I was in Wilderness, South Africa (about 4 hours from Cape Town) just after New Years 2001 - good ridge soaring with smooth lift off the sea but very little thermal activity. While I was there I met Tristam from Blue Sky Paragliding (www.blusky.co.za). He wet my appetite by telling me about the good thermic flying in Durban. On the 2nd of March 2001 I flew out to South Africa for my friends wedding and seeing as I was in the neighbourhood, I flew up to Durban to join Tristam. My goal was to gain a bit more experience in thermic conditions and hopefully to go cross-country.Tristam picked me up from Durban airport in a rattling Land Rover that was to be our chariot of choice for the next five days. It was the perfect vehicle for all the fording of rivers and climbing up tracks in mountains! It was a long drive, but we got to Bulwer in the Drakensberg Mountains mid-afternoon. Just to loosen up and get the rustiness out we did a bit of ridge soaring. It was amazing flying close to the mountain watching the wildlife around us. We even got a juvenile Black Eagle soaring with us at one point! Tuesday morning dawned clear as a bell and we were excited about the prospect of a good XC day. As soon as we saw the first cloud forming in the sky we headed up the hill. I caught one thermal while I was waiting for the others to launch and my vario went absolutely ape! I shot up at +6m/sec and I was worried that I'd get caught in cloud suck or something. It's quite scary being the only one in the air and whooshing up. I put in some large big ears but still was rushing up and finally I had to do a B-line stall. I'd never done one before and was bloody nervous about doing it. I couldn't believe how hard I had to pull on the B-lines to collapse the wing, I almost lifted myself out of the seat I was hanging on the straps so hard! The wing folded and I was soon rushing down (registered -7,5m/sec on the vario). When I let go of the straps the wing recovered nicely but pitched forward quite a bit. (Luckily I remembered reviewing the documentation on the wing where they said not to come out of a B-line stall slowly else there was a chance of it developing into a full stall). I then big eared again but the guys were only just launching and I was rushing up again, so once more it was B-line stall time. (Really hurts the hands - wear gloves!) This time when I released I damped the forward pitch with a bit of brake and it worked quite well. I'd lost the big lift and this time I had to work smaller, broken up thermals to get up but managed to get to just over 1km above launch (3100ft!) and then we turned and went over the back. It wasn't an ideal day as it'd overdeveloped and there really wasn't that much to work once we'd left the hill. I followed a gliding eagle for a bit but he couldn't find anything to soar and soon flew away. Patchy bits of lift from a settlement got me up a bit again and when that petered out I carried on following the route the other guys had taken. I managed to stay up for an hour and cover 12km (a shade over 7 miles) before finding a nice looking landing field where a tractor was mowing the grass. There was quite a good ground effect, lovely hot air simmering on the mown grass and I had a lovely long slow glide when I came into land. I surprised the hell out of the poor tractor driver when I suddenly appeared a few feet off his left shoulder and shouted "Hello!" as I glided alongside him. I'm afraid his lovely straight lines across the field were ruined! The landing was perfect, soft and into wind (I'd checked wind direction from the tractors exhaust smoke) and I stood there for half a minute just showing off, ground handling the wing above my head. What an awesome feeling - the mixed rush of disappointment that I was on the ground and the buzzing thrill of doing my first ever cross-country! I had a very long walk from there. I'd aimed to land next to a road but there was no traffic. I walked for well over an hour and a half in the heat with my pack and warm clothing until I reached a farm. I was exhausted. I popped in to ask for directions (and some water) and they very kindly gave me a lift back! That was the best flight of the week and my only XC. Wednesday we went to another site renowned for its valley release but after an hour of ridge soaring the wind died out and we couldn't get up into the air any more. Thursday was a rest day - I climbed the ridge above Rods cottage, but the wind changed direction and came up over the back so I did an alpine launch into almost no wind and glided down the back, around the spur and down to land by the cottage. There was lots of swimming in the dam, reading and relaxing. We were staying in a thatched house in the mountains - stunning views and not a person in sight. It was a torturous road up to the cottage, but it was well worth it just for the peace and solitude. Tristam commented that many overseas visitors come there to fly but are so caught up in the beauty of the scenery that they just land up hiking or swimming in the dam and not actually venturing up the hill to fly. Not that I blame them, it's just only a bit over 400ft up, but it's practically vertical and a killer in the heat. On Friday we only had about half an hour of flying out at "One Gum" in Durban. This is a big air site - a thin, almost spine backed ridge with very high cliffs that work well when the wind is right, and for us it was spot on! That was a bit hairy, had to use big ears a lot to get down - the wind was strong and it was very thermic - very active flying! I did a top landing there with full big-ears, almost fluffed it when I let them out and missed my C-lines but luckily Tristam caught me and helped me stop the wing before it went over the back! This last trip taught me a lot! I think an SIV course is definitely the next thing I want to do. I want to experience stalls and collapses and learn how to do things like spiral dives in a controlled environment so that next time I'm up and something happens I can know how to react. When I was getting worried and thinking that cloud suck had got me, I'd have loved to have known how to do a spiral dive to get out of that kind of situation.
Big ears are ok, B-lines are better, but a spiral dive really looses height fast and sometimes that's very necessary. I've talked about lots of these things with lots of guys but there's a big difference in talking and in doing!