, and you can also turn off the motor and simply glide with your parasail.) Though my reaction to high buildings is usually an urge to jump off the edge, I’m entirely at ease and just drinking in the view. All too soon it’s time to land. In moments the break in the weather will give way to rain. As we walk back to the hangar, little drops setting the puddles around us rippling, Mark tells me that once he’s had a chance to go up in the air, he always feels like his day is set, that very little could upset him now. I know just what he means.
Find Sky Club online at http://www.facebook.com/pages/SkY-CluB-Pvt-Ltd/158213504267969 or call 077 736 0555 for more information.
See more pictures at http://www.sundaytimes.lk/photogallery
Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 24 February, 2013. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pic by Indika Handuwala