“I think I can see the ocean!”, I said to Scotty and Grum, “Ohh my God I can’t believe it”. I never thought I would spend New Year’s day 2022 team flying with two mates, thermalling to just under 4000m in a paraglider while looking at the Tasman Sea. It blows my mind that we are in a sport where there are still new things to be done. Click for xcontest or ayvri.
Five years earlier I set a goal to fly from Bright to Omeo. Back then I didn’t have the ‘know-how’ or the skills – was it just a pipe dream? I have only heard of four people successfully making the flight. It is seldom done for a few reasons. Firstly, it takes a committing line due South from Mount Feathertop, along the Razorback, to Mount Hotham, then Southeast along the high plains before dropping down into Omeo. There are no landing options below the Razorback ridge so you need to be prepared to top land and walk out if you don’t find a thermal. Secondly, Bright is a two-hour drive from Omeo so getting back requires either preplanning or very good luck hitching. Hitching isn’t guaranteed these days due to that feisty Miss Rona, so having an understanding partner or good friend (who enjoys driving) is by far the best option. Finally, the right conditions might appear only a couple of times per season. All these factors make the 67km (as the crow flies) flight a rarity.
The day before
Rob, Scotty and I set out for an attempt on the last day of 2021. With a high base and light North winds, it was the perfect forecast. After completing the committing Razorback section and reaching Hotham Heights, we all thought it was going to be a walk in the park, but little did we realise the crux was ahead of us. We found ourselves low above Wire Plain car park, scratching for 10 minutes in patchy lift. I was just 50 meters behind Rob when Scotty and I hit a big chunk of sink and landed in the car park (to the applause of a carload of people). Rob pushed North slightly, engaged his handbrake, then spent the next 20 minutes climbing back to base. He caught three more thermals then landed in Omeo. I was super happy for Rob but disappointed that Scotty and I weren’t with him. That’s paragliding sometimes, so close but so far.
Feeling seedy, but that dreamy forecast
The 2022 New Year’s celebrations wound down at around 3am. We’d danced like disco stars and sunk many a bevvie, and the next day Scotty and I felt pretty dusty. Paragliding was the last thing I felt like doing but the forecast was a dream: 35 degrees in Bright with light Northerlies on the ground and at cloud base, which was forecasted to be +3000m. This is great as you need a high base once you connect to the Hotham high plains, where the ground is +1500m above sea level (Mount Hotham sits at 1861m). We had to give it a go! I planned to land early if I wasn’t in the right headspace. We had concerns about getting back for a commitment the next morning, but the amazing Aline and Donna graciously offered to retrieve us. It was on!
After a few shots of coffee we organised to meet at the LZ for a 12pm departure. If you take off earlier you run the risk of not having enough height for the high plains, as cloud base lifts during the day.
After two litres of vitamin B infused water and more caffeine I met Scotty at the Mystic LZ. Randomly, our mate Grum pulled up at the same time. After a quick chat our party had grown to three. The goal was Omeo and we planned to fly as a team. Team flying can be tricky and is best done when all pilots have similar skills – you have to fully trust your team member’s decisions. You also need a common goal. Paragliding is mostly an individual sport, so adhering to rules can be very tricky. Good comms are a must and being on similar performing wings helps you stay together on glide.
- Stay within a 10-15 second glide away from each other.
- If the lower pilot goes on glide the higher one follows.
- The higher pilot should wait at the top of a thermal until the lower reaches a similar altitude, then go on glide together.
- Span out when gliding to test more air.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. Call thermal strength if you think you are going up quicker than the others. Discuss plan changes etc.
What wings were we flying? Scotty was on an old Ozone Delta 3 and lacked glide performance. Grum was flying an old BGD Cure and I was on a new Flow Fusion Light. The Fusion has better performance than the others so I had it a bit easier.
The low saves
Any epic flight has at least one low save right? We had two of them. The first was when Scotty was 143m off the terrain over the southern end of the Razorback. He connected to an obvious thermal trigger and found a solid +2m\s thermal, making it a much easier exercise for Grum and I as we were slightly higher and flew straight to him. From this point, we concentrated on climbing as high as possible. When we reached base we went on glide, spanning out to find buoyant lines and lifting air.
After connecting to a few more thermals we all had a low save just south of Hotham Airport. Up to this point most of the thermals were being released from the Northeastern side of the range, not this time unfortunately. We pushed North in heavy sink, the radio became eerily silent as we found ourselves 130m off the deck with a tricky landing option. We dug deep with quiet anxiety and turned in +.5m/s until our prayers were answered and a stronger thermal released and we climbed back up to 3000m in a solid +3m/s. Yeehaaaa… we were back in the game. One more thermal later we were sitting at 3500m with just a glide to Omeo. We made it.
Where to now?
I was overcome with emotion when the reality of what we had achieved hit me. I had completed a life goal, one I thought wasn’t probable. We had a quick chat on the radio and agreed that it would be a shame not to keep flying. I radioed the retreive car to make sure it was ok. There was an unequivocal yes, but it would cost us a massage. Our new goal was Swifts Creek.
The final hurdle
After catching a few more thermals we found ourselves very high over Swifts Creek, making us shift the goal posts a little further. The remainder of the flight was surreal. I couldn’t believe it, we could see the Tasman Sea, something I never imagined in my wildest dreams. Maybe we could make it to the coast? How cool would it be to land on the beach? What did we have to do? Ahead of us was a swathe of trees with no visible landing options. Over the years people have discussed the possibility of flying to the coast but no one ever mentioned the 15km tree crossing between Tambo Crossing and Bruthen. I felt anxious as it looked very intimidating. There was also a big storm cell to the Southwest which had grown enough to hit the higher level winds, possibly shading us out. After pondering our options we decided it was too risky to try the tree crossing. We joined up, took some photos, hooted and hollered then decided to call it quits and land at Ensay sports oval. The ascent took twenty (long) minutes and we landed to the cheers and applause of campers. Aline and Donna were waiting with hugs and cold beers and we packed up our wings to the sound of thunder, which explained the long descent – the whole area was releasing.
Post flight contemplation
Could we have flown to the coast? Maybe. I think if we were 2000m above the terrain at Tambo Crossing we could have made the glide to Bruthen (with current wind direction). The possibility of overdevelopment was a concern, one we didn’t realise fully until after we landed and heard the clap of thunder.
Would we have had enough daylight? From Ensay we needed to fly a further 50km to Lakes Entrance. Given our average speed up to this point was around 20km/h it would take us another 2 to 2 1/2 hrs to get there, making a touchdown at around 8pm. We would be pushing it, as sun set was 830pm.
Will anyone ever do it? I’d say so but it will require a perfect day with no sea breeze, a faster average and maybe a little bit more research to feel more comfortable making the treed crossing.
A big shout out to Felipe from Flow Paragliding for making such a good wing, you are a legend. Thanks to Susy G for proofing my work. Much love to Aline and Donna for the dream retrieve. Your massages are in the post.