Through Avia Club Nepal I booked a 90 minute ultralight flight around the Annapurna Himalayas, taking off at 6:30am. Just me and a pilot, Samantha made her own plans for a tour to Sarangkot and left with another hotel guest at 4am.
I waited anxiously in the hotel lobby, pacing and tapping my foot, the 6am pickup couldn’t come soon enough. Hotel Middle Path offered me breakfast and coffee, but I didn’t have the stomach for it. How dangerous was this trip? Just me and a pilot in a tiny aircraft above remote mountains, I’d never done anything like it and didn’t know what to expect.
From the taxi I saw the red light of dawn striking the mountaintops, a glorious sight. Perfect weather for Sarangkot, and perfect for a flight, if not a little too late for the best light.
Pokhara airport is tiny. In a little office I paid for the trip and signed all those terrifying waivers, before proceeding through security and walking along the airstrip to the hanger where my plane awaited.
It was a yellow 3-axis ultralight which carries 90l of standard fuel and flies at about 80km/hr. There’s space for two with dual controls, I needed to keep my cameras away from everything. A GoPro on the wing would record the whole flight.
My pilot was Manoj Vijayan, a tall Indian man with a New Zealand accent, I felt safe in his care. He used to fly 15-seaters in NZ but after the recession he came to Nepal to find work, compared to an ultralight, his old planes were like driving a Ferrari.
I climbed into the seat, strapped in and put on my headset. The plane is closed to the outside and there’s a heater to keep the cabin warm, but there are little gaps for the air to get in, so I was pleased to have wrapped up warm. The rotors started up and we taxi’d to the runway, taking care not to clip the bushes on the way.
Here we go. I prayed there’d be no turbulence. The little yellow bee hurtled along the runway, and then we were airborne, and everything was ok, the plane felt steady and my stomach settled. We climbed high above Pokhara, which is much bigger than Lakeside, through a thin layer of cloud, north to the mountains.
The low sun in our faces, we passed over Sarangkot. We circled around Samantha, her friend Janine snapped a picture of me as we flew by. Then onwards we continued, right up to the Himalayas, a route that takes days to trek, mere minutes by air.
The whole Annapurna massif was clear, from Annapurna II in the East, past Annapurna IV, Machapuchare, Annapurna South, to Nilgiri Himal in the West.
Manoj pointed out a turquoise lake beneath us, surrounded in snow yet not frozen. We swung close besides the snowy ridges, beyond the tree line, still climbing.
Between Machapuchare and Annapurna IV lies a tight valley, “No one treks here, and the wind currents aren’t good for helicopters, we’re the only ones who can come in here”, Manoj tells me. Grey spikes of rock line the mountain, too steep for snow to stick, I marvel as we do a tight u-turn.
We hugged a snowy ledge as we came out, below us we spotted animal tracks. A freshly made path in the snow, “deer or snow leopard”, Manoj says. In 3 years of flights he’s seen two snow leopards up here. Aware this may be my only chance, I scanned everywhere to see one, but whatever creature made those marks, it eluded me. To have seen a phantom wild snow leopard would have been a dream come true.
From this valley we flew into the next, between Machapuchare and Annapurna South. We crossed between the peaks. In the snow below we could just about see the blue rooftops of Annapurna Base Camp (ABC), currently closed because of heavy snowfall, though there were human trails between the camps.
Coming out again, the plane shuddered a little, some turbulence from winds that buffeted us as they escaped the hills. Now it was my turn to fly. Manoj showed me what to do, and for a few minutes I was in control of the plane. Push down to dip the nose, pull up to come back, nervous, I made delicate movements and mostly stayed straight. But as a first time flying a plane, piloting one over the Himalayas was pretty awesome.
We continued Westwards, out to and over Poon Hill, where we’d trek in a week or so. The trail was still under snow, but the views this morning must’ve been insane. To the West we had views of Dhaulagiri. Then back to Pokhara. One of the fuel gauges read empty. In the clouds we navigated by GPS, we flew over the lake, past the peace pagoda and back down to solid ground, adrenaline still pumping. I drank a hot sweet coffee while I waited for the GoPro footage to download.
While I was freaking out about my flight, Samantha and new friend Janine left with their tour guide, driving up to Sarangkot for dawn. Through town they drove in a little Suzuki, the little thing made light work of the bumpy road up to the top, past the first stop off and viewpoint — where coaches can go no further, to the second, right at the top.
From where the taxi parks it’s a 15 minute climb to the peak. They made it in time for dawn, and marvelled at the most spectacular sunrise in all our trip. After this morning, there were no good mountain views for 10 days.
The bright red sunlight struck the peaks of Machapuchare and Annapurna South, small tufts of ice and dust blew from the tops, as thin clouds evaporated in the sun’s heat.
They stayed for an hour or so, long enough for me to fly by and wave, before heading to a temple for a quick tour. When we were all back at the hotel we shared stories and pictures over coffee and breakfast, we’d had fabulous mornings.