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.’

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

Martin Lessle
Cell: +27 (0)82 442 5584

How to get here

The Gariep Dam is about 650 km (or about seven to eight hours' drive) from Johannesburg and about 200km from Bloemfontein (about two hours' drive). The Gariep area to Douglas is about 280km, or three hours by road. The trip from Johannesburg to Douglas is about 615km – at least seven hours' drive. Kimberley to Douglas is 100km, which will take you about an hour to drive. Johannesburg to Kimberley is 480km – a five-hour drive at least. Bloemfontein to Kimberley is 164km, a drive of about an hour and a half.

Best time to visit

November, December and January are the best gliding months.

Around the area

Both the Gariep Dam area and the town of Douglas offer excellent water sports and outdoor activities, such as game viewing and fishing.

Get around

Self-drive. Kimberley has an airport and car-hire facilities.

What will it cost

It costs about R12 000 to hire a glider for a week. You'll have to factor in transport (such as hiring a car) and accommodation on top of that.

Length of stay

One week for gliding and a few extra days to explore the area.

What to pack

Gliding gear. But if it is difficult to travel with it, speak to Martin Lessle as he has gear for hire.

Where to stay

There is a choice of guest houses and B&Bs in both the Gariep Dam and Douglas areas (the Gariep Dam is in the Free State; Douglas is in the Northern Cape). Ask Martin Lessle to advise according to your budget.

What to eat

Most of the accommodation options in South Africa offer meals, and breakfast is almost always included in overnight rates. Alternatively, you can purchase food at the local supermarkets.

What's happening

The area offers much for visitors, including game viewing, fishing and river rafting.

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