By Tom Court
People travel for all sorts of reasons these days whether it’s for a holiday, for business, or to connect with people and cultures that are far removed from your normal life. There’s a lot of reasons to hit the road, but traveling for sport has become one of the biggest drivers of the tourism industry over the last twenty years. With the explosion of cheap air travel and niche industries like surf tourism, we now see year-round crowds at even the most remote surf breaks. This has brought money and development to some of the furthest reaches of the most remote countries and helped develop tourism where there was previously nothing.
Many other sports have been part of this explosion in leisure pursuits, but kiteboarding is one of the newest sports to add to this phenomenon. Having only been around as a sport for a short fifteen years, kiting has rapidly expanded to touch and change the lives of thousands of people around the globe. Kiteboarding has grown to a point where you can find kiteboarders on almost any consistently windy beach in the world. Largely a product of the internet and the ability to rapidly share information, it hasn’t taken kiteboarding long to gain purchase in the industries that surround it, and with a mixture of wakeboarding, surfing, skating, and sailing, the audience with which it sparks interest are not to be underestimated.
When you look at sports like surfing, it’s hard to compete with the ‘soul searching’ inspiration that it represents. However, I feel surfing has paved the way for the concept of following the endless summer, of searching for the perfect wave and capturing the imagination with a sense of exploration. It has exposed new places and people to the world and given us a reason to travel. What limits surfing though is the need for waves. It is tethered to the exposed oceans and reliant on seasonal swells that circle the globe and in many ways is stifled by the crowds that already seek to find a slice of the perfection that awaits on the various reefs of the world.
Kiteboarding may not seem like the deep and soulful sport that surfing has become, but I think it brings a lot more to the table than most people give it credit. It’s just a matter of perspective. Over the past few years, I have set a personal goal to discover at least one new kiteboarding spot in the world each year. These have included places that I have never been before or places that I haven’t seen many people riding. The more undiscovered the better. I haven’t limited myself to a certain style of kiteboarding either. I have seen these trips as a chance to explore something new and indulge in some proverbial freeriding. Whether it be on the flattest water possible, kickers, or the most gnarly waves in the area, I just want to find spots and ride them. In the past two years alone, this desire to ride new places and travel with kiteboarding as my inspiration has taken me to places like Peru, Mauritius, the Philippines, Chile, and, in this case, Sri Lanka.
As an interesting aspect of kiteboarding, traveling to a country to find the flattest water and wind is something that seems ludicrous to most surfers. It’s an unimaginable fate – going to a country that has waves and yet choosing to seek out to the flat, lagoon sheltered coast and spend two weeks there in a grass hut with nothing except flat water and wind to keep you company. Well, as crazy as this would seem, and indeed I am a surfer too, this is exactly what I have done for the last two weeks here in Kalpitya, Sri Lanka. I’ve been in search of the ultimate freestyle spot, a place to ride uncrowded flat water, try some new tricks, and film my adventures. For me this is excitement of a different kind.
Actually, I have been to Sri Lanka before, so it’s not a totally new location for me. I came here once last year for the first time to ride the seemingly endless lagoons that exist on the west coast. It was an amazing trip, and we traveled the country end to end, seeing the national parks and tea plantations, flying the island in military helicopters, and experiencing the temples and wildlife. A seemingly endless array of natural spectacles can be found across Sri Lanka, and we saw as much as we could during that previous two-week trip. With so much to do, I only briefly experienced the perfection of the flat water kiting in the lagoons, so I knew I was going to have to return on a freeride mission. So here I am, almost exactly a year later. This time I’ve got no other places to see. I’m only here to ride.
Fabio Ingrosso, a good friend of mine, has been working hard over the past year to build a kite school and center on the edge of the lagoon at Kalpitya, and I had an invite stay with him and check out the development. Only a year has passed since my last visit and yet it was amazing to see the changes that have been made with the small lagoon-side developments around Kalpitya. From the empty, deserted, palm-tree-scattered lagoon with not a person in sight, the transformation has brought palm-tree-constructed buildings, lagoon-side huts, and a bustle of boats and kiters crossing the lagoon.
Fishermen are providing for the local boat transportation demand and locals are using their beach huts to accommodate the lunch time kiteboarders, selling them cold beers and refreshments. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It really brought home to me the power that kiteboarding now has as a sport, the power to create industry and to bring people from all over the world together. The attraction of this expanse of flat water alone and the prospect of exploration have created a destination that simply didn’t exist before. Kalpitya is a freestyle playground to learn tricks, to practice new moves, and to lace into some of the most consistent wind and flat water that Sri Lanka has to offer.
I stayed there for two weeks spending my time riding the platitudes of flat water spots, doing downwinders, and fitting in as many boat trips as we could. The Sri Lanka Kite Center is right on the edge of the lagoon, and you can launch from the school and ride to the sandbar on the other side. This sandbar offers an amazing freestyle setup with mirror-flat water and invariably constant wind. There are also a lot of other kite spots available that are not so easy to access, but they are well worth the mission. With the help of a local fishing boat it is possible to drive downwind for about forty minutes. This will take you deep into a military-controlled zone towards the north of the island. Having only just escaped the grip of a long civil war, the army still has a big presence on the island. This serves to enhance the excitement, although if you go there with the kite camp, then there is nothing to worry about as the military presence helps to keep these kite spots pretty empty most of the time. Once you have entered this area, there is an expanse of small sand islands within the lagoon, none of them higher than about fifteen feet and all of them with butter-flat offshore sections. Each one is bigger than the last until you eventually reach one that has a flat offshore kite spot that stretches for about four miles. This is one of the best freestyle spots I have ever seen anywhere in the world!
