Words and Photos by Paul Lang
I can very easily break down the trips I get invited on into two categories. Trips falling into the first category are the ones where I have to weigh the pluses and minuses of going before I can commit. These are the trips where I have to ask myself “Will it be productive? Will I be able to get photos? Is it worth the time away from home? Does it fit into my schedule?” After carefully considering the pros and cons I either accept the offer or politely turn it down. Trips that fall into the second category are a little different. These are the ones I commit to without much thought or consideration. When North Kiteboarding extended an offer for me to join them in Mauritius for their 2013 European dealer meeting, I immediately put the offer into the second category, said yes, and worked out the details later.
Located in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Madagascar, Mauritius is quite literally on the opposite end of the globe from my home in California. I knew very little about the country other than the fact that it’s consistently windy, warm, and the home of a world-class kitesurfing wave. Mauritius has received a fair amount of coverage through the KSP World Tour and previous videos and magazine stories, but I was confident that I would be able to explore the island and get enough of a feel for the place while I was there to be able to tell a unique story. I confirmed the trip dates with North, booked my ticket, and then neglected to find out any additional details about the trip, a minor detail that would led me to believe, briefly, that I wouldn’t be allowed into the country.
After a seemingly endless amount of time sitting on planes, I confidently walked up to the immigration desk in Mauritius and presented my passport and immigration form to the seated officer, a short man with a huge mustache. Since I didn’t know where I’d be staying, I had just written “kiteboarding” in the open space that asked for my address during my visit. I’ve written similar things on immigration forms for other countries and not once had anyone even raised an eyebrow while inspecting my documents. That was not to be the case this time. The officer looked up at me, let out a sigh, and asked me to step aside and wait until everyone else in line had passed through. Soon I was the last person waiting to be admitted into the country and he proceeded to ask me a lot of questions that I did not have the answer to. I’ll admit these were simple questions I should have known. It really is a good idea to know how to answer questions like “Where are you staying?” or “Who is picking you up from the airport?” when arriving in a foreign country, and he didn’t seem to like my vague responses.
I know it sounds ridiculous that I wouldn’t find out this basic information before flying halfway across the world, but my traveling experiences have taught me that the best course of action (and the most interesting one) is to simply show up somewhere and figure it out from there. However, this time I think I took the “figure it out as I go” plan a little too far. I pulled out my phone and dug through all the emails regarding this trip, hoping to come across a mention of where I was staying or maybe even a phone number I could call. No such luck. After a lot of insisting on my part, I was allowed out of the airport with a security guard following me to make sure I didn’t make a run for it while I was checking to see if there was anyone outside waiting to pick me up. I scanned all the hand held signs for my name and approached everyone I thought looked like a kiteboarder to ask if they were here for the North Kiteboarding meeting. Again, no luck.
Back in the airport the immigration agent folded his arms, looked at me sternly, and just shook his head. I had now been at the airport for over two hours and was tired, frustrated, and didn’t know what to do next. I was about to be taken to an office to wait while the immigration officers figured out what to do with me when I approached the counter for a Mauritian travel company. You see counters like these in airports of any tourist destination usually offering overpriced special deals on local transportation and tours. On a whim I gave them my name and asked if they had any reservations for me. To my complete amazement, they did. A taxi had been waiting for me in front of the airport but the driver left after waiting for over an hour. They called the driver and told me I was staying at the Mornea Hotel in Le Morne. With my passport finally stamped I hurried outside to find my taxi driver who warmly welcomed me to the country.
Finally out of the airport I got my first look at Mauritius as Izam, my taxi driver, excitedly talked about his country. Izam was amazed to hear that I was from California as visitors from North America are rare here. During the hour long drive to Le Morne, we passed through endless sugar cane fields and small towns. The roads were narrow but clean and well-maintained until the last half mile before reaching the hotel when the road became deeply rutted dirt. The open lobby of the hotel was full of bright couches and pillows, and I was immediately offered a seat, a hot towel, and a drink that I could only describe as delicious in taste and orange in color. Barbara from North welcomed me and told me about the upcoming week’s activities, and I was quickly shown to my room. I checked the time and after a doing a little math I realized it had taken me 39 hours of traveling to get here from the time I left home. Alone in my quiet room, I stared at the bed for a few moments and thought about immediately going to sleep, but quickly changed my mind, put on a pair of board shorts, and went down to the beach. The best way to quickly get used to a new time zone is to avoid falling asleep before night, so I figured the only way to stay awake was to get on the water.
