We were camping at the Khaya in the reserve with friends over a long weekend, and I grabbed the maiden flight for the area on the first evening just before sunset. The wind was very strong the next day, so we went on a 4WD trail instead, but our last morning dawned with a favourable forecast: Light southerly winds turning south-west later in the morning. I had planned a few routes to take advantage of all wind directions, flying into wind on my outgoing leg and then using a tailwind to return. The area is remote, with alternating mountain ridges and flatland valleys leading up to the Witteberge themselves. True to the Karoo, it’s a whole lot of desolation scattered with a handful of isolated farms; the mountains themselves have many hidden, trackless valleys. Not the sort of place you’d like to be stranded… but the rewards are great. Many of the old farms have been converted over the years to game farms and nature reserves; the WPNR and my planned flight path adjoin the Anysberg National Park. I packed spare water, energy bars, flares and survival kit and filled my tank to the brim. Launching at 3000ft above sea level with a heavily loaded and fully-fueled paramotor is not for the faint of heart, but the Ozone Speedster lifted off without difficult and carried me off into the unknown.
My first leg took me out through the southern end of the central valley of the WPNR into a beautiful flatland area. A few kilometers east I could see the boundary of the Anysberg National Park, and the land unrolling beneath me was soon dotted with curious springbok, twitching their tails in uncertainty as to whether I was a threat. I was flying into the gentle southerly, but with trims wide open maintained a comfortable 40 km/h ground speed. Although it was early, the sun breaking through patchy clouds was generating small thermals. This called for constant throttle adjustments; I tried flying at various levels but eventually settled for cruising at 300ft above ground and riding out the blips and dips. After 20 minutes of progression to the south I turned west along a valley, and was rewarded with views of some ruined native stone farmhouses and dilapidated kraals. As I crested a small neck and dropped into the lower section of the valley, a hefty eland bull regarded me with contempt while his two cows batted their ears.
The valley widened out, and in the distance I could see a large farm replete with actual dirt road, in use. This was my first accessible bail-out point – after flying 50 minutes – and I checked my fuel carefully. I had been observing that the wind, forecast to be south or south-west, was very westerly for the section I had been flying, which was limiting my ground speed and increasing fuel burn. I wasn’t sure whether this was due to the topography or if the forecast was wrong, but my fuel situation was just acceptable: more than one-third into my planned route I had used 5 of my 14 litres supply. To be a little safer, I decided to shorten the route, and instead of flying all the way around the western end of the Witteberg range I’d climb through a valley 10km closer. Turning north, I ran low-level thorough a beautiful vlakte devoid of any sign of human influence. A startled group of rribbok cantered off on a tangent; a single massive but elegant gemsbok shook its long horns at me; I began to climb into the mountains.
The westerly wind was blocked in the valley I entered, and in its absence the thermals had been building. Feeling the familiar lag of the wing dropping back as we entered a strong thermal, I throttled back in anticipation of the exit, but after a few seconds was still climbing. A brain-switch flipped; suddenly I wasn’t a paramotor pilot but an XC paraglider. Leaving the throttle I threw my weight over, pulled in the trims and was soon lazily circling at 1.8m/sec upwards in a beautiful morning thermal. What a pleasure…and good for fuel consumption! The bliss was prematurely terminated; reaching ridge-height the thermal rapidly became turbulent and then broke up. I checked my drift and realised the cause: the westerly wind was in fact a north-westerly that had been channeled along the valley, 90 degrees off the forecast direction. This was not good news: I was now 1h15 into my flight, had burned 9 litres, and still needed to fly across a head-wind for part of the route. Opening the trims again, I settled on the best course, angling to the only access road leading back to the reserve and then following it for the rest of the journey. A small herd of zebra ran along my path for half a minute as I overtook them, almost as if to offer encouragement. Reaching the road, I turned east along the valley and kept low, using the hills to funnel the wind into a tailwind. My fuel was receding into the last well at the bottom of the tank, but now I could see the mouth of Elandskloof and the WPNR ahead. I gave up on checking fuel and ticked off landing fields one by one as they passed below. Turning into the valley, I made a quick radio call: “Witteberg International, WMX approaching the field low-level from the north, requesting expedited landing runway 01.” I could hear the laughter in the background as my wife answered from the “tower” (a camp chair next to our tent): “WMX, land at your own discretion!” The Speedster deposited me gently through the turbulence, and I took a few minutes to enjoy the silence and smell of mountain fynbos before checking the fuel one last time. Just over a liter remained… but my tank of experiences was full to the brim.
Despite the shortened route (which proved, retrospectively, to be a very good decision) the flight track generated a 58km FAI triangle – my best yet.