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Paragliding in India: Kamshet and the 'Circus in the Sky'

The monsoon has finally departed and a group of flight-thirsty Paraglider pilots are off to Kamshet, hoping desperately for good flying conditions. Along with them is a trio of new students bracing themselves for their first flying experience.

A three hour drive on the Mumbai - Pune highway and we catch sight of the river snaking alongside the railway track. The quaint little railway station--out of sight when you take the bypass--is now visible as we come into Kamshet town. We then cross the railway track and head for lake country. We pass all the familiar sights, the guava seller at the corner, the patshala, the little tea stall, Everybody waves frantically, even the local dogs bark in excitement. Our arrival has signalled "circus time in the sky".

We are headed for our base camp at Golden Glades, but first we take a detour via the evening flying site for a quick inspection of the conditions. The paddy has not yet been harvested so we have no landing area. The local farmer Shelar, whom we fondly refer to as our site meteorological officer, comes rushing out to greet us and give us a detailed report on the weather conditions.

Shelar never fails to amaze us. From the very first time we met him, two years ago when we first discovered the site, he greeted us warmly and came out to watch our antics in the sky. Within a couple of days he had figured out the fundamentals of paragliding and could tell which pilot had a specially good flight and which student had the best landing. He soon knew the regulars by name and even nicknamed some of us. A micro meteorology expert, he can look up at the sky, feel the wind and tell us if conditions are good for soaring or if the evening will be a washout. Which is something that every paraglider pilot has to learn if he wants to contend with the sky. The next morning after discussing with the villagers we head out for Shinde Wadi. An hour's drive down a bumpy village track, the hills come into view. Even from a distance the site looks promising. A gentle sloping hill, perfect for training ops. As we unload the gliders and begin ground handling, the village kids start to appear as if from nowhere. The boys are bolder and come closer for a better view; the girls stay at a distance. Sanjay ties the ribbons onto a staff and impales it into the ground. The colourful flying ribbons indicate the wind direction and strength. The kids look on in wonder, their necks craning upwards like fledgling birds. The multicoloured gliders inflate in the air soaring like colourful birds high on unseen cloud streets in the sky.

The gliders could charm just anyone--but one little girl is mesmerised by the ribbons dancing in the wind. Running madly, she makes a sudden swoop towards them, her little gathered skirt flapping around her. And without stopping, she plucks one ribbon off the staff. This causes fresh excitement among the kids and the students and the commotion takes a while to settle. Then, before the sun sets, the pilots inflate their wings and take to the sky, soaring on the winds along with the Brahminy Kites.

It is the magic hour, the sky has turned to hues of gold and conditions are super-smooth. Floating through the air with the rainbow coloured wing rustling above, the hills and fields below and the wind in their faces the paraglilder pilots savour the freedom of the skies after 4 months of monsoon weather. As the twilight deepens to darker shades, they land one after another, talking amongst themselves as they pack their wings into the huge backpacks and and hoist them onto their shoulders.

We walk down to the little tea shop for a refreshing cup of tea. An old man there tells us about a battle of long ago where Madhavrao Shinde's soldiers fired a cannon from the top of the hill and blew the head off the leader of the advancing British battalion. This was how the area got its name he says. Which goes to prove that there's history hidden under every stone you turn in this area. Already we have flown over ancient Buddhist caves and fortresses of medieval chieftains A reminder that we are traversing an ancient trade route from the coast to the hinterland--once the haunt of caravans, Buddhist monks, Greek merchants and Chinese travellers.

What makes Kamshet so special to us? It's the people, of course! The oneness we feel with them, the realisation that every Indian farmer--even if he cannot read or write--is a micro meteorology expert. Centuries of accumulated knowledge or traditional wisdom. And when we think of the children, their exposure to paragliding--the newest form of personal flight--we wonder how the 'circus in the sky' will affect their lives.

Astrid Rao is one of the promoters of Nirvana Adventures, an environmentally aware adventure sport company dedicated to teaching and promoting the sport of paragliding and other adventure activities in India, in ways that will minimize change to the ecology and environment and maximises any potential benefits to the lifestyle of the indigenous peoples. She also created Native Place, a unique guest house by the lake, to house the visiting adventure enthusiasts.

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