An Epic African Kitesurfing Adventure

Kitesurfing has evolved into an incredibly diverse sport over the years; from the freestyle hot shots with knees that still work, pounding the water with twin tips from a dizzy height, to the course racers, through to the wave riding soul surfers. It therefore seems unlikely that a couple of fairly average guys in their mid thirties would find themselves at the forefront of a new category in the sport, Adventure Kiting.

The Unlimited Kitesurfing Expedition

I’m not sure if this category already exists, and I’m pretty sure it will never be in the Olympics, but it does seem to be the best way to describe the trip we just finished, kiting 420 km from Ponta do Ouro in Mozambique to Durban, South Africa.

The Unlimited Kitesurfing Expedition

When Zack and I began hatching the plan, we decided early on that the objective of the trip was primarily to have an adventure, and have fun. This pretty much became our guiding philosophy for the trip and allowed us to really enjoy the journey. Record breaking was never part of the plan, but taking in some of the most beautiful coastline on the African continent, and spending time doing something we love, always was.

The Unlimited Kitesurfing Expedition Day 3

We are incredibly lucky as kitesurfers to live where we do; warm water, great waves, and most importantly, very few restrictions. There is no way you could try something like this in Spain, where kiting is all but banned on most beaches. The fact that a trip like this had never been done before and most of the coastline had never been kited, did hold a lot of appeal for us, and luckily for our sponsors as well.

With relatively little organising, we got permission to cross the international border and kite through the spectacular Isimangaliso marine reserve, which is also a world heritage site. The reserve runs for about 200 km from the border with Mozambique to Cape St Lucia, and apart from the two stops at Sodwana and Cape Vidal, is pretty much uninhabited. This part of the coast is truly wild, with high dunes covered in beautiful lush bush. The coast is characterised by big sweeping bays with rocky points and sandy beaches. What’s more, the wind here is usually a consistent 18+ knots.

The Unlimited Kitesurfing Expedition Day 3

August is also a great time of year to be on the north coast, with the humpback whales moving north, breaching out of the water as they go. We got pretty close to a mother and calf who were just rolling about on the surface, but we didn’t want to get too close in case she decided to help us break the highest air record. This part of the ocean is full of life, and we saw lots of turtles, who don’t seem bothered by kitesurfers, and often had whole schools of flying fish soaring out of the water in front of and all around us.

In total we spent 6 days on the water, but due to wind issues, they were spread out over two weeks. It turns out August isn’t such a windy month after all. The first 2 days were awesome, wind wise. We took off in the beautiful bay of Ponta do Ouro, and rounded the point into the unknown with 18 knots, at our backs. And it just got better throughout the day. Five and a half hours later we were surfing the waves into Sodwana, 89 km down the coast. The next day was similar to start with and by the time we got into Cape Vidal, 70 km further south, it was gusting 38 knots. But no trip like this is as they say, “just plain sailing”, as that night a cold front came up from the South. So we got to put our feet up for a couple of days in the beautiful Cape Vidal nature reserve, and enjoy some of our sponsored Hansa beer. We also enjoyed fine food and wine prepared by our Dads who were our support crew, following us down the coast in a Land Rover. Cape Vidal is a very special place, with loads of game, including bush pig that were in our camp every night, and Zack even saw a leopard early one morning.

The Unlimited Kitesurfing Expedition Day 3

The cold front passed and we got back on the water aiming for Richards Bay. A real highlight of the day was stopping off for lunch at the Jolly Rabino, an old ship that ran aground on the beach just south of Cape St Lucia. The wreck is fairly inaccessible from the land and forms a nice point break. So we got to ride some nice waves on a very unique landmark. We were joined for lunch on the beach by Andrew G.I. and Clinton who pulled in on a jet ski to get some footage of our trip.

The Unlimited Kitesurfing Expedition Jolly Rabino

As we headed further South after lunch, the angle of the coastline started to change and the wind got very inconsistent, becoming a cross off shore, and very bumpy as it came off the dunes. In the space of under 2 hours it went from gusting 35 knots to nothing. We ended up coming in 20 km short of our goal, with my kite falling out the sky in some seriously pitchy and bitching surf. I took a few solid waves on the head and was getting seriously zapped by the Shark Shield on my board (more on that later), so I jettisoned my board and kite and started a heavy swim in. I got seriously worked again by the shore break and eventually got spat up on the beach, only to discover that my board had ended up going through my kite in the shore break…

From here on it became seriously challenging, with the wind just not coming to the party. We had to really start hunting for the wind, and often ended up going very far out to sea trying to stay in clean wind. We must have been well over 3 km offshore at times. I worked out that often the wind seemed to work in narrow bands, almost like an invisible street, with little or no wind on either side. Often I would get stuck in a lull and end up drifting downwind in the lull, struggling to stay on the plain. The trick seems to be to recognise when you are in a bit of lousy air and get out of it. When doing this kind of kiting in light winds, you have to use your imagination and try to visualise what the wind is doing. Luckily I have quite a bit of experience flying hang gliders, which helped with trying to understand what the wind was doing.

