Ozone XC South Africa Safari
As we trundle northwards on the quiet South African highway, tornado sized dust devils race through the desert, blown to speeds faster than we can run or fly by a howling wind. Our safari truck labors up a gradual hill and a colossal dusty overtakes us and hurries off to wherever it’s so desperate to be. Conversation in the truck is subdued as we stare out the window in awe of the conditions and imagine what it will be like in the Karoo Desert, where we plan to begin flying tomorrow. Remo’s phone rings, and after a few nods and ‘ja ja’s’ , he reports to us that the Austrian, Martin Packsack, has just flown 349km from De Aar to Lesotho, where he landed in 60kmh winds to break the South African distance record and then promptly break his back. This same windy day, Walter Neser sends us word of conditions that would allow students to fly 100km, describing an incredible stretch of good weather during the previous weeks. For the moment, it seems as though our goal of crossing South Africa will be simple enough- it’s downhill the entire way (if the equatorial bulge means anything), and downwind as well (if the weather cooperates).
The plan: Fly across South Africa from northwest to southeast in safari style, camping in the desert each night wherever the farthest pilot lands and re-launching the next morning from that very spot. Our safari truck is staffed by our driver, Vengai, and his crew, Alan and Onius, who care for and feed our group of vulnerable Europeans as we venture into the vast desert. Each evening tents are erected and food is prepared, and in the mornings camp is broken as we crunch muesli in the shade of the truck and apply high-spf sunblock. Arnold and Thys, our tow-winch operators, are two of the most experienced in South Africa and each day they expertly reel us into the thermic desert wind one by one, minutes apart, and we drift downwind like a line of nine marching ants with the safari truck in tow.
We came to South Africa for reasons that differ depending on whom out of the nine of us in our group you asked. Some would say that we came to break distance records, or to escape the European winter. If you were to ask me, I would tell you that we all came to experience the country, fly as much as possible, and document the adventure through photos, video, and words like these.
Our experiences began on the southernmost tip of Africa during a brief sojourn in Cape Town, where we soared Lion’s Head peak until sunset as the city harbor descended into the shadow of Table Mountain. The Cape Town pilot’s most important piece of equipment is a fast car, as the best conditions seem to ricochet between the coastal mountains and the shifting border of the frigid Atlantic and tepid Indian oceans, which create a meteorological mélange off the coast of the superheated African landmass. Our van isn’t the fastest on the road, but Remo forces it to go fast enough to catch two excellent flights in one day, despite the fact that the wind changed 20kmh in strength and 90 degrees in direction in just a few hours.
At Noordhoek, some of us launched in 40kmh lulls and beat our way down the ridge in turbulent and very crosswind conditions to be rewarded by a landing on the beach at False Bay, where great white sharks lunge above the surface of the water in search of seal lunches and where we waded (not swam) into the Indian Ocean. Those who were left on launch had to defend themselves from a gang of rabid baboons who would steal anything not nailed down, and who even opened car doors to snatch food and brazenly hiss at and harass the vehicle owners.
After a warm up day at Porterville, where we bounced along the ridge and off of the bottoms of cumulus clouds, we ventured north to the town of Springbok, the site of our first bush camp.
In the next 12 hours, we loaded waypoints like ‘Braandvlei’ and ‘Van Wyksvlei’ into our GPS systems, poured over an impressive selection of very detailed maps (that showed us in minute detail much of nothing there is in the Karoo desert), launched from the Springbok airfield, and turned downwind into the desert. Dav and Mathieu flew the furthest on this first day, taking us right into the northwest corner of the Karoo.
Brutal contrasts characterize the conditions of the South African atmosphere: it’s 40C on the ground, and 0C at cloudbase. The widespread 8m/s sink would suggest at least more than occasional 6m/s lift, but most of the time, we suffer in shredded windblown 1m/s bubbles of frustration that bounce downwind, luring pilots away from the road and into the wild desert furnace. The crisp clean air at cloudbase is reminiscent of the glacial breezes of central Switzerland, even though just a few thousand feet below there lays a puddle of dusty oppressive African heat.
The total immensity and harshness of the Karoo became apparent for the first time on day 2 of the safari. We launched from directly in front of our campsite into a dry atmosphere and steadily increasing southwest winds. Immediately after launching, Dav towed into the middle of a birthing dust devil and suddenly found himself looking down at his wing in the opposite direction of the tow, with his leading edge pointed at the ground. Thys, our intrepid winch operator, cut the line just as Dav was starting to think about using his reserve parachute. Unfazed, he released the dangling tow line and caught a thermal, disappearing into the massive sky downwind of us.
