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Manilla 1999

Carl's first

Carl's first

We’d been hearing a few things about this purported Australian paragliding paradise, enough to whet our appetites, how great the XC was, perfect flat-land flying and so on. Then Godfrey Wennes flew his incredible 335km record flight and the tickets were booked within a week.

Carl and I had been slowly working on our flying skills, both catching up from where we had left off. Here was the test. If you don’t already know, Mt Borah is situated in the heart of NSW’s “Big Sky Country”, thousands of square miles of flatlands all around the mountain, which is launchable in almost all directions. Our first day, there is a Westerly. We meet Godfrey, get our memberships sorted, and take our first ride up the hill in Godfrey’s “basher”, his ancient Land Cruiser. The launch couldn’t be easier to use, I scratch around on the ridge for ten minutes or so and then the vario starts going crazy. An inversion makes things rough at about 1500m, I hunt around, relocate the core, punch through and voila, 1897m on the dial and the vistas stretch out endlessly. “Oh my God!”, this land is huge, and I don’t have a GPS. I can see Lake Keepit, the hill, Manilla, endless countryside, but where the hell is the LZ? After fifteen minutes of cruising around in smooth zeroes, I glide down to Godfrey’s to land. Wow!

Looking down the thermal

Looking down the thermal

A couple of unflyable days followed, complete with the earthbound depressions that brings. I have a couple of bad days, flopping into one of the bomb-out paddocks flight after flight. I’m dressed for cloudbase, but I’m in the bomb-out. Manilla is telling me “You’re a bad pilot, you’re a bad pilot”. Others are skying out, flying XC, and I’m always in the bomb-out. Nothing works, I can’t find the lift, I can’t time the cycles, I can’t stay in the thermals. My friends want to take my belt and shoelaces from me. Then it happens one afternoon, I get up in a smooth thermal, over the back and float around the valley somewhere downwind of Godfrey’s house, and it is just “on”. Everything is going off and the next thing I know I’m back over the main road heading North on the record route to Queensland. I take a glide, not caring how far I get, and investigate a ploughed paddock at 100m or so. I hook into good lift taking me back up to 2039m and another few kilometers North. Again and again we repeat this pattern, flying past Split Rock Dam almost at base, until the last paddock doesn’t work and I land. Our Hangie friend, Dr Al, pulls up and offers a ride back to town. “Where am I?” I ask, and he tells me I’m 30km from Borah. My first XC flight!, I run around whooping and yelling until I remember he hardly ever flies less than a hundred and decide to calm down a bit…Dr. Al tells me he’s landed in that same paddock a dozen times. Finally the farmer had come out to ask why everyone lands there, what’s so attractive about it….Damn!, I’ve landed in a notorious suck-hole.

The next day I fly 100km in a T-shirt. Expecting nothing, I launch into the tail of a sink cycle, float off to a spur that has worked well before. Yes, its on and up I go after one of the good Japanese pilots. We head off down the ridge with about 1600m and find nothing but sink until leaving the slopes to check out the last paddock on the West side. Joichi turns into popcorn and I get over there asap to emulate him. We head up the valley with some altitude on our varios and soon enough catch sight of some other gliders a few clouds ahead marking the lift. Joichi has disappeared looking for something stronger than the steady 2-3m/s I’m in, and I don’t see him again. My thermal kicks into gear and starts peaking at 5m/s when I can core it. I top out at 2663m and take a glide.

Gliding toward Barraba

Gliding toward Barraba

When I find my the next thermal I still have over a thousand meters altitude and ride it for the fun of it. Carl has taught me a technique for finding the core and it seems to work. I turn to see two, no three other gliders chasing me. The lift is huge and smooth and I fly hands off for the last few hundred meters so I can photograph Andrea following me up the thermal as I circle on weight-shift alone. It is just a bit cold under a cloud at that height so I bail out of there at 2500m or so and head on North.

There passes the paddock that had sucked me back to earth yesterday, but I’ve spotted another likely trigger and am sailing high above it today.
In the distance lies the town of Barraba which is about 35km from Borah. I think I’ll be happy to land there so I just head straight for the town via some ploughed paddocks on the way. I get to Barraba at over 2000m and spend a little time circling and taking pictures, identifying the airstrip, the racetrack etc. before deciding, “What the hell”, and looking North toward the next town, Bingara, about 60km away.

Bingara up ahead

Bingara up ahead

Everything is going so well, the whole town is lifting, why spoil it now? The other pilots have overtaken me and I let them point out the lift for a while. Two of them race off and leave Robbo and I to savor a low save over a huge paddock at the start of the valley. Replenished with height, Robbo sets off over the ridge to the East while I play it safe and stick to the road. It might be cold up here, but that last save reminded me how hot it still is down there (we heard later it was 44C in the shade) and I don’t want to have to walk very far in that heat, thank you very much. Robbo is now parallel with me in the valley to the East and we fly along comparing our luck and judgement.

There ahead now lies Bingara with it’s pubs and chip shops beckoning, just a few more kilometers now. Andrea and Richard are now scratching around low near Bingara and Robbo is having a hard time crabbing around to where the two rivers meet.

