Some say "Do not trust something that is free" …but surely that statement was never meant in the realms of Free flight. True freedom from the encumbrances of combustion engines, noise and the need for hangars.
In a real sense no aviation is truly free - everything has its cost but in the art of paragliding how much can you charge for a smile or a scream of pure exhilaration… priceless some would say. Coastal soaring is just one element of this magnificent sport that is largely mis-understood and most notably by fellow aviators. The aircraft in your boot or on your back. It is hugely addictive in its simplicity and ease of use.
Every year around December and January. the annual migration to the south of South Africa by our own pilots and those from the northern hemisphere takes place. A lot more colourful than the "wilder beasties" herding their way across the Masai Mara but if I may boldly venture substantially, safer where many watch the glint of the setting sun from their armchairs in the sky. This is South Africa's premier coastal soaring mecca and one of the world's best locations for simple and wonderful free flight from many of the spectacular sites that one finds on the garden route.
This year one of South Africa's more notable pilots' Dale de Klerk was seen skilling up in this purist form of aviation and if I may say so, had one of the broadest smiles I have seen in some time.
When one steps off into the sky, note I specifically did not use the word jump - we do not jump, we gracefully evade the clutches of mother earth's gravity and effortlessly catch a ride on an invisible wave of lifting air. What can be more breath-taking than this sensation, well let me tell you, the vista.
As one climbs higher and higher the stupendous scenery seems to invade the senses, the greenery and colours around the lagoons and river estuaries fill your vision. As one climbs higher the extensive tree covered dunes and quaint hamlets nestled in the distance are dwarfed by the outline of the Outeniqua Mountains and all this floods into your consciousness. The water ways and teeming bird life, the fishermen patiently waiting for that rewarding nibble, families walking their exuberant pooches on the beaches and a myriad of wings bursting with rainbows make up this paradise.
This is what we come for year after year. Bliss… pure bliss.
The long ridge running from Klein Kranz all the way to Swartvlei is aptly named Paradise and it is.
While all these pilots on their well-earned vacations are sweeping through these coveted skies, there is a small contingent of hard-working professionals that are sharing these wonders with the droves of thrill-seeking tourists wanting to tick off that bucket list which paragliding most definitely features upon.
This article is actually dedicated to those pilots, the ones that make the dreams come true for so many, they are the Tandem Flight Instructors. These pilots are pilots that have honed their skills both flying and people wise, creating one of the best tourist activities as can be found around the world. The demand during these two months is unrequited requiring the skills of pilots from around the country to assist. It is very much a short-term migrant labour force that these operators require and, in the past, before our South African and SAHPA system had evolved, we relied on foreign pilots, since 2010, we have however successfully grown our own pilots that are comparable to any in the world.
To make this article a little more personal, I too am one of these pilots and this year assisted two companies with notable excellent safety records. FlyTime paragliding operated by Pete Wallenda, considered as the father of Paragliding in South Africa and internationally recognised as a man of consummate experience both in the repair and construction of paragliders. He is currently the chairperson of SAPHA (and doing a wonderful job by the way) and brings his immense passion into leading this sport. I also helped out Dolphin Paragliding operated by Deon Borrett, a long standing and well marketed operation who is a house hold name in paragliding circles.
Let me tell you these operations are not for the faint of heart. There is mental and physical demands that require an "A" game with differing passenger weights, changing conditions with close proximity flying and landing, all conducted within a confined areas almost without one incident. There are some expert woman pilots often showing the boys how to handle a wing with finesse. The setting up of the customer meet and greets, to the assistant teams helping the pilots safety launch each and every nervous passenger intent on capturing their dream flight on camera and flying next to their friends, are a sight to behold. In among this are students being trained and foreign pilots flying their dream holiday. Gatwick would seem like a walk in the park.
If one has not operated in this environment before, it can be somewhat daunting, but at the same time, invigorating. The mix of cultures, people and ages with all the positive energy and excitement is tangible and palpable. In these instances, you can see the world working as one and for these fleeting days, happy.
It is here we wish from the bottom of our souls that the authorities could see this professionalism and realise that no amount of regulation and endless paperwork will make this safer. It is extremely well run and safe. This season I got back my love for this type of flying, the love that the firstly RAASA and SACAA has tried over the last 10 years to bleed out of us all with this endless paperwork and needless over implementation of rules that just do not work for this type of aviation. If all at this institution could have our passion, I believe we would have a SACAA, as their wish is, in the top 10 in the world.
This year the weather was exceptionally kind in late December and we were presented with spectacular flying days. The cohesive spirit of companies and pilots working together was the best I have seen in South Africa for many years and it seemed as if there was a positive energy that I believe if it continues to grow, and is harnessed correctly, can make these operations flourish even more. We even had a host of hang-gliding pilot's grace us with their presence, a sport that is currently under pressure as was wind surfing from kite surfing years back.
This year, a little on since our "eternally cleva fella", Captain (NOT) Gigaba's" insanely implemented unabridged birth certificates for foreign children fiasco has largely fallen away, our tourist numbers have seen an increase in our area of aviation from what I observed. In spite of myriad of incompetent decisions made by our government daily, it seems that we as South Africans just seem to make the best. The visiting people wish to continue to make their dreams come true and love our "World in one country" with some of the friendliest people one can meet.
Being part of seeing a little kid waxing lyrical about his intended flight, to hearing the absolute screams of joy from a young Irish lass as she was whisked off her feet, to flying with a young lady, a recent university graduate that has aspirations of becoming an aeronautical engineer, to that example to us all, an octogenarian who shows us "you can at over 80 years of age' notching one up in that extensive life of experience. All shapes and almost all sizes loving life.
Nobody is going to remember those office meetings and the days writing those supposed critical reports on their death bed - it will be the times spent with friends and experiences and the thrills and spills along the way. I can still remember that very first flight in a glider as a small boy and my first solo flight on a paraglider. They will be with me until Alzheimer's kicks in - I hope not on the Alzheimer's.
Aviation, and specifically paragliding, have given me a wealth of such memories and some very good and cherished friends along the way, and I am sure, in the future.
Come fly with us - it is easy, and as Captain Carl Jenson has retorted more than once "because birds fly, that's why the birds sing" and guess what …...you can too.
Experience life on the wild side, the fun side, the real side, but most especially airside.
See you in our wonderful African skies.
The photos are credited to FlyTime Paragliding as I was way too busy flying and living like a bird to take my own.