You can either do day trips to these spots, or for those who are more adventurous, it is possible to stick a tent and sleeping bag in the boat and spend the night on these remote islands. For a real sense of Sri Lankan life you can sleep under the stars, cook on an open fire, and wake up to empty flat water perfection in every direction. It really is pretty cool. It is fair to say that the hardcore night kite sleepovers are not for everyone, but the knowledge that you have a nice sheltered kite camp to go back to the next day makes the whole thing more relaxing. When you see the local Sri Lankan fishermen living on these tiny islands in nothing more than a palm tree hut with their equivalent of a stand up paddleboard for transport and their fishing nets for survival it can put life into perspective a little bit.
One thing is for certain, if you visit the Kalpitya Lagoon for any period of time, you will get a lot of kiteboarding in, as long as you don’t go too early or too late in the season. Time on the water comprises the biggest part of each day there, with little else to distract you except the company of like-minded kiters. The seemingly consistent trade wind that blows from the south can be a little gusty, but it seems to always be on. There is no shortage of action on the water and after just a few days you will be laying in a hammock letting your muscles recover from the relentless riding. As one of the best and most-used services that they offer at Sri Lanka Kite, the resident kite instructor and masseuse Mateo can offer some much-needed massage and stretching advice to keep you on the water each day, regardless of how much you hurt. And trust me, you will hurt!
While I was there this time round, we took the opportunity to do a little clinic, some informal coaching, and a bit of advanced training with some of the guests at the Sri Lanka Kite School. The flat water helps to create an amazing spot to refine your skills with a kite, whether you are learning the basics like upwind progression or going for more advanced tricks. The lagoon in front of the kite school is as good as it gets. Working on new tricks, cruising between spots, or just riding with mates for encouragement, the Kalpitya Lagoon pretty much has it all from a freestyle perspective. The windy season spans from mid-May until September, so there is plenty of time in the year to visit without worrying about wind. It can vary from 12m weather all the way down to powered on a 7m, so taking a few kite sizes will pay off and make sure you get the most water time possible.
If by some weird twist of fate you get a few days of no wind, the lagoon is close to a small but bustling Sri Lankan village. It doesn’t offer much in terms of modern comforts, but it will give you a glimpse into the real life that is lived in Sri Lanka. Untouched by any sort of modern tourism, kiteboarders are the only western faces that come here and the locals form rows of inquisitive toothy smiles as you walk through the streets. Sample the local food and the incredible Indian/Sri Lankan cuisine which I can guarantee will blow your head off regardless of how much chili you think you can eat. If the windless days continue, or if you just fancy a break from the relentless kiteboarding action, there is also the Wilpaththu National Park just to the northwest of Kalpitia. You can spend a day out there and see a whole host of wildlife ranging from elephants roaming in the wild to exotic birds, monkeys, and leopards if you are really lucky. This is all within a day’s striking distance from the lagoon-side huts and can make a nice break between kite sessions to give your aching body a rest and get a feeling for exactly how amazing Sri Lanka is as a country.
My trip this time was two weeks long and I would recommend this as a good length of time to take if you plan to visit. It will give you time to get used to the 95° F heat and enough time to polish your kite skills and take them to the next level. If you are a person who prefers to spend a little longer on a trip and spend some time really exploring the country, I would also recommend it. Undoubtedly Sri Lanka has a lot to offer. Although it is a relatively small country compared to India, there is a lot of truth in the name “Jewel of the Indian Ocean.” It has such a rich tapestry of cultural influences and a mixture of religions that has sculpted the island into a holy place with temples representing each religion all over the place. Its wildlife and tropical rain forests cover the interior and, although it has some touristy areas, there is a lot to explore that will really make you feel like you are on an adventure.
Kiteboarding is a new sport in Sri Lanka and the tourism for sports like kiting and surfing is just building up there. I left the country this time inspired by what I had seen kiteboarding bring to the area around the lagoons on the east coast in such a short time. The positive changes I have seen the sport make and the implications that this has on the surrounding village and local people, business, livelihood, foreign trade, and, most of all, an exposure to a lifestyle are spreading faster than we can imagine. Already there are local Sri Lankan children learning to kite and it won’t be long until we see them in the magazines, an opportunity that only a few sports can offer. If you are into kiteboarding only for your own pleasure, don’t underestimate its power as a sport. Use it as inspiration to change your life, an excuse to get out and see new places, a reason to meet new people, and a way to have fun! Writing this as I sit on the plane on my way back to Europe I find myself wondering, “Where is next?”
This story first appeared in our Summer 2013 issue, Volume 10 Number 2. Read it online, and get the latest issue of The Kiteboarder Magazine here. To view Tom’s video from his trip to Sri Lanka, visit http://www.thekiteboarder.com/2013/05/freeride.