Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the Earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.
Call it destiny, synchronicity or manifestation, but the Universe has a magical and mystical way of bringing together the people, places and events we need to create the profound experiences we either yearn for, or need to expand our personal horizons.
My most enduring longing has been to slip the gravitational bonds of the Earth and soar heavenwards free as a bird, something I've done so often in dreams and daytime fantasies that it's become almost a reality, encouraging me to totter dangerously on the edge of cliffs and think about jumping. Can I really do this? What would happen if I took a leap of faith into the void beyond? Can I fly? From my earliest childhood, nature has fuelled this craving and provided dazzling inspiration, whether it be the miracle of a hummingbird beating its tiny wings up to 80 times a second, the remarkable vision of an eagle soaring so high it is invisible to mortals on the ground, or the sheer speed of a Peregrine falcon diving at more than 300 km per hour. How does that feel? And perhaps more than any other endangered creature it is the lammergeier, or bearded vulture, that first made me appreciate the vulnerability of many species as this iconic bird slowly returned from the brink of extinction in South Africa's Drakensberg Mountains where I enjoyed carefree school holidays.
Now, walking the long Trail to Salamanca through the Great Mountain Corridor that links the Alps, Grand Massif, Pyrenees and Cantabrian Range, I'm increasingly aware of its iconic presence as one of the most admired examples of European wildlife. Seeing it is a relative rarity and cause for celebration. My friend Xavier Escute of Catalunya-LaPedrera Foundation in Barcelona is my guide as we hike towards Muntanya d'Alinya, one of the largest private protected areas in Europe which could soon be home to a herd of wild cattle bred to re-create the primitive aurochs, which roamed for thousands of years until they were hunted to extinction around 400 years ago. Their grazing helped maintain open grasslands and shaped landscapes that encourage balance and biodiversity. My mind is full of images of these long-horned ancestors of the modern cow when Xavier casually asks: "How would you like to fly with vultures?" I grin hugely, hardly daring to believe what I'm hearing.
The Barcelona-based Foundation is promoting a variety of sustainable environmental projects, this one offering eco-tourists a unique double feature: soar with the vultures in a tandem paraglider and also, at a separate mountain venue, 'dine' with them at a vulture restaurant where a supply of meat and bones is on hand. Despite a failure to altogether banish my fear of heights, I recognise the unbelievable gift being offered me. Having experienced everything from the supersonic Concorde to a hot-air balloon, I'm at last to fly free without any form of propulsion other than the wind. "It's pure magic," pilot and instructor David Guardiola, assures. "The best part is listening to the music of the wind."
For the second successive day we're standing on a high cliff expectantly watching a windsock, and this time the conditions are perfect and the view of the Alinya Valley nothing short of breathtaking. I've seen a short training film and been reminded to run and not jump when he gives the signal. What's the main attraction I ask, as if I didn't know. "It makes me think of the song Blowing in the Wind by Janis Joplin," he muses. Funnily enough I hear that song in my head often, though sung by Bob Dylan who wrote it in 1962. And of all the rhetorical questions posed in the lyrics, the opening one resonates the most: 'How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man?' I guess we both identify with the refrain: 'The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind, the answer is blowin' in the wind.'
With a clumsy run we are suddenly airborne and all fear is banished by the sheer incomparable exhilaration of flight. Vultures above and below are riding the same thermal, others flashing by close enough to make eye contact. This is utterly magnificent and for more than half an hour I live a lifelong dream.
Wilbur Wright, who with his brother Orville invented and built the first viable aircraft more than a century ago, rightly observed: "More than anything else the sensation is one of perfect peace mingled with an excitement that strains every nerve to the utmost, if you can conceive of such a combination." I wonder if the pioneering brothers were ever lucky enough to learn from the masters, watching vultures in flight as they intuitively find the most promising air currents, riding the thermals effortlessly. Look and learn!
Too soon I'm earthbound again, although tour guide and Ecological consultant Aleix Millet Sargatal is waiting to make it an utterly unforgettable day. Another low-gear 4×4 grind up a steep mountain deposits us and a load of meat and bones near a photographic hide, where we hunker down to wait. Within moments the first specks appear high in the sky until there is a feeding frenzy of around 150 Griffon vultures, greedily grabbing as much as they can as quickly as possible. While they're on the ground they're vulnerable to predators and within minutes they're off, flapping noisily to lift their now heavily engorged bodies. This is the only place in Europe where four species can be seen: Griffon, Black, Egyptian and Bearded Vultures.
Aleix scans the heavens with binoculars and then points with great urgency. He's spotted a Lammergeier, which is the aristocrat of the vulture kingdom with its massive 2.8-metre wingspan and distinguished bearded presence. "My heart is beating … I'm so excited," he says breathlessly. We wait a couple of hours longer until the sun begins to dip over the mountaintop horizon, learning another of Nature's lessons – patience and perseverance. "Good, now you'll have to come back again to see them," he invites, and I know I will if I can.