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Soaring in Slovenia

                                            Soaring in  Slovenia.

Going to Slovenia was somewhat unplanned but John Nash?s enthusiasm and Humphrey?s and John Pope?s enjoyable articles had me convinced it would be a good place to visit. It didn?t disappoint. The flight from Stanstead to Ljubljana,(just under 2 hrs), seemed very quick compared to my previous flights to Sofia in Bulgaria. Getting to Stanstead and back by National Express bus however is another story!

Somehow I missed Bret Janaway our guide and mentor for the trip when I arrived at Ljubljana airport, so I made my own way by local bus to Bohinj, a leisurely journey of about three hours through delightfully clean and unspoilt countryside.  Having never been to an Alpine country before, it was strange to see chalets looking exactly as they do on postcards and on jig saw puzzle boxes. After two bus changes in Kranj ? the first bus broke down after about five minutes, we began to enter more mountainous terrain. Roads became narrower and the rivers became a gorgeous milky blue. I liked the way each chalet differed slightly from the next. This seemingly achieved by small and subtle differences in balcony design or cut outs in window shutters - each property individual, yet almost the same as its neighbour. Some of the houses were ?chocolate box? pretty with window boxes filled with red geraniums, wooden shingles on the roofs and the timberwork stained a deep rich brown. The lasting impression is how clean, ordered and neat everything seemed to be.

The bus driver was helpful and friendly and dropped me right outside Pension Rozic - my home for the next 7 days.  It was beginning to get dark so I booked in and humped my gear to room 11 ? yes it was right at the top of the hotel past a collection of stuffed, petrified birds and antlers mounted on the walls. The white tailed eagle frozen in a "coming in to land" posture over the stairs was huge and magnificent.  I really hoped to see a live one soaring high in the mountains where they belong during the course of my stay. Oddly though, there weren?t that many birds about apart from herons. Maybe every hotel in Slovenia has a collection of stuffed raptors. 
The other pilots, John Nash, Humphrey, Gron and Moira were not due until late the next day so after a brief walk to stretch my legs and a late meal, I retired to bed early. The trip including a national express bus from Port Talbot at 4.20am in the morning had taken all of 16 hours. An early night with a good book seemed the perfect end to a busy but enjoyable day.

Pension Rozic is situated about 500? from lake Bohinj although you can?t really see the lake from the pension as it is around a corner. You can, however, see the mountains which are high and quite dramatic. The tallest, Triglav is just under 10,000? and is the highest Alpine peak in Slovenia. Apparently if you want to climb it, you have to get up while it?s still dark,(around 4am) to begin your ascent. It looks really high and I guess you would have to be pretty fit to attempt it!
After a great self service breakfast - you just keep going back for more until satisfied,  it was time for a walk to see where I had actually ended up. It was only 8am but already the sun was really warm and the air bright and clear. People were up and going about their business. Quite a few hikers were already starting their treks into the mountains and there were lots of mountain bikers about. It was busy in a relaxed outdoorsy sort of way.

I made my way down the road and within five minutes, Lake Bohinj came into view. It is stunning. The edges of the lake are swimming pool blue with the deeper water a deep emerald green. The Alps themselves seem to be composed of limestone which is almost marble white in places. The bleaching effect of sun and snow heightens the effect and this, combined with the crystal clean snow melt water, made the rivers the cleanest I have ever seen, anywhere. The lake itself is about  8-10 kms in circumference so I decided to walk around it passing bathers on the way. By midday, the temperature was around 30-32 c so every hour or so, I stopped to have a cooling swim. The water was delicious but dive down a couple of feet, and it became icy, icy cold. An odd kind of water rather than weather inversion where the warmer surface water holds down the colder stuff below. If you sat in the shallows for long enough and kept still, smallish honey coloured fish started nibbling and tasting your legs, only to dart away quickly if you moved.
It took about five hours to get around the lake but it was a great hike and well worth the effort. There?s an excellent restaurant at the far end where they serve ice-cold beer and the biggest and tastiest pizzas this side of Italy - must be the nearness of the country. After a long hot hike, just what you need.

In the evening, John Nash, Moira and Humphrey arrived after driving down through Europe with their car and trailered motorcycles. On Sunday Gron arrived. Our little party of fliers was complete and we were all looking forward to getting into the air and seeing more of Slovenia.

One of the first sites John and I flew from is called Vogel and it is situated high above Pension Rozic on a south east facing mountain. It costs about 10 euros to use the chair lift to get to the top - not that cheap but it is the only realistic way of getting to launch. When we arrived, the take off area was fairly busy.  It was however, grassy and wing and line ?friendly? with no sharp rocks or bits of wood to damage or get tangled in your wing. It slopes gently but then drops away after about twenty feet. We were assured that if you got it wrong, you only end up in a few small shrubs just below the lip of the slope. But it looked completely sheer to me! This is when the ?butterflies? started and I wished I had spent more time practicing my forward launches. John Nash went first and bravely, only used about half of the twenty feet to get his wing up and away. I followed him lamb-like and despite a bit of a messy start, also got away okay. Once airborne, everything settled down and it was a lovely smooth flight over lake Bohinj, a flight of about 25 minutes and one I will never forget. Other pilots were in the air and were using thermals to stay airborne but I was content with one of the most scenic top to bottoms it is possible to imagine- sheer magic! The landing area is really big but if you are feeling confident and enjoy trying to land accurately, there is a 4? circular disc you can aim for.  I missed it by about 300 metres!

