For reasons far out of one’s control, the paragliding side of this SA trip was rather thin. While the weather was mostly stunning, it was rarely flyable and we frankly had so much to do that choices had to be made. As a first attempt, we went on a short road trip to Porterville, north, the local cross-country Mecca.

The plan was to sleep in a… well, we’ll call it a bungalow, at the Beaverlac campground located by a water source behind the ridge where the flying is done. We arrived on site around noon on an extremely warm day. The wind had already picked up and was blowing a little too sideways for a first flight in years, so after watching a group of Swedes land in a vast field below while getting a site briefing from the local  paragliding guru – who declared the conditions seldom improved in the evening – we hit the dirt road again and headed for the camp.

A bungalow is what we got. No toilet, but warm water, a refinement we never fully understood because the temperature was probably around 40 degrees Celsius. As the afternoon progressed and the air got cooler outside, our unit demonstrated remarkable insulation capabilities by retaining the heat inside to our great disgust.

We left on a short hike to the nearby river where a natural series of pools offered some pristine, even if a touch brown, water to refresh our burning skin in. Then I got the itch again and insisted we go check the wind at the launch site, just in case it had dropped. It hadn’t. So we drove on to the alternate take off, better exposed but very short. Just as we arrived, the wind was dying along with daylight. So much for the briefing.

I unpacked hurriedly and setup my glider on the small launch pad. By then the wind was just about calm. It had gone from strong to nothing in a few minutes. Marie took nervous snapshots as I attempted a series of reverse inflations, having no space to inflate with my back to the canopy and run.  The sun had long been gone and we were approaching the end of civil daylight – a half hour after sunset – and the end of my luck. I decided to pack up rather than risk ending in the bushes. I’d come back in the morning.

But morning came and no flying was done. So we rescheduled for a few days later, as on our way to mythical Knysna we would drive through the town of Wilderness and its many flying opportunities.

We reached Wilderness in intermittent rain and went for a quick walk on the beach, then stayed for a night at the Cloud Base Paragliding lodge ran by Jan Minaar. The following day, after a late start – the conditions were taking their sweet time improving following some serious rain the day before – we finally drove up to the Map of Africa, Cloud Base’s dedicated site, perched right above the town and facing the ocean. It’s mostly a dynamic soaring site with a few thermals coming through from the town below; low ceiling and a mandatory call to the local ATC prior and after flying.

A few people were already airborne but barely managed to stay up. Jan gave me the ritual site briefing, explaining were to go and not to go, the location of the bottom LZ, top landing procedures, best lift areas, possible service thermals, etc. Then I set up and waited. One does a lot of waiting when paragliding, it’s part of the game. Finally, the wind seemed to pick up a little. I battled with my canopy for a while, not having flown in a few years and it took 3 or 4 reverse inflations to get it above my head symmetrical and stable. A quick visual inspection, I turned around, ran a few paces and was airborne. I waited until the glider had picked up speed and cleared the ground before sitting back into my harness, then took a dead turn on the brake lines, checked my vario and relaxed.

The soaring zone at the Map is rather narrow, limited to the right and the south by a final ridge sticking out all the way to the ocean before opening into a valley, and to the left and north by a gap some distance away between two bumps in the hill. The right boundary is turbulent and not to be challenged; the left one is open to exploration, conditions allowing.

I spent the first half hour scratching the slope and using every bit of lift I could sniff. The best deal was usually found over an exposed patch of rocks and being too low to circle in it, I used the typical 8-shape pattern to stay as close to the core as possible. An increasing number of gliders were taking off and airspace was getting crowded. Looking over one’s shoulder before turning was an absolute necessity not to run into an incoming wing.

Then things picked up a touch. I was gradually able to gain a few hundred meters and separate myself from the herd, pushing at times far over the road and away from the hill, and exploring the area to the left over town as long as sink wouldn’t set in.

Eventually, I got worried that my dear Marie was going to get bored. She was sitting on the grass, looking up at me, taking pictures and I flew by once or twice waving. When I decided to land I opted for a top landing, not wanting to force her to come and pick me up down at the beach. I started my U-shape approach but had to abort a few times because beginner pilots (assisted by someone) were taking off and I don’t like to stress a pilot by coming in from the side as he’s trying to concentrate.

Then I got my approach in all the way, made a small final turn into the wind, 10 meters above the grass, and suddenly, I completely spaced out. How  does one top land again? Duh. I had done hairy top landings in Spain where the wind was so strong that braking at the last minute would send you over the top, so I kept my hands high, standing in my harness, and of course my Swing Arcus, happily flying, kept on doing so and I overshot the target.

So I circled and came around once more. Same result. I tried the reverse approach, coming in from the right ridge. Again. Nothing would work. I’d end up perfectly lined up, a few meters above the ground, but without braking to stall the glider, it just didn’t want to land. Eventually, impatient, I attempted one last approach from the right because the lift on the left was increasing so much it was hard not to gain height on the downwind leg. I came in tight, started my turn too late and all of a sudden, the glider was dropping to the slope, still almost completely downwind.

So that’s  why they put so much padding underneath harnesses! I touched down hard, slid for a few feet, got up, collapsed the canopy, and felt very, very ashamed. A textbook example of what not to do when top landing, or even when landing at all. I guess one has to pay a price for only flying every 3 years.

I packed up my stuff, swearing under my breath and at the same time thrilled about the flight, and concluded I’d have to go flying more often – or not at all.

Time will tell. :-)

All the great shots of me were taken by a very patient Marie.

It’s kind of cool, first time I’ve ever seen myself fly.
Look for orange pants and a blue and white glider. And a big smile.