Not waving, but drowning

Not waving, but drowning

I’ve lost it. I pull too hard to the left and the kite slams down into the water, dragging me along with it. Swallowing another mouthful of salty lagoon, I wonder which of the Hindu deities has forsaken me. Richly-decorated temples dot almost every village on Mauritius so divine intervention, or the lack of it, must surely be the reason I am being dragged face first through the waters off the Le Morne peninsula. Right about now I could use some of Ganesha’s wisdom, as well as a dollop of Hanuman’s courage. All things considered, my first foray into kite-boarding is not going well. 

How hard can it be, I’d thought to myself while lying on the beach on the southern coast of the island. Out in the lagoon, kite-boarders skimmed back and forth on the steady southeast trade winds, effortlessly soaring into the air before landing gracefully and disappearing in a spray of turquoise tropical seas. What fun, I thought, downing the last of my G&T and settling back on my lounger. Perhaps I should give it a go.

Which is roughly how I ended up standing waist-deep in the water one breezy winter afternoon, strapped to the end of a capricious kite with an angelically patient Russian making sure I didn’t drown. 

“You just need to relax,” soothed Dmitry Korchagin, my instructor from Pryde Club, one of a number of kite-boarding schools based on the Le Morne Peninsula. “Swing the kite from 10 o’clock to two o’clock, 10 and two, 10 and two. Control the kite with two fingers but you mustn’t fight it. Just like a horse there’s plenty of power, but you have to give it the right commands.”

Funny that; I’ve never been much good at horse-riding either.

A native of Siberia, Korchagin has been on Mauritius for the past five seasons and is living the lifestyle that desk-bound kite-boarding enthusiasts dream of. His summers are spent teaching and kiting in the Caribbean or Latin America, with winters on Mauritius to lap up the strong southeast trade winds that blow here between June and October.

For when the trades are blowing, there are few better places in the world to kite-board than the island’s Le Morne Peninsula.

“Mauritius is one of best kite-surfing destinations on the planet, and the southwest corner at Le Morne is kite-boarding heaven,” says Tony Cook, owner of Knysna-based Tony Cook Adventures. An instructor certified by the International Kiteboarding Organization, he runs tours to the island in winter for both novice and intermediate kiters. “The conditions are ideal for complete beginners learning in shallow water in the lagoon, but then around the corner at One-Eye you have one of the most insane left-hand barreling waves on earth.”

Riding tubes at One-Eye is the furthest thing from my mind though, as I focus on keeping my kite under control while avoiding being run over by kiters speeding past on either side. In mid-winter the lagoon at Le Morne throngs with kite-boarders. Imagine learning to fly a powerful kite in the middle of a busy freeway filled with flying cars, while someone throws cups of water in your face.

While the aerial traffic is intimidating, learning to kite-board is actually a fairly simple process. For my introductory lesson Dmitry starts me off with a small kite and I spend the two hours in the water learning to control the five-square-metres of sail. A deft touch is key and, surprisingly, almost no real strength is required.

A harness attached to my waist absorbs the pull of the kite which, when parked in ‘neutral’ directly overhead, barely moves at all. Only when the foil is dived to the left or right with a delicate tug on the control bar does the kite begin to pull me and – perhaps one day – my board through the water.

“It’s not about strength or power, it’s about control,” explained Dmitry as we suited up on shore. “You need two or three days to start learning to kite-board. A Discovery lesson is the beginning, just to see whether it’s something you want to continue with. In six hours of learning almost all people can take a board and make their first attempt to stand. If you have some board skills, maybe surfing or snowboarding, it helps a lot. After 12 hours you should be more or less independent.”

Although a dozen hours is enough to get most novices on their feet and kiting, lessons are usually split into two-hour blocks to allow for extra practise… and a little rest on the sun lounger. This is a holiday island after all.

Most of the island’s million or so annual visitors arrive in search of sunshine, but winter is when the kite-boarding crowds pull in. From June to October the southeast trade winds blow at a steady 15 to 25 knots each and every day. However, unless you’re a particularly discerning kiter there’s almost never a bad time to visit the island. 

“Mauritius has over 300 windy days per year, so the island is good for kite-surfing all year round,” says Korchagin. “The summer might not have as much wind, but the water is warmer and there are still plenty of days to kite. If there’s no wind, then we unpack the surfboards and go out to the reefs off Le Morne.” 

World-class kite-boarding conditions, hotels to suit every pocket and warm tropical waters have seen the sport’s popularity explode on the island. While there are no firm figures on the number of kite-boarders visiting the island “it is definitely growing,” says Vijaye Haulder, deputy-director of the Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority. “Five years ago there were no travellers coming here to kite-surf, but now every year we have many people who are coming for kite-surfing from all over the world.”

And while Le Morne is the poster-child for kite-boarding in Mauritius, it’s certainly not the only place on the island you’ll find kiters inflating their Bow, Hybrid and Foil kites.

Although the seabed has more coral than sandy Le Morne, the region of Bel Ombre a short drive to the east is fast becoming a popular choice for kiters tired of the crowds.

“The kite lagoon at Le Morne is too crowded; too many kiters and other schools,” says Kathrin Kühnert of Kite Globing based at C Beach Club alongside the popular Heritage Le Telfair resort. “In the lagoon at Le Morne you have to walk away from the beach for 10 minutes to find space between all the kiters. Here at Bel Ombre you can go straight off the beach. 

“The wind here is also cross-onshore, which is actually better because you can start sailing for longer downwind. Also, when the wind is from the east and there is no wind in Le Morne we still have wind on this coast.”

On the east coast, a short drive from the airport and the historic town of Mahebourg, Pointe d'Esny is becoming increasingly popular although the deep water and larger lagoon make it unsuitable for novices. However, long downwind runs to Trou d’Eau Douce and Ile aux Cerfs will tempt more proficient kite-boarders. The wide flat lagoon at Trou d’Eau Douce and sandy beaches at nearby Palmar offer yet more uncrowded waters for experienced kite-boarders.

“As a private kiter you can kite anywhere you like in Mauritius, but you must make sure there is someone on the beach looking out for you,” warns Kühnert. “If you arrive and you already know how to kite it’s still better to kite with a school that has a rescue boat. The currents here are strong and the channels are always pulling you out to sea. If something goes wrong and nobody is looking out for you, you can get into trouble.”

I, on the other hand, was already in all sorts of trouble: a kite in the water, gallons of lagoon up my nose and a deep unrequited yearning to return to my sun-lounger. I’d love to say I ended the day up and riding, the kite bobbing and weaving in the shadow of Le Morne’s iconic Brabant Peak. Perhaps it’ll be like that next time. But for now, One-Eye will have to wait.

First Published: 2015-04-01 HighLife, in-flight magazine for British Airways/Comair

Who is OnAnotherPlane...

RIchard Holmes headshot web smallRichard Holmes is a freelance travel, food and lifestyle writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. His work on African and international destinations has appeared in a wide range of consumer publications both in South Africa and abroad.