The next day we went to a place called Godzt.  It looked really benign with a steepish and very long run out before launching into the air. The take off was very easy and then I heard Bret say over the radio, "Gareth turn left into the house thermal?. My vario started beeping ? I had never used one before and then wham! It went crazy! Within minutes I had climbed 2,122 ? above launch and was desperately trying to get out of the thermal and find smoother, gentler conditions. But then wham again, you were in another and then another?... I remember thinking well you are just going to have to get used to this kind of flying ? it?s what happens in thermals only to learn later from Bret, that it rarely gets any stronger than this: 6-8m + per second thermals. Lift seemed to be everywhere. I had never experienced anything like it! But gradually I began to feel less afraid and tried to stay in them longer. High above me, Gron was sailing serenely towards??. Lujbljana airport,  seemingly totally at home in the conditions. We later learned that his radio was not working and that he was trying to lose altitude throughout his flight. However, his plan of flying out over the valley worked and he turned and came back towards less busy airspace! 
When I calmed down enough to look, the Alps to the north seemed spread out below me as far as the eye could see. It was another incredible flying experience. Eventually we all landed in the designated area and lay in the mint scented grass with bees and other insects buzzing about. It was one of those perfect moments you try to hang on to and treasure. 

Our guides, Bret and Mike did everything they could to make our trip both enjoyable and action packed. They took us to Gerlitz in Austria and also a place called Tomlin where Moira bravely had her first Tandem flight. XTC is a professional, helpful and friendly school that really do inspire confidence and trust. If you are a low airtimer or have never flown in Alpine conditions before, they are a great bunch of guys to learn from and fly with. Bret?s knowledge and understanding of weather and meterology is truly prodigious and Mike has to be one of the most chilled out people you could possibly meet.

A day before I was due to return to the U.K. I decided to take a day off from flying. Gron had arranged to fly over the Alps with Bret in his ultralight and John, Humphrey and Moira were taking their motorbikes down to Croatia for an overnight visit.
Slovenia is well suited to exploring neighbouring countries. Italy, Austria and Croatia are just a couple of hours away by car- like popping down to Bristol for the day. Hungary too is close and it would have been nice to have gone there, as I have family connections with the country.
As I was on my own, I decided to hire a ?sit on? Kayak and go XC ? that is, down stream from lake Bohinj. The journey turned out to be an unexpected and delightful adventure, floating gently down river past anglers waist high in the cleanest, bluest water. I said good day to one of them as I floated quietly past and he said: ?No, it is a wonderful day?. And it really was. The warmth, the bright sunshine and the peacefulness, combining together to make you feel sleepy and content. The complete opposite to flying at Godtz earlier in the week! The river passes through whisper quiet wooded areas, through gorges and along still silent stretches of slow moving water. It also got a bit rough in places and there are a few mini weirs where you need to place the boat correctly before going over. I really didn?t mind if the kayak capsized as it only meant you got to have yet another swim in the crystal clear water. Bliss. Altogether I covered about 18 kms which took about five hours. There were a few ?movie? moments during the trip especially when you passed under small wooden bridges and half expected to see men in dungarees, straw hats and the sound of dualing banjos playing somewhere in the distance. I didn?t see any other boats or kayaks on my trip or meet any hillbillies though! It was completely safe and they give you a helmet and lifejacket with the boat so if you fall in, you just bob about for a while. For me personally, it was one of the highlights of my trip.

If I was to give Slovenia marks out of 10, I would give it nine for it?s beauty and  pristine environment; 9 for the authoratative and helpful guiding and flying; 10 for the kayak trip and 8 for the food. There?s so much to do and see, from mountain biking, hiking, mountaineering, canoeing, kayaking you name it, you can do it. If your stay is longer than mine, it would be really easy to pop over to one of the neighbouring countries to have a look. And of course, if flying is your main interest, it would be hard to find a more beautiful place to do it in. I still think the Balkan mountain range, Shopska salad and general attitude to life takes some beating but Slovenia, for me at least, more or less has it all. It was a great experience with a great bunch of people in what has to be one of the prettiest and cleanest places in Europe.

I missed Gron?s amazing joke, (one of many), which apparently, once completely silenced an entire restaurant of diners! Maybe I?ll get to hear it during one of the club nights.

Thanks John, for the invite. I really enjoyed the holiday.

Gareth, Neath

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