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Kiteboarding Through a Revolution

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Photo James Boulding

By James Boulding

Six years ago I had my first experience with Egypt when I decided that I wasn’t ready for a normal working life. After three years of intensive studying at university I was in desperate need of a change. I decided that becoming a kiteboarding instructor and taking a position teaching kiting in Egypt for the summer would give me the chance to both improve my riding and get a well-earned break. I vividly remember a phone call I received from my mom just a month before I left. “Turn on the news,” she said. This was in 2006 and a terrorist attack had just happened in the famous Egyptian windsurfing town of Dahab. Three bombs had gone off in the middle of town killing 23 people and injuring another 100.

Photo Manuela Jungo

Photo Manuela Jungo

I remember first thinking that maybe I hadn’t made the best decision. Dahab is very close to Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, so in my head I was able to put the whole thing down to civil unrest between the countries. I decided to go to Egypt anyway and ended up in Soma Bay, one of the best kiteboarding areas in the country. Soma Bay is located on the Red Sea and was a long way from the troubles in Dahab.

That first year I stayed and worked for five months and spent virtually the entire time at the Palm Royale Soma Bay Resort. Many of the resorts in Egypt are set up to provide everything you need. This, combined with the fact that many of the resorts are located nowhere near other attractions, means that most people who travel to Egypt to go kiteboarding stay put in one place. This is fine for a week or two, but five months was a lot of time to spend at one resort and kitesurfing center. Keep in mind that most of the land in Egypt is empty desert.

Only four percent of the total land is cultivated and permanently settled with most of the population living along the Nile River Valley. I definitely felt a little restricted, but at the time there were very few visitors coming to Soma Bay. The kite center I worked for was the only one open then and I felt like the master of the bay. For me it was a chance to kick back, kite every day, and forget everything I had learned over the previous years of studying. I had almost nothing to do except to go kiteboarding and it was the best training experience I’ve ever had.

Photo Manuela Jungo

Photo Manuela Jungo

Today things are much different in Soma Bay. Tourism has definitely grown in the area and you can now find throngs of Russian and European tourists on the beach. The hotel is also the home of a large marina and there are a lot of dive boats offering trips out to the nearby reefs that are thick with underwater life and beauty. Even still, the local hotels only fill up a third of the rooms at their busiest times, but due to the cheap labor and the high rates charged to guests these places seem to be able to get by just fine.

During the summer the water level drops in the Red Sea and on a low tide there is a long sand spit that appears in front of the main kiteboarding center in Soma Bay. Over my first summer there I think I developed a bit of a love affair with this piece of sand and the butter-smooth slick it created. Back then I was often the only kitesurfer in the area. The marina also used to be empty, so there was nothing upwind of the sandbar to block the wind. Now times have changed a little and the growth in tourism has led to more boats being in the marina, affecting the wind slightly.

Photo James Boulding

Photo James Boulding

It’s a little frustrating for me to ride here now since I know how good it once was, but the wind is just as steady as it used to be once you get about 200 yards away from the beach. There’s still plenty of great riding to enjoy in Soma Bay and there is now another kiteboarding center upwind of the marina offering the steadiest possible Egyptian wind and more open space than you’d dare to enjoy.

Both Soma Bay and Hamata, another great kitesurfing town located south of Soma Bay, are basically in the middle of the desert so life is all about activities on and in the ocean. There are other places to ride in Egypt that offer more activities and more of a nightlife, but they don’t offer riding conditions that aren’t as good or as consistent. I’ve been back to Egypt every year since 2006 for trips of different lengths. Some of the reasons I keep going back are the guaranteed sun, consistent wind, and amazing colors and backdrops for photos. For us in Europe Egypt is a quick and easy flight away. Given the amount of tourists that flock there every year for their one-two weeks of sunshine, you are guaranteed to find some cheap holiday flights.

Most travelers tend to book all-inclusive deals for their Egyptian vacations. A lot of European tourists looking for their annual fix of sun worshiping time like things easy and organized. Almost every kite center in Egypt is operated out of a waterfront hotel and this can be both good and bad. Staying at a hotel with a kite center will leave you free to kite when you want as you’ll be able to be on the water in a matter of minutes but these places aren’t always the best choice if you don’t want to spend your entire time at your hotel.

