Sunday, September 21, 2008

Icarus show

The Coupe d'Icare [Icarus Cup] is an annual air show that takes place about 20 km to the north of Grenoble, in the village of Saint Hilaire du Touvet, perched on the cliff tops of the Chartreuse mountain range. It's not far away, as the crow flies [oops, I meant to say: as the parapente glides], from the great Carthusian monastery: the Grande Chartreuse. One understands immediately that it's the kind of landscape, or rather skyscape, in which fearless individuals are inspired to soar upwards, undaunted by the threat of maybe having their wings burned by the Sun.

Not knowing how I might best approach the show, from a practical viewpoint, I parked my old Citroën as soon as I came upon a festival atmosphere. In the sky, above the gigantic cliffs, scores of parapentes and hang gliders were circling around like colorful insects, and the public address system was informing us of the identity and nature of each aircraft. Every minute or so, one of them would drop down towards us, ready to land smoothly in a vast grassy field surrounded by seated onlookers.

Many aircraft [archival images] were decorated with weird colorful trappings, since one of the basic goals of the Coupe d'Icare, if I understand correctly, is to entertain the crowd.

Often, the parapentes carried, not only the pilot, but one or even two passengers. Dozens of slim airfoils, manned by daredevil experts, provided us with acrobatic displays: loops, spins and cliff crawling, terminating in high-speed descents and horizontal landings that always appeared to me as near crashes.

Still a few hundred meters away from the landing zone, I was amazed to see a parapente accompanied by a big bird, gliding and swooping around the aircraft. Hardly believing my eyes, I wondered whether it was merely some kind of robotic device linked to the aircraft.

Five minutes later, I learned with amazement that I had witnessed the flight of the eagle Sherkan and his human friend and trainer, a Swiss master of falconry, Jacques-Olivier Travers, conveyed by a third team member, Laurent Cochard, an experienced parapente pilot.

This is a truly beautiful and unique story, which is rapidly becoming world-renowned. I haven't found any English-language video that presents this case of an amazing bird/man relationship, but you can click the photo to access a short presentation on French TV. To obtain more information, Google with the French expression "aigles du leman" (eagles of Lake Léman), and look for their English-language pages. Magnificent stuff!

Getting back to the air show, I soon realized that the main action was no doubt taking place, not down on the landing field, but up on the clifftops. So, I wandered along to the nearby funicular railway, where the crowds were such that I had to wait nearly an hour. The wait was well worthwhile. The antiquated wooden cars scale the 700-meter cliffs at snail's pace, but at a maximum angle of 83 degrees.

And the ascension ends with a scary trip through a black tunnel: the steepest passenger tunnel of any kind in the world. I prefer not to think of what might happen if the steel cable connecting the two cars were to break. A couple of local girls with whom I started to chat while awaiting the departure assured me that it was unthinkable that the cable might ever break... because it had been in operation since 1924, and it hadn't broken yet. Good optimistic thinking!

Up on the clifftops, a gigantic noisy carnival was in full swing. In certain places—particularly inside the vast tents where visitors could sit down for exotic meals of all kinds—I had to shoulder my way through the joyful crowds, which included hordes of kids.

I nearly got eaten up, with my camera and all, in the embrace of a couple of giant Oriental puppets, who would not have surprised me one iota if they had suddenly ascended into the blue Icarian sky above the delightful village of Saint Hilaire du Touvet.

Strange creatures on stilts created panic in the crowd. One imagined that they might slip and slide off the cliffs.

Elsewhere on the plateau, crazy but serious members of a local quintet in black costumes and top hats insisted that visitors arriving in the lovely little alpine village should wipe their feet on door mats.

Confused tourists, of course, were at a loss to know how to react... so we saw them wiping assiduously their feet. Delightful detail: From time to time, the absurd crew decided that such-and-such a visitor had to be measured with a wooden yardstick to see if he/she might not be too big to enter the village. Their actions were conducted so seriously that tourists obeyed... whereupon successful entrants of a plump kind were rewarded with a tap on the buttocks with the yardstick. Nice fun of a second-degree kind. Simple and innocent, but never vulgar nor tiring.

Elsewhere on the gentle Chartreuse slopes, a proud dad was initiating his kid into the art of jumping into nothingness.

Ah, what a magnificent concept for those who, unlike me, are not the victims of vertigo. Jumping into nothingness! If only my father had behaved like that! I would have been spared both a religious adolescence and a lifetime of catching up on existentialists such as Albert Camus and Richard Dawkins. [Soon, maybe, I should think about the idea of awarding nice little Gamonian key rings to perspicacious readers of Antipodes who succeed in detecting blog posts in which William has failed to sneak in even a tiny mention of his Oxfordian hero Dawkins.]

Meanwhile, in the free flight domain, as elsewhere, business is business... which means that a lot of owners of hang gliders are trying to sell them, no doubt with a view to purchasing parapentes.

A few days ago, in an article entitled Inventor of the hang glider [display], I spoke of my joyful encounter with my compatriot John Dickenson, who has been a guest of honor at the Coupe d'Icare. A replica of Dickenson's 1963 wing was hung up in one of the halls at Saint Hilaire du Touvet.

Unfortunately, its curved whitish form could hardly be distinguished from that of the enclosing marquee.

In conclusion, recalling the trivial quarrels in Australia about Dickenson's role as a pioneer, I look out upon the grandiose dimensions of the Coupe d'Icare, and I'm ashamed of my fellow-countrymen... The other day, John and I chatted at length about the kind of marvelous air festival that might be staged in my birthplace of Grafton... if only the local authorities were to react seriously to Dickenson's claim to fame, which has sadly never been the case. Today, after having glimpsed, like John, the fabulous events of the Coupe d'Icare, I'm more than ever thoughtful on this theme. To stage such an annual happening, it goes without saying that it helps a lot if you happen to have cliffs of the French Pre-Alpes [the generic name of the Chartreuse and Vercors ranges] in the background. More than that, you need an attractive mountain village up on top, and a luscious green landing field down in the valley. Needless to say, preparations for an aeronautical festival such as the Coupe d'Icare are helped immensely if you also happen to have a giant provincial city such as Grenoble just a stone's throw away [oops again... a parapente glide] down the road.

Having expressed those minor doubts of a factual nature, I continue to believe firmly that the land of John Dickenson should observe what has been happening in France, and look into the idea of organizing a great Down-Under Icarus show. We've got the pretexts and the potential, and surely the public and the right places. All that's required is a bit of imagination, kindness and cooperative thinking...

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