Spanish Fly!

Vallee de Abdelajis, Andalucia - Feb 1996

Geoff, Elly, Tim B & Tim P looking cheerful
despite no flying on the first two days

6.30pm on Sunday 25th February 1996 found Geoff Moss and me wandering around the arrivals' hall of Malaga airport in search of our luggage and the "little people" - Tim Brunskill and Elly Milln - who had arrived ten minutes earlier on a different flight. We found Tim and Elly almost as easily as our gliders since they're about the same size! (And probably about the same weight!) 

An hour later we were heading out of Malaga in a brand new (not for long!) hire car heading for the town of Vallee de Abdalajis about 60km away. Now Spanish road signs leave a little to be desired so it actually took almost two hours to get there. However this did have its benefits - driving through the town of Alhurin it was definitely a case of "eyes right boys" as we drove past three of the shortest mini-skirts I'd ever seen! Sorry Elly, but boys will be boys! Actually Tim allowed Elly to be an honorary chap for the holiday, an honour she was undoubtedly overjoyed to have bestowed on her!

The town of Vallee de Abdalajis

So at 9.30pm we rolled up outside the local paragliding school/club run by a chap called Eduardo. Gear was unceremoniously dumped in the hall, then we legged it to the nearest bar for muchos beeros and noshos! 

On our return to Eduardo's who should open the door to let us in but a fellow Brit paraglider pilot called James, whom Geoff and I had first met two years ago in Chamonix, and whom I had subsequently bumped into at Mere last year. It really is a small world! It turned out that there were three others in their party, two of whom I had met last year at Long Knoll of all places. And they're not even Avon pilots! 

After much story telling we hit the sack in high spirits hoping for great things tomorrow. I think its amazing we woke up the next morning at all, the smell was so bad! Eleven of us in a small room with the window closed - well, you can imagine what it was like! 

Monday dawned bright but unfortunately breezy (inside the room as well!) so the day was divided equally between hanging around on the hill watching the griffon vultures soaring effortlessly in the 30mph wind, and hanging around in bars eating and drinking! Ordering food was interesting when there were no menus and no English spoken. Still, we didn't go hungry and the "kaios" (?) was excellent although I think the meaty bits (actually that's being kind - I should say gristly bits) were only in it for flavouring! We left the bar at 5'ish and followed Eduardo to another bar about 20 minutes away at the intersection of the three lakes that run round the north and west of the mountain (called Sierra del Vallee de Abdalajis). I don't know whether it was the alcohol, the beautiful late evening sunshine or sheer frustration that made us think the wind had dropped, but if Eduardo thought we might get a late evening flight in, then so did we! 

A 10 minute white-knuckle ride up the track from hell found us at the NW take-off with what felt like a nice reverse launch breeze blowing smack on the hill. Directly behind us rose (300-400') some pretty impressive cliffs where we had seen the vultures earlier. Undeterred by the sign which said if its blowing 15kph at take-off, its 40+kph on top, we all got our kit out. Fortunately for the rest of us Tim was off first with a nice launch and... ...and lots of height gain and virtually no penetration! On came the big-ears - no difference, so on came the speed bar as well - still going up, but at least going forwards! After 5 minutes (during which we all packed up!) we all breathed again (including Tim) and headed back down the hill. It was dark by the time we reached the landing "field" and met Tim who was pretty pleased to be on the ground in one piece. After this flight Tim earned the nickname "Condor Man" after the name of his canopy, and also because only the birds flew that day. 

Phoning Lisa later that evening I discovered that the UK had had a glorious spring day with puffy white Cu's! Hurrumph!

Looking back towards the N take-off from above the NW take-off

Tuesday was bright but again too breezy so after much food, drink and a good hike up to top of the cliffs above the NW take-off, and after another call to Lisa during which she said it would have been an epic paragliding day at home, we all went to bed, this time with the window open!