Photo James Boulding

Photo James Boulding

My advice is to always speak to the kite centers or kite tour operators before you book your trip as they will know the hotels best suited for the kite spots and know which ones are best for your budget. Flying in from another continent isn’t quite as cheap or easy as it is for people in Europe, but I really do think the trip can be well worth it if you are looking for a new kitesurfing experience. Also keep in mind that Egypt is home to the only still-standing wonder of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It’s the only place where you can check out the Great Pyramids of Giza and go kiteboarding on the same trip.

Over the last few years there has been a huge amount of media attention focused on the problems in Cairo, the change in the country’s leadership, and the unrest of the citizens on either side of the divide. The funny thing is I have never felt any type of danger in all my travels there. There has always been a high level of security presence everywhere I’ve been in Egypt, but most of the people holding guns give me the impression that they might have to think for a minute or two about which end the bullets come out if they ever had to use their weapon. In six years I’ve not noticed any change in security at all, even with all the current changes the country is going through. At each of the same checkpoints I recognize the same guards with their heads slumped down still sitting there enjoying a nice snooze.

Photo Andy Witschi

Photo Andy Witschi

Outside of Cairo it feels like you are actually in another country far away from the problems we see and hear on the news. To be honest the rest of the country is very different from Cairo. A trip to Cairo is a very different trip compared to visiting a kitesurfing resort on the Red Sea. Having talked to a lot of Egyptians that have become close friends over my time visiting their country it’s clear they think the same way too. In Cairo you will notice an especially strong presence of armed security, and this is designed to keep the tourists there feeling safe. This year I was in the country during the elections. Every night we would watch the dramas that were unfolding in Cairo from our hotel and every morning we would head out to kite without a second thought.

In my opinion the news tends to make events feel a lot closer to you than necessary. I’m not saying there is no danger at all, but I feel Cairo is about the same as any other big city. If you go to the wrong part of town at the wrong time looking for trouble you’ll have no problem finding it. The kitesurfing spots are nowhere near Cairo so you really feel separated from the big city atmosphere. Sharm-el-Sheiq and Hurghada are cities themselves and offer up a range of things to do when not kiteboarding. They are very touristy places though, so I’ve always stayed clear unless I’m on a nighttime party mission or looking for new food to try.

Photo James Boulding

Photo James Boulding

This summer I resisted my urge to go straight to Soma Bay and opted to first spend a few weeks in Hamata with fellow Liquid Force team rider Manuela Jungo. Manuela has developed a similar love affair with kitesurfing in Egypt and has spent a lot of time far south in the Red Sea near Egypt’s border with Sudan. Here you really are completely in the middle of nowhere, but the kiting conditions and backdrops are impressive. Varying sand colors turn the sea into a kaleidoscope of different colors during different times of the day.

During the afternoon, don’t be surprised to be riding in water that resembles milk in color, as this is normal on a typical afternoon. The shifting and glowing colors synonymous with Egypt make it a beautiful place to kitesurf. One of our goals for the trip was to gather new media for The Hi-Fi X, Liquid Force’s new C-kite. I knew this task would be made easy by the beautiful conditions. I’ve been to many places over the last few years for photo shoots and one of the great things about being a professional kiteboarder is that you quickly build up a database in your mind of memorable conditions and locations.

Photo James Boulding

Photo James Boulding

With Egypt there isn’t much variation in the conditions from one day to the next, but if you, like many visitors to Egypt, are searching for year-round sunshine, this is as safe a bet as any kite destination on the planet. For shooting photos and videos it is one of the only places where middle-of-the-day light generates some unique and beautiful conditions. Shooting in waist deep water you can find enough light reflecting from the glowing water that your subject is bottom lit, almost like a natural permanent flash. One piece of advice I’ll offer is that if you’re heading there with a camera, buy a polarizer. It will really add something special to your photos and will help you capture all the unbelievable colors that show up throughout the day.

After two weeks in Hamata we were ready for a bit more civilization so we packed our bags and headed up to ride with our old friends in Soma Bay. This was the first time I’d seen this part of the coastline and on the four-hour journey north I was astonished by the amazing potential of the empty coast. The Red Sea spans the entire length of the country and offers miles upon miles of kiteable locations. There are endless places just waiting to be explored. We arrived in Soma Bay where you can head upwind to find butter-flat conditions or head farther from shore to find reefs offering more flat-water riding.

