Author: Greg Hamerton

I rolled around in bed on Sunday morning, trying to decide whether to ignore Steve Metcalf's report on KFm and go back to sleep, or get up and face the long haul out to Porterville. (That's 6:10am on KFm for those masochistic enough to have their sleep interupted on the weekends). The forecast sounded dismal for Cape Town - strong southerly becoming south-easterly - the only options were Hermanus, or Dasklip. The phone was an arm's length away. That was easier. Let a friend decide where the flying would be good, and spank them if it wasn't. Mark Marshall was in Japan. Chris Hill had to try and sell his flat. Ian Willis didn't want to break his little Uno on the Dasklip roads. Rob Manzoni said Dasklip was dark and gloomy, he was going to Hermanus. When even Nigel Bartlett didn't want to go to Porterville, I knew there were great forces at work beneath the surface of this innocent-looking Sunday. I still couldn't help looking longingly towards Porterville as we drove off to Hermanus for a bit of a float.

I wonder whether drug addicts get the same feeling when all their friends tell them that they've kicked the habit, and they feel all lonesome, and then they go to the rehab centre and; Hey! Presto! All the familiar faces are there, looking slightly sheepish. Sir Lowry's Pass car-park was running amok with paragliding vehicles, and all the brightly coloured para-monkeys who had said they couldn't come. It was flyable. The day was looking decidedly brighter as Ewold van Mechelen, Pete Wallenda and I headed off to the lure of mist-shrouded Hanskop.

The journey that ensued was one of the most wonderful flights I have savoured. In its re-telling, I have tried to offer to you some of the joy of the sights and sounds, and also highlighted the main decision-points taken along the way. Enjoy the read - I hope the knowledge you can glean from it helps you to follow your own Trail of Vapours.

To allow for coffee-breaks, I've made the following chapters :

  • From little journeys big journeys grow
  • The pearl in the fields
  • Up, down and strange

From little journeys big journeys grow

Sir Lowry's Pass to Jonkershoek

We had climbed up to cloudbase (1100m asl) above the Pass, and so we went for Hanskop. Large patches of sink brought us below ridge level, small thermals would save us. After Hanskop the entire valley was shaded by a blanket of stratus, and the lift became weaker.

Peter Wallenda bravely joined us on his tandem, and we formed a tight gaggle, holding on to a small patch of sunlit rock. Brave, I say, because landing out here would yield an arduous walk, and the fields are strewn with the small spears of burnt saplings, making tandem landings tight to say the least. I took some photo's of smiling sunlit gliders against shaded vertical rock-faces, of the green mossy vegetation clinging to spires which thrust up, mysterious, to the clouds above. The wind was light, the flying breathless. We circled in that charged atmosphere with the prudence of a tailor, never letting a stitch go to waste. A turn in the sink could be our doom, and none of us wanted to lose our newly-found seat of majestic perspective.

Pete turned back, Ewald and I pushed on. We were spurred on more by a sense of discovery than any lofty goals of distance - I wanted to see what was around the next corner. Ewald dipped into the cloudbase, and I slid past the cliffs in the sink. Anything that went up was worked till it disappeared. There was no hurry to go anywhere, just a slow progression down the valley to the curve of Stellenboschberg. The wind had swung more to the south, and was providing meagre lift on the 1000m hurdle at the end of the valley. I glanced longingly over the ridge to the Jonkershoek valley beyond, and bided my time, waiting for a thermal to lift me up and over.

Patience paid off, and I was whizzed over the knife-edged hurdle with about 100m to spare. The wind was light - I shouldn't encounter any rotor with the height I could build. I had forgotten about the low cloudbase. Whoosh! Everything threatened to disappear in a hazy white. My climb had to be halted, and I sped 'over the back' to cross the Jonkershoek valley. As should have been expected, my vario pegged on 5m/s down. Stamping on the speedbar improved my glide only marginally, and I watched with dismay as the Jonkershoek forests thrust their green spikes up at me. I was high enough to escape the turbulence, but Ewald, who crossed over a little lower, was shook up good and proper by the rotor-rooter. He opted to scoot out the valley to land at the Dros Pub in Stellenbosch. A great flight! And welcome to the Stellenbosch Surfers, a little clan of pilots who have made the crossing.

