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The Ride of the Valkyries - 118km from Bain's Kloof Pass to Rhenosterhoek

Warning : This story is as long as the flight, so make yourself a cup of coffee, and check that the boss is nowhere in sight. Bain's Kloof Pass has always excited me. It traverses the head of a serpent, a grey serpent 120km long, which decided to lay down in the golden wheatfields. What you need to 'run' this phenomenal ridge is a following SW wind, afternoon sun, and a bit of luck. On Sunday, I had all three. Sunday had begun with a foefie off Gydo Pass (Ceres). A drive to the farm Merino proved to be disappointing, as Gielie glared at our party and hissed through clenched teeth "I thought we agreed there would be no flying on Sunday". ??!!?? This was news to all of us, including Loius Barkhuizen who had arranged permission to fly, admittedly for the day before when we had flown. Seems I need to update the siteguide with the following sentence : 'Due to severe local weather phenomena the big Ceres mountain is dangerous on Sundays, and needs to be left alone for long months between flying to appease the Keepers of the Mountain. Wabooms would remain unflown, on a day which looked epic for it. :-(

Ort: Bain's Kloof
 
We rushed back to Gydo pass, just in time to pop three gliders into the sky before the WSW wind came pouring over the back. Mike Smith got the worst of the sink, and glided like a stone to the landing field, just making it in after a flight of about 60 seconds. It looked like he was flying a little square parachute, with the performance of a brick. Time to move on. We were on our way to Lion's Head, where it was apparently soarable, but when we reached the crest of Bains Kloof Pass, we knew the day had taken a turn for the better. It was blowing 15-30 straight up the face. It was 3pm, and there was still time for a quick afternoon flight.

Climbing up the face behind Groenberg, I expressed how I felt about the smooth, abundant thermals and nice flying conditions. YEeeeeeeeeeeeeeeha. The wind eased around to the SW, and I continued to build height. At 1300m asl it felt about right to go - I was level with the top of the ridge, and the climbs were easy. The Voelvlei Dam beckoned in the distance, a mirror-smooth blue jewel 30km away. The lift seemed to be forming a wave in front of the ridge, about 2km out from the crest. I have flown in this 'wave' condition a couple of times before, and every time has been a real treat. I wriggled my feet, and posed them for a photograph. Except that something was wrong with the background. A little dam which should have been showing gentle thermic breezes, was torn to shreds like a toilet roll after a kitten has cornered it. !. I scanned the flatlands for further signals, and there it was - smoke flat, other dams whipped wild. And yet to the right, the wind on the Voelvlei Dam was mild, little ripples now across the surface, nothing more. I ventured out into the flatlands a bit more, to see what was happening. I wanted to be nowhere near the ridge with THAT kind of wind. As I flew out, I kept climbing, 300m in a straight line. For the next 30km I was able to dolphin fly, slowing in the lift, flying straight elsewhere. It seemed I was riding the front of the wind as it plowed through from the SSW.

When I reached the Voelvlei Dam, the wind joined me 1000m below. I could see the front hit the smooth water, whipping across from the left. At the front edge there were small water-devils. Behind, the water was badly white-capped, and streaked as if someone was sweeping the water with giant palm-fronds. I flew the length of the Dam, hoping to beat the front, fly ahead of it, but due to the fact that the air ahead of the front was calm, I never did manage it, never once in the next two hours. The front would always catch up with me, and provide its wide areas of lift and good groundspeed. My plan changed from flying cross-country to just staying up until the sun set, in the hope that the wind would slacken and make landing manageable. I worked a bit and climbed to 1400m again.

Saron Peak found me grovelling at its base. The wind was blowing almost Southerly now, and was completely side-on to the treacherous gullies. I stayed away from the ridge, flying over the top end of the fields, praying for a little bubble. Bump. Bumpwhackbump. Rough little twitcher kicked off a hump, and away I went, rocketing along beside the mountain. The into-wind beat looked to be about 20km/h backwards. I still didn't want to land, so worked the thermal for everything it had.

When I had topped out in the thermal, and was being blown past the end of Saron Peak, I heard the distraught voice of Justin on the radio. "Christina, Christina, come in." Repeat. Repeat. No answer. I looked back to where I had last seen the little white glider. It had been high on the peak, battling to climb in one of the gullies. Justin's glider was visible about 5km behind me, racing down to land with big-ears on. He landed safely in a big field at the 50km mark, and began a marathon scramble to reach the downed pilot.

Bugger! There was no way I was going to get back to Saron Peak now, or anywhere remotely near it. I hauled off my helmet, gloves, and little phonebook and began to make some phonecalls. Rob Smith, still at Bains Kloof where it was blown out, took my message and sent the retrieve crew to Saron. Then Christina phoned me to report down and safe. Whew! Justin continued to call on a radio which wouldn't receive, and as he had no cell-phone, he wasn't to know this until an hour later, when he finally reached her walking down. I phoned a couple of other folk in our team, then realised I had been circling in sink for some time, and began to work on flying again.

The ridge past Porterville was doing the same thing as the bit from Wellington. A wide lift band existed above ridge height, about 2km in front. I flew pretty much straight from there to Bumpy Peak. The dams were still doing their trick of transforming as I arrived. Smooth water became scratched, torn, streaked. I felt like a Valkyrie, riding at the head of the battle to herald the coming doom. I was the wind's desperate messenger, a little red bird carried on the storm. Dust billowed off some unoccupied fields in the valley. It was better to watch the horizon, and the odd eagle and crow who joined me, than look down. I phoned my recovery driver to let him know where I was planning to land. The ridge begins to swing out towards the NW, and the wind was threatening to push me over into the Citrusdal valley. As I had never climbed higher than 1400m asl on this flight, a crossing was out of the question. I stood on speedbar for half an hour, to work my way out into the safety of the valley. After half an hour, I had progressed about 3km west, and about 20km north. The ridge was coming to an end, and the tail of the serpent which had begun at Wellington was finally curling back on itself, shutting off further travel. I worked a few thermals over the flatlands, but they pushed me back toward the ridge, and I settled for a final long glide.

When I finally had to land, at 6pm, the wind had slackened slightly. Standing on full speed bar (about 50km/h on the Spear) I was going backwards at jogging speed. I didn't flare at all, squashing the speedbar into the dirt, and yanked the A-risers down. The glider fell in a heap, and didn't drag me at all. I had made it! I laughed out loud, issued a few more whoops for joy, and settled down to a big smile. Quentin arrived half an hour later, and we headed for home. I watched the ridge whizz by my window, and breathed a quiet thanks to the sky, for offering me the priviledge of flying. After 118km, we passed Bain's Kloof.

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