I had no idea that a World Cup of Paragliding even existed, let alone the fact that it was held in Macedonia (Krushevo) this year. I suppose I sort of misunderstood the sport to begin with – it’s really not about falling or screaming or an extreme rush of energy (the exception being aerial acrobatics competitions). It’s more about traveling long distances and using thermals to maintain elevation, slowly descending and then pursuing pockets of hot air to climb upwards.
My guide Alex traveled from Skopje to Ohrid in this fashion (approx 113 miles by car), which I think is just really freaking amazing. How do you find a thermal? Watching the birds is one way (they use them too), and there are a bunch of other tricks, such as looking for rocks on the ground that reflect the heat of the sun. For the World Cup, participants compete in three categories: Cross country (long distance), precise landing, and acrobatics. There are five classes of parachutes and, despite the sport being more about long-distance travel, the higher-class kites can collapse easily if you don’t know what you’re doing. Alex indeed has a few horror stories, including a 30-meter fall during a competition a few years ago, so there’s definitely risk involved.
The experience begins with the launching of the kite/parachute from the top of the mountain, which can be interesting if the wind is gusting (my friend and the instructor were blown back up the mountain and tossed to the ground while trying to take off… I have a video that I will try to get permission to publish). I had an easier go of it, the chute and wind both cooperating. Once in the air, I ran down the slope of the mountain until I felt the harness snag and tighten around my body, my feet slowly drift off the ground and continue off towards the horizon. Part of me felt like a kid who had been picked up under his armpits, my legs and feet churning to find the ground.
Off we went, floating above the foothills and the villages that sit between the mountains and the capital city of Skopje (the city is bordered by the Šar Mountains to the west and by the Jakupica chain to the south). Below, I could see the fall colors of the trees and the smoke from chimneys in the villages. We’ll talk about the villages a bit more in a post to come – it’s another segment of European culture that you really just can’t find in the States (perhaps Indian reservations are comparable to some degree).
Although this adventure took place on the final day of my trip, I consider it my introduction to the world of adventure travel in Macedonia. I’ve written about this before – about getting above your destination and looking down upon it – there’s something that feels so powerful about it, a king before his kingdom, if you will. It was a short-lived experience (a 15-minute flight), but worth every second.
Now let’s get into a few other parts of the country that also flexed their muscles.
Hiking around Lake Ohrid: Most locals expressed to me that Lake Ohrid is very crowded during the summer months. As it was nearing winter during my visit in early November, I didn’t have the opportunity to experience that side of the lake, the beaches, fishing, water skiing, and salty-dog cafes. We did catch a nice day, though, and we took a short boat ride to view the land from the water (see photos in my first post on Macedonia). The water quality is fantastic – a greenish blue that sparkles with clarity.
After the boat ride, we drove along the western part of the lake and climbed into the National Park of Galichica. The Goga trail was a moderate, exposed climb with plenty of opportunities to venture off trail (i.e. shortcuts), and we were able to make it to the top a bit faster by cutting across the grassy hillsides. The trail is unique in that you can see Macedonia’s two biggest lakes from the top – all of Lake Ohrid to the east and Lake Prespa to the west.
As before it was cloudy, I was content to write and relax while I waited for my friends, but that all changed with the emergence of the sun. I went into a run – a full on sprint – up the hillside to the crest that overlooked Ohrid at the north end of the lake. I’m working on an end of the year piece called Holy Shit Moments of 2012, and I must say that this vision, this opportunity, was completely day-changing and will no doubt be included (see photos below).
Matka Canyon: Located about 30-minutes from downtown Skopje, Matka Canyon has absolutely been haunting me. In a good way, of course – I think Matka Canyon is absolutely gorgeous, and it made me feel like I had been transported to another world. I’m not trying to be dramatic, but take look at the photos. Maybe it was the overcast sky, but the rock seemed to have a purple hue to it, the bright colors of the fall foliage bursting out.
I am so thrilled to have visited, but rain and a tight schedule limited my visit to only an hour, and I’ve been poisoned with a taste of something so lovely, something I fear I might not get the chance to see again for some time. Visitors to Macedonia must schedule an extended journey through this area, preferably more than just walking the path (which is very nice). Climbing, caving, and hiking are all staples of the area.
Macedonia Experience will help you arrange your trip, offering anything from general guidance to complete hand holding (they can put together a six or seven day package, or they can help you to construct an individualized itinerary). Visit their website for more information on arranging guides, transports, accommodations, etc., and keep in mind that the entire country is up for grabs. Ask for Ljupco – he will take care of you.
Photos: Feel free to CLICK on them, because I fixed the glitch that previously made them blow up too big.