Combine a family big-game safari in the famous Kruger National Park with some paragliding. Once you’ve ticked off the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, buffalo), it’s time to explore the flying sites of the Mpumalanga region, just a “short drive” away. (Although in this part of the world that phrase can mean four hours behind the wheel). God’s Window, as you might guess from the name, is a stunningly beautiful area, popular with tourist buses and promoted as “one of the most scenic vantage points in South Africa”. It’s an elevated escarpment that looks out over a valley with a small take-off 600m above the valley floor. It offers thermalling and, later in the day, modest XC flying. Top-landing is best as a retrieve from the bottom is a ‘short’ two-hour drive. Nearby Graskop is similar, with pine forest below and no good landing options. Take a radio for both. Both sites work all year round.
Staying in the region, Barberton offers a bit more potential for the XC hound when it blows with some north. It’s flyable between May and August, with thermals up to 1,000m above take-off, giving you almost 1,500m over the golf course landing below. The playground lends itself to triangles and out-and-returns, zig-zagging around the valley’s relief. When comps run tasks here they can involve clocking up 40km in a relatively small area. Even low airtime pilots can enjoy the views from this site and a few schools use it to train students transitioning from winch to hill flying. Check in at the Koekkepanne Restaurant in town for flying info and to hook-up with the local scene. Depending on the weather there are nearby alternatives: Bambi and Ngodwana both have local sensitivities, so check in with local pilots first, including instructor Anton Naude in Nelspruit.
Comps in the Cape
The Southern Cape has several flying areas that give “guaranteed flying weather” during the November to March season, but it’s in December when the air gets lively, and busy. Porterville, a 90-minute drive from Cape Town, hosts a week of competition flying in December. The comps are well organised but retain an informal character, so don’t be afraid to sign up. The Porterville launch is at 700m and the landing is at 250m. Behind take-off is the Cedarberg Range which still offers the potential for route pioneering. Rob Manzoni is the local guru here and has a lodge. Visiting pilots must obtain a temporary flying license from the South African association, a process that you can do online and takes a couple of weeks. You need this by law if you plan to fly anywhere in South Africa and can be fined if you don’t have it.
Cape Town and the Garden Route
In Cape Town try your luck at Lion’s Head, a lower hill that leads up to the iconic Table Mountain. With the right wind, which is never guaranteed, you can bench up and soar the 12 Apostles, the pinnacles that make up the western side of Table Mountain. Keep sight of a landing option as they get a little thin the further south you go, and watch out for fast forming orographic cloud; compass and instruments are recommended. The picturesque Garden Route to Wilderness offers soaring that is engaging. Jan Minnaar and Kobi-Jane Bowden of Cloudbase Paragliding are local experts who manage many of the take-offs. The main one is Map of Africa, with a lush green launch that puts you above the ocean and over a ridge. Flit between the half dozen other take-offs, top-landing for a chat and a chai before flying on.
The X-Berg Challenge
Not for the faint-hearted the X-Berg pits runners and mountain bikers against paraglider pilots on an annual multi-day endurance race through the Drakensberg Range, which forms the border with landlocked Lesotho. In 2017 it was a three-day, 110km event. Paragliders have the advantage that they can take the straight line between waypoints, but in its first five years it was only won by a pilot once, Juraj Koren of Slovakia. The race is in early March and applications to enter are open to everyone, although numbers are limited: the deadline is the start of February. Outside the competition, the Drakensberg offers some tough but rewarding hike-and-fly challenges. Try a hike up the Matterhorn, Sani Pass or Mike’s Pass or chose to do a multi-day vol-bivouac in this untouched wilderness area.
In the 1990s and 2000s the flatland interior of South Africa was very much on the record-hunters’ map. Several 400km flights were flown here, and then in 2008 South African property developer Nevil Hulett was the first paraglider pilot to fly over 500km, setting a world record in the process. He analysed the weather and winched up from Copperton, setting a record that stood for years. Copperton isn’t the most popular site in the Northern Cape, but in reality you can winch from pretty much anywhere here. The most popular sites are at airstrips like De Aar, Kuruman and Prieska. The local operator has closed down now but Between Heaven and Earth, who helped compile this entry, can provide a winch, operator and retrieve logistics if you’re keen on towing and flying big distances in the South African flatlands.