Tales from the 2019 Altitude with Attitude Dubbo Tow Safari
I open my eyes to see the colours of a newborn sun entering the stage above me, the soft sounds of movement nearby. The air is warm and only a fly-screen 30cm from my face separates me from this scene. I roll onto my side and take it all in. I am camping in a swag, by the Macquarie River, with 8 other women, who are equally as stoked to be there as I am. And 2 super-cool blokes who blend into this arrangement seamlessly. This is the last day of our women’s towing safari, and the last women’s event for the season. I realise that for all the angst I felt organising these events, they have delivered more than I thought was possible. And I enjoy that warm, fuzzy feeling that I am exactly where I should be for a moment before unzipping my swag and joining the others.
3 days ago we descended on Phil Mansell’s property, just outside of Dubbo, NSW. There is currently a drought in NSW and the area is super dry and dusty. Phil’s yard is a green oasis, and the location for our first night camping in swags. There is a camp kitchen close by where Phil cooked us up dinner whilst we sat around, enjoying an evening beer, excited to get to know who we would be spending the next 3 days with. We fired questions at Phil because we were eager to be organised and sorted for the next day’s adventure. I think Phil realised at that point that his last safari for the season was not going to be like the others :) Once dinner was finished everyone headed off for an early night, keen to experience lying under the stars to drift to sleep.
Kaz was first up, wandering around with a coffee in hand, deep in thought. Kaz is a gorgeous person, as bubbly as her hair is curly, willing to try anything, quick to offer a hand to help. Her unique laughter is never far away, and her self-deprecating sense of humour leaves us all relaxed. She is an experienced coastal pilot, now trying to get some inland XC hours under her belt. This is her third Altitude with Attitude event for the season and I love seeing her name pop up on the attendee list. She just brings such a happy, relaxed vibe to the events.
By the time we finished breakfast the wind was strong and the sky unwelcoming with grey clouds stretching as far as the eye could see. I had asked Phil what we would do if it wasn’t flyable months ago when I booked with him. He had informed me that they had never had to cancel a safari due to bad weather. The format of moving around to find the best conditions eliminated that side of paragliding which we all loathe but have come to accept. So I didn’t stress about the conditions that evolved that morning, I just waited to see how many hours we had to drive. Two hours was the answer. Stephen Noble had arrived late last night and formed the other half of the FlyDubbo team. Stephen had found a blue hole in the satellite map and we were asked if we wanted to wait for the wind to die down in Dubbo or move to the blue hole. Moving was unanimous.
A few hours later, we rolled into a vast, red, dusty, bindi-strewn paddock and went about the business of unloading the gear. Phil and Stephen assessed conditions, then set-up a couple of windsocks and a tarp for the us to launch off. We had all towed before but many of us had only towed in calm conditions during our tow endorsements. Conditions were quite calm at that point, with the blue hole on the horizon, slowly heading our way. The plan was to get the first warm-up tows out of the way before the hole reached us. Lucy stepped up to be the first tow and we all moved to the tarp for Phil’s brief.
Lucy joined us at last year’s Women’s Towing Fly-In and this year she had stepped up to be my helper at two events. Watching Lucy find her flying mojo again after a hiatus since having kids, has been such a joy. Lucy was a competent pilot before having kids, but lost the urge to fly for a few years while her girls were young and then struggled to find the confidence to fly the way she needed to. The idea that there was more than one way to fly, and that it might be different for everyone has been a huge learning for me. I wanted to run these events in a low-pressure but supportive environment, recognising that many pilots forget they know how to fly when they get flustered. The point of these events was to allow pilots to find confidence in their own skills. This meant that success looked like happy, excited pilots who would be making more plans to fly at the end of the event, not maximum distance flown. Lucy embodies this concept completely.
Lucy’s partner is an accomplished competition pilot, and a senior figure in the paragliding community. For him, he needs to get as much out of the day as possible, launching early and flying as far as he can to feel like the day was a success. The numbers are important to him, something that is drilled into you as you progress through competition flying. For the last few years, I have been following the same path, talking only about the numbers “today was awesome! I flew 120km and reached 2900m!” I have noticed that women pilots don’t dwell on the numbers as much. Yes, we want to know the figures, but they simply set the scene. The details that get us animated are how we felt about the day. “I was scared near the range because the air was shit and bumpy, but then I was thermalling with eagles and I could make out their individual feathers! And I saw the Big Dish from the air! I landed short of where I wanted to get to, but I found the most amazing swimming hole!”
Lucy is redefining a successful flying day for me also. Her attitude is infectious, and even at our home site in Bright, I notice the change. When everyone else is delaying launching, “waiting for the inversion to lift”, Lucy is undeterred. She sets her gear up confidently and relaxed, and takes off when she feels like it. Which is normally well before everyone else. And then she climbs out, showing everyone they should have already launched and gets on with her flight. And then lands in time to pick her girls up from school. She is considered one of our local guns now.
