Thursday, March 15, 2012

Are you a man?

Saw this motivational poster on Facebook the other day. Agreed, I also did not see King Kong in the picture. That makes me a man I guess...

But what if King Kong's face was this big, would you still be a man then....?

A Quickie on Lion's Head

After the disappointment of last week seeing the guys paraglide on Lion's head while we were climbing Table Mountain, the desire to do a flight never subsided. I've been watching the weather since then, but was away to Plettenberg Bay and the other times I was either at work or doing something else. Not that the weather is so aften good to fly Lion's Head, but when I saw the wind predictions for the day I knew I had to make an effort to get there because you never know when your next chance is going to come.

After a few phone calls to make sure that going to Lion's Head was not going to be a waste of time, I had my gear ready and was on my way. Michelle with the "damaged back" was also waiting for this opportunity to do her first flight after she had her unfortunate accident here a few months ago. I know how I felt after my bike accident, so I knew exactly what went through her head as we were walking up that steep pathway.

There are two take-off / launch  sites at Lion's head. One facing Camps Bay and the other facing Clifton Beach. Both are very short launches. The first one you have to deal with a bunch of trees that sits like hungry Venus Fly Traps waiting for their prey, and the second one has a sharp drop that lands you back on the footpath...or on some hiker's head. The official landing area is a small grass patch in front of La Med, where the view is great, the girls are hot and the drinks are friggen expensive. There are other less favourable places to land if you sink out too fast or if the wind blows you off Camps Bay (get fined by police) or the sports field of Camps Bay High (get laughed at by school kids).  It's a 15 minute walk to the first launch, but when we got there we could see that the wind was not going to assist us in launching there, so we headed further up an even steeper section to get to the second launch site. On our way up we were passed by a tandem in flight and we could see that there was not much lift. But with the thermal pockets one might just be able to stay up. Anyway, a top-to-bottom, or "foofie" as it is also called was also acceptable at this stage as this is still better than being grounded. 

Once at the second launch site, we met up with Jacques, an experienced paragliding trainer and tandem pilot. He was also the first on the scene when Michelle had her "bad landing". He suggested we do a forward launch as the wind was not very strong, but I have no confidence in launching forward. Even after 8 years of paragliding I avoid a forward launch if possible. The concern was showing on Michelle's face, but she laid out her glider with the help of one of Jacques' assistants and clicked in. On her first attempt the glider veered off to the right so she tried a second time. There wasn't much wind. She also does not like forward launch, but this time she did it according to the book and off she went.

Compared to Michelle's equipment mine looks a bit archaic. She has a brand new U-turn wing, a fancy full face helmet and a harness that can fold in and out to transform into a backpack. Mine one the other hand is an 8-year old Gradient, a harness that looks like a colourful uncomfortable swinging chair hanging on strings and my old skateboard helmet of which the insides are falling out has been assigned the important task as protector of my delicate skull. As I was lying out my glider I couldn't help but wonder what would've happened to me if it I was the one who had a "bad landing" a few months ago with my gear. So far I have been lucky and I was going to try and keep it that way, but before I could publish my safety record I still had a reverse launch to do without any wind....

I waited for a small pocket of air in order to lift my glider. With a forward launch a pilot can lift his glider in little wind by running forward. In a reverse launch this is not possible, so you need more wind. The advantage of a reverse launch is that you can see if your glider is properly inflated and that your strings are not in a knot before you do that leap of faith. Your only problem here is that you cannot run backwards and you still have to turn around before you can go. Not that there is much space to run on any of these two launch sites anyway. It is get up and go. I've never had a problem with this in the past, so I was determined to do my launch in reverse and get it right the first time. After I felt a little breeze I lifted the glider and quickly turned around. I immediately had to start running otherwise the glider would drop. There was no time to check lines and stuff. In the scramble to get away the lines caught my glasses and pulled them off as I was taking off. All I could do was shout back at Jacques to go look for my glasses.

