Walking on air in Namibia.
(Article as appeared in paramotor magazine)
As I brewed my pot of coffee on an open fire, I watched the sun rise over the Kalahari Desert and it occurred to me that I live for moments like this. This was my first real African experience and people always told me that Africa will steal your heart. I wondered if that was really true, but that’s exactly what happened to me on this trip.
I would normally always embark on a journey like this with Mike, my twin brother, but this time he was on his own sailing adventure with his girlfriend, so I asked one of my best friends, also called Mike to come with me. Mike is not a pilot so I decided to take a tandem glider too so that I could share the flying experience with him. I had not originally planned on taking an engine halfway round the world with me, especially to a country like Namibia where I could easily free fly, but the more I planned my journey, the more I realised that I was going to want to fly across the hundreds of miles of grasslands. These Savannahs are the transitional lands where the dry sands of the Kalahari slowly, over a thousand kilometres, are transformed into the jungles of the North. The Savannahs are an immense vastness of dry golden grass where nothing but a few zebra and other animals roam freely under the hot Namib sun. It would be very difficult to free fly here… I was going to have to take a paramotor with me.
And so it was that I found myself travelling with more luggage than ever before. Unfortunately though, I found myself in Windhoek airport travelling rather light! I had arrived without any baggage and it was to be three days before we would see our bags. We had only planned on staying one night in Windhoek, Namibiaâ€™s capital city, in order to pick up our jeep and home for the next two weeks along with all of the provisions that we would need for our 4,000km round journey. Windhoek is a really a great staging city for this type of adventure as itâ€™s a city where you can get hold of anything you might need. We picked up our car…an incredible Nissan truck that was equipped with long range fuel tanks, sand tracks, roof tents, fridge /freezer, GPS and even a satellite phone…just in case.
As great as Windhoek was for preparing for our little expedition, there was not a lot else to see or do there and we grew increasingly frustrated as we waited for our luggage to appear. After three days we excitedly threw our bags into the back of our truck and set off for the 500km drive to Sossusvlei. Driving out of the capital was quite a special experience. One minute we were in the type of traffic you would expect in Manhattan and the next we were travelling down a dirt road, which had ambitiously been sign posted, Trans Kalahari Highway, without another car insight…actually without anything in sight apart from a beautifully desolate landscape. We arrived at Sossusvlei just before sunset, a magnificent sight as the 1,000ft dunes rose out of the flat vastness, glowing bright red in the late evening sun.
Sossusvlei is essentially a dried up river bed, almost a thousand metres wide, where the Tsauchab river tried, but long since failed, to reach the sea before it got swallowed up by the endless Kalahari sands. It is now a protected National Park so you cannot camp here at night. The gates into the park open at 5am…we were waiting in the darkness at ten to five for them open! It is a half hour drive from the gates to the first dunes and it is truly worth being there to watch the sunrise. As I watched the dessert sand turn from grey to a bright shade of red, I started to put my engine together. It had received a few bangs and bends courtesy of British Airways, but apart from that it was very quickly ready to go and I was getting very eager to get in the air. I spent sunrise and sunset flying under power, but in the afternoon the winds would pick up and I would enjoy soaring the towering red dunes without the need of an engine, dragging my bare feet through the hot sand. Mid afternoon it tends to get too windy to fly, so we would open up our roof tents and enjoy a siesta in our cool, shady tents before setting off for a final sunset flight under power.
As ideal as all of this sounds there were some scary moments as the wind does get very strong and it can turn on very suddenly. On a few occasions I would be soaring along quite happily and then quite suddenly out of nowhere I found myself getting blown over the back of the dune and having to land any way I could on the lee-side of the hill. The dessert winds can be very strong and really seem to come from nowhere. I think that the best piece of advice I can offer anyone who would like to fly in Namibia is to be sure that you are confident in reading the sky, or go with someone who is.
All of my favourite flights were on the tandem. I have always found that special moments are half as memorable when experienced alone and whenever I found myself flying solo without another buddy flying next to me it just felt like something was missing. Most of the launches were off the flat with just a good breeze to help and even though I have logged over 2,500 tandem flights, this was actually the first time that I have ever flown tandem under power but, thankfully, it all went very smoothly. What was really quite nice was flying solo with a 250cc engine. Having the extra power was really great and I was able to get some great height gains in a very short time.
