Winter soaring bliss

Long Pete on the Aspen 4 overhead Judas Peak
Long Pete on the Gradient Aspen 4 overhead Judas Peak

UPDATED:  This time of the year (late August through to October) is one of the best for soaring flights along the Cape Peninsula and surrounding mountains.  As the frontal systems make their march to the south for the summer, the cold fronts lessen in intensity, with more more moderate prefrontal north-westerlies and lingering postfrontal conditions.  The air is cold and moist but the sun begins to reappear, leading to beautifully smooth soaring interspersed with the promise of good instability and thermal flying.  It is certainly the ‘high’ season for the Cape pilot’s classic route:  Signal Hill/Lion’s Head across to Table Mountain, southerly along the Twelve Apostles, and then back for sundowners or onwards into the lesser-flown for the brave (and those with dedicated retrieve drivers!).  For many years this route was more frequented by the hang-glider pilots with their better glide and speed range (the NW can exhibit a strong wind gradient as one climbs), but as paraglider technology has improved it is now achievable by pilots on almost any wing.  Come along on a tour, illustrated with my photos from today…

Takeoff on Signal Hill, looking north towards Table Bay
Takeoff on Signal Hill, looking north towards Table Bay

The route begins from either Signal Hill (in a NW) or Lion’s Head (in a SW) and requires the pilot to seek enough lift to reach the shoulder of Lion’s Head, where impressive granite cliffs drop down towards the houses of the rich and famous in Clifton and Sea Point.  Usually, once above these, there is a steady lift elevator to the small summit of Lion’s Head.  It’s important to gain at least the height of the peak, as the next jump across the venturi to Kloof Corner on Table Mountain requires one to arrive at the level of the first cliffs or face either desperate scratching on the slopes (possible on a warm day) or sinking out down to Camp’s Bay.  Once above the first band of cliffs in Fountain Ravine, however, it’s usually an easy climb to 1000m ASL at the top of Table Mountain, where you can drift past tourists and their cameras with smug superiority…

Crossing towards Kloof Corner on Table Mountain
Crossing towards Kloof Corner on Table Mountain

Once above the tip of the Table, the run down the Twelve Apostles can be ridiculously easy or a serious technical challenge – in a south-westerly, the wind wraps around each buttress, and it becomes a cat-and-mouse battle to gain lift on the faces and scuttle around the next through the sin, but in a north-westerly the entire mountain is creating smooth lift and one can glide right down the line of peaks with hands off the controls taking pictures.  The Hout Bay valley opens up to your left, and from the end of the ridge at Judas Peak above Llandudno Corner one can see beyond Constantiaberg and Chapman’s Peak right down the peninsula towards Cape Point.  Here, if you are feeling adventurous (and preferably have retrieve planned), you can jump over the valley and head downwind towards Kommetjie.  A few daring pilots have made the transition; the site record is currently a landing at Fish Hoek beach.  The hang-gliders have jumped to Karbonkelberg and then around the western side, straight over several kilometers of ocean, to Kommetjie.

Cruising down the Twelve Apostles
Cruising down the Twelve Apostles

Those thirsty for just a few more kilometers can cross to Karbonkelberg and then back again, but be warned that this is tricky at times, especially with lower-end gliders.  If you are not feeling daring or prefer an out-and-back-to-the-car-and-bar, it’s easy to turn around and head straight back – in the SW the buoyant air and tail-wind will let you glide straight back to the Glen Country Club field at Camp’s Bay, and a NW makes it easy to stay above the mountain or venture far out into the lift, over the sea.  This is an absolutely perfect place to be in the half-hour before sunset: the sun’s last rays turning the cliffs amber and painting the clouds every shade from yellow to magenta is spectacular.

Gliding back over the sea
Gliding back over the sea

Back at the upper cable station on Table Mountain, several options present themselves.  In a NW, one can turn and run along the spectacular front face of the Table to Devil’s Peak, and then seek a landing on one of the many fields below.  Don’t venture far from the mountain, however, as the restricted airspace lurks nearby.  Few choose this route, however, favouring a landing either at Camp’s Bay or return to Signal Hill.  The latter can include top-landing back at the launch, but this is quite tight, turbulent and technical.  If the conditions are dubious or confidence low, it’s a pleasant glide over the city to the Sea Point promenade for a sundowner.

Looking down from above the upper cableway station
Looking down from above the upper cableway station to Lion’s Head and Signal Hill, with Table Bay and Robben Island in the distance

Check out the rest of the pictures below…

 

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