I immediately felt that there was very little lift, but with the occasional pockets of warm air I managed to get a reasonable flight, although it would probably not fall under the category "flight" but rather under "extended foofie". I tried to stay close to the ridge and flew over the first launch site with the "Venus Fly Traps" but on my return and despite some more pockets, I could see that I was not going to stay up for long. I did a few turns and eventually decided to head out to La Med. I still had enough altitude to make a wide turn over the sea via Clifton and to come back in for a safe landing. The windsock was hanging straight down so landing could be done from any direction this time. Michelle was busy admiring her gear and taking pictures of it when I started my approach. For some reason my landing gear wasn't extended fully in time and I did a bit of "arse-landing" in front of a fully packed La Med. Fortunately I recovered well and avoided any further embarrassments...apart from the fact that I stood in dog poop later while folding my glider. Michelle's face looked much different than what it did at the launch and I could see she was real chuffed with herself...or maybe she was just smiling at my landing. Jacques pulled in just behind us with his tandem pax and handed me my glasses. 

*                     *                     *

Once you've landed at La Med you obviously need to get back to your car which is usually parked where the footpath on Lion's Head starts. I usually hike a lift from passing cars, so we decided to get something to drink before we tried our luck. La Med is a really awesome place to hang out, but heavily overpriced. A 500 ml water costs seventeen bucks, where you would pay R5 for the same bottle in Pick & Pay. But the place is packed with the bold and the beautiful and it was nice to hang out their like a real "larneys" dipping our feet in the pool. The second option to get back to your car is to take a taxi, but that can work out between R35 and R50 a shot. With that money I could buy two 220ml cans of Coke at La Med...or six 330 ml cans at Pick & Pay. As we walked out  to the street the guys from Cape Town Tandem Paragliding was on their way up again and offered us a lift for free. So, getting back to the car was actually quicker and with less effort than walking up Lions' Head and doing our "extended foofies". Perfect.

This was probably not the best flying ever, but definitely worth the effort. The grand prize of the day obviously goes to my flying partner. Not only for the courage to fly Lion's Head again, but for the nice pictures she took with her GoPro camera which was attached to her boot. You see what I mean, this woman has all the latest in gadgets and technology..... ;-)

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Crash Boom Bang!

I cannot take credit for these pictures because apparently you need some professional qualifications and a rather expensiveness "camera" to take these. I also cannot say that what you see here belongs to me, or let me rather say I am happy to say that what you see here does NOT belong to me. These are the X-rays of a friend of mine who has had a very bad landing with her paraglider. I'm not qualified as a doctor either but I can see that something there looks rather crushed. I am also not a mechanic or carpenter but there were some fancy repairs done with those screws. Hope they are stainless steel. What I CAN say is that she is recovering well and that I am really happy that she is still alive and kicking....kicking herself for grounding herself for a few months, but alive nevertheless....

Blue skies Michelle...!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Plettenberg Bay - Robberg

Gravel 101 - The re-exam

About six months ago I had a nasty fall with my bike on a gravel road in Namibia. What I didn't know then was that it was not only my bike that got written off, but also my confidence to ride gravel roads. I poured my heart out on the BMW forum and the response was so uplifting and inspiring that I decided to include a bit of gravel riding on a trip I had planned to Plettenberg Bay. 

My route from Cape Town took me straight to Mossel Bay where I had to "deviate to the scenic route" which would include the Montagu Pass as well as the Prince Alfreds Pass, both gravel roads. My other option was the easy N2 straight to Plettenberg Bay, but because of all the motivation and advice I received on the forum I decided to "go for gold".

I was a bit worried when I left Mossel Bay around 13:45 because rain was predicted for this area and I was already through two downpours heading towards Mossel Bay. The last thing I wanted was to slip and slide down Alfreds Pass. I was here to rewrite "Gravel 101 - Riding Gravel Roads" after I horribly failed the module which focusses on "Sand Riding Techniques". I was not prepared for "Gravel 201 - Riding Wet Slippery Roads" yet. I filled up in Blanco and was checking out the low lying clouds on the Outeniqua Mountains. I had no idea what it would look like closer to Knysna and Plett. I had no alternative other than crossing the mountain and hoping for the best once I got to Alfreds Pass which is over the Montagu Pass and via "Die Langkloof", 120 kilometres further down the road". No turning back then.