Lucy’s first tow went perfectly and showed us all that the conditions were benign and ideal for a first tow. From past experience, I have found pilots can be reluctant to step up next, particularly for the first launch, so I had given everyone a launch order. Not because I wanted to be the launch director, but because I found this little push gets the day moving faster. As a result, Sharon was ready to clip in as soon as Lucy was airborne. I spent the day on radio, standing with pilots until they launched, sometimes giving hints on how to control a wing in gusty conditions, assuring them they had all the time they needed, and repeating the launch calls for the pilots so that their hands were free to deal with launching. As an experienced pilot, but not an instructor, I try to impress on the attendees that they must not expect to be instructed. They are licensed pilots and responsible for their own decisions. Lucy and I were there to simply provide help. I try to have one senior pilot on launch with the pilots and one in the air (leading by example) at every event.
What has blown me away with these events is how the act of pulling these pilots out of their usual environment (and maybe that just means their local club, local flying site, maybe even away from their flying partner) has allowed them to discover their inner sky-goddess. These pilots signed up for the events because they really wanted to. No one pushed them into it, the cost was significant, but they leaned on their need for adventure and decided that they would see what happens when you fly with a bunch of women. Because most of them had never experienced that before. And, guess what, magic happens. They see only women pilots and they see them owning their flying, getting their shit sorted and doing it confidently. And then they realise there is nothing stopping them from doing the same.
At the end of the first day, Lucy flew an impressive 80kms, a few pilots got away and a few pilots had as many tows as they wanted and were ready to call it a day. I considered flying myself but checked the time and was shocked to see it was 5pm. Time to go find camp.
We opted for the Trundle Showgrounds, and quickly got on with the task of setting up camp. Phil went to retrieve Lucy whilst the rest of us set up the swags and settled down with a beer in front of the microwave. Yep, this was camping FlyDubbo-style. Completely self-sufficient with several deep-cycle batteries there was enough power for everyone to charge their instruments and run a microwave to heat up the gourmet home-cooked meals Phil had prepared earlier. The chilli beef with pasta was amazingly good. Phil and Lucy arrived back after dark, and they were handed a beer and a heated meal quickly so we could hear more about Lucy’s flight. As soon as the mozzies got unbearable we happily turned in for the night, eager to make a better day of it tomorrow.
The morning briefing was focused and inclusive, with no question considered stupid. A lot of this was attributed to our guide, Phil Mansell, who operates FlyDubbo Tow Safaris, but I think it was also attributed to feeling like you won’t be judged by anyone for asking questions. Most questions that were asked sheepishly were supported with several “yeah, I was wondering about that too” comments. I walked away from these briefings feeling like there was nothing I couldn’t ask, and feeling confident that the attendees were getting the information they needed.
The tow paddock is a hot and dusty environment. You wouldn’t choose to hang out there if there wasn’t a chance you could get high and fly away. Temperatures reached 35 degrees celsius during the day and despite being autumn, it felt like summer was digging its heels in. I had brought Jaimi Joy along, an adventure photographer I met 18 months ago, to capture the event. She is a talented photographer but she also embodies that fearless love of adventure I strive to uncover and is a strong women’s advocate, focusing a lot of her time to events that promote women in sport. This is the second event I have brought her to, and she blends in seamlessly, contributing to the energy that emerges on these trips. I am constantly amazed at her stamina to sit in the tow paddock day after day, without relief from the heat, flies, dust and bindis.
The second day was my turn to fly, with Lucy on launch with the pilots. I was a little nervous as I had not had my first “warm-up” tow and the forecast was for a windy day. My tow went perfectly and, having heard that the climbs yesterday were fairly weak down low, I headed down-wind stopping in anything that I might be able to follow into something. Mel took off next and I saw that she had taken a slightly different route away from the end of tow. I took my time in the slow climbs I found so that I could try to assist if needed. Mel found a relative-screamer without my assistance so I headed off down-wind towards the hills I was expecting to trigger. I noticed that the wind was quite strong up high and reported this back to the group. I hoped that there would be a decent wind gradient such that we could keep launching and landing safely. I guided Mel to the hills I found were triggering, offering hints every now and then. Mel landed at 27km, happy with her decisions and stoked with her XC flight. I could hear that Halina was in the air also, but was probably an hour behind me. The last radio calls I heard were that the wind was picking up and they were taking a break from towing. The conditions were challenging, with climbs difficult to track down low and strong winds up high, pushing us down-wind fast. I was fairly happy to hear that only Halina was in the air as the conditions were not novice conditions. Halina landed in challenging conditions at 82km, and I landed in very challenging conditions at 138km. I was pleased with my flight, enjoying the new scenery and feeling like I had shown the group what was possible despite such conditions. As a competition pilot though, my flight was not remarkable. Halina was definitely the rockstar of the day.