What puzzled me as I sank like a stone was the easterly component to the wind. I was being flushed out of the valley as well as down. My brain struggled to find the reason. West at Sir Lowry's, South at the crossing, and now East? Usually the wind blows UP the Jonkershoek valley, from the west. The cloud building on the The Twins seemed to be coming towards me, showing an upper NE? The cloud drift was slow, so I reckoned tucking in to the lee-side of the Twins should present no great danger.

There is a little field above the forests, gently sloped and grassy, which comes straight out of a fairy tale. Brilliant pink burst through the green like confetti. It was isolated, perfect, and had a little thermal wriggling through the flowers. I snapped a photo of my shadow as I climbed away. The shadow took up most of the picture. A lucky save.

The southerly wind had produced a neat bar-cloud above the neck I had just flown through. I figured there was a chance that I could find mild wave-lift against the peaks where I was, as the southerly wind descended, hit the valley floor, and rose again on this side.

I crabbed higher up the valley, up against the rock-faces. The lift was smooth, 3m/s, all the way to cloudbase at 1300m. At cloudbase the wind again pushed me out and away from the peaks - a light easterly. The Twins had their heads in the clouds, so I ran around their western edge, leaving enough space to clear the rotors. The Franschoek valley was in the sights. I had passed my personal best mark from Sir Lowry's Pass, and the 26km site record! I wriggled my toes in joy, and glided on to see what was around the next corner.

The Pearl in the fields

Jonkershoek to Paarl to Du Toit's Kloof

Once past Simonsberg (Groot Kanonkop), the wind was definitely southerly. Smoke in the fields lay almost flat near Paarl, and the dams where showing mild streaks of wind. Nothing like the Ride of the Valkyries of the weekend past, but wind none the less. I fed that bit of information into the flight computer between my ears, and aimed for the downwind side of a silver-roofed farm complex with tarmac lawn.

Beepedy beep, my variometer chirped reluctantly. It averaged 0.2m/s, but as I was in the flatlands, I couldn't be fussy. No telling where the next thermal would be. Round and round. Drifting out the valley again? Round 'n round. Slowly, slowly, I reached 1000m asl again. A stronger wind from the South-East? Ah! Ahah! At last I puzzle out the source of all the easterlies. The south-easter, our summer high-pressure blow-all-the-tourists-into-the-sea wind, had arrived. Just as predicted. It had claimed Jonkershoek, (and Sir Lowry's Pass by that time) and had just claimed the Franschoek valley. Luckily I was just ahead of it, and apart from the rough convergence lift I encountered just before Paarl, I was to remain clear of its turbulence.

After crossing the N1 near the Paarl town, I had to make another tactical decision. Fly to Paarl Rock? (and then where? it's all controlled airspace with low ceilings to the NW.) Flatland across the town and head for Groenberg at Wellington? Or duck in tight against the mountains, in the lee of the south-easterly? The little matchbox cars whizzing along the freeway like ants on Red Bull offered no clues. I looked further away, scanning the cloud-shadows for signs of wind. There seemed to be nothing noticeable except a light easterly drift. 900m altitude. The south-easter was evidently low-level, and the entire Paarl and Wellington valleys were in wind-shadow. 800m altitude. I altered course and headed for the mountains. 700m altitude. The ground-wind obliged by turning to SW. 600, 500.

The metres ticked off my altimeter, and I looked for the most likely lift generator. Over there, behind a small hill, was a farm tucked away in a depression. Behind it stood a small ridge facing into the SW. Below the hill was a dam. Landing room between the lines of small trees in the orchards. I floated around there like a silent cloud, hoping that gravity would not notice my real nature and claim me for its own. It seemed to work, and soon I was climbing out on a rough thermal at 1m/s. I was committed over a large forest. I would have loved to have taken a photo of my shadow amongst the canopy of trees, but didn't have the time for frivolities. This was my one chance for freedom.