Photo James Boulding

Photo James Boulding

It’s definitely worth making the effort to get away from the masses as you will quickly find yourself alone while enjoying some of the finest kitesurfing conditions possible. Here there’s plenty to do if you find yourself wanting to take a break from kiting. You can also go stand up paddling, wakeboarding, sailing, or take a trip out to the various reefs to snorkel. The spots in Egypt tend to get their best wind around midday and early afternoon. The wind then normally drops off in the evening so you can have a nice relaxing evening after a full day on the water.

While we were at Soma Bay was when the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi won the election in Egypt and I asked my longtime Egyptian friend what he thought of the election. “Cairo and the Red Sea are two different worlds,” he said. “A new president won’t mean much since the military already runs the country. Without tourism, Egypt would go bankrupt so they will always look after and protect the kitesurfers!”

It’s hard to really say how much Egypt’s tourism has been affected by its revolution and political issues, but on this last trip it was easy to see that tourism has really slowed down recently. The financial problems in the Eurozone have definitely also had an effect as many tourists look to travel closer to home to save money. Egypt is still a cheap place to travel and the tourists who come here are finding they can have an amazing vacation on a budget.

Photo Manuela Jungo

Photo Manuela Jungo

There’s no denying that Egypt is a strange place, and people who visit the country seem to love it or hate it. There will be certain things that annoy you, but they’re similar to problems and hassles common in all third-world countries. Go there with an open mind and you will return as a better kitesurfer with a new look on a country that has been heavily in the news for all the wrong reasons.

Egypt Kiteboarding Locations

There’s a range of locations to kite in Egypt and having kited at these five locations myself I would say I’ve sampled what Egypt has to offer. If you asked me which one was the best I would really have trouble choosing as there are a lot of variables.

Dahab: A cool funky town with a good variety of accommodations, but the kiting is not the best. The small lagoon is only kiteable on high tide and gets crowded with just a few kiters. For a mix of windsurfing, kiting, and good fun when not on the water, it’s a great destination.

Hamata: Some of the best kiting Egypt has to offer. In the peak summer months there’s very limited space during high tide. It’s perfect in the winter and ideal for learning with no reef. Hamata is in the middle of nowhere so expect little excitement outside of your hotel. The main school and riding spot is at The Kite Village (http://www.kite-village.com). For a great place to stay check out the Wadi Lahmy Azur Hotel (http://azur.travel).

Hurghada: Good nightlife and a choice of hotels. Average kitesurfing conditions with a good flat water sandbank at Colona Watersports.

Soma Bay: An hour south of Hurghada with not much to do outside of the hotels. At the Palm Royale Resort (http://www.palmroyaleresort.com) you can stay at 5-star hotel and kite right next to your room. The Big Dayz kitesurfing center (http://www.bigdayz.com) is based at the Palm Royale. The kitesurfing is good and there are options for boat trips to other spots. Good flat water during low tides in the summer and the riding is good for all skill levels. Big wind days here are in the 25-30 knot range.

Sharm el Sheiq: Crazy European party scene. The kite spot is good and is run by a friendly British couple. It’s not the nicest looking town, but if you want a wild nightlife for your kitesurfing trip this is a good option.

El Gouna: A few kite centers to choose from and a variety of accommodations. No big nightlife, but there is a new marina where you can find good food choices at a few restaurants and supermarkets.

Photo James Boulding

Photo James Boulding

Egypt Travel Facts

Visa: A passport and visa are required to visit Egypt, but tourists can obtain a renewable 30-day tourist visa on arrival at an Egyptian airport for a $15 fee.

Weather: Egypt has two seasons: a mild winter from November to April and a hot summer from May to October. Temperatures can easily get over 100° F in the summertime. The best time for wind depends on the spot.

Language: Egyptian Arabic is the commonly spoken language.

Food and Drink: Egypt is a fantastic place to sample a unique range of food. It’s usually not too spicy and nicely-flavored with herbs. Most of the hotels offer international buffets for breakfast, lunch, and dinner with different specialties each day. Don’t drink the tap water. Alcohol is prohibited by Islam, but there are social drinkers in Egypt and lots of tourists, so many restaurants serve beer and wine.

Safety: Egypt is a safe destination with low crime rates. Violent crimes against tourists are rare. Protests are still common in the capital city of Cairo. Check the news for the latest updates before you plan your trip

Transportation: Most cities have a bus system, but it’s much easier and safer to travel by taxi.

Other Activities: There’s plenty to do here in case you have the unlikely misfortune of not finding wind. Egypt has very nice diving and snorkeling, quad tours, camel rides, wakeboarding, tennis, golf, and beach volleyball.

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