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Exploring South Africa by Speedster

January 16, 2013

We were camping at the Khaya in the Witteberg reserve with friends, 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.  I had planned a route to take advantage of the wind directions, flying south and west into wind and then using the tailwind to return.  The area is very 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.  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, fully-fueled paramotor is not for the faint of heart, but the Ozone Speedster lifted off without difficult and carried me into the unknown.

My first leg was through the southern end of the WPNR into beautiful flatlands.  Eastwards I could see 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 flew into a gentle southerly, but with trims 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 it out.  After 20 minutes of southward progression I turned west along a valley, rewarded with views of some ruined stone farmhouses and dilapidated kraals.  A hefty eland bull regarded me with contempt while his two cows batted their ears.

The valley widened, and in the distance I could see a large farm, my first accessible bail-out point after flying 50 minutes. I checked fuel carefully.  I had been observing that the wind was very westerly in the valley 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 safe, I decided to shorten the route, and climb through a valley 10km closer.  Turning north, I ran low-level thorough beautiful vlakte devoid of any sign of human influence.  A startled group of rhebok 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, and in its absence the thermals had been building.  Feeling the familiar lag of the wing dropping back as we entered a 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 channelled along the valley, 90 degrees off the forecast!  This was bad news:   1h15 into my flight I had burned 9 litres, and still needed to fly back across a head-wind.  Opening the trims again, I angled towards the only road leading back to the reserve.  A small herd of zebra ran along my path, almost as if to offer encouragement.

Reaching the road I turned and kept low, using the hills to funnel the wind into a tailwind.  My fuel was receding into the bottom of the tank, but now I could see the mouth of Elandskloof and the WPNR ahead.  I gave up on checking fuel checked possible landing fields as they passed.  Coming into the valley, I made a quick radio call: “Witteberg International, WMX approaching 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” (our tent): “WMX, land at your own discretion!”  The Speedster descended 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 litre remained… but my tank of experiences was full to the brim.

Ross Hofmeyr, SA

The track log on Leonardo can be found here.