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The Western Cape, Wine and Aeroplanes

Stellenbosch Airfield sits 414 feet above sea leavel, just to the South West of the small town of Stellenbosch, in South Africa.

Whilst Stellenbosch may be regarded as a medium-sized town, it does have a population in excess of 77,000 and has its own University.

Stellenbosch is also located squarely in the Cape Winelands, sharing this beautiful area with the towns of Paarl and Franschoek.

We had decided that we wanted to get to know more about South African wines, and what better place to discover the finer points than to tour some of the one hundred and fifty-odd vineyards and wineries along the Stellenbosch Wine Route.

Needless to say, we allowed for a full day of just cruising around the different venues, sampling the wine, and enjoying the Cape Dutch architecture, which I think has a timeless elegance.

Many of the Wineries are found in some fantastic buildings.

So, having had a full day of cruising some lovely countryside, and meeting some really nice people, we drove back to our Bed and Breakfast accommodation to shower and change, and then we hit the town and found a place to eat.

Stellenbosch – a great place to be…

The next day, I had cunningly (or not so cunningly, as SWMBO knew all about it) booked an aeroplane at the Stellenbosch Flying Club. The aircraft was booked for 1400, so we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, and then had a wander around the town.

Arriving at the Flying Club, I could see that the distant mountains were wreathed in clouds, but it was still VFR, and therefore still flyable.

I was flying with an instructor, as I wanted to see the local area, and after the swift obligatory checks of my licence, ratings and medical, we walked out to ZS-BFC, a Piper PA28-180 Warrior.

ZS-BFC on the taxiway at Stellenbosch

A quick preflight inspection and we started up, taxied out, and then we were off, climbing out to the north-west.

Our flight was to route via the Franschhoek Pass, and head south-east down the valley, and then once out of the constraints of the mountains we would turn back northeast, and head up to the small airport of Worcester.

You can tell that this area has been historically influenced by its colonists; Most of the town names were either Dutch-Boer or English – hence Stellenbosch and Paarl, Worcester and Robinson.

In fact, Stellenbosch was actually a British military garrison town during the Boer War (1899-1902).

The climb out was quite turbulent, as there was a reasonable amount of rotor and turbulence rolling off the mountains, and with three onboard, the aircraft was a bit of a handful.

Dirk, the instructor was happy to let me pole the aircraft around, and sat there pointing out landmarks, and giving me headings to steer to enable me to safely enter the Franschhoek Pass. By this time, we were flying quite high, and I was playfully stroking the cumulus with the wingtips, whilst ensuring that I kept in the middle of the valley.

It was alll updrafts and downdrafts, but great fun, and a real experience,

About to enter the Franschhoek Valley, Shafts of Sunlight stab the landscape throught the clouds.

The most thrilling aspect of this for me was that I had never been true mountain flying before. A few years previously, whilst hours building in Southern California, I took training to get checked out to fly in to Big Bear (L35) which sits at an elevation of 6,752 feet.

Part of my lesson back then was to appreciate that even in a turbo-powered Piper Arrow with retractable gear, the rate of climb at 12,000 feet was negligible.

Once over the mountains, dropping down to Big Bear City was fairly simple, but decelerating on touchdown seemed longer. Take off was different too, having to lean the engine before I even lined up, and boy, I used up a hell of a lot of the 1783m of tarmac before I dragged the reluctant aeroplane into the air.

This flight was positively ethereal, creeping down narrow canyons, with the peaks rising majestically either side (and above!), and the dunn browns and ochres of the flatlands slowly morphing into flint greys and olive greens of the mountain passes.

Entering the Franschhoek Pass

At Dirk’s behest, I rolled the aircraft gently to the right, and the pass we entered almost immediately opened out into a vast valley, illuminated as if it were a religious painting by bright, golden sunlight that bathed the countless vineyards in a golden glow. This highlighted the variegated colours – deep reds, violets, yellows and shades in between.

I imagine that this is the South African version of New England in the fall.

Breath-taking.

We continued to fly, eventually dipping down into Worcester, where we quickly gained clearance for a touch and go, and thence onwards to the smaller airfield of Robinson, to the east.

Another touch and go, and then we routed back to Stellenbosch using a more northerly routing, returning back via Duiwelskloof Pass, to the east of Paarl, and then back to recover at Stellenbosch.

The Franschhoek Valley – doesnt look much on the map…

After landing, and putting the aircraft to bed, we enjoyed a slow meander back into Stellenbosch, to enjoy a great supper washed down with some of the best wines in the world.

I look forward to my next trip abroad.

Maybe I should consider South America? Perhaps Argentina. They should have a few Cessnas and Pipers that I could lay hands on for a potter.

