Sep 03

Understanding the Skies

What a statement.. “Understanding the Skies”.. It sounds so well.. hippyish… Though this is the title of the book by a guy called Denis Pagan who wrote one of many books about a “sport” that has captured my attention and life for the past year. Just for a frame of reference, I am now sitting back in the town where this entire story unfolded.

One year ago I came to a small town in Bulgaria called Sopot. It’s a little sleepy town with 8754 inhabitants. The towns key features to the untrained eye (well, depends on what your looking for) is the army shooting range near by and the abundant supply of spring water that locals will travel for miles around to fill up with. It lies in a valley where there are many Kalashnikov factories and enough rose plantations here to keep Valentines Day going for life. Axel Rose must of passed through here at one stage in his life.. lost probably on his way to a gig 3 hours late in Sofia.

The spring water gives a key to what this trained eye is looking for. Sopot lies at the foothills of a mountain range that goes for hundreds of kilometers both east and west of the town. Sopot is one of the main destinations for paragliders in Bulgaria and attracts pilots from all around the world to navigate the skies. The day I arrived last July, the Paragliding World Cup had just finished and some of the best pilots in the world where floating around this little town. Even Denis Pagan was in town. Oh the celebrities… Was I star stuck.. no… I had nothing to say to them, I didn’t know who these people were (I still don’t really), nothing in common because this world of paragliding was alien to me. So why was I there?

Well for years I’d been getting out to nature in whatever way I could, hiking the hills of Wicklow or Spain, Surfing badly around Ireland in winter or Portugal in summer. I needed a nature fix regularly and one person in particular was a good facilitator of that fix. That one person, who I will name as Steven Long, kept nagging me. You know the ground, you know the water.. why not know the air.. Steve had been paragliding for years and wanted a buddy to share the experience with. Somebody to bumble around 1km up in the sky.. somebody to hang out with (sorry.. bad but amazing pun)

I was taking a long vacation last summer and Steve quite simply said.. you have time, I am going to Bulgaria to fly for a week.. it will be the shit, and well if all else you will see parts of Bulgaria, a country you have never been to before. I must say it was an easy sell, though more on the lines that I needed a disconnection from reality. Work, living and travelling in Africa was intense, life in Ireland was unknown and from that, challenging. Allowing myself to take a step out from reality in a little village in Bulgaria sounded like the right remedy. Sure, won’t it just be another experience on this path I am dancing along.

So I arrive in Sopot on a Sunday. The next day I am having a 1 hour briefing from my instructor for the week, Ivo. This is the wing, these are the risers, don’t pull this, be careful with this, this is the power zone of the wing, this is aspect ratio, this is the glide ratio, I had no idea really what he was talking about. Mathieu, a PhD student in wing design for renewable energy was nodding away… Yikes.. is this all I have to learn just to fly. I fully understand its importance because apparently flying means being hundreds of meters up in the air so knowing the science is important.. I started asking myself is this for me

Well about 15 mins later my questions are answered.. kind of… When it comes to “sports” I am an experiential type of guy. Lucky for me Ivo and his friends at Skynomad Paragliding School are the same… 2 hours into Monday I am standing on the edge of a 70 meter “training hill” strapped into a paraglider getting a quick brief again.

I can do a really good impression of this following passage in my bad Bulgarian accent which is much funnier than this script.. Understanding the abrupt and precise nature of Bulgarians is a key factor:


Ivo: These are the A risers, pull on these evenly while you run forward

Keith: ok

Ivo: put your hands behind you and run like a swan

Keith: erm.. ok

Ivo: when the wing comes above your head, pull the breaks. It will stop the wing above your head.

Keith: ok

Ivo: And if all is ok, I tell you to run.. you run…

Keith: erm.. ok.. What happens when I run

Ivo: You fly


Ivo told me yesterday that my first flight was hilarious. I was over reactive.. pulling breaks, running, stopping, pulling breaks again. Well.. he was right anyway. I flew.. It was only for 15 seconds though it put a big smile on my face.

For the next three days, myself and two other eager newbies flew 15 seconds, gathered our wing up, hiked 70 meters up in 35 degree heat about 5 times a day, lost 3-4 kgs each, got some scratches and bruises, landed in fields, landed in bushes and stubbornly tried to get our takeoffs working. After 3 days, Ivo was confident (not really though) that we could step up a grade.

Now in true experiential fashion, stepping up a grade meant going from a 70 meter training hill to a 1,100 meter mountain side. “Go big or go home” is a phrase I hear and use quite a lot… maybe more so after this ‘going big’ experience. The mountain range was called Dobrostan. Which for me in my basic Bulgarian means “Good Place”. Bulgarians correct me if I am wrong though I’d prefer to think of it like that. This was the place for my first real flight. Videos speak louder than words. So here is what it was like:

We flew here twice this day.15-20 min flight each time. Ivo asked me what it was like after my first flight. My response: “Incredibly frightening and unbelievably peaceful at the same time”. I reflected on this statement later and thought, anything that extracts or manifests reactions of such polarity are dangerous. That means there is a huge vast betweeness to explore. Over the coming 3 days, the exploration begun.

(the good photos are credited to Steven Long, the bad ones.. I take the blame for)

I arrived back in Dublin after this week still not seeing or sensing a connection between the vast polarities. I was lost in the abyss of unknown and seeing a rational to why or why not continue. I had sleepless nights day dreaming of scenarios of the good and bad, crazy and peaceful all seated in the harness of a paraglider. About three weeks after, I dropped over to Steve and told him this. His only answer was to find the solution myself and through continuing on the same path. So 5 weeks after the first adventure in Sopot, I found myself in the little village of water springs again, launching myself 2-3 time a day from the beautiful take off in Sopot, practicing exercise after exercise under the careful radio guidance of Ivo. One week later I found my answer. Like in life, venturing to the extremes is energy consuming. Staying on either side can result in boredom or death. Finding the balance in the middle of extremes is what is required. And in the case of paragliding, find that balance and fly down the middle. From that moment, I was in.

Since then, I’ve been to Ethiopia, Spain, France and back to Bulgaria flying. Ireland will have to let me have some good weather before I get to explore and understand its skies. Flying though to me has not just been about getting that heart racing and saying “I’ve done that mad stuff”. I read recently “Do things to feed the soul and not the ego”. Flying for me feeds the soul beyond what I expected. It has brought me in connection with nature again, from the sky. It has challenged my senses to understand natures might, the forces of the weather. Its put me in situations that frightened me to ensure that my respect for nature keeps me engaged with it’s might. Bringing me closer to nature makes me connected purely in no way a documentary or book can do. I am out there learning from it, I am experiencing it in many ways and enjoying its beauty. On this basis, I want to be in the process of understanding the skies and the world it envelops for years and years to come.

You can find out about Skynomad at www.skynomad.com



  1. Ivo

    So proud of this bird! :)

  2. ieva

    This is fantastic! Huge funclub you have there in Ethiopia :)

  3. Niko

    Awwwww MIGHTY aweeeeeeeesooooOOOOOOOmmmeeee :)

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