Para-waiting at Mt. Tabor

By

Itamar Neuner

 

 

It's winter here in Israel, and a cold and wet one too. But today is a brilliant sun-shiny day, and quite a few pilots have turned up, hoping to fly, but not too optimistic.

 

We are at Mt. Tabor, our main paragliding site. This is an isolated, 588 m' high, round dome of a mountain, protruding above the vast stretches of the Plain of Jezraa'el. It was here at Mt. Tabor that the Biblical Hebrew General Barak son of Avinoam, led by the prophetess Debora, gathered 10,000 men, to fight against the Canaanite army, led by King Jabin and his captain, Sisera. (Judges 4). This is also the place where Jesus preached the "Sermon on the Mount".

 

We have four different launch sites on the Tabor, facing all directions except east. The main take-off faces west. This is where we have gathered today, because the forecast was for a fresh westerly breeze, together with good lapse rates and thermal activity. This forecast is prepared specially for us, paid for by our association, and transmitted over our telephone information service by Tallie. Tallie, a small and quiet girl, is now hiding under a tree, not wanting to be blamed for her forecast not having materialized. Apparently an updated forecast was issued in the morning, but Tallie didn't update the recording.

 

This telephone information service of ours, is extremely useful in helping us decide which site to fly from. Starting early in the morning people phone in, reporting flying conditions at various sites. These reports are analyzed by Kobi, who then leaves a recording on the telephone, giving an evaluation of the flying conditions at each site. Choosing where to fly becomes so much easier using this information.

 

It has been a wet and rainy winter. The Tabor is covered with a beautiful green carpet, speckled with red and white anemones, and timid pink cyclamen. The Plains of Jezraa'el - stretching out to the distant range of Mount Carmel in the west - are all drenched in mud. And the sun, so essential for good flying, is way down low in the south, providing hardly any warmth at all.

 

A dozen hangliders are already assembled, spread out over the whole take-off area. The air is motionless and dead, not a bird or a puff of cloud is to be seen anywhere in the skies above.

 

So we do what paragliding pilots do all over the world: We para-wait.

 

Pilots gather around in small groups, telling stories, gossiping. One such group is deep into a noisy discussion about the censorship in our Safety Forum web site. This six-month-old forum is doing wonders in improving our flight safety. Anything that is not strictly about flying is kept out of the forum, and there's an unrelenting censor to do the job. There is always somebody offended at having his jabbering removed by the censor, and the arguments persist.

 

On a rocky escarpment behind, the discussion is about Humus. Humus a paste made of chick-peas and sesame, served on a plate with olive-oil and pine-cone nuts - is our national dish. It might easily be the healthiest fast-food in the world. After flying we always stop to "wipe" a Humus. You don't "eat" a Humus; you wipe it off the plate with pita bread. And there's always the argument which restaurant serves the best Humus?

 

A pair of brand new and shiny four-by-four city-jeeps drive off the twisting road right into the middle of our launch site, where a few canopies are laid out. Their occupants dandy, dude, and chubby, with a horde of noisy children, get out and start asking their silly questions:

 

"What are you guys doing here?"

 

"We are paraglider pilots. But we cannot fly right now because there is no wind, and also because you are parked right in the middle of our runway!"

 

This information is enough for them to become experts on the subject. Now they start explaining to their wives and children all about paragliding, describing how we "use these parachutes to jump off the mountain."

 

"Daddy, how long can they stay in the air?"

 

"Oh, three or four minutes at the most, but it's a great thrill!"

 

In the end they address us with the inevitable and most typical question an Israeli will ask, and the only one they cannot provide an answer for: "Tell me please: how much does it all cost?"

 

Its already past twelve o'clock. Yuval decides to give it a try. Yuval always carries a big iron of a gun on his hip, saying that here in The Wild East one always has to be well prepared for anything that might happen. A few minutes later Yuval is at the bottom, himself and his big iron on his hip. Nobody else dares try.

 

Mickey has brought out a gas stove and is preparing coffee for us all, the special kind of coffee we drink here in Israel, called Botz, meaning mud, mud coffee: ground coffee with sugar and cardamom. After you pour it out, you have to wait for the mud to settle, before you can drink it.

 

* * *

 

Not too far away to the north-west lies the city of Nazareth. Here, almost two thousand years ago, a short, dark-haired and dark-eyed Jewish preacher named Yeshua was fleeing from his prosecutors. He fled south into the surrounding hills, the last and most southern of which is a steep cliff, dropping down to the Valley of Jezraa'el. Flying conditions then must have been much better than today's: using a light southerly breeze Jesus launched, gained some height, and made the first cross-country ever in this ancient and troubled land. He top-landed some 8 km to the east, right here on Mt Tabor. And here - according to a Christian legend dating from the 4th century, he went through the process of his Transfiguration.