Montagu Pass

The Montagu Pass was as beautiful as ever. The first section of road into the valley was completely dry and when I left the tar behind I could already feel my whole body going into minor spasm attacks. After about a 100 meters I remembered the advice from the forum and slowed down considerably. "It was the sand that was a concern and not the hard gravel" I kept telling myself. Though I still had about a 2 hours ride ahead with rain looming in the distance I had to make sure that I kept a comfortable pace. After the bridge on the way up I realised like many times in the past that I feel much more comfortable going uphill compared to downhill. When I go down I have that fear of pulling the front brake and letting the front wheel slip out underneath me like I did many times as a kid on my bicycle. I have much more control over the speed as I go up and the chance of slipping on loose gravel is less. Fortunately for me, going up is basically all you do on the Montagu Pass if you approach it from the side I did. 

There were a few areas where the road was bad, especially where they made these little berms to stop the water from eroding the road. I managed that well and the only times I got a bit worried was when I crossed some loose pebbles which felt as I was riding on marbles. I was wondering if I shouldn't have deflated my tyres a bit, but earlier I consciously decided against that because of the long tar section through Langkloof. As I was getting closer to the top I was also getting closer to the clouds, but fortunately there was no rain, just mist. Once over the top there was still a 7km section to the R62. This section also had a bit of loose gravel but doing around 50km/h I had no problems keeping the bike under control.


The sun was shining brightly when I got my wheels back on tar. I looked at the mountain and all along the road I could see the clouds pouring over the back of the mountain. I knew what that meant, wet conditions on the other side. I wasn't going to let that deter me and decided to deal with the possibility of rain like my dad always says to me, "We'll cross the bridge when we get there". My ride over the Montagu Pass already inspired confidence and I was in good spirits.

My plan was to stay on tar until I got to Avontuur, but 50 kilometers down the R62 the lady with the sweet voice on my GPS suggested that I take a shortcut straight to De Vlugt. The nice lady didn't say anything about the road surface or conditions, but I guess the "Unpaved Road" clue on the GPS screen should've warned me that it was not going to be without mental and physical challenges. I stopped at the turn-off and thought that a short-cut might be a good idea to beat the rain to De Vlugt. I ventured out on my second gravel road with caution as this decision was rather unplanned. I didn't want to jinx my trip because of changed plans. As a good friend of mine always says, "You change your mind you lose your luck!"

Road To De Vlugt

Less than a 100 meters into unknown territory, I already started cursing myself for the weakness I have for sweet female voices. The road condition was not as good as the Montague Pass road, but with determination I decided to press on ahead. This was the part that tested the "Get back on the horse again if you still want to remain a cowboy"-theory. I wasn't about to let an ego thing make the decision for me. I decided to stick to the road regardless of untested theories. This time I was in it for the sake of "adventure". I have never been on this road before and didn't know what to expect, but with lots of patience and the occasional glimpse on my GPS screen I managed to negotiate all the tight turns by slowing down way in advance. The bit of advice from the forum that I really took to heart was the "take it slow" bit. Up until now I was fortunate not to have hit loose sand, but I am sure it would've been much easier to manage the sand travelling at 40 km/h rather than 80. 

The road meanders all along the Keurbooms River and has some very sharp bends with some sections that are very rocky.  I never exceeded 80km/h, most of the time sticking to 50 in order to enjoy the scenery as well. What a beautiful place it turned out to be. I had no idea when I was going to arrive at De Vlugt, but I got there much sooner than anticipated and was very much relieved that I survived another 25 kms of gravel road.

De Vlugt

I don't know what you would call De Vlugt, but it is beautiful little place nestled in the Outeniqua Mountains. On arrival I realised that I missed out on a beautiful section of Alfreds Pass, the part coming from Avontuur. It didn't bother me too much because I covered another gravel section which was also very nice to see and which gave me enough opportunities to build confidence. I stopped at the De Vlugt Tea Garden where I had a long conversation with the owner Annelize van Rooyen. She suggested I taste some of her homemade ginger beer and we talked about the pass and the amount of people passing her tea garden daily. When she mentioned that they were expecting rain I realised that I had completely forgotten about my concern for the rain. It was clear that rain is much needed in that part of the world, but I stood there thinking that I also wanted them to have rain, but "just not right now, please Lord". Annelize warned me that the road gets VERY slippery when wet and I started wondering if I can get the credit for Gravel 101 if I can pass Gravel 201 without pre-exam preparationsAfter finishing my ginger beer I decided to get on with my real challenge, Prince Alfreds Pass...hopefully in dry conditions. I had no idea what to expect on the other side of the mountain, but I still had this side to conquer first. I guess I was getting very close to that proverbial "bridge to cross" now.