I had seen plenty of photos and videos of Mauritius before coming here, but I had no idea how concentrated the riding spots here are. Le Morne is the center of kitesurfing and windsurfing on Mauritius and while there are a few other ridable spots on the island, very few people ride anywhere other than Le Morne. Directly in front of our hotel was a huge flat water lagoon with a shallow, mostly sandy bottom. About a half mile offshore I could see waves pounding the outer reef. I wandered down the beach and found the North crew well set up with an outrageous amount of brand new equipment to demo. At the beach I finally had the chance to meet North’s Philipp Becker in person after years of working with him through email and Skype. I picked out a kite, board, and harness and got a little information about the surf spots before heading out.
Directly in front of where we were setting up and launching kites was one of just two deep channels through the reef. About half a mile straight offshore was Manawa, a typically large, crumbly wave that breaks far from shore. The wind direction is side-on at Manawa and it lies next to the channel, creating an easy way to get out after every wave. Downwind from Manawa is Little Reef, which is usually smaller and steeper. Further downwind the land curved away and directly in front of that point was the attraction I was most excited to expereince on this trip: One Eye.
As a goofy footer living in California, sometimes it seems like I’m destined to forever kitesurf backside. The photos and videos I’d seen of One Eye basically perfectly matched my dream wave: Fast, steep, hollow, and, most importantly, a left. I was really anxious to get down to One Eye, but for once I listened to that little voice in my head that was telling me that it probably wasn’t a good idea to tackle a fast, powerful wave breaking over a shallow, sharp reef in my slightly delirious, sleep-deprived state. I rigged up a 9m for Manawa thinking I’d stay away from the shallow reef until I got at least a little rest.
While riding through the channel out to Manawa, the tide was on its way out and the strong currents were very noticeable. During tide changes, the entire lagoon drains and fills through just two channels – one at Manawa and the other downwind of One Eye. When combined with the fact that the waves in Le Morne are far from shore, the currents create a potentially dangerous situation. Break down at the wrong time and the swim back in against the current wouldn’t just be long, it would be impossible. This is especially worrying at One Eye, where the wind blows side-off. Of course, there are rescue boats on hand from Club Mistral who will pick up troubled or broken down windsurfers and kiters for about $35. When you consider that the alternative is floating around the Indian Ocean for hours or even longer, this is well worth it.
North had hired two boats to be on site and provide rides back to the beach at no charge, but they were only on the water until 4:30 pm. At that time the wind seemed to get flukey everyday, so venturing outside the reef late in the afternoon with no potential rescue is very risky. After riding in really crowded conditions at Manawa, frustration set in and I headed in. The many hours of traveling and lack of sleep had taken their toll on me, and I felt like I couldn’t even talk in complete sentences. After taking a shower I decided to lay down for just a minute sometime around 5 pm and immediately fell asleep, not waking up until the next morning.
After devouring a huge amount of food at the buffet breakfast, I headed to the beach and got back on the water. I went back to Manawa and had a much better session, realizing my frustration from the day before was caused as much by my state of mind as the crowds. To be sure, there were still a lot of people in the water and, for the most part, a shocking disregard of surf etiquette, but the slow, overhead lefts were well worth the minor hassles. Back on the beach I joined a group of Italian North dealers to do a kite comparison. Over the course of the afternoon, I rode every new North kite on every available setting. The only way to truly compare kites is to ride them back to back on the same board in the same conditions. The subtle differences between the different models and different settings were obvious. The kite comparison having taken up the entire afternoon, I still hadn’t ridden One Eye.
That night I again ate too much at the buffet dinner before hitting the bar to down a few of the local Stag beers with some of the other magazine editors on the trip. Rou Charter of England-based IKSURF, Thijs Vunderink of the Dutch Kitesurf magazine, and I ended up making full use of the all-inclusive (drinks included) part of our stay at the hotel and made good friends with barman Jean-Paul. All of us were here on a working trip and each lamented that we should have been sending emails or doing something else productive instead of sitting at a bar. Unfortunately, the internet wasn’t just slow at our hotel, it was downright useless. It would have been better if it didn’t work at all because at least that would have saved us hours of staring at our screens trying to will the internet into working. The internet worked just enough at times that I was able to get an email or two through, but that was about it. At first we were all a little stressed about the fact that we were falling behind on work, but a few Stags and a couple shots of whiskey helped the situation.
