Flying with kites
Victoria Harper on the thin line separating bird from man
Driving on the western shore of Sinai, just as you approach Ras Sidr, there is a bend in the road that opens to the sea. On most weekends, when the wind is right, you can't miss them. Exotic and rebellious, they dive and swoop like mythical birds of prey. Their colourful wings glisten under the sun in dazzling shades of green, purple, yellow and blue.
There is a thin line between bird and man; and you can learn how to cross it. But first you have to get to the beach and have a talk with Morgan.
The 33-year-old New Zealander has been teaching man how to fly for 10 years now. And today he will be my trainer. I booked two days of lessons at Soul Kitesurfing, Morgan's training centre, located on the beach of La Hacienda, a popular Ras Sidr tourist resort.
Morgan walks up to me with an odd-looking contraption. It's a cross between a chastity belt and a saddle, with the added advantage of a huge metal hook on the front. "This is the harness," he says while helping me into it, then, he buckles it low on my hips.
As I wonder what I've gotten myself into, Morgan tells me that over the last five years, Egypt has become a major kitesurfing hub. At least 40 centres have sprung up along the Red Sea coast, half of them in Sinai. As for Ras Sidr, kitesurfers from all over the world choose it for its 60 kilometres of sandy shorelines, shallow lagoons and steady winds. Just today, the riders around us are from Argentina, South Africa, Germany and the US.
The calm, shallow water off the sandy shore is a bonus for beginners who need a steady foothold in the early stages of learning.
Nina, a Swiss woman in her mid-40s who has been my friend since breakfast, started her training in South Africa, another country that attracts kitesurfers from all over. After finishing an initial 10-hour course, her coach advised her to try Ras Sidr next.
"It's easier here because you can just walk out into the water on the sand bars and you don't have to fight the waves," says Nina.
Enviously, I watch her zipping back and forth with her orange and blue kite. This is while I am still standing on the beach learning how to operate a training kite. Morgan points to the two lines connecting the wing tips to a control bar. He shows me how this bar steers the kite. You don't turn it as if it were the steering wheel of a car; rather, you push with one hand and pull with the other.
When I push the bar to the right, the kite doesn't react instantaneously. So I push harder. Wrong. Now the kite is out of control. It dives in an arc to my right and crashes onto the beach. I should have been patient. I should have waited a split-second to give the kite a chance to respond.
This takes a bit of getting used to as the movement is subtle and you always have to account for the wind. If the wind is strong, every command is amplified, and if the wind is gusty, it'll drive a beginner mad.
Gently, I push and pull the bar, directing the kite from left to right and from right to left in smooth figure eights. I'm starting to get the hang of it. Morgan gives me an approving look as I manage to keep my kite within the "wind window" he's been describing at length. Inside this wind window, the kite stays aloft. Stray outside it and the kite stalls then falls.
Piloting a kite is a cross between sailing a boat and flying a plane. You have to keep the wind in your sails while setting your wings at the right angle.
By 11am, I have graduated to a big-boy's kite, the kind you see in the air. It has a chubby inflated edge along one side and several inflated ribs extending across it vertically. This makes it more stable in the air and keeps it afloat when it's on the water.
My next lesson is about the "body drag". First, I must stand waist deep in the water and learn how to "power" the kite. Powering is all about the way the kite takes in wind. The more of the kite's surface you expose to the wind, the greater the thrust. I can "power" this new kite because it has two more lines than the one I was using on dry land. These two lines run through the middle of the bar and control the tilt of the kite. So, when I tug on the bar, I expose more kite to the wind, which makes it go faster. Easy, right?
Not so much. In practice, this particular manoeuvre turns out to be quite tricky. As the kite rises into the air and begins pulling me forward, my impulse is to rein it in. So I pull the bar towards me, the exact opposite of what Morgan has just told me to do. I powered my kite at the exact moment I should have depowered it. And I'm rewarded by flying face first into the water and my kite crashing with a splash in front of me.
Morgan laughs. "All beginners do that," he says, trying to make me feel better.
When I do it again, a few minutes later, he just shakes his head.
Twenty minutes and five crashes later, I'm an old hand. I steer the kite back and forth as it propels me through the water. The kite drags me along, lifting me into the air and setting me down several metres away. It's an exhilarating feeling, to be lifted and hoisted, gliding this way and that, all with just a flick of the hand.
Time to rest, Morgan finally ushers me out of the water and onto the shady porch of a bamboo cabana that doubles as the dining room and lounge of his beach-front office.
As we dig into our lunch, cheeseburgers and fries, Morgan is advising me to be more relaxed when handling the kite. It's a game of dexterity, not of strength, he tells me.
"Unlike windsurfing, where opposing forces are at play, with kitesurfing less is best. All you have to do is relax and hang on for the ride." Morgan is starting to sound like Rebecca, my yoga teacher.
The sport is hugely popular among 20- and 30-year-olds, but there is no age limit. Morgan has students in their 60s and 70s, and so far they have all lived to tell the tale.
