13 April 2014

Ballito, South Africa

Friday, 21 March

It’s finally the start of my first proper holiday in about a year. Needless to say I was excited to get away and do nothing. The next 4 days would be spent watching planes, and soaking up the warm sun of Ballito.

An evening flight to Durban had me checking out the sunset from the air, and what a beautiful sunset it was. The two hour flight went by quickly, much faster than my flights to Johannesburg (‘cause it’s not such a great place).

Port Elizabeth in the distance

We touched down at King Shaka International under the cover of dark. The last time I was here was around October Last year, and I didn’t get to see much of the area. Well, I couldn’t see much now, and would need to wait until morning to explore.


Saturday, 22 March

Time for the first Aerobatic Grand Prix, held on North Beach in Durban. A taxi ride from Ballito to Durban had us seated and ready for the action just after 10:00 at the Joe Cools bar. The group I was with are mostly from Stellenbosch, so we were eager to soak up the aerobatics and jet noise, considering airshows have ceased to exist in the Western Cape.

The Silver Falcons performed, as did the Gripen (ooooohhhh, that noise!), the various competitors in the competition did their thing, there was an L29 display, P-51 Mustang, Yak formation, A319 and Silver Falcons, and an Oryx also stopped by later during the day.

The competitors often had us remarking at how low they were recovering from manoeuvres, and how they seemed to be struggling with the strong wind. We all eagerly awaited the freestyle event, and were blown away by Phillip Steinbach’s performance (even though we were rooting for our fellow South Africans).

The final results were:
1) Francois Le Vot - France
2) Patrick Davidson - South Africa
3) Mikhail Mamistov - Russia
4) Nigel Hopkins - South Africa
5) Philip Steinbach – Germany

After the show I explored Durban proper. The last time I was there was about 7 years ago, and even then it was only for a short time, so I didn’t remember much of it. It has the marks of an old, once-grand city, which has deteriorated over time. The streets aren’t particularly clean, and the buildings are worn down. There are many stark contrasts; buildings that are falling apart (and probably condemned) built onto modern blocks of flats.

Durban Stadium

Sunday, 23 March

An early start had me waking up just in time to see the sun rising above a layer of mist out to sea. What a sight. Come 07:00 we were on our way to the Ballito Airfield, about a 15 minute drive away. The drive alone was stunning; winding roads with sugar cane on either side, and rolling hills in the distance.
The short dirt road to the airfield is closely lined with sugar cane, and I can’t help but wonder what it must be like to cycle or ride a motorbike along these sort of roads.

We pulled in to the airfield ‘parking lot’, and I took in the sight of my entertainment for the morning... a blue Aquilla microlight. The last time I had flown in a microlight was somewhere between 5 and 7 years ago, out of Fisantekraal Airfield back in the Western Cape. I loved it then, and hoped I would love it now (that I was older and a little wiser).

^If you don't feel like reading the next few paragraphs, just watch the video and read on from the photo below. 

Seated behind the pilot, the only thing securing me was a single lap-strap. Nothing to hold on to, and only a pair of goggles to keep the bugs out of my eyes (and nothing to keep them out of my teeth). We bumbled down the grass runway, the 2-stroke engine behind me working furiously. And then we were in the air, the take-off similar to that of a gyrocopter, and climbing to 900ft at a remarkably rapid rate.

We set course for the coast, ground features becoming more detailed as the remains of the coastal mist burnt off as the sun continued its ascent, warming the earth. There is nothing like the feeling of an open cockpit, and it’s made even better in a microlight because there is nothing restrictive, or confining, like in a Tiger Moth for example.

I gazed at the sugar cane below me, and all the dirt roads and tracks, some of which looked to be very well graded. Perfect for the motorbike. To Do List: Roadtrip to Ballito on the DR.

As we cleared the VFR corridor (set up to keep King Shaka International happy, as the Ballito Airfield is quite close to the main airport), I was asked if I would like to have a go at flying the wing. I figured, heck, why not? And grasped the handles, stating “I have control” in my most convincing voice (I was nervous, I’m not going to lie), while silently telling myself ‘Just remember, it’s opposite to everything you know; pull back to go down, and push forward to go up’. What I didn’t realise is that left and right were also reversed, and I soon found out how much I took the rudder in the tin cans I fly for granted.

The yaw from the engine constantly had us going left. Obviously my first instinct was to move my arms (and the bar) right. Nope, that’s not it. My pilot quickly corrected me, and informed me I had to move the bar to the left if I wanted to go right. Ah.
And so I did. And nothing happened. So I shoved it left, and she slowly started moving to the right. There we go. “Once we get to the beach, we’re going to head north” came over the headset. North, north, “Uh, which way is north?” I asked, focusing on keeping us going straight, my arms already hurting from the effort of keeping the giant wing above us in place. “To our left,” came the response. “Got it!” I wondered if he could hear the strain in my voice as we once again started drifting left. At least I was maintaining altitude fairly well.

As we neared the cost the turbulence started to pick up, and I quickly learnt why these guys only really fly in little to no wind conditions; the few pockets of air we encountered had me struggling to keep us pointed where I wanted. Both my pilot and I decided that it was time for him to take control again, and my arms were happy to have a break. I had only been flying for 2 or 3 minutes.

We turned north and paralleled the coast, and descended. And kept going down, and down, until I thought I could reach out and feel the spray from the breaking waves. “Are you ok with this height?”
Are you kidding?! I was grinning like an idiot in the back. “I’m happy!” was my response.

