The driver turns the wheel hard left to take our minibus through another hairpin bend as we climb high up into the Julian Alps. We’ve been bumping along for nearly an hour now and have already passed through the cloud line, the steep slopes slipping away back down into Slovenia’s Soca Valley.
Inside the bus there’s tension in the air. A paragliding virgin, my heart’s thumping as I contemplate throwing myself off the top of a mountain attached to an instructor and a flimsy canopy of nylon.
For others in the van — a mix of 50-something men; many from Germany — the only concern is that dense cloud cover will thwart the thermals they need to soar like eagles. The day before, says one, they’d been in the air for an astonishing two-and-a-half hours, gliding over the mountains and across the Italian border to the Adriatic Sea. It’s for this reason that this mountainous area is such a mecca for the sport.
I glance across at my partner. He’d been reluctant to sign up to the trip in the first place and now his face is ashen as we continue our climb.
Eventually, we reached the summit. The pros head off to sort out their equipment, adjust their GPS devices and stare intently at the sky, trying to burst the clouds.
We just stand and look out over the valley; the deep blue waters of the River Soca just about visible below. In front of us a short slope, and then oblivion.
“I can’t do it,” says my other half.
Cloudy, our instructor, makes a vain attempt to coax him into his harness but I can tell his mind is made up. He’d have to take the ‘drive of shame’ back down the mountain. But I’d been insistent we come up here, so for me, there’s no backing out.
I’m soon kitted out in a jump suit — such an apt name — and helmet. We stop to watch as one of the German high-flyers runs past and launches himself, briefly stopping to check his canopy. But the thermals aren’t strong enough for another alpine odyssey and he soon begins a slow descent back down to earth.
I’m soon strapped into my harness. “Just run when I shout,” says Cloudy, “ but don’t sit back until I tell you.”
We stand there waiting for the wind.
Then, with little warning, he suddenly yells: “Run!”
I try but my legs won’t work; they’re jelly. Only his momentum is taking us forward. The edge of the mountain looms and then, to make matters worse, I sit down too early.
It’s touch and go but I guess Cloudy’s been here before and he manages to get us airborne. Once my feet have left the ground my fear lifts — perhaps because I know now there’s no turning back.
It’s an incredible sensation as we drift through the sky. Below us, among the trees, I can spot the remains of the First World War trenches and fortifications that famously dot the valley. I can just see canoes on the river too, and then the ornate Italian charnel house, high above the town of Kobarid, comes into view.
Twenty minutes after take-off we land inelegantly but safely in a field and I’m soon sipping a cool beer back at the cafe where our journey began. And I’m well into my second before the other half returns in the minibus. I try my best not to look smug.