As we headed north, leaving Sossusvlei behind us we entered the grasslands. The first part of the Savannahs that we entered was an area called Kuiseb Canyon, which is not so much a canyon but a huge area of rolling small hills no more than 50 meters high. As we sped along the dusty road that wound through this strange landscape we decided that it would be great to see it from the air. It was getting close to sunset so we just pulled over, whipped out the glider and the motor and within 10 minutes we were flying over the most stunning African landscape. This particular evening flight was probably my favourite of the whole trip. I can’t explain why…it just was. We landed next to the truck just before the sun finally disappeared and before we put anything away, Mike pulled out the fold up chairs and I grabbed some cold beers from the fridge. We sat and watched the sun set…just perfect!
Another one of my favourite flights was in the middle of nowhere in the heart of the Savannah grasslands. I can’t tell you what it was called…the nearest place on our map was an animal watering hole called Ganab. We had left our camp spot in the Kuiseb at sunrise and it was still early morning when we had just seen a group of Zebra running away from us and then a gigantic vulture already thermalling above in the early morning heat. The landscape was of endless golden grass as far as the eye could see. It had to be done. We pulled over and again within 10 minutes we were climbing high above one of the most incredible sights I have ever seen. It looked like flying over an ocean with dotted dessert islands, except that the ocean was yellow. I have never seen such a flat landscape that just seems to go on forever. If man once thought you could sail to the horizon and drop off the edge of the world, as I peered down I felt that the same would happen if you walked to the end of this boundless flat countryside below me.
The biggest problem with flying in Namibia is the dust devils. On several occasions I would take-off on a downwinder with Mike following me with the truck. It was a really great way to travel. I would fly for miles switching from power to free flight and back to power again, whilst always flying on a downwind course and always having my support vehicle in sight. I would fly low over little villages in the middle of nowhere with hundreds of kids rushing to see what all the noise was about. Some of them would wave like mad whilst others were clearly too stunned to do anything but stare. Usually I would cut these wonderful flights short as I started to see the powerful dust devils swirling around all about me. In the afternoon these dusties were very common and it was only when one ripped through the jeep whilst we were driving that I realised just how powerful they really are. As it came right through the open windows of the car I struggled to keep control as we sped along.
But it was not a dust devil that nearly killed me in Namibia. It was an elephant. It happened in the northern territories of the Kalahari. We were now starting to get quite far north having flown in total over 250 miles in less than a week and I had just decided to land after another turbulent flight. The air was getting very rough and I had decided to carry on that afternoon in the car with Mike. It is very rare to see desert elephants and so we both got very excited when we saw a large herd slowly crossing the track ahead of us. As we sat on the roof of our truck I couldn’t believe it…my camera had stopped working. I desperately wanted a picture of the first elephants I had ever seen, (if I had known then how many hundreds I would see in just a few days time once we got to Etosha I wouldn’t have worried about the camera). Finally as the last elephant came by only 50 feet from where we sat with eyes wide open, my camera started to work again. The herd had looked so unbothered by our presence and they appeared so harmless as they gently plodded by that I thought it would be ok to follow them by foot, at a safe distance of course, and try to get the photo that I had missed. In my excitement I stupidly found myself alone and over a hundred meters from our jeep when the Bull elephant decided that he felt threatened and charged me. It is the only time in my life that I truly thought my time had come! I got lucky and he stopped the charge…had he not, there is absolutely no way that I could have out run him. It was a really stupid thing to do and I am very lucky to tell the tale. We were starting to get close to the region of Etosha and it was a reminder that soon we would need to stop flying as we were starting to get into lion territory and this experience had made me realise that there are many animals to watch out for other than the big cats. Africa had just taught me another lesson.
The Namibian people were as wonderful and colourful as their country. The children were beautiful too and we often picked up kids who were hitching sometimes 50 miles to go to school. We had a crazy football match with some boys on a dusty pitch in what felt like a village that time had forgotten all about and everywhere we went, we were met with welcoming smiles and lots of interest.
Namibia is a great country for a paramotorist to visit. There is definitely some good free flying here, but if you are interested in flying over a more diverse landscape of which Namibia has so much to offer, a paramotor is essential.