Ever since, the hill where He took-off is called "The Mountain of the Leap". And where he top-landed on the Tabor two monasteries were erected, to commemorate His flight and Transfiguration.

 

Mount Tabor is renowned for being an excellent thermal machine, and so it is our main flying site. From here we fly our regular 25 km summer "Milk-Run" to the east, passing over the point where the Jordan River runs out of the Sea-of-Galilee. This is believed to be the place where Jesus was baptized.

 

We normally land on the eastern coast of the Sea-of-Galilee, 210 meters below sea level. This is where the Apostles saw Jesus walking upon the waters.

 

You can continue farther east into the Golan Heights if you like, but not for long. In Israel you bump into borders if you fly too far, and the people at the other side might not be too friendly

 

If you fly north from the Tabor you pass over Capharnaum, on the NW coast of the Sea-of-Galilee. This is where Jesus began to preach, teach, and heal the sick, and where He preached the "Lake Sermon".

 

One can fly north 60 km, right up into the northern tip of our tiny country. But you will have hostile territory on every side: Syria will be on your east, Lebanon on your west, and if you come down and land too close to these sensitive borders you have a good chance to be met by very inquisitive Israeli security forces.

 

The greatest potential for long distant flights from the Tabor lies to the south. This is where the Israeli foot-launch record was set, flying some 98.2 km south along the Jordan Valley, landing beyond Jericho, on the shore of the Dead Sea. We used to fly this route until two years ago, when trouble broke out and the area became too dangerous to fly.

 

Flying south you will find your second thermal over Mt Gilboa, where we have an easterly winter site. This is where King Saul was defeated in a war against the Philistines, and lost all three of his sons, Jonathan, Abinadab and Malchi-shua. Saul, rather than being taken captive by his foes, fell on his sword and died. (Sam. 31:1)

 

After Saul died in Mt. Gilboa, the Philistines attached his body to the wall at BethShe'an. You fly over BethShe'an, with it's large Roman theater, ancient colonnaded streets paved with basalt stones, and continue south to The Jordan Valley.

 

The Jordan Valley is a strip approximately 100 km long situated between the Sea-of-Galilee and the Dead-Sea. The river itself has carved a deep and winding path through the center of the valley, a green strip of vegetation on the white desert soil. This is the most beautiful part of your flight, as you pass over a scenery that has remained unchanged for the last 2000 years.

 

* * *

 

It's getting late, and my friends are talking about hurrying home to save their marriages. We agree that 13:30 will be the last time to try to take off.

 

I know what the right tactics should be for a day like this: Get into my warm clothes, strap in and wait for someone else to launch. Trouble is, as soon as I do so all the others assume I am volunteering to be the next "wind-dummy", and they all gather around to see me go down. So, having done all my preparations I lie down under one of the hangliders, pretending to doze off.

 

But people are not convinced; they know me too well. So I find an area to spread out between the hangliders, and stand there waiting, sweating in the sun.

 

The air is dead, not a branch is moving, not a bird in sight, and it's nearly half past one. I tell my friends to meet me in ten minutes at the bottom, and off I go.

 

Once airborne, I turn immediately to the left, following the curve of this great dome of a mountain. My friends see me disappear beyond the pine trees, and tell me on the radio that they are on their way down.

 

I find a bird, and a thermal, hook in and up I go, in an ever increasing climb to the heavens, heading for a small Cumulus which is developing above the monastery. As I indulge in the beautiful music coming from my vario, I see the frenzied activity at take-off: dozens of people are rushing around all over the place, spreading out canopies or strapping in to hangliders. But with no apparent wind most of those who manage to get airborne, end up at the foot of the mountain a few minutes later.

 

I am luckier, much luckier. While I see all this turmoil I continue my steady climb, cooling off as I reach the cloud. Soon I am at 2000 m. ASL, and more than any other time before, I admire the views of my tiny country. To the west lies Mount Carmel, the city of Haifa with the ships lying idle in the bay outside the harbor; to the north the Galilee, and the immense massif of Mount Hermon, divided between Lebanon, Syria and Israel; to the east the Sea of Galilee lying beneath the Golan Heights; and to the south Samaria and the Jordan valley, stretching all the way down to the Dead-Sea. This would be the direction to follow if one is ever to set a new distance record.

 

I wonder whether we will ever be able to fly again over these ancient and troubled lands.

 

 


Itamar Neuner , 58, is an airline captain. He lives in Israel and flies an Apco Presta.

 

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