The Prince Alfreds Pass

The road from De Vlugt immediately started out quite steep. The road condition was the same as on the road towards De Vlugt, but it was clear that it had more "unrepaired flood damage". I managed to get through some "dongas" but it was on this section when I once again had to admit  that my bike was physically too big for me. Around some of the tight corners the sand was eroded with only bumpy bed rock remaining. This means navigating around a corner while negotiating my way over open rock sections. Although I managed to stay on top I knew that if I had to put my foot down that I would not be able to keep my bike upright. This is what really concerns me about the size of my bike. I think doing cones would be a good exercise in acquiring the skills to balance the bike. On a slope however you only have the option (in my case) of one side where you can use your foot for support or the other side where you have less support than what Juju has in Orania. The other side would mean a definite topple over, or "omdonner" as I prefer to call it. Fortunately I am relatively OK with handling my bike around cones and passed these little challenges with flying colours. No harm though in acquiring more cone riding skills in future. 

I did the remainder of the steep section with ease, but it was while going through the Diepwalle Forest section that I had one of those "body spasm moments". The road, although well maintained, had loose gravel around some of the corners, and sometimes even on the straight sections. I was again doing between 50 and 80 km/h, but still taking it much slower than what I normally would've done in the past on a road with similar conditions. Then it happened...

You know that feeling you get when you hit a patch in the road and it feels as if your front wheel is doing its own thing and your back wheel doesn't know if it should follow or not? That feeling of riding on "slap pap" when all that stuff of "stand up, look up, open up" makes you wonder if it shouldn't be the other way around.... "Look down, slow down and stop your friggen bike!" My heart skipped a beat and my legs became like jelly. I was thinking what a bummer it would be if after all this gravel, I now lose it and put myself back in Namibia. I obviously have not conquered my fear, but I certainly have isolated it. It is that friggen wobbly that the bike does when I travel over loose gravel, THAT is the fear which resulted from my accident in "Nam". A similar feeling I got the first time I jumped out of an aeroplane and I couldn't find something solid to stand on before my chute deployed properly. That (un)familiar feeling of not being in control of the situation. 

I went through the loose gravel unscathed only the by the grace of God and had to stop to catch my breath. I was a bit disappointed to know that the fear has not subsided after the morning's gravel exposure, but on the other hand I now knew exactly WHAT the fear was. It's not gravel roads per se, it is the inability to control my bike in these conditionsI could still enjoy the undiscovered roads, as long as I do it at a comfortable pace and never encounter loose soil. The gravel road, the bends, the loose rocks, are all manageable. It is the fear of hitting that loose patch and losing control that freaks me out. 

The ride was wonderful, it never rained and I arrived safely in Plettenberg Bay about 3 hours after my departure from Mossel Bay. I feel much better today than I did three weeks ago when I wrote that heart-rendering post on the forum. My bike is actually dirty today and I am very proud of it. I will work on that loose floating feeling and how to counter-act when it happens. In the meantime I will continue to enjoy my bike and make good use of it on tar as well as on gravel. I am not there yet, but this ride was a huge confidence booster and put me back in the saddle again. I guess it is all about staying within your skill level and taking your time. It IS about the journey and not the destination. And eventually it IS about staying alive to tell the story. By riding slow you can even have some pictures to show...... 

Monday, March 5, 2012

Bucket List Climb - Table Mountain

It's that time of the year where the cold fronts start making their way closer to the African continent. To me that just means one thing....depression. This weekend a second weak cold front aimed at the Cape, but fortunately didn't spoil the weekend too much. Last week I was a bit depressed because my weekend didn't result in much and I was fearing that I might have a second one in a row. Fortunately a friend of mine called unexpectedly to ask me if I wanted to go paragliding at Porterville. She recently had a very unfortunate accident on Lion's Head and broke  her back. She explained to me what was crushed in her back and everything but I was just relieved that she could still walk. She is on the road of recovery and obviously determined to get her life back on the road...and her paraglider in the air. After weighing up our options and talking about bucket lists and things you have to do before you die, we eventually dropped the paragliding idea and decided to walk up Table Mountain instead. Porterville was too far to drive and Lion's head was going to blow out, and seeing that walking up Table Mountain was still on her bucket list, we decided to do just that.