If I lost it, the dark green forest would swallow my whole wing intact, and the sky would be lost. When I reached the height of the Du Toits Kloof radio masts at 1600m asl, I glided on to the next valley. To see what I could see? Yes, and no - I had no option - the SSW wind was strengthening at my back, and there was only one way to go - north to Bain's Kloof Pass.

Up, down and strange

Bain's Kloof to Voelvlei to Saron to Porterville valley

The Bain's Kloof valley is a bit constricted, and is not somewhere you want to be on a paraglider when the wind blows strongly. As I rose at 3m/s with very little forward speed away from the ridge I muttered something to myself about blondes getting blown, the allure of narrow gullies, and why I kept getting backed into tight spots. Maybe it was time to dye my hair from blonde to red, or green. It was time to wake up the flight computer again, and after some humming the computer offered a solution. The wind was curling around Du Toit's Kloof, and being wrapped around to create a westerly where I was. If I flew further north, the southerly should resume, and I'd have plenty of speed to clear the ridge. I passed a puzzled family who waved as I rose without any signs of propulsion from below their parked car to high, high above. I scooted out of the narrow valley along the big ridge to Voelvlei.

From Bains Kloof to Gouda seems to be a simple run, once you're up and established. The mountains are so big and so steep that everything goes up, and for the second time in as many weeks I found myself boating along at 1400m without much effort. Thermals would drift off the top of the ridge under the influence of the Easterly, glides were long without much sink at all, and the lower southerly (SSW) kept the ground-speed at around 60km/h. When an eagle joined me I knew things were going to be okay - eagles are a good omen, and I had missed their company throughout the flight. It was nice to have a royal escort. Shortly after the eagle, I yanked my wing around in a 6m/s thermal, the strongest of the entire flight.

Saron Peak stood jutting out from the ridge, scooping the southerly up its craggy face. It was possible to touch the brakes, and hover in the wave roaring up its southerly aspect, right up to the peak. I left the last 100m to the wind, which was sure to be howling at the top, and raced around the western edge of the mountain, staying clear of the treacherous gullies filled with the (now howling) southerly cross-wind. That was to be my last decent climb. With the southerly shredding my hopes of thermals off the flatlands, I glided as far as I could across the wide orchard belt of the Leeurivier.

I think I may have ducked east towards the Porterville ridge too early, for heavy sink off Saron Peak ended my flight within shouting distance of the Porterville ridge, and 13km short of the town. A ridge which could have added another 60km to the 117km I had already flown. But I could hardly be angry with the wind. I had been offered a wondrous journey, realised a dream flight I have always wanted to complete, broken a site record and personal best. The only thing left to negotiate was the landing.

Another backwards landing, making all five of my XC ladder flights this season backwards landings. What is it about the wind these days? The last forty metres was hellishly turbulent, as rotor off the trees about 1km upwind tumbled me around. The usual speedbar to the ground, no flare, yank the A-risers trick worked a treat, and I was soon lying on a flapping canopy, 4 hours 40 minutes from launching, phoning my friend's to let them know I'd landed safely.

And was there any chance, pleeeese, pleeese, pretty pleeese, that they could come via Porterville on their way home? Rob Smith, bless his cotton socks, obliged without a grumble. It was to be two hours before he arrived, driving from a blown-out Hermanus. Yes, I bought him supper at the KFC, and filled his car with petrol. Rob was overheard on the cell : "Next time Greg puts a map and a radio in my car, I'm going to get very nervous."

If you enjoyed this story, you may well enjoy the Fresh Air Site Guide, or Beyond The Invisible; the novel about breaking through the fears of flying. Check them out on the website

Now get back to work.

Gregory Hamerton