Three Wings & a Prayer-


Paragliders with Altitude.

My wife called my bluff for my 50th birthday. For several years I'd been commenting on fancying trying paragliding- now I had to do something about it. I'm fit but quite heavy, and 'big air' for me means two inches below my mountain bike tyres.
I persuaded three colleagues at Taunton School where I teach to give it a go, and we signed up for a weekend in Wiltshire at the Wiltshire Paragliding Centre. I'm a physicist running computers. Mark is a concert pianist & all-round musician. Mike is a high power mover & shaker of GNVQ & other educational activities. It was great fun, but seemed to involve much more running down steep grassy slopes- and staggering back- than I'd expected. There was an awful lot of waiting for good beginner air. We went back on a total of five days, & are very grateful to Dave Bullard & the other instructors, but it became obvious that we needed a longer & more intensive slot. We'd still spent only a few minutes in TOTAL airtime. It doesn't help that our 5 & a half day working weeks & Somerset base make last minute decisions to go flying rather difficult.
Perhaps better conditions abroad were the answer? The magazines & Internet gave us several leads, and we signed up via Butterfly in the Isle of Wight to go out to Spain for Easter 1999 to Parapente Tropicale based in Motril near Malaga. It was the best thing I've done in years!

April 9th- my birthday- saw us leap lightly (oh yeah?) off the plane in Malaga. Before long Neal turned up and it was off on the two hour trip East along the Costa Tropicale, via our first Spanish restaurant, to the Centre that Antonio Castro has created in Motril. Open terraces, neat double-bunk bedrooms, huge dining area, patios, pool, jacuzzi, pool table, video +satellite, bar. A puppy. A cat. Scented flowers. Real hell. Even a harness hanging ready for us to practice weight shifting, speed bars, & other exotic ideas, and hanging two metres from the pool & bar.

Antonio quizzed us on our experience- really only a few hops- and his heart must have sunk. But he seemed prepared to give us the benefit of the doubt. For the first days we were joined by a Spanish couple & Clive from the RAF in Gibraltar, & at times by Michel, a local. The rest of the time it was just us-three.

Next morning we went to a small beach site which allowed about 100m hops (along- perhaps 100ft vert.) Probably did about ten. We'd always done reverse launches before, & were getting used to Alpine launches, too. A bit distracting to have topless bathers in our landing area, but I was prepared to get used to it. I cooked ungracefully in the sun on the short carry-up. Needing long sleeves etc for protection did not help my heat control. We stopped in the shade through the heat of the day and ate the first of our excellent meals from Marisa's kitchen. Then off in the van and up a most improbable lane which snakes past the 99% of ground covering plastic greenhouses. Our hearts were distinctly fluttering as we summitted on a ridge 600ft above Carchuna beach & we were told that we were about to fly solo down it. On with the gear- including the radios. 'Run, run, RUNNNN' and Mike was away. Antonio talked him down to a stage where Marisa took over from the beach. Then Mark & me. My radio had worked OK at check, but I heard nothing- Oh Well, follow the flight plan. Out over the coastal dual carriageway, over the first swimming pool, left-hand-down-a-bit, & fly along the sandy beach & land. Pure pleasure. Talk about big grins as we rejoined each other. Back up in the van for more.. More... Please!!! Por favor!

Now home? No, lets call at a tapas bar and have a beer and some fishy nibbles. Smart. Back to base. We had done a deal with Marisa to have packed lunches & three evening meals as well as the included breakfasts. Excellent value. But also in the evening we had theory sessions with Antonio, or another helper, Rene. Half Tibetan, excellent English & Spanish, and brilliant value on meteorology & principles of flight. Very chastening to teachers to become pupils & have to take an exam, but he made it a pleasure. On the nights Marisa was not cooking we went in to Motril to a Chinese, Spanish or Pizza bar. Typically about 11 o clock, & home about 1am. We'd half expected to need to hire a car, but Antonio just chucked us the keys. We even managed to find our way through the farm tracks and drive on the correct side- or not, sometimes.

