Yesterday yielded the opportunity to do one of the premier Cape powered paraglider flights – Cape Point. The PPG is an incredibly portable and versatile aircraft, but with a cruising speed of only around 25 knots and maximum sustainable speed peaking at 37 knots for the fastest XC wings, we need ideal wind conditions to attempt routes such as these. We have specifically been watching for forecast conditions that would allow a new first – flying around the peninsula, down one side and back up the other. To date all flights (only 4-5 other occasions that the flight has been successfully completed) have been exclusively along the western side. 30 April 2013 had a forecast for light ESE in the morning with light to moderate SW in the afternoon. As all pilots know, forecasts are completely trustworthy… or not.
We launched in the late morning from Hout Bay in a very light breeze; anything helps when you are foot-launching with a full tank of fuel. Climbing over the neck between Noordhoek and Chapman’s Peaks, we climbed steadily to 2000ft, and then overflew FAR139 (the controlled airspace around the Simonstown Naval Base) with pre-arranged permission. The views flying south along the coast were beautiful; False Bay at peace with the encircling mountains hazy in the distance.
The hands-off flying was rudely interrupted when we reached the end of the Klaasjagersberg ridge, however: an increasingly strong north-west breeze threw turbulent air off the peak and caused a few minutes of tachycardia. Flying closer to Cape Point, it was apparent that the wind was persistently NW, and strong enough to cause pause for reassessment. Prevented from flying lower by the restricted arispace over Cape P0int Nature Reserve, we crossed high from Diaz Cross to Diaz Beach to Diaz Point. Feeling that discretion was better than a long lonely swim, we didn’t fly beyond the point in the northwest wind.
A long and slow but beautiful flight back up the western side of the peninsula followed; only beyond the reserve could we dip down below the inversion at 1000ft and find the forecast southerly. Climbing again from Kommetjie, we bypassed the long white sands of Noordhoek Beach and routed directly into Hout Bay with dwindling fuel supplies. The breeze in Hout Bay on the ground was still SE and brisk enough to allow a three perfect landings on the doorstep of Dunes, where we were welcomed for a celebratory cold drink.
A little over two hours flying, 75km distance covered, a fuel consumption of 9, 10 and 12 liters for the three paramotors = priceless new experience.
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.
Tom Lewis and Frik Linde have a dream, and have built a partnership to translate it into reality. After creating a very successful outdoor experience with 4×4 routes voted into the Top 10 in South Africa at Mont Eco near Montague, they clearly have the necessary skill. Their passion, however, is to make a true wilderness lifestyle accessible and sustainable to those who share their love of wild open spaces, black night skies lit only by the stars, and air tainted only with the fragrance of fynbos. The Witteberg Private Nature Reserve is the embodiment of the dream.
The Wittberg Mountains lie near the southern border of the Karoo within the Western Cape Province, South Africa. Readily accessible from the N1 national highway between Touwsrivier and Matjiesfontein, they are 2.5 hours drive (about 250km) from Cape Town. Like most of the Karoo, it is a harsh semi-arid area where large scale farming is tough and the terrain precludes expansive infrastructure. With an average altitude of around 1000m, it is a place of rugged fynbos-covered ridges interspersed with vlaktes, and secret kloofs. Bitterly cold in winter and scorching in summer, the beauty here is subtle and requires a shift in pace and perspective to appreciate. Frik’s family have farmed in the area for generations; indeed, the property which is now the nature reserve was once their land. They cultivated hardy salt bush in the valley to support ubiquitous Karoo sheep and later harvested the indigenous Proteas from the mountains, leaving gravestones, dry-stone wall enclosures and some whitewashed houses now reaching national monument status. Frik, however, joined in the endeavour by Tom, has had a different vision. Trading the vegetation-depleting sheep for naturally-occurring wildlife and converting the precipitous flower-harvesting trails into 4×4 routes, they have spent the last 5 years turning a farm back into a wilderness… and the result is breath-taking.
Wow…what a weekend away at the Witteberg Private Nature Reserve. I’m filled with experiences, thoughts, views, fresh air and photos waiting to be published. I’m also completely bushed. Here, therefore, is a photographic teaser (courtesy of the camera of John Roos):
Yowzer…I loaded the same pictures from my last post onto Facebook last night, and the response has been phenomenal. Imagine my surprise when I get a forwarded forwarded forwarded email from the surf community including my picture as evidence of a huge shark terrorising the surfers at Noordhoek! Well, lads and lasses, a big shark it was, but the terror is misplaced: you can’t see it well on the Facebook photo, but it’s a gentle giant – a Whale Shark. That makes it much more special than “just another” Great White (something I prefer to see from the air than the water, unless I’m on the bottom with a regulator in my mouth), as a sighting of a Whale Shark in the Atlantic is rare. Wikipedia will tell you all about them and their tropical/subtropical range – seldom south of 30 degrees – but I was very tickled to learn that the species was first described when one was harpooned in Table Bay. Yay for African science, bummer for environmental consciousness.
A couple of pictures from the flight:
There’s been some bruhaha about the species and size of the shark, so I referred it to our guru, Johan Anderson, of Wings and Whalesharks fame. Johan flies all sorts of things (and is the man behind the Zee PHG pictured above), but one particular project of his is flying a microlight in the Seychelles for whale shark research and spotting program. He confirms that it is indeed a whale shark (not a great white) and not quite the 7m monster suggested by some sources. As whale sharks grow to around 12m, this is a smallish specimen. For comparison, I’ve cropped together (at precisely the same scale) the shark and surfers, so that you can decide for yourselves.