July 25, 2018
This year will mark 30 years of flying for Zep, who was one of the pioneers of paragliding in the Soča Valley, and has seen it all, many times, from thousands of metres in the air, both on his own and in tandem with the customers he shares the experience with.
I sat down with him and his wife and partner, Jelena, on a recent visit to Bovec, where he tried to persuade me to cast off the shackles of gravity and rise above it all. I politely declined, having only brought one pair of pants on my trip, but I did manage to ask some questions, as reported below. (And note that all the videos shown here feature Zep and his clients.)
Your business is just paragliding now?
Yes, before we also did canyoning, but this year only tandem paragliding. I’m getting older, and canyoning can be a lot of cold water. Also, with paragliding there’s obviously more risk, so I need to be focused, and I didn’t like that I’d be canyoning in the cold water and two hours later up in the air. The customers like it too, that they can have the full attention of someone who not only knows the flying and the weather, but also knows the area and its history.
What’s the procedure if someone wants a flight?
You can book online, but if you come into the office then we can explain it to you, in English, Italian, Russian, Serbian, Croatian or Slovene – we don’t know German and French, sorry – but we explain what will happen, what we expect from you, what you need to wear, all the details. We then provide all the driving, which is maybe driving to the take-off or a cable car up to Kanin. When you have all the details, and maybe ask some more questions, then you can decide whether to do it or not.
What special clothes do you need?
Just normal sportswear. Hiking boots are best, but trainers are also good. In the summer you can be in shorts, because we give you some overalls, and of course you also get the harnesses and helmets.
And you can wear glasses?
Of course. It’s not jumping in the water. Also, the take-off is very smooth – you run a little and the glider inflates. It’s not like a BASE jump or sky-diving.
How long does it all take?
If you’ve already booked and we know in advance, so we can get the pilot and driver, if needed, then the whole thing takes about two hours. And booking in advance is always best, because then we can plan for the weather. Today we could fly until 12, but then it was cooking up a thunderstorm for the afternoon, like you saw, so we had to do everything in the morning.
And if people don’t book it’s hit and miss. Maybe we are free to go now, maybe you need to come back in one or two hours, or perhaps another day. None of this is like the Swiss railway, it all depends on the weather. Thunderstorms, snow, rain, too strong a wind, not a good wind – these are the conditions we don’t fly in. This is the big difference with rafting, when it can all be planned in the last few minutes.
Still, with us you can do anything, if the weather agrees.
Is this something anyone can do?
Yes, but paragliding is still an individual thing, which is why we talk about it first, what to do, what to expect, no hurry. We explain everything on the drive too, and again before take-off.
It’s a very gentle take off, just a few steps on a grassy slope and then you’re in the air. You’re in the air for about 30 minutes, and we check on you while up there. Sometimes people get a little nauseous because maybe they ate too much, or the thermalling was too much, or they just didn’t know what to expect, but that’s very rare.
Gliders are very developed now, so they’re safe, even for the landing we can do it so I come down first, on my legs, and the guest can keep their legs up and come down on their behind, where there’s an airbag in the harness. Very soft. But if someone wants to try it then they can also run on the landing, where it’s just a few metres going horizontal, not a vertical drop.
So there are no physical limits for this?
You have to understand how the wing works, and until you’ve experienced it there’s always some fear, but I’ve taken people who are old, like 87, and others who are already handicapped. I’ve also taken pregnant women, and children who were seven years old. But the last one is also where the problem can be. Sometimes parents want to push their children to fly, but we can see that, and if we get there and a child is hiding behind their mother, say, then they shouldn’t jump. Spending 30 minutes with a stranger in the air isn’t for everyone, and they can always do it later.
What about some of your more memorable customers?
Once we had an American guy who was 78, and before he was a pilot in the Vietnam War. He went on a tandem flight, and the next morning he came back and asked to do it again. Then he came back in the afternoon and asked about thermalling, and we said yes, OK, come back tomorrow about mid-day, when it’ll be really rough, and he did.
Now thermalling is when you ride on the hot air and rise higher and higher, like a bird. It’s not for everyone, but he loved it. You take off at 1400 and you can fly up to 2900 meters [note: Triglav, Slovenia’s highest mountain, is 2864m], then from there you can travel to another mountain. Of course, as you go over a valley you lose height, but then you find the next thermal and you go up again. If you know how to read the land then you can fly for hours with thermals, although sometimes it’s rough, and not always for tourists.
Anyway, the American loved it, and actually he came back and wanted to learn how to do it, so he learned how to do it in his 80s.
How long does it take to learn?
Short answer, all your life. On the first day of a training you can fly a few meters of the ground for ten metres, but then you need to learn the theory, meteorology, security, technical flying and so on. In theory one week will give you a basic course, but then the problem is the weather, so the beginning courses usually take two months. The best way to learn is somewhere near your home, not in the mountains, because you can learn on a hill, on the flat.
Mostly we get people who come here for some fun, who want to go up in the air, see the country, and learn about the area, too.
Is this just a summer thing?
More or less. The season is April till September. The problem in winter is the winds aren’t so reliable. That said, it’s nice to take off and land on skis, and in April you can take off on skis and come down and land on the grass with wild flowers. It’s beautiful
Where do you like flying most?
I love gliding in my hometown, but when you’re flying your hometown is like 100 km2, so that means Mangart, Kanin, Stol, the whole Soča Valley. I’ve been around the world flying, but this is the place I like best, my kindergarten, my home, and I have a lot friends I can fly with.
There are quite a lot of fliers from the old days, it gets in your blood. It’s not adrenalin, because that’s negative, its stress. For me it’s the hormones of love when I’m flying, a feeling of peace.
If you’d like to learn more about Zep, or maybe book a session in the air, then you can do so at Avantura.