If you want to learn paragliding in India or simply go tandem paragliding, Nirvana Adventures is the place. Located in Kamshet near Lonavala, around two and a half hours drive from Mumbai, Nirvana has risen from humble beginnings in 1997 to have the oldest and best paragliding training school in the country. Around 300 students from around the world now learn paragliding there every year. Increasingly, many are from India.
The fact that Nirvana Adventures were pioneers in the industry and their paragliding school is the only one in India to have ISO 9001-2008 certification (an internationally recognized standard of quality management) definitely makes them stand out from the rest.
However, what owners Sanjay and Astrid Rao have created is something even more unique and special -- the ability to combine paragliding with a relaxing vacation amidst nature and village life at their serene Native Place guesthouse. Looking at the way these two aspects of their business have perfectly come together, you can't help thinking that it's something that was meant to be. What's more, in the process, the business has created employment opportunities for many local villagers. The company's motto, "Peace, Bliss and Happy Landings", is an apt one.
How it all Started
The idea for Nirvana Adventures came into being when a friend of Sanjay's from Goa arrived at Kamshet in search of better paragliding sites. Not only was a superb site found but Sanjay became passionate about paragliding (much more so than he was about his engineering career!). There were issues though: paragliding was unheard of and many villagers disapproved of the use of the land. Yet the man who owned the land, a farmer called Shelar uncle (whom the site has been named after), was welcoming and supportive. He understood the positives and it was his dream that one day, his son would be able to be involved in the business.
It soon became apparent that the villagers had a surprisingly detailed knowledge of local weather patterns, essential for flying, as they were so connected to the land. The farmer's son, a quiet little village boy who religiously frequented the paragliding site, is now a respected senior instructor and tandem pilot. Nirvana's other three instructors are also village guys who observed paragliding in the area since they were children. They started out by packing and carrying the gliders for people. These days, there's an enthusiastic group of village boys who are following in their footsteps and will no doubt become instructors as well one day. Inspiring indeed!
Safety and Training Program
Nirvana paragliding school follows the British Hang-gliding and Paragliding Association's (BHPA) training program with a detailed syllabus. Over the years, Astrid (who's admittedly dyslexic) has put considerable time and effort into refining the training, in order to make it as easy and as understandable as possible for people.
Safety first is an important focus at the school. The instructors are very strict in regards to how much flying experience students must get before they're allowed to fly higher and undertake further studies, and this has produced noticeable results. Flying is only permitted in ideal weather conditions, and equipment is kept up-to-date and used in accordance with international standards. Staff undertake an Emergency First Response first aid course twice a year and recheck the first aid kit weekly.
Types of Courses
Nirvana Adventures offers a 2 day Introductory Course, 3 day Taster Course, 4 day Elementary Pilot's Course, and 5 day Club Pilot's Course. All are residential courses, with food and accommodations provided at the Native Place guesthouse. In addition, tandem flights are offered for durations ranging from 10 minutes to 30 minutes. The season runs from October to the end of May each year.
Nirvana's Native Place Guesthouse
The brightly decorated Native Place guesthouse radiates tranquility with its inviting spaces and rambling garden, loving tended to by Astrid.
Astrid, whose family can be traced back to the original inhabitants of Mumbai, missed heading out of the city to her native place (which refers to an ancestral home in India) every summer like her friends did. Hence, the Native Place guesthouse is a manifestation of her desire to create a peaceful rural place for her family and friends to come and enjoy.
Built in 2003, it was conceptualized in detail by Sanjay and Astrid, and designed with the help of an architect. All the furnishings and ornaments, ranging from Madhubani paintings to crystal wind chimes handing from the trees, were hand-selected by Astrid. However, what's most remarkable about Native Place is that she planted the whole garden herself as well.
The property, which overlooks a huge lake, is filled with a variety of indigenous trees, around 10 different types of climbers, flowers, and fruit and vegetable plants. Eventually, Astrid aims to grow enough organic produce to supply the guesthouse's kitchen.
Naturally, the lush garden has attracted many birds. They even nest there. To help guests spot them, Astrid has created colorful ID cards that identify each type of bird and where they're most likely to be seen. She's also in the process of making a series of garden discovery cards to help guests learn about the plants.