Each day we got up to breakfast at 09-30, then Antonio used his judgment to take us to a suitable site out of about 50 he uses. He was limited by our beginner-level abilities, but we had complete confidence in him. He checked us thoroughly, & was always prepared to stop & wait for conditions. While we were not flying at lunchtime he sometimes had a quick sky-god pootle around to show us how it can & should be done. Othertimes he went into a guru-like trance. Usually after something like my messed up tandem descent (What WERE you doing' was about the mildest of his comments. His second worst tandem flight ever. Whoops. But the worst had been one where one of the two carabiners was detached by his passenger as they took off.) Or Mike 'I can fly down the power cables & keep turning at -10 feet AGL Antonio kept his cool throughout, & his excellent English savoured phrases like 'Forty winks' pronounced with a bit of a vowel shift.

The British ideas of weather behaviour soon disappeared, from observation & from Rene & Antonio's lessons. Nearly all was thermal-driven onshore, with the high sitting over Spain controlling little. Rapidly freshening mid-morning winds pushed above our abilities some days, so we went from site to site to try to catch speed or direction right, or to just get a feel for the possibilities. Everything up to 13km flights from hill to coast & 2000m of descent are possible from various sites. Forest fire-breaks and dirt tracks led to all sorts of possibilities. Salobrena-Eucalyptus. Colorado. Lovely names, lovely sites.

The first washed out day started with Antonio flying down a tandem paasenger in rather big on-shore lift to a tiny beach. His big-ears descent was hastened by standing on top of his passenger (allegedly) but still ended in the edge of the surf to avoid beach occupants. Meant he owed us a drink, anyway. We then went off for a tour of the area by car- all those greenhouses make it weird. At least you could in emergency land on their roofs... And being at sea level one instant, with grape vines in full leaf- then shortly after up in the hills and vines just shooting, is disconcerting. Glorious smells of aromatic thyme & rosemary & lots of late spring flowers, too.

Other sites include La Herradura, where we made some descents over the hotels to the beach again. As the wind freshened & we desisted we watched the visiting German sky gods soar along the cliffs & trees. Bit distracting when one badly misjudged the landing approach & full-frontalled into the palm tree of a beach restaurant. Sobering stuff. Quick dive in the water took my mind off it- hot air indeed, but quite cool in the sea. We tried the take off site again, but after watching some others, one of whom did a spectacular abort & crash on take off went elsewhere.

Big mountains. Oh yes. Granada is tucked beside the biggies of Mulhacen & Veleta at 3482 metres, & people were still skiing at Sol y Nieve. Mid morning it rained as we drove up- the kind of frontal shower that would llast 24 hours here. We killed time through the mid-day in a tapas bar & looking at minor things like the Alhambra. It was dry within 30 minutes! We had hoped to fly from Alcafar, Marisa's new home & potential hang & paragliding base in the National Park North of the Nevada range, but wind was too gusty. MARVELLOUS site. 50m from the 'Fuente Grande' source of the water for the Alhambra. We'll be back, I hope. Spot on for walking, mountain biking, caving, etc. Just call Antonio...

Antonio was apologetic that we hadn't flown all days- but we'd expected five days & some of that to be impossible for us, & were content if frustrated. And Butterfly include a day on the Isle of Wight for follow-up. On the flight home it was great to come over the Needles & Solent & see from a rather un-beginner-ish height what we may have in store.

By the third day we felt up to watching 'Touching Cloudbase' again, & felt we were pretty much in command at that beginner level. By day 6 we risked watching Jock's 'Instability' & scared ourselves. Into the 'flight simulator' rig by the pool & practice recovery techniques..... And a nice video of last season's flying at Motril. Who WAS the guy blown back off the top landing & turned into a human tent, then?

Last day- final exam. Helped by my Physics background, & for Mark confused by slightly conflicting microlight theory. Very nervous, but we all passed easily (he bluffed). Had to get a few wrong to convince others we had not cheated... BHPA could perhaps improve the questions, which we sometimes found confusing or ambiguous- but we had been well prepared. Thanks Rene & Antonio.

On day three we had used the local Internet cafe to e-mail assorted loved ones with information on our robust state of health, colossal progress, & the odd digital pic of our activities taken with our Sony Mavica camera. SUCH a shame to rub it in for those left home & working... Antonio has phone & fax, & is developing his website. (see earlier link)

We did have concentration problems coming home. Queued for the wrong flight. Courtesy bus did not stop at our car park area at Gatwick. But reading papers in the plane about weather in the UK made up for it. SNOW in Taunton!- the only snow in the last 12 months here, at sea level!! And us with our loverly tans...

We've yet to make Club Pilot, but Butterfly give us another day on the Isle of Wight. So perhaps real soon???? We're certainly really hooked.
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