I’m still at over 2000m and there’s lift everywhere. Remembering that the 100km mark is a bridge past town, near the airstrip, I start to realize I might actually make it. I fly off with big ears on because it’s getting cold, past the town and sure enough, there’s the bridge, 7km away. I fly over to it in lift heading into a growing cloud just to the North and take my proof photos. All the while I’m looking North up the road carving through forest and not a house in sight, I decide I’m hungry and need to pee really badly.

Turning into wind and out of the lift, the sink alarm sounds and I descend into a large paddock just 2km from town 4 hours and 45 minutes after launching. I’d kiss the ground but it’s covered in thistles, so I piss on it instead, sort of marking my spot. Noel the farmer drives up in his Ute as I’m doing up my buttons and asks where the hell I just came from. “Manilla!”, I shout and he just says “Fair dinkum mate!”.

The bridge 100km north of Borah

The bridge 100km north of Borah

I want to collapse laughing as I didn’t think that Aussies really said that, but I manage to control myself and have a coherent, if exited conversation with him. Noel is kind enough to run me the rest of the way back to town, straight to the pub where the other pilots are waiting and will now have to listen to me raving for the next few hours until our drivers show up….

As a form of pennance, I had a tree landing on my next flight after flying leeside and hitting huge sink and strong wind I couldn’t punch into just after launch from the East take-off. Luckily, it was a pine instead of a gum tree and the only damage done was to my ego.

A few days later we flew late in strong wind and OD’ing sky heading for Boggabri to the West. Up top the wind was more SE and Dave and I ended up getting blown away from the Gunnedah Gap and more directly toward Narrabri. The lift was very strong and fighting off collapses, I failed to notice how quickly the cloud was developing. The next thing I knew I was in the cloud with only 2000m on the vario. I had to take a huge handfull and flew along in strong turbulence for ten minutes with about six cells open and full speed bar on, still going up, before getting out of the cloud. The whole time I’d been terrified that Dave would suddenly appear from the murk flying straight at me. It took about 10 minutes to get the feeling back in my fingers, I’d held the ears in that long.

We both had a couple of low saves before reaching the ridge about 30km out that we’d have to cross in order to make it to Narrabri. I found a good thermal even though it was quite overcast now but looking up at the big black cloud it was leading into, decided to land rather than take the chance. Dave flew off North toward the National Park there. The wind was now so strong I had to land with speed on until the last moment. A 7km walk was the reward for this cowardice, but I got picked up after waiting just ten minutes by the main road. I was reminded of something Dr. Al had said: “It’s better to be on the ground, wishing you were in the air, than the other way around.”

Another few days pass either unflyable due to weather or my own incompetance before another XC happens.

FreeX Flair + tree

FreeX Flair + tree

This is one those days that usually defeats me. Five pilots will launch together, one will sky out and the rest will bomb. I’m always one of the four that bomb, and I’ve been watching this transpire all morning. This day though we all scratch around and go down, get back up, drop out of lift, scratch back up again, until I find the thermal of the day and disappear into the sky as if shot from a cannon. I’m cranked over at an insane angle, the vario is off the scale. Later, even the hangies congratulate me for it. Up and away, over the back, and then off up the valley on may favorite heading, North. About 10km out, I’m flying in lift that’s almost horizontal, just flying downwind until the vario slows, then making a 360 before the thermal overtakes me, and keeping going North. On one leg I’m looking ahead to a paddock that’s not failed me yet, it’s my friend. As I pass I make a 360 to see my position over it and there is a huge dust devil crossing the paddock, maybe 50 feet accross. I have just enough time to think “Oh shit!” and put on a little more brake pressure before the whole front of the canopy disappears and I am launched vertically toward the stratosphere. I managed to make a few turns before being spat out at 2143m and honestly thought the vario’s speaker would break the pitch was that high. A few kilometers later, I see Richard circling desperately over the paddock I landed in on my first XC, waiting, waiting, hoping his shadow will set it off. It’s not to be, and he lands. I managed to buck along almost to Barraba in bumpy, broken lift. There’s one last ploughed paddock, and I circle around until I’m so low I’m afraid of setting off a dusty and I cruise over to a grassy one and land there. That’s when the race horses come bolting out from under their tree and scream around the paddock while I nervously pack up. I’m in such a hurry to get out of there untrampled that I fail to notice the fence is electrified and end up on my back with arms that are numb to the shoulder. I get a lift into town for a meal of fish & chips and once fed, walk back out to the road and start hitching. Brian lands about 500m further along than I had on his Spark Pro, so I don’t feel too bad about only making 30 odd kilometers today. That is, until I get back and find out six Kiwi’s had flown over 100km that day, including Angus who did 231km!

In total I flew 14hrs 13mins in 17 flyable days out of 21 total, flew 200km, and achieved personal bests in altitude, duration and distance. If you haven’t been to Manilla, book your trip now. If you have, I’m sure you’ve already got the next visit planned.

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