Interestingly, whilst the other fly-ins I had organised took some effort to fill, the tow safari sold out in 24 hours. When I negotiated one more spot, that also sold instantly. Phil’s tow safari’s have a great reputation in the community. He’s an experienced tow operator, engineers and builds his own winches, and runs a super-smooth operation. Towing is not for the faint-hearted, though. It requires spending time in a hot, dusty, fly-blown paddock, kitted up for the cold temperatures aloft and being tethered to the ground when there are dusties kicking off everywhere. Towing in thermic conditions is scary. Controlling the wing through the turbulent air at ground level, then holding your nerve to continue the tow as the line twings and twangs, the vario screaming through thermals, the wing pitching forward as you exit them, and then relaxing slightly as you see the tow vehicle slow down reaching the end of the paddock so you can ping off to go find that first thermal. It takes courage.
It takes the type of courage some of us need to find in a completely supportive environment. Some of us won’t find it if we feel we will be judged. Most of us, once we find it, can access it again in less supportive environments. Often, we can’t even describe what that environment is that we seek. Lucy described it like this:
“It’s so good going flying with a group of women, to be the 100% rather than just the 10%. To find that there are a few of you….. to fly, laugh, chat, practice some towing skills we don’t use so often, camp out under the stars and share why we all love this flying thing. It’s easy to think you don’t need things like this, because here we all are doing it anyway, because its what we love to do and we have great flying friends and we’ve all probably been the 10% in many of the things we’ve done in life so we’re just used to it. For me going on ..these fly-ins over the last year have helped me find my own way back into flying, (which I didn’t do so much for a while), to remember exactly what it is I love about it and to have the confidence to just get on with it in the way I want to.”
Sharon was our rookie, with less than 20 hours under her belt. She had come along to the Sydney Fly-In and I was instantly impressed with her background and her attitude to being a novice again. She is confident but humble, able to let you know her weaknesses but assure you at the same time what she can manage. She pushes her boundaries, some of which I push back on, some of which I leave her to manage. I felt the most amount of responsibility for her, but at the same time, she was in touch with what she needed guidance on and what she knew she was capable of. She handled her tows like a pro.
I loved seeing Cath, who complained originally that she couldn’t hold her wing down adequately because the brake lines were too long for her arms, take on a different method and nail her ground handling. Her wing was going nowhere till she was ready.
And I loved that Erica was our team fix-it manager. She sorted out Phil’s preferred tracking option of Skylines, phoning people from the tow paddock and getting everyone sorted. Nothing was beyond Erica. Not to mention her beat-boxing skills.
Women bring colour to paragliding. Both literally and figuratively. We are in touch with how we feel, we decorate ourselves with things that make us feel good — crazy leggings, silly gloves, cool socks. None of this is needed to fly well but it makes us feel good before we have even taken off. Paragliding is such a head-game and we should shamelessly do what we need to do to put ourselves in the right head-space before we take off. Seeing those around us make efforts to put themselves in the right head-space tells us that it’s ok to use a few props to assist. It also reminds everyone that we do this for fun — the moment it stops being fun is the moment we should think about doing something else.
Women bring another dimension to flying — they want to talk more about the softer side, not just the numbers. They want to talk about how it felt being at two and half thousand meters, they want to talk about what they saw, they want to talk about how scary it was to land when it was windy, they want to re-tell the tale of their hitching experience. And how the entire pub stopped as they walked in with their massive backpack and flower leggings :) They talk about how it felt to overcome fear and this energises those around them. It also releases those who were also feeling afraid. It legitimises their own feelings and empowers them to know it can be dealt with.
There is an energy that emerges when someone who shows passion for something you have passion for, steps up and achieves. I loved watching Mel start out super-nervous and finish the trip with control and confidence. I loved that despite having an incident with a fence, Halina dusted herself off and got back on the line to fly 82km. And then dealt with landing in strong winds. Despite my 10 years of paragliding experience, observing more junior pilots showing such grit spurs me on. It re-energises me and encourages me to explore this sport even deeper.
The last day of the tow safari finishes with everyone flying away from the tow paddock and our rookie, Sharon, pushing out her very first XC of 35km. We finish up with a night in Dubbo and a celebratory dinner. We wash the grime of the tow paddock off and enjoy feeling clean and civilised again. We all agree that swags are better than motel rooms, but savour being able to use a bathroom again. The next morning we enjoy breakfast at a gorgeous cafe in Dubbo and re-live various moments of the last few days. Erica has us crying with laughter as she picks out key audio moments into a beat-box ditty. We say our goodbyes and half the group heads to the Wings Out West tow competition with Phil Mansell and the other half of us head home.
The women who attended the 2019 Wings out West competition sent me this photo which left me feeling excessively proud. The competition this year had a female participation rate of 17% (higher than the usual average of just under 10%) and all 6 of those women had attended an Altitude with Attitude women’s fly-in.
All images, apart from the last one, captured by Jaimi Joy.
Further details on these events can be found at http://altitudewithattitude.info