Glider pilots worldwide know that South Africa has wonderful soaring weather, and it doesn’t get better than the 800km-plus flying area east of Bloemfontein in the Free State, all the way to Aliwal North, Victoria West and on to Tswalu Kalahari Game Reserve in the Northern Cape.

Did you know?

The Gariep Dam, completed in 1971, is the largest dam in South Africa. 'Gariep' is an ancient San word for 'great water'.

Gliding (also known as soaring) involves flying an unpowered aircraft that makes use of air currents to stay airborne. At an altitude of 12 000 feet (3 700m), you are alone in the sky, communing only with the clouds and riding updrafts and downdrafts over hundreds of kilometres.

Glider pilots will tell you there is no better feeling, which is why they travel the world in search of the magical trough line (where dry and wet air meet and clouds develop – perfect for gliding).

‘Plenty of glider pilots from Europe and the United States come to South Africa in November, December and January to experience our magnificent conditions,’ says Martin Lessle, who headed the Gariep Gliding Centre in the Gariep Dam area of the Free State from 2005 to 2012.

Martin, who says soaring is in his blood (his father brought him up on gliding), is now based at the airfield in Douglas, 100km south-west of Kimberley in the Northern Cape, because he has seen the trough line move closer to Kimberley each year.

‘It’s definitely to do with changing climates. There is still great gliding in Gariep, but it’s good to have options.'

The beauty for glider pilots coming to South Africa from Europe in the summer is that there is only one hour’s time difference, which means they don’t need to acclimatise. Those coming from different time zones, such as the United States, need about two days to reset their clock.

‘The pilots from overseas visit for about a week, and we have eight good gliders available for hire at an average of R12 000 per week,’ he says. ‘We are also well equipped with gear and we have a good tug aeroplane to get them launched,’

Flying an average of eight hours without fuel is an incredible feat. ‘You literally feel on top of the world,’ he explains. ‘For me – and it’s the same for most gliders – the most exciting experience is a very long task: flying far and high. In our air space, “far” is currently 800km and in 2013 we’re aiming for 1 000km.’

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