Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Parapenting San Gil

After the paranoia of Bogota, and a sore neck from constantly looking over your shoulder at night, it was a pleasure to board a bus to San Gil. A half hour down the road, the crackheads and muggers were a fading memory. Slums gave way to wide roads and rolling verdant hills as we made our way North through the Sierra Nevadas.

San Gil is a sleepy little place where nothing much goes on. It nestles in a small valley a few hours out of the capital. There isn't much in the way of nightlife, and the restaurants are a bit limited if you don't like eating a whole animal off a skewer. It doesn't see a great deal of tourism either, but is a centre for extreme sports...you can do anything from parapenting to white-water rafting for a reasonable price here. We elected to stay a few days and take the parapenting option, which involves being strapped to a guy with a parachute, running off a mountainside and then riding warm currents of air as high as you can. Sounds mental? It is.

Heading up to the large canyon an hour out of town, Garfield was still undecided about whether to take a flight or not. He's never liked heights at the best of times, and floating a few hundred metres above a windswept mountain range was probably not going to happen, but I suspected (hoped) he might give in and try to conquer his fears. Never that good at making decisions, though, is Garfield; he used to be indecisive, but now he's not so sure.

Jocky agreed to go first. The pilot and his assistant strapped him into his harness, his position being in front. The parachute was lifted, billowing as the wind caught it, dragging them a few metres backwards. Steadied, the pilot shouted to run. Jocky's stubby little legs were going like a cartoon character's as they made the short run off the ridge, and pedalled thin air as they dropped into space. It looked amazing, and I couldn't wait to get up there. I turned to see Garfield frowning at the rapidly ascending Scotsman and biting his nails: no chance was he going up there.

I kitted up as I watched Jocky rise higher and higher, the pilot riding the thermals which surround the ridges, until he was a good 400 metres up. Daunting, but exciting. My turn next. Strapped in, and I had to perform the same comical run baldy had done before me. I couldn't stop laughing as we headed for the edge...partly from nerves, it has to be said. But the feeling as we dropped off into nothing was incredible. Ronaldo, the pilot, quickly turned into the columns of warm air, and up we went...twisting and turning higher and higher as condors and hawks flew around us in curiosity. I imagine they thought us mad...I was certainly having a few doubts about my own sanity in this undertaking as the people watching were reduced to specks in the dustbowl below. Thankfully, the promises "stunts" the guys sometimes perform were not offered: I'd have said Yes so as to avoid any ribbing from Jocky, despite being bloody terrified. I spent most of the flight hanging onto the harness with white knuckles, though I wouldn't have fancied my chances of clinging to life for a long descent should anything have given way.

Relieved when Ronaldo told me we were heading down, I raised my feet and watched the ridge (and people stood on it) gain in scale rapidly...bracing myself for the bone-crucnching impact and cloud of dust as we hit solid earth. Shaking with adrenalin when I got to my feet, I couldn't contain a huge grin. Jocky was already down, still trying to convince Garfield to go up...but he insisted it would have been a trial rather than a pleasure. No point wasting the money if so.

If you're ever up that way, I'd highly (no pun) recommend this experience...the view of the mountains was breathtaking, there's nothing like it. A full course is available in Medellin for 300 quid, which enables you to fly solo and instruct others. I'll fill you in on that one should the budget stretch that far...don't tell Mum.

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