Breaking Records at Rustenburg

And then breaking them again!!!

By Itamar Neuner[i]


Saturday was a bad day.  It was as if He Himself was intervening, as if He already had other plans, both for Saturday - and for Sunday.


Everything was just going wrong.  It began by our arriving late at the site, when the first paragliders had already taken-off.  By the time we got up the mountain there was nothing left in the air, and only after a lot of “para-waiting” a thermal finally came through, and the next group was able to launch.


I watched them for a while to make sure they stayed in the air.  Then I took-off myself.


Six minutes later I landed in the ‘Turkey-patch’ - as the landing zone is called here – enviously watching John and Andrea slowly climbing out, drifting to the west in the light wind.  I had a feeling - no, I actually knew – that they were out there to break the site record of 111 km, set by myself just under a year ago.


I was stuck at the ‘Turkey patch’ for two hours, watching with envy and frustration as the main gaggle of the day took-off and reached for the heavens.  By the time I managed to get back up the mountain the air had become dead again.  I had to wait for a long time, strapped in and sweating in the heat, until a puff came by and I was able to launch.


There was a small group of us in that weak thermal, and we were wasting too much time just drifting around, without really gaining any height.  So I decided to leave the gaggle and set off on my own.  Eleven and a half km later I was on the ground again, watching once more with envy and frustration, as the gaggle passed overhead at cloud base, slowly drifting in the northeasterly breeze.


By that time I had thoroughly made up my mind: I utterly hate Rustenburg.  You have to do so many Fooffies (as the South Africans call these hopeless six minute rides from top to bottom) before you get one good flight.  I just hate it!


*     *     *


I tried to get John on his cellphone around five o’clock in the evening. There was no reply, so I knew he was still in the air.  I also knew that he had broken my record. 


Early the next morning he came up to me at the clubhouse, and said: “Itamar, your record of 111 km? Well – no more.  Yesterday I flew133!”


- “Congratulations, John” – I said, actually happy to hear about it – “No records last for ever, and I don't feel like a record-holding person; it just doesn't suit me.  I also think it's appropriate that a South African should hold a South African distance record.”


*    *    *


Ulf, our weather expert, predicted that Sunday would have even worse flying conditions: high-pressure system, lower lapse rates and weaker thermals, if any at all.


And, indeed, it was already quite late by the time we finally managed to launch.  With the white, inverted, hazy, cloudless sky, it didn’t look as if anybody was going to do any real distance that day.  Just try and hold on to the weak broken thermals, strive to linger in the air as long as possible. 


I had thoroughly learnt my lesson of the previous day, and had decided: this time I stick with the gaggle!  I also wanted to help Marijke the best I could, by marking the thermals for her, and giving encouragement and advice, when needed.  After all, she deserved it: it was she who found the one and only thermal that enabled us to climb out after take-off.


Once our first thermal had faded away the gaggle scattered, each of us desperately searching for any scrap of lift.  And I found myself again gliding on my own towards the same place where I had landed the day before…


But then I found a bubble, not a real source of lift, just enough to hold me afloat.  Soon I was delighted to spot two gliders coming over to join: Marijke on her green Relax, and Laurence on his red Free-X Oxygen.  With the three of us acting together, we might manage to work the meager lift and find new thermals.


Laurence and I managed to work together as a proficient team for quite a while.  We watched each other carefully as we turned in the weak lift, shifting our circuit as the thermal slowly changed its location in the sky.  I – flying my Apco Allegra - would out-climb him in the thermals, and wait for him at the top.  Then he would go trotting along, on a glide faster than my own.


Marijke never made it to the top, and was limping along behind, struggling to remain aloft.  I tried to wait for her the best I could, staying with each thermal as long as possible to mark the lift for her.  But alas, I lost her.


Laurence and myself arrived over Koster with a good altitude of 4000m ASL.  There were so many roads and tracks spreading out from the town in all directions, that I wasn’t sure which one to follow.


- “You lead the way,” – I called out to him as we crossed tracks in a tight climb – “I don’t know this place, have no idea which way to go.” 