Determined to beat the wind, we got up early on Wednesday and were at the NW take-off by 9am. The wind was light - perfect! Except for one thing - it was blowing down the hill! The gods of paragliding are conspiring against us! While Condor Man was analysing the weather and trying to decide whether to stay or go to the South side, Geoff and I were tucking into cornflakes and jam sandwiches, having not had the time for the usual eggs and bacon in our favourite bar. By the time we had finished the loaf the wind had backed quite alot so that it was blowing from the E or NE. "OK" said Condor Man, "let's go to the north take-off". 

Breakfast at the NW take-off

Arriving at the bottom of the track we disembarked people and canopies in order to give me a slightly better chance of getting up the worst of the track. But to no avail! I completely bottomed the car on some really deep muddy ruts. Oh well, we'd have to walk up. Still, the exercise would do us good (who was I trying to kid?) Geoff was suffering from a headache (he swears it was nothing to do with last night's session) so he decided to sit it out by the car for a while and let us check it out at take-off. 30 minutes steady plodding later and we were there, and guess what, the wind was blowing from the NW, completely along the hill! By now Condor Man was getting seriously frustrated, but we persuaded him to hang around a bit longer as we all thought that once the sun warmed up the ground in front the wind would be pulled onto the hill. 

An hour later (1pm) we were still only getting the occasional thermic puff up the slope, and Condor Man was getting more and more convinced that the NW take-off was the place to be. He was going to fly down to Geoff and hack back to the NW take-off. I decided to stay put here. Elly (you can't be serious - you mean you bought a second-hand porous Voodoo off Amanda Lawrence) was off first with a good forward launch. Things weren't looking too good initially, but all of a sudden she was maintaining, then gaining height. Good work Voodoo Child! After a couple more minutes she was above take-off and out of trouble. Condor Man was off next, with another good forward launch, having rapidly binned his plan to fly down! After a similar initial height loss and struggle, he too made it up to the top of the hill, about 1000' above take-off. By the time I took off a few minutes later the lift was stronger and I had no trouble getting up. 

Elly about to launch from the N take-off

Pretty soon we were all (except Geoff, who was half way up the track) cruising around at between 1300 and 1500' ato (4000' amsl). I won't bore you with all the details of the flight except to say that it was bloody good to be airborne after four months off! The flight did have some special moments - thermalling no more than 30' away from a griffon vulture for half a dozen circles was a wonderful experience. I stuck with the thermal after he'd left and got my best height of the day - 2100' ato. With this height I easily made the crossing to the cliffs above the NW take-off (where we had climbed to yesterday), some 6-7km in front and to the left of the N take-off. (Meanwhile Condor Man and Voodoo Child had made their way back to take-off on foot after landing out). I tried to make it back to the N take-off, but realised I wasn't going to make it so headed for the official bottom landing which I failed to reach by a couple of hundred metres. Still, at 5pm and after 2:40 hours in the air I wasn't complaining. I made it back to the car just as Elly was touching down nearby. Meanwhile Condor Man was losing height overhead with some gentle spirals down. Our first day's flying was celebrated with an impromptu mix of whisky and orange by the car, then more beers later (surely not!) When I called Lisa later, she told me that the weather had taken a turn for the worse back home - and not before time too! 

Looking East from in front of the N take-off

On Thursday the wind was from the south, and after a bit of driving around we managed to find the track (quite a good one this time relatively speaking) up to take-off. There are actually three take-offs here, one from the car park, one a 10 minute hike up the ridge overlooking the car park, and the other a 45 minute expedition up to the top of the ridge overlooking the town. The 10 minute climb seemed the best option.

Condor Man getting ready at the S take-off

Needless to say, Condor Man was the first off into the very nice looking sky. However, the lift wasn't abundant and he eventually headed out of sight to land somewhere down in the valley towards the town. Being the decent sort of chap I am, I drove down to save him a possible 45 minute walk back up. Imagine my surprise to see Tim halfway up an almond tree trying to extricate his canopy from it's clutches! It turned out he'd spotted an almost invisible power line running across his chosen landing field and had had to bury his right brake to avoid frying himself! So the tree was the lesser of two evils so to speak. With my reach being about 2' longer than Tim's we were quickly able to liberate his canopy with only minor damage to the tree!  