When Astrid talks about Native Place, it's clear that it's her passion. But, for her, the biggest satisfaction has been that what she was initially looking to create for herself has reached out to so many. People from all over the world and India come to the guesthouse, bond, and be part of one big international family. This includes initially hesitant urban dwellers from big cities such as Mumbai. She's proud to have facilitated that.
It's important to keep in mind that Native Place is not a hotel. It's a guesthouse and it's been deliberately kept simple. There are no phones or TVs in the rooms. Meals are served at set times, and buffet style. The guesthouse is run by a very capable manager, and Sanjay and Astrid also stay on the property. However, they are very laid back and non-intrusive. Guests are encouraged to be independent, explore the property themselves, and make use of the hangout spaces.
While Native Place is undoubtedly serene, it's also a social space at times. You'll enjoy your stay there the most if you're willing to interact with the other guests. Sanjay cooks up a mouthwatering barbeque on Saturday nights, best enjoyed with beers and music on the terrace. It's not necessary to go paragliding but most people do.
Various accommodation options are available: lake facing double rooms, a family room, a separate cottage, tents in the garden, and bunk beds in dorm rooms (favored by paragliding students).
When's the best time to visit? Every season offers something different, including fruit in the summer and flowering climbers in the winter. Of course, if you want to go paragliding, the season runs from October to end of May each year.
My Tandem Paragliding Experience
How brave and adventurous do you have to be to go tandem paragliding in India?
I don't consider myself to be a particularly adventurous person. I love being out in nature and going on the occasional hike but I'm definitely no adrenaline junkie. I wouldn't jump out of a plane and go skydiving. However, I went para-sailing years ago and loved it.
Like many people, I guess, there have been numerous occasions where I've gazed longingly up at the sky and wondered what it would be like to not just fly like a bird but soar effortlessly like an eagle. Hence, paragliding seemed like the perfect way to find out. And, having the best paragliding school in India so close to where I live was the perfect opportunity. The prospect of getting out of the noisy city and staying at a gentle guesthouse surrounded by nature made it even more appealing.
I felt the soothing energy of the guesthouse as soon as I walked in. Yet, there was also a tangible buzz in the air as guests and students talked about their paragliding exploits. I was excited...and just a tiny bit nervous. It was reassuring that senior instructor and tandem pilot Ravi had more than a decade's flying experience.
Mid afternoon at the Shelar site, I soon became acquainted with the concept of "parawaiting". The wind conditions have to be spot on, and since I was doing a tandem flight creating double the weight, a stronger current than normal was necessary. After a couple of hours spent relaxing and admiring the scenery, we finally got the go ahead after 5.30 p.m. -- just in time for a sunset flight.
The instructors secured a helmet on my head and quickly buckled me into a harness affixed to the glider. Ravi, who would be doing the difficult work of controlling the glider, was in a harness behind me. As we ran towards the edge of the hill, the glider caught the wind and we were effortlessly lifted off the ground and into the air.
I had a mini freakout and forgot to sit down in my harness properly. I was clumsy and awkward, and it was clearly evident that it was my first time paragliding. However, I quickly became immersed in the unfamiliar, weightless feeling of being separated from the earth. It was exhilarating and meditative at the same time. We rose higher and higher above the hill in the powerful current of the wind, just like an eagle. And, we could determine exactly where we went.
Maybe I'm more adventurous than I think, as I encouraged Ravi do a couple of acrobatic stunts while we were up in the air. Yes, I trusted him and his abilities that much! A "wingover" was first, which produced an extreme rocking motion. We swung widely from side to side in huge arcs, like a hair-raising amusement park ride. After I'd recovered, the next stunt sent us spiraling downwards in a disorientating dive. I could see the earth spinning furiously below me and hoped I wouldn't be sick. Apparently, I could be heard squealing from the ground but it was wild crazy fun! I didn't feel unsafe at all.
Some beers and barbecue cooked by owner Sanjay were a delicious reward that evening, as all the guests sat on the terrace at the Native Place guesthouse and chatted until midnight.
Would I go there and do it again? Most definitely YES! Perhaps, one day, I will even learn.
No paragliding experience is necessary for tandem paragliding, although you need to be reasonably fit to hike up the hill. Detailed information about tandem paragliding, including costs, is available on the Nirvana Adventures website. Rates start from 2,500 rupees for a 10 minute flight during the week.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary services for review purposes. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.