Dubai = malls, beaches and brunch?
Or floating amongst the worlds’ tallest skyscrapers, flying through the mountains and skimming the Arabian sand dunes at sunset?
With the launch of the first UAE Hike and Fly Championships, the top pilots from around the world gathered in Dubai this November to sample all the desert air has to offer.
While the first days competition was a launch from the roof in challenging winds, by evening the wind flow allowed the competitors to take back to the skies for a sunset flight, that could only be described by one competitor as ‘unforgettable.’
For those perhaps thinking the flying would be anything but challenging, the launch conditions and the skills displayed at take-off from the pool were very much on display. With little more than 10 meters square to launch, wind shifting from behind and then to the side and that rather large first step, pilots needed a moment of perfection to leap off the ledge.
As most competitors were in Dubai for the first time, and it was the first major international competition in the UAE, it was as much an exploratory journey and a chance to fly where they never had before as something they came to win. But being naturally competitive, any plans for just a relaxing holiday were soon put aside and the tactics, the speed through the sands and up the mountains were hard fought moments of heat and sweat as they learned the ways of the desert
From the city, the pilots moved out to the Hagar Mountains and Jebel Jais, flying from near the top of the UAE’s highest point, soaring along the brown rocky ridges and down into the depths of the Wadis to land kilometers away far below.
The worlds top pilots were well represented, with many of the “worlds’ toughest race” Red Bull x-Alps competitors in attendance. From the winner of that race Chrigel Maurer, to second placed Patrick von Kanel, to the youngest, and also winner of the first two tasks here in the UAE, Tommy Friedrich.
Away from their many fans in Europe, it was a rare opportunity to talk everything from their shoes (Chrigel Maurer is a fellow Lowa Ambassador), to Antoine’s route flying up the Baltoro Glacier and over the heights of Broad Peak.
The final two flying tasks of the competition were at the very popular flying site at Al Faya, just an hour outside Dubai.
With a long ridge several hundred meters high, the desert winds create strong lift for kilometers, pushing pilots far above the dunes. This provides local pilots with frequent opportunities to fly for hours, especially with the prevalent strong afternoon wind flow in from the Gulf of Arabia.
The third and fourth tasks took pilots along the ridge, with a start up a huge sand dune backed up onto the ridge, then, (thankfully) out of the sand and into the air. The pilots flew up and out of sight, before returning along the ridge to drop down into the landing area.
Al Faya, in Sharjah, with the sun setting, the soft desert winds flowing, the dunes radiating the last rays, is nothing less than a magic place. You fly suspended between the golden sand, the dark rocky ridge that soon fades far below you and sail into the deepening blue of the sky.
As evening approaches, and the orb of the sun sets, gliders glow orange and we often touch down just as nightfall sweeps the desert.
With the competitors making a last 2 km. run across the dunes back from their final desert landing checkpoint, local pilots all took to the sky.
As expected, we were soon joined by a host of the worlds’ best, that even after a week of competition, were getting in one last, memorable flight skimming the dunes until sunset, before they headed home.
With the international cast of pilots assembled, the tasks flown and for many, the chance to experience flight over Dubai and the cool of the desert at end of day, long after the days competition was finished, it was a rare opportunity to see and experience a side of the UAE that few imagined.
While with any ‘first’ there are unknowns, risks and rewards, it was in those final moments in the desert, skimming the dunes with the competitors after they were finished for the day, scooping handfuls of sand and doing wingovers in the evenings warm winds sweeping over the desert, with the sun burning orange into the horizon, that the success of the UAE hike and fly championship was most evident.
Gui Padua’s vision was realized in the end, with great support across the UAE to help create a unique gathering in a place with so many opportunities for real adventure.
As one prize winner commented to me at the closing ceremony, -“I’m going to buy my family a few great presents so they will be happy when I come back and fly again next year.” Or maybe he will just have to bring them all along with him.