I have walked up Table Mountain a few times, but I cannot exactly remember how many times. There are many routes that one can take, so you can basically start on any side of Table Mountain and reach the top in one way or the other. I would say the most boring way up is Platteklip Gorge with steps taking you into the gorge and spoiling the view and excitement completely. Perfect place to take your family for a walk. I did another route some time ago called the India Venster ("Window"), but I remember getting lost at a point and wasting about 45 minutes trying to get back to the route. The name India Venter apparently comes from a hole in the rocks that when viewed from a certain point resembles the map of India. If you look through it you see spectacular views on the other side. I still have to find it. We once did a walk over Devil's Peak all the way to the top, and got slightly lost as well but managed to find our way again. Anyway, with a slightly damaged paragliding patient I didn't want to take on a hectic route, but Platteklip Gorge was just too easy. We made the decision that we will walk up halfway and where the road splits, we will make a call depending on her back. 

We left from just underneath the Cable Car station at the bottom and headed up on a relatively easy path to the Main Contour Path. There we would make the decision to walk along the contour path to Platteklip Gorge, or to head into the direction of India Venster. Starting time was 8:15 and the pace was not too fast. We were followed by two lady tourist who managed the footpath well with their fancy shoes and tank tops. They eventually turned away to Platteklip Gorg, which is a good idea if you are not protected against the sun. We decided that we are going to try India Venster, despite the warnings that it is not for inexperienced climbers and that navigation is difficult. No Shit Sherlock, that is why I got lost the last time. 

The climb was getting steeper, so we made frequent stops to appreciate the view and to sometimes wave at the passengers in the cable cars. When you look in front of you and at the top cable car station you wonder if you will ever get up there. I was a bit worried about my hiking partner, but she was really doing well and constantly had to re-assure me that her back was fine. As we were walking up we noticed some paragliders taking off from Lion's Head and we had to convince ourselves that the site will be blown out quickly and that they would all have to land soon. We were there to cross out an item from a bucket list and we were going to complete it, come hell or high water.

Navigating India Venster is indeed a bit troublesome. You move away from a clear footpath and eventually end up climbing rocks. It is not too difficult to climb, the rocks all seems to have natural handles where you can grab onto, but if you did not do the jungle gym thing when you were a kid you might struggle to get up. To solve the navigation issue some yellow footprints were painted on some of the rocks, and sometimes you are really please to see one in  the distance. There are times when you look up and think to yourself that you might be stuck, but somehow you find your way again and you move on. I was a bit disappointed when I reached a difficult climbing spot where they actually put up some stainless steels climbing footsteps and chains. Although this obviously helps a lot, I think they have dropped the difficulty rating by a few bars. My only issue getting up there was my walking stick that was always in the way, but we both did the climbing with ease. Every now and then we would throw our eyes into the direction of Lion's Head to see if the paragliders were gone, but somehow they managed to keep flying.

The route takes you straight up to the upper cable car station, but a 50 meter cliff prevents you from going further. From there you go to the back of Table Mountain where you are met by the spectacular view over Camps Bay. Here the path sometimes touches the cliff and it would be wise to keep to the left hand side of the path. Don't look down, a sudden wind can cause havoc and this unfortunately has happened before. When you get to the back side and you see ropes dangling from the top, then you know you are nearly there. This is where you can do abseiling from the top. We stood there and watched three girls from Germany sliding down the ropes. I remembered that my bucket list also had that entry somewhere at the top of the list. Still have to cross that out one day.

From the abseiling point it is easy walking to the the finish when you reach the sign saying that this is not an easy way down. Hell not. Coming up was hard enough. When you look up from here you can already see tourist hanging over the edges trying to get the best pictures. I have found though that when you get home and you look at the pictures, they are not nearly as awesome as being there. Anyway, being on Table Mountain is great. Walking up is even greater. Flying down on a paraglider will probably be the greatest.

We reached the cable car station at around 11 am. Taking into account the many stops we had, it probably could've taken us only two hours to get to the top. Table Mountain is a 1000 meters high, but you do only start climbing half-way up. Platteklip Gorge is the easy way up, India venster the slightly more interesting and daring way to go. All in all we enjoyed it and managed to shorten her bucket list. My list? Yeah, I still have a few things to do....Oh, and as we were going down with the cable car we saw that the paragliders were still flying. Next time....