While in the water at times I did have the sensation of just flowing with the wind. When you relax enough, as Morgan says, the bar becomes an extension of your arms and the more you coax it back and forth the less it feels like operating a machine. The bar, the lines, and the kite become part of you and the movement becomes natural. It all goes well... until the wind picks up.
A perfect day to learn kitesurfing is when the wind is between 15 and 25 knots. Now, to most people this doesn't mean much, but it's quite simple. If you are standing on the beach and you can feel the wind caressing your face and gently ruffling your hair, this is a relaxed 20 knots or so. Then imagine a wind that makes you turn your back and hold onto your hat. This is around 30 knots, and well beyond the range for beginners.
By 2pm, that is exactly what has happened. Just as I was getting back to the beach for my next session of the day, the wind cranked up to around 35 knots and Morgan had to cancel my lesson. I know Morgan doesn't want me to get hurt, but he's probably also thinking about the potential damage to his LE10,000 kite.
A couple of experienced riders dash into the water. They glide swiftly along the surface then rise into the air a metre or two above sea level. I, on the other hand, am beached for the day.
I plop into one of the overstuffed cushions next to Ingie who's taking a mid-day break. The attractive, slim brunette in her mid-20s has been in love with the sport for almost two years. She's had several rounds of classes, a total of 18 hours so far, and intends to take more. Hearing Ingie discuss plans with Aldo, her Argentinean trainer, I suspect she's getting ready for next summer.
Over the last four years, Soul Kitesurfing has held a mid-summer competition, called King of the Lagoon. It started out as an easy-going casual affair, just an opportunity for friends and acquaintances to get together and check out each others' moves.
Then last year, something unexpected happened. Two world class professionals, one from Argentina and another from the Netherlands, showed up for the games and took the wind out of everyone else's sails, so to speak. Watching with awe and envy, a crowd of skilled amateurs began to re-evaluate their own skills. As the professionals performed one sophisticated trick after another, the regulars began to see things differently. Now they want to train at a professional level. Some even spoke to Morgan about forming an Egyptian team for the 2016 Olympics.
Although he doesn't have the official wherewithal to form a national team, Morgan did the next best thing. He started what he calls a kitesurfing boot camp. It is a stringent programme of diet, exercise and training that aims to turn skilled amateurs into fearsome professionals. In the camp, participants spend hours analysing videos of the best kitesurfing performances, train on the trickiest manoeuvres and take their kites to new heights, pun intended. In kiting circles, the best performers are those who can stay in the air longer, fly higher, or perform any number of acrobatics while air-borne.
Love of the sport is not enough; you can spend some serious cash just getting started. A 12-hour course, necessary before you can start kitesurfing on your own, will set you back around LE3,200. Accommodations at La Hacienda or its equivalent in Ras Sidr start from about LE400 per night. Once you've mastered the sport, you can reduce your costs by purchasing your own equipment. A kit of harness, board and kite costs between LE6,000 and LE15,000, depending on whether you buy it second hand or new.
Five years ago, the business of kitesurfing in Egypt was geared almost exclusively towards tour packages. A prospective kiter driving in from Cairo for a day of training would have difficulty booking a lesson at one of the centres attached to a five-star hotel. This is why Morgan and his friend Sherif thought about starting a centre tailored for local clients. Sherif raised the funds and handled the legalities, while Morgan and his girlfriend Catherine tackled the business side of the operation. Catherine is now sitting in her open-air office typing e-mails to new clients, arranging bookings and enjoying a panoramic view of their private lagoon and kiters gliding along the coast.
Morgan spends 10 hours or more at the beach every day, strapping students to harnesses, explaining the "wind window" and "power zone", and keeping his eye on the more experienced riders, offering them tips and showing them the occasional trick.
On his one day off, he confided, he and Catherine go back to their flat, pull down the shades, and turn on the TV. "After six days in the sun and wind, a quiet day inside is all you want."
For the rest of the day, I stay in my room, reading magazines and dreaming of wind that will ruffle my hair but not blow my hat off; a perfect wind.
But it was not to be. The next day, as the wind accelerated to 35 knots, I said my goodbyes to Morgan, Catherine and their crew of intrepid riders. Driving away, as the kites faded in my rear view mirror, I make a promise to myself: I will be back.
Where to learn kitesurfing in Ras Sidr:
Soul Kitesurfing at La Hacienda Beach Resort: www.soulkitesurfing.com,www.soulkitesurfing.com,www.lahaciendarassudr.com.
Moon Beach Resort: www.moonbeachholidays.com.www.moonbeachholidays.com./p>
CNS Fun Kite at Paradise Beach Resort: www.fun-kite.com,www.fun-kite.com,www.paradiserassudr.com.
Fly Kitesurfing: www.flykitesurfing.com.www.flykitesurfing.com./p>
Phoenix Kitesurfing at Holiday Fantasia: www.phoenix-kitesurf.com,www.phoenix-kitesurf.com,www.rassudr.net/hotels-resorts/fantasia.