Our vision was to fly together, but the weak lift and strong winds meant that there was no hope of waiting for the next pilot to tow up and meet you. Our only choice was to flow with the current and try to stay close to the road. Because of the strength of the wind, we found ourselves covering ground at up to 45kmh while circling in thermals- we were flying cross country faster while turning in thermals than our gliders fly at trim speed! This was the first day of ‘real’ conditions, and several of us recorded ground speeds of up to 80kmh at altitude. That afternoon the wind increased dramatically and I had the pleasure of experiencing my first backwards landing in South Africa on a hot afternoon in 50kmh surface winds. I also got a free lesson in desert spatial awareness, after landing ‘just a couple hundred yards’ off of the road. What had looked like a short distance from the air turned out to be more than two kilometers, and what seemed to be totally flat terrain turned out to be a gently rolling landscape that, combined with the shimmering mirage of heat, would be very easy to get lost in. Thankful to have my GPS and a radio, I walked a direct line to the coordinates where Mathieu had cleverly landed on the road. Without a GPS this 20 minute walk would have been rather interesting, and I finally understood how one could walk in circles in the desert. The sun was so high overhead that it was difficult to use as a guide, and the heat blurred out any landmarks on the horizon that might have appeared (but never did), meaning I had nothing to reference but my GPS and the sparse bushes in front of me.
In the north central Karoo desert lies an immense dry lakebed called the Verneuk Pan, where we made camp a few days later. The 20 km wide lakebed was a puddle of shimmering heat, with a mirage so convincing that the sky seemed to melt into an inviting lake of cool blue water- a lake that we could never quite reach. Conditions for distance were not favorable, so we stayed local and towed repeatedly on the lakebed, gaping in awe at the most universally flat and barren horizon that any of us had ever seen. For as far as we could see, in any direction, there was nothing. From the air, the featureless terrain was exceptionally deceiving; what looked like a couple of kilometers was actually more like 20, and the 13 kilometer wind-scoured track from a land-speed record appeared to be maybe one or two kilometers. The faint desert track that we had driven in on was barely visible from the air, and the parched earth looked smooth and almost totally free of vegetation for hundreds of kilometers. By this point in the journey, our team was more than 500km away from the nearest significant town, and the night stars were so bright that they almost cast shadows in the desert, their glow reflecting off of the cracked and brittle surface of the lake.
Who launches at 2:30 in the afternoon in miserably weak lift and stable conditions, and still flies 187km? Dav does. Due to changing conditions and some questionable decision making, the day after the Verneuk Pan got off to a late start. Irritated and impatient, Dav released from tow at 200 meters and hooked narrow desert thermal, disappearing into the distance. The whole team managed to climb out and make some distance, but the late start proved to be less than ideal. Dav made the most of it however, and when we finally caught up to him 2 days later he filled us in on a magnificent flight that was finished off by a 35km glide from 4000m in smooth air graced by a brilliant African sunset. Mathieu and Remo also had excellent 100km flights, but in the wrong direction, which meant that the group was somewhat scattered that night, and that same afternoon, Jerome reported a 10m/s (2000fpm) climb over a 20 second average on his vario!
De Aar has recently become the most well known distance flying site in South Africa due to the convenience of the small airfield in town and the hard work of Arnold and Des Pansi of Potties B&B. Arnold was towing us across the country, and categorically refused to admit that there could exist a better starting point for distance flying than De Aar. When we arrived it was certainly windy enough to fly distance. Indeed, there’s nothing quite like gearing up for a serious XC flight in 40C heat while squinting to keep the blowing sand out of your eyes. Dav and Jerome launched first, as usual, and after towing up (as in straight up and a little backwards as the truck pulled away from them) they released and we watched them grovel in mediocre lift while being hurtled downwind. The only strategy seemed to be to just stick with whatever crappy lift you could find and no matter what, not let go. After all, even while you’re turning in circles and only going up at 0.5m/s, you’re still flying XC at 40 to 50kmh! There is a tremendous power transfer station immediately downwind of the airfield, which was not an absolute joy to be scratching over in impossible lift and high winds, but the prospect of nearly certain death by electrocution was a good incentive to be tenacious and fly at least 15km. If you flew too far, say 300km or more, you’d end up landing in the Transvaal, a region of South Africa where the locals are rumored to be unanimously armed and dangerous, or at least certainly hostile. This meant that we were all instructed to fly some distance between 15 and 300km, and to land on the road- ‘no exceptions’. Mike and I managed to stay in the air long enough to get blown almost 160km all the way to Venterstadt, where we enjoyed cold beers while the most of the team languished 100km behind in an overheating Safari Truck. Meanwhile, as Mike and I basked in the success of our personal best distances, Walter Neser was still in the air, getting ready to land at 259km after probably one of the longest flights that anyone has ever made on an XXS Acro wing, an Ozone 69 prototype!
This day at De Aar proved to be our last day of distance flying, and from Venterstadt the wind direction was exactly the wrong direction. So after being blown well off-course by unseasonably west and south winds, we made for the coast in the Safari truck. Well to the Indian Ocean side of the south coast, the town of Wilderness is home to more than five excellent flying sites within an hour of each other and to some of the nicest coastal soaring any of us had seen. Turquoise waters, a long list of restaurants, and smooth laminar lift were our reward. Our skin shed the desert dust in the Indian Ocean, and our gliders rolled around on the grassy launches like happy dogs. Like a well planned and craved dessert, it was a satisfying and relaxing conclusion. In fact, although flying in 10m/s lift and landing backwards in the middle of the desert more than 500km from the nearest town is an exciting experience, I’d recommend heading straight for the coastal splendor of Wilderness if you ever find yourself in South Africa. Stay tuned for the Wilderness site guide, coming soon!