Saturday, November 10, 2007

Sunshine Coast to the Outback

By Matty Senior:

Flying new areas and over new terrain is one of the many things that make paragliding so special. Last weekend was the Indy 300 race on the Gold Coast; it’s a huge party and unless you’re into it, you may as well get as far away from it as possible. At the moment I’m living in Surfers Paradise, the heart of the Indy, and decided to skip town and take a short vacation to the Sunshine Coast about 2 hours to the north.

The Sunshine Coast as I’ve discovered is a Paraglider’s Paradise. There are about 10 coastal flying sites that accommodate all variations of the sea breeze and about 10 inland flying sites. The inland sites are all fairly small in that there is little altitude available to find a climb before you bomb out. The positive side to this is that if you do bomb out it’s a fairly short walk back to launch.

With the Glasshouse Mountains to the south, rainforest-rimmed escarpments and lush rolling pastures underneath, the terrain you get to fly over is breathtaking.

With rumours surfacing from some of the Gold Coast weather gurus that Saturday the 20th of October was looking like a potential record-breaking day, we hooked up with Sunshine Coast local Carl Forster for a flight. Carl took us to a site called The Playground, about 6km east of Maleny on the Blackall Mountain range. The Playground is a beautiful meadow type launch that rolls down into the valley. It would be the ultimate playground if the sea breeze was in, as you could land and relaunch from pretty much anywhere.

I launched first at about 10:15 and soared around for about 5 minutes in some early morning disorganised thermals that were pretty broken up. Pretty soon I found a decent core that I hung onto as I drifted over the back. It wasn’t the strongest climb but it was going up, and by the time I got to base I had already drifted 6km over the back. Carl was climbing much faster upwind of me and got to base about the same time. Within minutes we were side by side cruising along under some pretty nice looking clouds at about 55-60km/hr.

About 20km later we found ourselves low in the Connondale Valley scratching around desperate to get another climb. With plenty of sun on the ground we eventually stumbled across a 1200fpm freight train that took us to base in what seemed like seconds. Out of the Connondale Valley the terrain changed, from lush green farmland and dense rainforests to more typical Australian rural scenery of gum trees and kangaroos. The next 60km went by fairly quickly; we stayed high, drifting several kilometres with each thermal, topping out at base with ground speeds of 60-70km/hr without touching the speed bar.

92km from where we launched Carl and I found ourselves approaching an area you simply wouldn’t want to land. Although there were plenty of landing options, there was no sign of civilisation, nor was there any indication from our slowly diminishing altitude of which way to walk should we land. As we pushed on into the blue I spotted a cloud start to dome up to our right, so we changed our heading and went for it with the little altitude we had left. As we arrived at a small hill in the fairly flat terrain that appeared to both of us to be the trigger of the thermal, we spun around into the wind before we got tossed over the back of it. With only 300 feet between us and the ground, and zero ground speed it was obvious to both of us that our flight was about to come to an end. So much so I even yelled at Carl in the air to say, “Looks likes that’s it mate.” As I approached the ground it started to become obvious that I wasn’t going to make it over the hill, so I decided to turn downwind and use the altitude I had left to get as far away from the hill as possible to avoid landing directly in the lee of it. As soon as I made my decision to turn and run, Carl followed. At the time I thought he was following me to avoid the same sketchy landing situation, but after talking to him later he figured I had spotted a climb and didn’t want to miss it.

As I glided over some trees to pick a field to back my glider into, we started to get tossed around by some bullets coming off the hot ground. As we turned back into the wind to try and work these bullets we noticed a wedge-tailed eagle climbing up underneath us. All I can remember thinking was, “Don’t lose this bird; if you can just hang onto the eagle you’ll get out of here”. After talking to Carl later, that was exactly what was going though his mind as well. Like most soaring birds, wedge-tailed eagles don’t like to flap their wings. As soon as you see one in the air it’s fairly certain he’ll be in a thermal or on his way to one. As we drifted with that thermal to base, we crossed the 100km point and things got easy again, base lifted and our ground speed began increasing to more than 70km/hr. After another 25km the terrain began to make another obvious change from the typical Australian landscape of gum trees and kangaroos to flatland like I’ve never seen before. A patchwork of wheat fields and other crops, the flat lands were totally devoid of any variations in terrain. They were flat as far as I could see from 2km above the ground.

After topping out a climb at 138km I got on the radio to find out what Carl’s personal best was, only to find out it was 140km in Manilla. “Well, the beers are now on you Carl”, I said as we cruised through 139km, 2km above the ground. That was the last climb I got that day and ended up landing 153km from launch about 16km northeast of Dalby. Carl, who was a little behind, managed to get a climb out of the field I landed in, and cruised on another 20km, landing 173km from launch.

Congratulations Carl, awesome flight mate! Carl doubled his longest flight from the Sunshine Coast of 84km and we both smashed the Sunshine Coast record of 106km. On the same day a few hours drive to the south, Shane Hill flew 261km from Beechmont, smashing the state record of 206km. A copy of my flight can be seen on Leonardo.