Until next time!

Go Well…

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Around Cape Point in a Cessna Cutlass

Having worked for two major international air carriers, one US and one British, I consider myself a reasonably well-travelled person.

However, I am also a total aviation geek.

In the heady days before the world suffered its seismic shift, in the form of 9/11, the flight deck was not an impregnable citadel only occupied by the flight crew.

My partner was resigned to the fact that whenever we boarded an aircraft for a flight, I would always discretely pass my pilot licence to the senior cabin crew member, murmuring “Please pass my compliments to the Captain, and ask him if I may be permitted to visit the flight deck for the take-off”

This often raised an eyebrow and caused me to miss many welcome- aboard glasses of champagne, but I was always accepted into the “office” and would talk flying with the crew prior to departure.

I would be offered a headset and would sit on the jump seat, quietly, enjoying the takeoff and climb, only returning to my seat once we got into the cruise.

It was sometimes a bit bizarre, as the commander may have been one of my students only a few months prior, so an interesting juxtaposition of rôles.

Very often, I would be summoned to the flight deck just before the top of descent and would sit there happily until we parked at the gate, where I would eventually be reunited with the long-suffering girlfriend.

She is still a committed airfield widow, so she knows where to look for me if she hasn’t seen me for a few weeks…

I digress.

Whenever we go away on holiday, I always do some research into the local flying clubs, so that I can commit aviation around the world.

So it was on this trip.

May 2008 saw me visiting the Republic of South Africa, for the second time.

I had already booked an aeroplane from the Cape Town Flying Club – a Cessna 172RG Cutlass, so I was looking forward to conducting an aerial reconnaissance of the local area.

ZS-KSS Cessna C172 RG Cutlass. Cape Town Flying Club, May 2003

On a particularly gloomy and rain swept Wednesday, I drove my Toyota hire care to the flying club, leaving the better half to check out the the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront in downtown Cape Town.

The amount of time I had available for aviation when on vacation was limited, so rather than getting a complete check flight, and sitting written exams, I elected to engage one of the club instructors to sit next to me as a safety pilot.

The flight was a simple route. Depart from Cape Town’s D.F. Malan International Airport, heading south to cross the coast at Rocklands, then turn onto a south-westerly heading to Muizenburg, where we would turn south to parallel the coast.

Just some of the route, down the South Eastern side of the Cape.

Passing the military base at Simon’s Town, we continued on at about 1000 feet, to remain clear of the cloud base.

Approaching Simon’s Town – Destroyers of the RSA Navy in clear view.

We were now descending constantly to remain in VFR conditions and eventually levelled out at about 500 feet above the sea as we rounded Cape Point.

The waters around Cape Point are treacherous, with very strong tides and localised currents giving rise to huge swells. I was thinking that I shouldn’t be thinking about having an engine failure at this moment.

Cape Point, descending to 500 feet – a grotty day indeed. Just a couple of orbits to get a photo of course.

So, having gone as far south as we could, we slid up the western side of the Cape, flying abeam of the Cape of Good Hope, and onwards, heading north.

The cloud was turning into water on the windscreen, the rivulets streaming backwards in the prop wash, and it felt as though King Neptune was reaching out of the deep to shake the aeroplane, as we bounced about in the turbulence.

We dog-legged back to the north-east at Pegrams Rock, and passed overhead the small town of Ocean View, then back to the east coast at Fishoek, then headed back to Fisantekraal, a small airfield north by north-east of Cape Town.

Fisantekraal Airfield, despite its location, it was still miserable and overcast.

Fisantekraal Airfield is an ex-South African Air Force facility that was built towards the end of World War Two. During the war, it was the home for Lockheed Ventura bombers.  A quick coffee in the ops room, and it was away back to Cape Town.

Having safely seceurd the aeroplane, and paid my bill, I sauntered out across the car park, whistling tunelessly. It had been a good flight, mixing it up on the taxi out with a SAA Boeing 737, and then having the challenge of flying marginal VFR/IFR in an unfamiliar aeroplane over some interesting terrain.

So, I left the airport, and headed up the eastern side of the Cape, to meet SWMBO, Mike and Carmen.

Mike, an old Africa hand, had spent many years in South Africa in the travel business, and as a result seemed to know all of the best places to eat.

He made sure that we weren’t disappointed. A short drive into Hout Bay saw us arriving at the Mariners Wharf restaurant – which served the most amazing food and the most excellent wines.

I retired to bed feeling very satisfied; I had flown, enjoyed superb company, ate a fantastic meal, and enjoyed some of the best wines from the Cape.

Maybe its time to do some more wandering…

Go Well…