The sky is one of my favourite things to look at when I’m travelling to a new place. Every destination has a different canopy by day and at night, and I often carry that image with me when I leave. When I’m home, lying in bed, I can close my eyes and picture the dark grey rain-heavy skies over the Western Ghats in the monsoon just as easily as I can remember the magical azure of Ladakh’s vast celestial vault. It’s similarly impossible for me to forget the glow of the Milky Way and star-studded night sky of the high Himalayas or the incredibly wide red-tinted skies of the American Southwest.
But lately I’ve had the opportunity on my travels to view a place from the opposite side: to take off into the sky and look back on land. Instead of craning my neck to look upward, I’ve had a chance to view places top down, the way the birds do.
In February this year, on my first-ever hot-air balloon ride in Luxor, Egypt, I was spellbound by the perspective it offered. We started out under pre-dawn darkness, but as the glow of sunlight spread across the land below us, the beauty of the Egyptian landscape became even more apparent. There we were, gliding in slow motion over acres and acres of verdant green farmland, floating past sand coloured houses on the Nile’s west bank. Drifting over cotton fields, looking at the river in the distance and the contours of the Valley of the Kings on one side, added a whole new dimension to my travel experience. When the pilot pointed out Queen Hatshepsut’s temple, I leaned over the edge of the basket. Looking straight down at rice fields fringed by date palms, I thought I heard over the din of the gas burner, the shrill pitch of a child’s voice calling out to a playmate in a small square backyard below.
It made me think of another kind of flight I had a few years ago, when I went tandem paragliding at Pawna Lake near Mumbai. After the first surge of fear subsided, I relaxed. Soon a gentle wind had us soaring over farmland, the distance turning us into mere spectators of life on the ground. At one point I saw a stubborn bull being coaxed to pull his plough. Soon after we were low enough to spot a group of ravens sitting on a pile of hay.
Looking at the world and life from the sky can add an extra dimension to any place. Last month I had the chance to view the Irish coast and the islands of Skellig Michael (of Star Wars fame) from the window seat of a helicopter. It was that rare day in Ireland when the skies were blue with not a cloud in the sky, and the sun shining bright.
I’ve mostly seen places on the coast from land, looking out to sea. On coastal drives, scenic lookout points offer fantastic views. But when that view is flipped, it is a captivating sight.
Flying past sea cliffs and lighthouses we admired the endless North Atlantic Ocean. From the air, the steep conical peaks of the two Skellig islands, the stunning coast of Ireland’s Iveragh Peninsula, the 70,000-strong population of gannets, all became even more breathtaking. As we winged our way along the rugged coastline, I watched sunlight glint off the waters, and sometimes even spotted a bird flying below us, nothing more than a tiny speck.
These airborne experiences were completely unlike seeing the world from an oval window of a pressurised cabin on a commercial flight. They allowed me to experience life above the surface of the Earth with the wind in my face, sharing what is normally the exclusive domain of birds, allowing me to feel something of what it might be like to fly.
I discovered that just as I love looking up at the sky, I love the perspective of looking down from the sky. There are no bad views from the clouds up above. From the point of view of a bird everything is lovely, the Earth is gorgeous and photogenic from every angle. Each of my three airborne experiences felt like peaceful, almost meditative voyages. The vantage point from up above seemed to free the spirit, and on each occasion, as we lifted on a dreamlike cruise, most thoughts drifted out of my head, replaced by restful calm. In the sky for those few minutes it appears there are no lines, no borders, I am not in another country or place, I am merely a small cog in the machinery of a beautiful planet.
Appeared in the June 2016 issue as “Flights of Fancy”.
Niloufer Venkatraman ’s idea of unwinding is to put on boots and meander through the wilderness or the by-lanes of a city. She is obsessive about family holidays and has already instilled in her young daughter wanderlust and a love for the outdoors. She is the former Editor-In-Chief of National Geographic Traveller India.