Condor Man above the middle S take-off in a classic looking sky

Back at take-off it was definitely happening - Energy Man (one of the other Brits) had taken off just as I returned and hadn't stopped going up since! Geoff took off and cruised around fairly cautiously not wanting to gain too much height (it was his first flight of any significant length since crushing a vertebrae at Easter last year). By the time I took off it was starting to over-develop and I spent the last 15 minutes of a 1:20 hour flight flying with Condor Man in fairly persistent rain! Not what we came to Spain for! 

We both landed down by the town, Tim successfully avoiding trees and power lines this time despite having reduced visibility on account of the fact that he couldn't remove his rain-splashed Adidas wrap-around shades! Back at Eduardo's we got stuck into the beers and watched some great flying videos whilst we waited for the rest of the team to make their way back. 

That evening, after I had dried out my canopy on the washing line in the back yard, we headed to the small village of El Chorro (actually little more than a railway station, a bar and a dingy looking hotel - but famous for the huge cliffs towering above none-the-less) for eats. It was a long and alcoholic evening during which we managed to get Condor Man seriously worse for wear! Well, he did deserve it after draping his canopy over a tree! During the meal we saw a bit of the news on TV (there's always a TV on in Spanish bars) about Charles and Di's divorce. At the mention of Camilla P-B, Geoff piped up with "muchos shaggos illeagos", at which the elderly Spanish lady running the restaurant roared with laughter, obviously understanding more English than she let on! (Either that or she fancied Geoff!) Elly did a fine job driving us back despite the drunken antics of the rest of us, which included knocking the gearstick out of gear whilst going downhill so that the engine raced when the power came back on - hilarious at the time! 

Just like all the other days, Friday was going to be "The Day"! However, like yesterday, it wasn't. Light southerly winds took us back to the same site as yesterday, but the wind was a bit too far off to the east, so we decided to bite the bullet and go for the serious yomp up to the top take-off. 45 minutes later, and a few pounds lighter, we reached take-off. At least we thought it was, for one thing there were rocks everywhere, the other was that we were in cloud! Not what was planned! Tim and Elly arrived a few minutes after me on account of their shorter legs - they both took one look at the rocks everywhere and walked back down again! Meanwhile a mad Frenchman, Jean-Michelle, was preparing to launch from just about the worst bit of the so-called take-off - and in thick cloud, and in quite a reasonable breeze, and to top it all, pretty much from where he had been helicoptered off the hill with multiple fractures on a previous visit to this part of Spain! Who were we to question his judgement? So we helped him with his lines, and off he went, disappearing from sight within seconds. 

We decided to sit it out, during which time we made ourselves useful by clearing a half decent area of all sizeable rocks. An hour and one scorpion (imagine that dropping out of your lines just after take off) later we had actually cleared a good area and I was clipped in, ready to go waiting for a suitable hole in the cloud. We were hearing over the radio that Condor Man was in the air, scratching around a few feet above the middle take-off at cloudbase! 

A short while later my "window" opened and I was off, not really expecting much in very light claggy conditions. I was losing height from the moment I took off, so I headed left along the ridge towards the town for a possible early landing. The ridge changed to more of a cliff after a while, and I scratched along it, about half a wingspan away in order to maximise what little lift there was. The town itself is nestled at the foot of the cliff at its most eastern end so I had some great aerial views as I beat back and forth along the cliff. I managed to stay up for 45 minutes by gently working every bit of lift, but I eventually found myself too low over the town, so I cruised overhead to the delight of the screaming school-children, and landed at exactly the same spot as yesterday. 

Flying along the ridge from the S take-off towards the town

It turned out to be my shortest flight of the holiday, but it was just as enjoyable as the other days because of the challenge of flying so close to the cliffs, and the achievement of staying up so long in the very light conditions. So, three days flying out of five so far, would tomorrow be "The Day"? 

