Dieter and I before take off!
I managed to find my way to Bloemfontein
after a 20 hour bus ride and was met at the bus station by one of the tug pilots from Soaring Safaris. We quickly made our way out to the Tempe Gliding Club field where I found my new home for the next week, a camper with a bright new blanket and sheets courtesy of Dieter, who at that time was high above somewhere with Johannes, his Austrian co-pilot for the past week. I wasn't sure what to expect for the upcoming week there as I was basically camping on the outskirts of an airfield near another flight school airport outside of town. Planes were overhead all the time, but this I liked. It brought me back to the days when I was taking flight lessons back in 2001.
Being tugged up in the sky. That was a new experience for sure!
I never did get my private pilots license, but I've enjoyed going up with my dad from time to time who did get his license.
So I chilled out in a camping chair reading until Dieter and Hannes landed. Those two would be my buddies for the next week. The club itself was run by the Bradley family and was currently home to other glider pilots just there to enjoy the skies. I was greeted by them, although I got endless questions about how I ended up there. Bloem itself is not much of a traveler destination here in South Africa, and the gliding club is most definitely not on the backpacker circuit. After many questions were answered, I was welcomed in and soon part of the mix. I basically got to hang out, join the morning weather briefings, watch the gliders get tugged up by the 172s and hear about the pilots' days over beers at the clubhouse.
High above near the clouds - this is Africa, from the sky!
Day one I spent lazing in the shade reading while Dieter and Hannes were up, but day two Dieter was able to take me up in the ASH, the only two seater, for about two and a half hours. As it turned out, it was apparently the best gliding day of the season so far! I was pretty nervous. After all, there is no engine in a glider (well, a few have a small one)! But Dieter has thousands of hours in the sky as a former airline pilot, and has flown a glider since he was 14 (that's now 53 years of flying for him, you do the math). I was in good hands to say the least. It was actually a very smooth flight. I was expecting lots of turbulence for some reason. I also got to do a bit of flying myself, although I was reluctant to since it had been a while.
Hannes up in the air with us.
You basically find thermals that you give some altitude and then you soar around between thermals. On a good day, this is not a problem, but on a bad day, you may end up losing altitude until eventually you have to land out somewhere, meaning the club has to send someone out to retrieve you (in some cases they had to drive 150ks to get people). I was hoping to go on a retrieval while there, but thankfully all made it home while I was there. We had a good day so we got up to about 14,500 feet, the cloud base. We found Hannes up there and shared a ride up a thermal, chasing him. I really felt like a bird in the sky! It was an amazing experience and a great way to see the landscape. Unfortunately on return we found out the sad news that there had been a fatal accident nearby.
Chasing Hannes in a thermal.
It can be dangerous, but this traveler is luckily here to tell the tale.
The days that followed were not so good for flying, but I had lots of fun. One day I caught a ride into town to get my bus ticket to Cape Town
and do a bit of Christmas shopping. That evening Dieter scored us an invite to one of the glider pilot's homes. He's also from Denmark and was building this mansion in this very secure neighborhood near the club (we almost didn't get past security!). The next day was Christmas Eve and there were about 30 of us for dinner at the club. We did a big braai (BBQ) outside and all sat down to eat at this very long table under a tent outside, wearing funny paper crowns and afterward having Christmas pudding (more a British tradition) and watched the kids toast marshmallows before all the coals went out.
Tempe Gliding Club
Some of us stayed up talking about Africa and our impressions and experiences here.
Christmas day was rainy, so there was no going up for the pilots. So Dieter, Hannes and I decided to take a roadtrip to Lesotho for the day. It was only about 160Ks from Bloem, so we hit the road and crossed the border in no time. We found Lesotho to be very mountainous and green. I was taken back to the Highlands of Scotland actually! The people were also very friendly and curious about this bunch driving around on Christmas. We found one lodge open and sat down for some "best tasting chicken" and chips, very delicious! Thankfully we saved some for later. We drove on to Mohale Dam, which was closed by the time we got there, so we pressed on until we reached the end of the road which was actually a tunnel that connects that dam to another 32Ks away.
Getting the gliders ready.
We basically drove until the road ended at a closed door to the tunnel. I laughed at how funny it was to just drive until we could go no further and then turn around, but we saw such beautiful scenery and met a few friendly faces on the way. It started to get late so we started back to Bloem. We were hoping to find beers somewhere and finish our dinner at the camp, but when we got back to Bloem, we realized nothing was open, and back at the field, there was no electricity due to the storm. We all got in the camper Dieter and I were sharing and sat by candlelight finishing our Christmas dinner.
I definitely thought of home during the holidays, but I really enjoyed getting to experience the holiday another way. Everyone was so wonderful to me.
A tug taking off with a glider in tow.
I was so spoiled all week thanks especially to Dieter. He and Hannes treated me to lots of great meals, along with fun conversation, and for Christmas Dieter got me the LP India guide for use at my next stop, and Hannes gave me some clothespins, which were a hot commodity around camp. Unfortunately I had to say yet another hard good bye to my fellow musketeers (as we took to calling ourselves). However, it was a real privilege to have had the experience of gliding over Africa and sharing holiday traditions with new friends.