We took the tar road to Lichtenburg, and shortly afterwards set out on a long glide.  That is when I saw the last glimpse of Marijke, just about to land in the middle of no-where. (She didn’t; it was just one more of her low saves, and she managed to carry on, and set a new South African distance record for women: 111 km!!!).  Laurence was on my right, and loosing height fast in sinking air.


- “Look my way.  There’s less sink on my side of the sky” – I whispered.  But he was not looking, and just became smaller and smaller as he dropped out of the sky.  Later I was told that he had to go down and land, to save his marriage.  His wife, chasing him with their car, had had enough and wanted to go home…


Throughout the first two hours of the flight I managed to remain high, between 2500 and 4000 ASL. But now, without my teammate, I knew the chances to remain aloft in this hot and hazy day were not too good.  Also - a crosswind was setting in from the north, causing me to fly crab-like, skidding sideways on full speed-bar, drifting away from the tar road whenever I stopped to turn in a thermal.


I didn't like the idea of a long hike if I landed out.  So I slowly crept back to the road, loosing height and preparing to land.  I found a nice big ploughed field to land on, but then - a new thermal!  Hooking on and drifting downwind again, I noticed that the road had turned to the left.  Now I could drift with the wind again, without getting too far away from the road.  So I decided not to land, yet.


Setting off on my flight some three hours ago, I really had no intentions to break any records.  The sky certainly wasn’t looking at all like record-breaking sky, so I didn’t even bother to replace the batteries in my GPS, or reset the altitude recording on my Casio watch.  But now things were looking different.  Might it be possible to break my 111-km record today?   I looked at my watch: I’d done 80 kms in three hours, and it was nearly four o’clock.  'No – I whispered to myself - I reckon it's too late.  Just relax, carry on for a while, and enjoy the flight.'


By now I was approaching the city of Lichtenburg, trying to figure out whether to avoid the town to the right, or downwind to the left.  I was flying fast, doing more than 70 km/h on the glides, when the GPS showed 112 kms!  I had broken my personal distance record!  Congratulations!


Now what?  To go for it?  Try and outfly John's new site record?  Just one more good thermal, that’s all I needed!


I decided to pass the city on its down-wind side, to the left, and noticed that I was heading straight into the middle of an airport.  Not again?!!!  Last year I stopped my record-breaking flight, turned around and flew back into the wind, because I was approaching the restricted area around the airport at Zeerust.  Well, I was not going to turn around this time!!!  Just kept a good lookout, and kept on going, right over the end of the runway.


Like Koster, Lichtenburg has many roads leading in all directions.  Which one should I follow to make the best distance?   Turn left and run with the wind?  Or crab along the road that will take me farther away from take-off?


I've just finished a slow climb in what might be the last thermal of the day.  I have some altitude, and with the strong wind which is now blowing, if I stop crabbing sideways I might, just might, beat John’s new record!


Itamar, your record of 111 km?  Well – no more.  I did 133!”- John had said only this morning.  Wouldn’t it be fun to say to him tonight: “John, I’m sorry… but this new record of yours, well, you see, I didn’t really mean to, but…”


So – a long hike back it will be.  I stopped hugging the tar-road, turned my back to the wind and ran for it, right into the middle of nowhere.


The kilometers ticked fast on my GPS, as the last hundreds of meters of height run out: 130 km... 131, …132, and I am only two hundred meters above the ground, drifting fast over a huge ploughed field, heading straight into power lines at its end.   ...133 km from take-off, and I am down to a hundred meters above the field…


Then – 134 km!  And a new distance record for the Rustenburg site!


A tight turn into the wind to land, and immediately I realized my mistake: I had only just passed the 134 mark, and was now flying back into the 133rd kilometer!


I didn't.  I slowed down as much as I dared, and when I landed my GPS still showed 134.  At home checking the distance with GARtrip, the distance was 134.01 km!!!!!

[i] The author, Itamar Neuner 56, is a Captain for El-Al, Israel Airlines, and has been paragliding for eight years.  He lives in Israel and spends one weekend a month in South Africa.  He flies an Apco Allegra.


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