Kevin Touches Down

Kevin Touches Down

“Buddha Has Left Nepal?”

by MJ Pramik

Buddha must have taken a vacation. A brawl erupted this week at the Constituent Assembly in Kathmandu. I missed all the excitement over the drafting the new Constitution—representatives tossed chairs and tables at each other. The Maoists faction of the Communist Party expressed extreme unhappiness at the majority party’s push for consensus.

I returned to California from Nepal mid-December, in time to set up my family’s annual Christmas brawl. I strolled through it unscathed, calm and centered from my inner adventure to the Himalayas. In search of Enlightenment, I found parahawking.

Parahawking combines tandem paragliding while feeding water buffalo meat to large birds. In my experience, I paired with Kevin, an Egyptian vulture. Kevin’s black-tipped white wings are something to die for. With a wingspan of nearly 5.5 feet, Kevin soars the wind currents over Sarangkot, a nearly 900-foot peak adjoining Pokhara, Nepal.

Kevin’s a rescue bird. His species, the Egyptian vulture, is one of ten nearing extinction. These well-feathered birds inhabit southern Europe, northern Africa, and western and southern Asia. At Maya Devi on Lake Phewa (or Fewa, signs displayed both spellings), Kevin demonstrated his species’ expertise at use of tools by dropping rocks onto an egg to crack the shell. His thin beak and long neck allows him to claim carrion larger birds cannot.

However, Kevin and his kind have been decimated by diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug Nepali farmers used to treat domesticated animals. The vultures would do their job clearing these carcasses then die from diclofenac poisoning. Thus the reason for the Parahawking Project, lead by Scott Mason. Diclofenac use has waned because of an education campaign by this program.

Instructions for parahawking in Pokhara, the expat haven in southwest Nepal: Run off that 800-foot cliff on Sarangkot, and keep running in case the chute doesn’t open. Right. Well, my mind tried to make my legs run, though the wind gusted so huge I slammed back into my harness seat. I may have been tossed off that cliff into thin air.

In flight, I soared with the big birds. Piloted by Scott Mason, a seasoned trainer in this sport, the free-flying paraglider follows the movements of large birds—kites, Egyptian vultures, and other species—that catch updrafts to keep the chute apparatus aloft. According to Scott Mason, these great birds’ eyesight bests us humans by a factor of ten to 15 times. Their teeny organs identify the swirls of dust defining drafts and currents. All I saw on this bright blue-skyed day was the entire snow-capped Annapurna range laid out east of Pokhara—the elegant South Peak adjoining Machapuchare (Fish Tail is so pedestrian) and beyond.

The nearly 30 minutes in the air stopped time. Scott swooped up, whistled for Kevin. The great vulture made his approach to my outstretched, leather-gloved hand that held his treat. He alighted softly, gently retrieving the fresh-cut water buffalo chunk that provided necessary calories for his time in the air. We repeated this scene many times.

Circling the Sarangkot area with at least two dozen other paragliders, the sky resplendent with multicolor chutes, I had no time to even consider “fear.” Our half-hour flight ended so gently. Much like Kevin, we glided to a small patch of grass bordering Lake Phewa. Smack dab across the road from Maya Devi, Kevin’s home. Enlightenment indeed.