Elgeyo Marakwet County has been dubbed ‘The Home of Champions’ for producing internationally-acclaimed athletes. The county, though, is becoming the home of champions of another sport — paragliding — that is fast gaining popularity on the edges of the Kerio Valley Escarpment popularly referred to as Hanging Valleys.
Unlike athletics where the shoe meets the road, paragliding is airborne — the pilots (people who fly the gliders) run a few metres down the scenic cliffs of the Elgeyo Escarpment and soar like eagles.
Paragliding is a recreational and competitive adventure sport of flying paragliders — lightweight, free-flying, foot-launched glider aircraft. The pilot sits in a harness suspended below a hollow fabric wing in the shape of a parachute.
The gliders are parachute-like apparatus that are harnessed onto the body propelled by the wind and opens as the pilot descends the sheer escarpment.
But the new sport is dominated by foreigners, especially from European countries like Germany, Italy, Spain, France and Switzerland.
Just like the athletes’ dexterity attributed to rigorous training in the region’s high altitude and undulating hills, the paragliders prefer the escarpment due to what they describe as thermo-dynamic aspect — a phenomenon where wind waves on the undulating hills mixes with warm air to create a perfect environment for the sport.
Leone Pascale, an Italian who has been in the sport for more than 26 years, says that it is a wish for every pilot to visit the Kerio Escarpment and practise their paragliding skills there.
“The ridge here is very long with a lot of sheers and it offers a lot of challenges, depending on the prevailing weather conditions,” said Pascale, 52, who is also a paraglider instructor.
Paragliding is common in Europe, South America and some African countries like South Africa, which have similar characteristics as those of Kerio Escarpment.
Pascale said in Kerio Escarpment, they can do a flight of up to 240 kilometres in eight hours because of the longer escarpment.
The sport has a contest where the pilots are ranked according to the kilometres and hours covered in one flight and categorised into national and world champions.
Women have not be left behind in this exhilarating sport and in a team of 50 that is currently training in the area, there are five women, including Roberto Perinati.
Perinati, a banker in her county, Italy, says that that she has practised the sport for 20 years only for fun and she has made Kerio Valley Escarpment her favourite spot.
“The place here is wonderful and it is challenging, giving us an opportunity to test our skills and perfect them,” she says.
For Oliver Guenay, a German who has flown in over 80 countries for 26 years, the winds in Kerio Escarpments (he describes them as trade winds) are ideal for sporting and teaching paragliding pilots.
Guenay has authored several books on paragliding.
It was a scary 10 minutes for Savraj Singh, a Kenyan of Asian origin, when he was taken airborne with his sustenance above the ground depending only on a set of thin strings tied to a canvas piece of clothe filled with air.
He, however, said the next 20 minutes on air was one of his best experiences in life since he had a beautiful view of the hanging valleys.
“It was scary at first but after the pilot of the parachute demonstrated gliding through the air was not as risky as I thought, I enjoyed the rest of the ride. I am determined to learn to fly myself,” said Singh, who paid a fee to Joseph Andrist, the pilot.
Andrist is among a group of foreign tourists who have toured Elgeyo Marakwet to take part in the adventurous sport.
“We usually come here after several other stops across the world to enjoy the sport because of the valleys and perfect weather for paragliding,” says Andrist, the team leader of 10 Swiss paragliding pilots.