Microlight flight around Annapurna: High as a Kite
“Ow ow ow” I yelped as I descended the stairs on my bottom. Not a good start to a trip. But it was not my first time in Kathmandu and I was well aware of its rickety charm. Rickety charm, in this case, being that the top three steps were of three different heights, causing me to lose my footing. Bruised but unbroken I dusted myself down and stepped, gingerly, out of the guesthouse and into the throng to book a flight to Pokhara.
Pokhara is a pretty little town at the foot of the Annapurna range. I had long harboured the desire to do the trek that circumnavigates the range but had never had the time. Twenty-one days just for the trek alone, I was told. Plus getting there and away, and probably a few days at the end to rest weary boots.
I was going to do the next best thing, I was going to fly into it in a microlight. But first I had to get to Pokhara so early the following morning I squeezed my dented derrière into the not-so-generous space afforded by a 29-seat Yeti Airlines turboprop. It’s only a twenty-minute flight. If you are adventurous there is a bus that can do the 125-mile journey in around six hours (not including breakdowns and blocked roads) that is said to be quite an interesting, if rather bumpy, journey.
Pokhara is 800 metres above sea level and getting off the plane in the balmy morning air immediately makes one think of brunch. Especially if it is to be taken at one of the restaurants by picturesque Fewa Taal, the lake that gently laps the shore of the tourist area of the town.
On the far side, the World Peace Pagoda smiles down from its lush green hilltop. The pagoda was built at the end of World War II by the Japanese Nipponzan Myōhōji Buddhist organisation and is worth the climb for the rather nice views of the mountains.
After lunch, I made my way to the Avia Club of Nepal office to book my flight. There are three options available. A fifteen-minute flight, one for thirty minutes and one that lasts a whole hour. I booked the full sixty minutes and went off to explore the old town, the Gurkha Museum and a narrow crack in the rock called the Seti Gorge through which a sliver of water rushes.
While I was there one of the Club’s afternoon flights passed overhead. It looked suspiciously like a hang glider with an elaborate bucket seat and an outboard motor. I pushed the inevitable doubts to the back of my mind and continued my stroll through the town.
The following morning at eight sharp I presented myself back at Pokhara airport where I was met by Anu, the hostess who was going to prepare me for the flight. Preparations involved trussing me up in several layers of protective clothing.
“It’s very cold up there,” she said waving at the sky. “What?” I say, lifting the helmet to hear. “Gloves are in the pocket in front of the seat,” she says, pushing the helmet back down onto my head and fastening it. She grabbed my elbow and helped me into the “bucket”. It was even less well-appointed than the turboprop. My knees poked out to the side. I accidentally pinged my lens cap over the side and it landed on the tarmac. Anu picked it up and handed it back. “Don’t do that while you’re up there, you’ll never see it again.”
She made sure my seat belt was properly fastened while the pilot had a word with the control tower and within moments we were off, rattling along the runway. “Ow ow ow” I muttered between gritted teeth but soon we were in the air and the pain receded as quickly as the houses and trees below.
We banked and headed up the Seti towards the mountains. Below, a patchwork of fields and farms connected by narrow threads of paths, sometimes in shade, sometimes a vibrant green where the sun was breaking through. Suddenly we hit a spot of turbulence and I caught my breath, along with a mouthful of cloud. But before I could panic we were through the cloud and bathed in a light so crystal clear and bright that I caught my breath again.
Now below us was a milk-white sea of cloud through which the emerald green of the trees made their way up the slopes until they reached the snow-covered tops of the mountains. I felt I could see forever. To the west Dhaulagiri, ahead the four Annapurnas and the stunning peak of Machapuchare, often called Fishtail Mountain because of its fluted summit.
The pilot cuts the engines and we soar past with only the wind in our ears. On the peaks, strong gusts stir up clouds of snow. It’s only now that the sheer immensity of these mountains hits home. We are already high above the cloud level, yet, at around 12,000 feet, we are only about half way up and still a considerable distance away.
We glide for a while, lost in a reverie as the pilot skillfully guides the craft along the south face of the range. All too soon he restarts the engine and we turn away from the mountains.
The clouds have broken up. We slip through a gap to avoid the turbulence and follow the Seti, at this point a much wider river. Over Sarangkot Hill we fly, itself a spectacular place from which to view the mountains. We fly over the World Peace Pagoda, around the lake and finally back to Pokhara airport where we land with a bump.