Even on the almost perfect day, the lack of any local and visiting pilots on take off, shows how little known this amazing site is. Overlooking the town of Graaff-Rainet in the Karoo Desert, the Valley of Desolation is described in the 'Lonely Planets' guide book as "the sort of place that makes you wish you were an eagle". Admittedly the guidebook was not written for visiting paraglider pilots. However the phrase certainly captures your imagination.
At 4100 ft above sea level (1650 ft above the town), the take-off overlooks the commanding peak of the Spandau Kop and the parched plains of the Karoo desert beyond, the view of which, can only be described as spectacular. With 11800ft height gains and cross-country distances in excess of 130kms attainable, I doubt this site will stay exclusive for much longer.
A desire to take-in some winter flying in a warm climate found myself and Tim Guilford joining an XC tour in South Africa, organised by Tristam Burrell of 'Blue Sky Paragliding' (SA). Tristam's enthusiasm for paragliding means that he will do anything possible to ensure his guests maximise flying time during their visit. With this in mind, the tour was organised to include three main flying areas in KwaZulu Natal and the Eastern Cape Province. In total we flew six different sites, the local site in Durban, two in the Drakensberg, one in Northern Natal, one in the Transvaal, and the most spectacular of all, the Valley of Desolation in the Karoo Desert.
The tour started from Durban with a return trip to the first site called 'Bulwer', a two and a half-hour drive away in the foothills of the Southern Drakensburg. My acclimatisation flight consisted of a 14km out and return, with height gains of 4200ft in thermals of 960ft/min up. Having not flown since mid November, the unfamiliar conditions were quite a realisation of what I would be experiencing over the next two weeks. Tim, being a more accomplished pilot and already acclimatised, completed a quite respectable 26km cross-country whilst dodging over-developing skies and thunderstorms.
The next day found us leaving Durban early for our second destination, a site called 'Dumbe' in Paulpietersburg near the Transvaal. As this was to be a long drive, and not wanting to lose any flying time, we stopped en-route at a site called 'Fort Mistake', in northern Natal.
Clear blue skies and an inversion meant that after numerous unsuccessful attempts to get above take-off, we decided to let the locals show us the way. We both then followed to enjoy two hours of restitution flying as the sun set over the African landscape.
Day three and we were at take-off on Dumbe discussing directions and recovery for 50km+ XC's. With cumulus clouds on the horizon for 360degrees and thermals continually rolling up the front, the day was looking promising. Unfortunately, the promising signs did not come to fruition, and whilst we were both in the air being choosy about which thermal to go with, the conditions rapidly deteriorated. Tim managed to top land, but as the wind started to pick-up, I chose to run over the back with 900ft and land near the town, a distance of 5km. This was not achieved without stumbling into a thermal, which sent me skywards at 1600ft/min!
As the new weather system looked set for the near future, we decided to pack-up and travel 1200kms to the south and the dryness of the Karoo Desert. On arrival in Graff-Rainet, my hopes were high and I was looking forward to some big flying. However, the site turned out to be very imposing and although Tim and the others quickly adapted to the challenging conditions, it took me some time longer before I plucked up courage to go over the back and cross the Valley of Desolation. The initial plan had been to stay at this site until the Monday, however some unusually heavy rain and storms rendered the next two days un-flyable and instead of chasing the weather again, we decided to stay put and wait it out. By the time Monday came around, I was beginning to wonder why I had travelled through 85degrees of latitude to experience typically British weather. Little did I know of what was in store for the next six days!
The days that followed in the Valley of Desolation consisted of some fantastic and varied 'full-on' flying. Every day was a cross-country day with all of us making new personal bests, then improving them the following day. On one day, Tristam broke the site record (78km) by flying 132km. Then the next, I found myself at 10500ft ATO (14400ft above sea level), ascending at 1400ft/min towards cloudbase before landing 41kms to the Northeast. Arthur (Tristams flying buddy) flew off to the Northwest for 35km, whilst Tim, at 11500ft above, flew into wind for 40km to the Southeast. Tristam followed his previous day's form, with a height gain of 11800ft and a distance of 92kms to the north again. What a fantastic day for XC, four pilots all heading in different directions and 200kms flown between them!
During the last four days at the Valley of Desolation, I logged ten flights lasting a total of approximately eight hours and covering a combined distance of 95km. For which I was awarded the wooden spoon!
Despite being quite tricky to get to know, this site really does have some potential. One of the reasons for being so difficult is that you need to cross 20km of flatland containing big areas of sink and 'dust devils', then climb out over a pass which is actually higher than take-off. In addition, small punchy thermals can be awkward to deal with low down and the lack of roads/tracks over the back, can result in extremely long walkouts. Gavin; the retrieve driver (also a paraglider pilot) described the Valley of Desolation as being "dangerously un-flyable". However, Tim and myself decided that if we had to rate the site for visiting British pilots, it would be along the lines of 'a site for a competent pilot with 100 hours or more experience, 'Pilot' rated with the ability to fly actively in strong thermic conditions'. In addition to this, being able to deal confidently with the odd deflation would be an advantage!
Having just got used to this style of flying, and despite excellent conditions, it was time to leave the Karoo and head back north towards Durban. Travelling back overnight, we arrived early on Friday morning at a site called 'Arthur's Seat'. Another equally spectacular site situated in the shadow of the imposing Drakensberg Mountains. A strong inversion meant that the flying here was no match for that experienced over the previous four days, but no one seemed to mind that much. After a couple of flights and a re-modelling session to the underside of the Kombi van, we headed back to Durban for a Braai (BBQ) and some fine wines to celebrate a successful tour.
The flying did not end there though. Before being delivered to the Airport we managed to grab an hour or so at the local site in Durban. This was yet another experience, as the lack of landing options and strong conditions made for some interesting flying.
The tour was definitely geared around maximum flying. With only three non-flying days during the two weeks, the four of us managed to fly over 750kms (of which 648kms were flown in four consecutive days at the Valley of Desolation). The result of the friendly international competition was 417.5kms v 332.6kms, to the locals. We were robbed though, the comp did not include out and returns or turn points and I think our score should have been doubled under the away rule!
South Africa is not the most obvious destination for a winter break, as flights to and from can be expensive and lengthy. With this in mind though, when you are there, the cost of living is very cheap. Anyway, in my opinion, the experience of visiting a country with reliable flying which is so rich in beauty, out-weighs any additional cost. The whole package makes for an unforgettable trip, which I would highly recommend.