Yes, but not well into the afternoon! It looked like Saturday was going to be a repeat of Wednesday, so we headed back to the N take-off. We met the British rally team at the bottom of the track who kindly loaded all our kit into their two Peugeot 106's and thrashed them up the track. (It was their last day so it didn't matter what happened to the cars as long as they got them back to the airport!) So it was a much more leisurely stroll up to take-off this time. Anyway, it really was a repeat performance of Wednesday - very light and well off to the west initially. We guessed that the wind would swing round as before, and sure enough it did, but not until 2.30pm after 3 hours of waiting! Condor Man was the first to actually stay up, followed by Voodoo Child in the next decent thermal 15 minutes later. I was next off a few minutes later, and had no problem getting up - within 15 minutes I was at cloudbase (3600' ato, 6300' amsl) with a Spanish pilot who had taken off shortly after me. I think if the Spaniard had headed over the back I would have gone with him, but I'm glad we didn't even though there was good distance potential, since I had some superb flying, cruising around for 3:40 hours in all. 

Looking west over the lakes into the evening sunshine

We all had our best flying of the holiday although there was a hairy half hour when the wind picked up and most people were "balls to the wall" trying to get forwards away from the hill and downwards out of the huge areas of lift. Condor Man had a few anxious moments watching Voodoo Child go from 40' ato to 1000' ato in a couple of minutes, with negligible penetration. The radios were invaluable for reassurance in a situation like this. Meanwhile, I was well out in front of the hill, speed bar full on, heading for the NW take-off where I had seen a couple of guys having what looked like a really nice flight. This was definitely a good move - the lift was wonderfully smooth (it must have been about 5.30pm by now, and things were quietening down, over here at least), and the views were spectacular looking west over the lakes into the evening sun. The flight was made even more special after the two Danish pilots had landed (we met them later in the bar) - I had the privilege of sharing the sky with up to a dozen of these wonderful griffon vultures flying above, below and alongside me. It really was a magical time which I will never forget. 

Enjoying the smooth conditions above the NW take-off

I must have been gabbling on about it over the radio, and it wasn't long before Condor Man made it over to me. I'm glad he did - I wanted to share this wonderful experience with someone else. We flew together for a further 45 minutes in the smoothest of smooth conditions getting heights of up to 2500' above the lakes below. One time we actually touched wingtips, so smooth was the lift. We both let out a great cry of "wow!!!" and broke away. Fantastic! 

Formation flying above the NW take-off

By now it was 6.30pm (I had been flying for 3.5 hours, Condor Man was up to 4 hours now) and Elly and Geoff were waiting in the bottom landing field so we headed out from the cliffs, me first, followed by Condor Man a few minutes later. Flying out over the lakes with about 2000' to spare we spiralled and B-lined down to end the flight, which for me, made my holiday. I don't think either Tim or I will ever forget that flight - what a way to end the holiday! 

We left Vallee de Abdalajis at 9am the next morning on what looked like was going to be nother glorious day, with Geoff and I heading back to England, and Tim and Elly off to the Sierra Nevada's for a weeks skiing (the bastards!) 

We arrived back at Bristol in much the same weather as we had left it a week earlier - a chilly, grey, breezy day - it would have been a real downer had I not been met by Lisa with Emily on her shoulders grinning at me! What a wonderful surprise! 

As a place to go for some great winter flying, I would thoroughly recommend Vallee de Abdalajis. As with anywhere, the weather can be varied, but 4 days flying out of 6 can't be bad (8.5 hours total)! What's more it was a very cheap holiday, only costing 350 including flights, accommodation and car hire. 

Oh, and by the way, if you're wondering what my nickname was for the trip, it was Sphincter Man, on account of flying a Nova Sphinx! Thanks guys! 

And as for the "Spanish Fly" - I'm sure my performance in the air has improved, if nothing else!