And there we were, a few feet off the deck, crashing waves on our right, and golden beach with green foliage on our left, our shadow chasing us all the way down the coast. Fishermen and beach-goers waved as we zoomed along at a whopping 50mph IAS (indicated airspeed), and we had about a 10mph headwind. But the lower you fly, the greater the sense of speed. And I was loving it!

Soon the turbulence hit again, as an offshore wind rolling off the hills and down onto the beach threatened to push us down into the surf. As we climbed to above the height of the hills, we spotted a shy turtle near the surface. But he quickly dived down to deeper depths as we flew over. Probably doesn’t like 2-stroke smell.

We passed modern villages nestled along the coastline, and every now and then I would fling my arms out to my sides, and feel the warm – and occasionally cool – rush of wind against them. Bliss. After routing along the coast at a higher altitude for a while longer, we turned around to start heading back to the airfield.

Low level once again, though not as low as before. Then we hopped back up to route inland via a few of the other airfields in the area. A cropspraying strip, and another grass (I think it was grass) runway of about 800m.

This was flying.
I had a go at being in control again, and did a slightly better job of it this time, even keeping it steady through a few bumps. But it wasn’t long before my muscles started complaining. I had never realised how physical it was to fly these things, and have newfound respect for these pilots.

Back at the airfield, we circled overhead to join for a right downwind. The circuit was kept tight, with a steep turn from base to final. I wondered if this was going to be a hard landing, and tensed up as we neared the ground, bracing for impact. And... nothing, we gently touched down, the grass slowing us rapidly and we turned off to the hangars.

I clambered off the steed, my arms sore, and my face tingling from the wind, a grin spreading from ear to ear. Now THAT, was fun!

The next hour was spent talking rubbish, drinking coffee, and sampling sugar cane for the first time (odd stuff that. The first bite is wonderful sugary water, but after that it’s like chewing stringy cardboard).

On the drive back to Ballito, we witnessed to cane rats scurrying across the road. My Dad had warned me that they grow quite big, but these things were about the same size as a domestic cat, only a lot beefier and with much longer tails! Maybe cycling and riding amongst the sugar cane isn’t such a good idea...

That afternoon I opted to chill out, and dip my toes in the warm Indian Ocean. It was considerably better than the frigid water we have in Cape Town. The beaches have golden brown sand, are uncrowded, and clean, with lots of rocky outcrops and various bays every few-hundred metres.

The rich are spoilt enough to have houses right on the beach, some even had garages leading to the beach (not quite sure why... boat perhaps?), and others had fancy swimming pools so you could watch people swim in the sea while you swim in your pool (skinny dipping not recommended).

I clambered over rocks, explored, and eventually found a nice spot on the sand, next to a bluebottle (okay, so that writes taking a swim in the sea off). My little blue friend and I sat and contemplated life.  And watched dogs. I love watching dogs, especially on the beach. A couple were walking their two Dashchund’s and Labrador’s. One of the Labs had an affinity for its tennis ball, which its owner dutifully tossed around. On one throw the dog ran off in the wrong direction, realised its mistake, stopped and stood there, staring at the waves, thinking. Its owner brought it out of its reverie, and pointed it in the right direction. The dog bounded off, splashing in the waves, and then stopped again, eyes scanning the surf for the bright yellow furry bundle of joy, spotted it, and I swear it grinned, ears perking up, and then pounced over to retrieve its toy.

I could’ve sat there for hours. And I would’ve, but there was a little crab that kept scurrying around, then would stop and stare at me. I wondered what was up with him. Maybe I smelt funny? I tried shooing him away, but he would only scuttle off, then stop and stare again. Decidedly uncomfortable and considering my blue bottle friend wasn’t saying much, I decided to continue my walk along the beach. I later realised I had probably sat on the crab’s home. Sorry little guy.

There is a boardwalk winding along the beach that probably extends for kilometres and kilometres. Great for a walk, or jog, or cycle. Walking along there, stopping every now and then to watch the surfers, or see spectacular waves breaking, I decided that one simply couldn’t not want to wake up and go for a sunrise jog in this place. I vowed that the next morning I would hit the boardwalk for a jog at sunrise. I didn’t.

That evening I had my first bunny chow (or just “bunny” to the locals). You can’t visit Durban and not sample the local cuisine. Sadly, it wasn’t as spectacular as I had hoped it will be. I’ll stick to my Cape gatsby’s, thanks.


Monday, 24 March

Monday was a lazy day.
I had settled into a good routine. Wake up as the sun rises. Watch it for a few minutes, then go back to sleep. Wake up 45 minutes later, make coffee and eat breakfast while watching the world below me. Sort photos, and then go for a walk on the beach.

What more does one need?


Tuesday, 25 March

My last day here. The routine was the same as Monday’s, with a final walk along the beach, occasionally dipping my feet in the surf (and trying to be clever which almost resulted in both my phone and I going for an unplanned swim).

Before heading the King Shaka it was off to Virginia Airport for a quick look around their pilot shop, and a very quick lunch.

Check-in at King Shaka was quick and easy. I then had an opportunity to get up close and personal with the 737-800’s engine. These machines don’t seem all that big until you put someone next to them and get an idea of size.

And before I knew it, were airborne and routing for the Cape. The first part of the flight was warm and sunny, with smooth air. But as we approached Cape Town, clouds appeared and the turbulence started. I am a huge fan of “cloud surfing”, and have never really experienced it in an airliner. So I was very happy to see towering columns of white on either side of us, as we avoided the red patches the weather radar painted out before us.

In Cape Town, the doors were opened and the fresh, 20-something degree air whirled in, making me instantly miss the warm sun of Ballito. I’ll be back!

At least the rainbow made me feel a bit better about the cold Cape weather