Having experienced thermalling in the Western Cape and superb coastal, ridge-soaring in the Eastern Cape it was time to head in-land to Bulwer. Bulwer is not a place you will easily find on the map. In fact many South Africans, unless they are paragliding pilots, will not have heard of it. It is a small, country town three hours north west of Durban in Natal. I stayed at a placed called the Wild Sky Lodge which is run by a laid-back character called Hans Fokkens. Wild Sky is next to the main landing field for the two sites that are flown 90% of the time. From the lodge window, with aid of binoculars, you can check the wind meter that Hans has rigged up. Well, why trudge up the hill when the conditions are not right? By contrast to the Western Cape sites which are often rocky, Bulwer has a huge, grassy take-off which is perfect for top landings. Flying normally starts around 11am when the thermals start to kick in. Timing your take-off is of paramount importance as if you take off too late, or too early, you’ll miss the thermal and go down. Occasionally you can ridge soar but you can’t depend on it to gain height. The best you can normally expect is to sustain height before you catch another thermal.
Bulwer was my favourite site in South Africa as it combined thermalling with some ridge soaring, the chance to go cross country and plenty of places to land if it all went wrong! On some days it was difficult to gain more than a few hundred feet above take off and on others it was difficult to get down! On one day I was able to reach cloudbase (1100m above take-off, 1400m above the valley floor) in less than 15 minutes and it took me more than half and hour to get onto the ground. Wherever I went the air was rising - if only I could fly in those conditions again. One experience I hope I will not re-live is when I had a pressure knot on take-off whilst forward launching. My line caller did not tell me to stop and so I took off and the glider abruptly turned into the ridge - Ouch! One sprained ankle was the result and I was out of action for a week. My advice as a result of that incident is only ask someone you trust to give you a line call.
My final flying was done in the Lowveld which is East of Johannesburg. The Mpumalanga Club, which only consists of six people, looked after me and took me to fly some of the most daunting sites I have ever seen. Whereas in the Cape and Natal the ground is predominantly clear of obstructions, in the Lowveld it is often given over to commercial forestry.
The first site I was taken to was Ngodwana near Nelspruit. The ‘Fresh Air Site Guide’ (see below) says the following about the flying conditions at the site, ‘Mostly flyable if you are not scared. Known to be quite rough, with complicated micro-meteorology.’ Luckily I had not read this before I flew there for the first time! Conditions were rough and I sometimes wondered whether my glider would survive the turbulence, particularly when descending through the shear layer. Landing in the designated landing field (turkey patch) was generally not difficult although you often experience sink of up to 5m/s on the way. The day I decided to go cross-country, the wind was taking us over the back where there are only plantations as far as the eye could see. I went up over 650m (1500m ASL), drifting back with the thermals, until I decided I did not want to try and land between the trees. Yes, I whimped out and eventually landed in the turkey patch but at least I lived to fly another day!
The site I flew at which scared me the most was Barberton. If you drop to more than 50m below take-off you have to head for the landing field which is the local golf course. There is nowhere to land on the way as you fly over the local town which has no open spaces whatsoever! It is difficult to concentrate on thermalling when you are constantly watching your altitude and at 50m below I ‘ran’ for the golf course. Three pilots did manage to get some reasonable height but they had far more hours under their belts than I had number of flights and knew the local area well. It was one of those experiences I am glad I had but will not repeat.
One of my most memorable flights was at God’s Window in the Lowveld. It is a well-known view-point with hundreds of people stopping there each day to admire the panorama. The description written for paragliding pilots is, ‘An absolutely stunning flying site. The small take-off (we are talking just big enough for one glider!), tiny top landing area and virtual absence of bottom landing combines with the sheer rock faces rising out of dense jungle to make this an awe-inspiring and intimidating site.’ It is all this and more. I expected take-off to be small but I didn’t expect to have to run down a path with three-foot high bushes on each side in order to get off the ground. If you wander more than a foot one way or the other off the path you are in the bushes and stop dead - I did this three times! If you think you are good at ground handling then you should try this site to make sure. Eventually I got off the ground and was rewarded with the most stunning of flights. The day was unusually thermic and I was able to gain nearly 400m above take-off. At one point a helicopter flew 100m below and to the right of me carrying tourists admiring the view. If only they were able to paraglide…. Landing was perhaps the most difficult I have done with the need to lose height over a tree plantation and then approach the tiny landing area by flying low across the road. You just have to hope there is no traffic as a car can upset your approach and a coach will upset a lot more! I have never been more glad to get on the ground safely than I did when at God’s Window. Of course, with such good conditions I had to fly again but I didn’t push my luck a third time.
This is just a taste of the varied flying I enjoyed whilst in SA. I found the people extremely helpful and friendly, particularly those in the paragliding community. The cost of living there is approximately half of that in Europe whilst goods and services are of a European standard. All in all, if you have some time to spare and can afford the return flight, I would highly recommend a trip to South Africa.
Useful contacts and info:
SAHPA is the equivalent of the BHPA and should be contacted prior to your trip to SA so they can arrange temporary membership and insurance for you. This can also be done when you arrive but may take a couple of days.
The definitive site guide is the Fresh Air Site Guide written by Greg Hamerton. This can be purchased from all paragliding schools and most clubs in SA and also from some shops in the UK.
Airborne is a friendly, professional school based in Cape Town that offers retrieval and guiding services. There fees are something around £35 per day although you will need to check direct with Rob Manzonie or Barry Pedersen via firstname.lastname@example.org"
Wild Sky Paragliding is based in Bulwer and run by Hans Fokkens. He can arrange to collect you from Durban Airport.
The contact names and numbers for all paragliding and hang-gliding clubs in South Africa can be found in Greg Hamerton’s book. SAHPA are also very helpful and efficient.