I was also able to catch up with Tom Court, who I had seen just a few months before in Hood River. He had already been in Mauritius for a week, but this was his first time here as well. For most Europeans, Mauritius is known as a honeymoon resort destination, not for kiteboarding. “Before coming here I only knew about the white sand beaches and immaculately groomed hotels that the tourism brochures show, but now it feels like this five-star image the island has built is a tiny bit misleading,” Tom said. “Outside the resorts Mauritius is a charming and down-to-earth island with small tropical villages scattered around the stunning mountains that dominate the interior of the island. It’s a beautiful place, but the highly privatized coastline and heavy tourism seem to kill the sense of local flavor.” Tom was staying in a nearby house and discovered exploring the coastline to be a little difficult. “If you aren’t staying in one of the hotels, it can be difficult to get to the beach at certain places to explore the potential. Having said that, there is a public beach at One Eye, and it’s rare to find a place that has so much world-class kiting in one spot. Right there is a flat water lagoon on the inside, kickers on the reef, and then crunching scary waves barreling out the back. I’d say it’s one of the best all-around spots I’ve been to for kiting.”
The next day delivered more great kitesurfing conditions, so I decided it was time to head down to One Eye. As I don’t ride around reefs very often, I have a healthy fear of shallow reef breaks and have to admit that I was a little nervous about riding the infamous spot. I saw many boards coming in damaged after being ridden too close to the reef and Philipp told me after the trip that they broke 25 fins over two weeks. Kirsty Jones, who has visited Mauritius a number of times and knows One Eye well, told me not to worry and she, Tom, and I took off from the beach riding downwind. Still nervous about the reef, I took my time finding a wave to line up on and watched other riders catch a few waves first. The faces this day were around eight feet and were so fast that I fell off the back of the first few waves I tried to catch as they outran me. Finally finding myself in the right position with enough speed I caught my first wave at One Eye. This wave wasn’t the best one of the trip, but it was the most exciting.
To catch a wave at One Eye, you start by basically claiming it far outside and riding as fast as you can to stay slightly ahead of it. As the wave begins to get steeper and taller you release your edge and go screaming down the smooth vertical face of the wave while hoping the wave doesn’t section and break in front of you. If it does begin to close out, the only option is to edge hard and try to get in front of it, which isn’t super easy because of the side-off wind direction. If you do get in front of the whitewater when the wave breaks, there’s very little room to do anything as you’ll find yourself over the reef in less than a foot of water. On my first wave I’m sure my eyes suddenly widened as I took off with a lot of speed and could clearly see the reef flying by just below my board. The noise of the wave steadily crashing on the reef right behind me was incredible. At the end of the wave I let out a yell, took a deep breath, and worked my way back upwind for more.
With each wave I pushed myself to ride deeper and deeper as my level of confidence rose, though I got washed around a bit in the process. My fear of the reef lessened with every wave, and the nervousness I had at the beginning was replaced by sheer excitement. After getting my fill, I went back to the beach and grabbed my camera as Kirsty went back out along with Airton Cozzolino Lopes and Patri McLaughlin. I hopped in the photo boat and took a few shots from the channel as the wind began to back off. There was still enough wind to ride, but One Eye became even cleaner and more hollow, allowing Airton and Patri to tuck into the cleanest barrels I’ve ever seen kitesurfed in person.
The rest of the trip became a blur of eating buffet meals, kitesurfing One Eye, and drinking Stag beer in the evenings. My goal for this trip was to spend time exploring outside of the main kiteboarding area trying to get a feel for what the island of Mauritius is really like. I usually pride myself on digging a little below the surface of the places I visit. For me kiteboarding trips are about more than just the kiteboarding potential of a place. I try to make my trips about the people, the cultures, and the local food as much as the actual riding, and I traveled to Mauritius with the full intention of getting off the beaten path and finding out what the island was really like. That plan went out the window after catching my first wave at One Eye. All I wanted to do from that point on was to ride that wave. Other than one morning trip up the coast to an area where we swam with dolphins, I never left the resort area until it was time to begin the long journey home. I knew I was missing out on an opportunity to experience a new culture, and I felt like I was ignoring what I had traveled so far to accomplish, but I honestly didn’t care. If I wasn’t in the water, all I wanted to do was get back out there. Sometimes traveling is about searching out experiences and making connections that are beyond the average tourist experience, but sometimes it is simply all about the riding.
Like this travel story? Want more? Check out our Volume 9 Number 4 Spring 2012 issue now available online for free. Yes, free.