The Unlimited Kitesurfing Expedition Day 1

We had a few hard days of kiting without covering much distance and ended up getting stuck in Mtunzini for over a week. Highlights included seeing a massive shark fin while my ass was bobbing in the water about a km and a half out to sea. I was very grateful for my shark shield then, and the occasional electrical shocks became more of a reassuring comfort.

The week off in Mtunzini gave us a chance to rest up and explore the area, as well as Iain’s wine collection. We also got a chance to meet some of the locals, who kindly showed us what serious drinking is all about. Our bodies were taking a bit of a beating. Zack’s knee was poked, my ankle was creaking, and both our livers had shrivelled up in fear. After a week in Mtunzini, and a couple of botched attempts to get out of there, the wind finally gave us a bit of a break. So in the interests of avoiding alcohol poisoning, we snivelled out on marginal wind, and managed to get 20 km further down the coast. The wind completely died again and I ended up having another long swim in to Amatikulu. Once again the pulsing shock of my shark shield was a great comfort, despite the cursing and swearing every time I got zapped. After a good 15 min swim, I eventually managed to drag my sorry ass up the beach, where Zack gave me the news that our support vehicle had broken down. We managed to lump ourselves and our gear up the main road and were rewarded by an angel who took pity on us and bought us quarts of cold beer. So the afternoon was spent on the side of the road waiting for a recovery vehicle, getting hammered in the sun. So, as they say in classics, “‘all’s well that ends well.”

The Unlimited Kitesurfing Expedition Day 3

A couple of days later, we got another weather window, so with 110 km to go, we pumped up, swam our kites across the Amatikulu lagoon, and jumped in the sea with steady 17 kts at our backs. The ocean was beautiful, with smooth clean water, and we started making good progress, averaging about 27 km per hour. Crossing the Tugela River mouth was spectacular and the coastline started to change thereafter. The shore becomes quite rocky, with more towns and buildings as we headed south. We also had some nice little waves along the way, and were making good progress, so we stopped off for a break at Salt Rock where we were met by our parents and some family. The wind was still pumping and our spirits were high, so we popped a few pain killers and set our sights on home. We had awesome encounters with two big pods of dolphins, but they disappeared as we got really close, so it turns out they are not that keen on shark shields either.

The Unlimited Kitesurfing Expedition Day 6

As we passed Umhloti, with about 35 km to go, we were joined out on the water by a whole group of our kiting mates, which was really great. We were feeling super confident, and having a great time, really enjoying the last day of our epic adventure. Just as Durban came into to view, and we could almost taste the beer at the finish, the wind died again. Kites started falling out of the sky and Zack and most of our mates had a bit of a swim back to shore. Talk about frustration! We had less than 20 km to go and we were told that all our mates, family, and the press were waiting for us at the Dew Catcher where we had planned to finish. Luckily we managed to borrow a couple of 14 meter kites, and a late puff of wind came through, so we headed out again. The sun was going down as we crossed Durban Bay, and once again our spirits soared as it looked as if we might just make it. We rounded the piers without any problems, and saw a nice crowd on the beach in front of the Dew Catcher. I came in with Zack just behind me, to a great welcome from friends, family and dogs.

The Unlimited Kitesurfing Expedition Beach Finish

Needless to say, and in the true spirit of the trip we celebrated late into the night.

The Unlimited Kitesurfing Expedition Beach Finish

Our Gear & Equipment

Kites

Ozone Reo KiteWe kited 90 % of the trip on the Ozone Reo 10 m kites, which were excellent.

Light bar pressure is a serious plus when doing long distances, and the turning speed and drift ability of the Reo is fantastic on the waves. The Reo also has a massive top end and our 10 handled + 30 knot winds with ease.

The only criticism is that there is not much bottom end for its size, but it more than makes it up in other areas.

Boards

We both had F-one, 6 ft boards, although mine is a few years old and quite heavy due to a previous repair. I think the extra weight actually helped in the choppy conditions, as the board tended to plough through the chop, whereas Zack felt the bumps a bit more, especially on his knees.

The Unlimited Kitesurfing Expedition Day 1

Shark Shields

Shark Shields were often, quite literally a pain in the ass. When sitting in the water, the tail can give you quite a shock if it touches you, but it’s well worth it for the peace of mind when in sharky waters, with no wind. The shock isn’t too bad, when the tail touches you, but it is fairly debilitating.

Clothing & Accessories

Gloves and booties are an absolute must. Short finger sailing gloves worked great, and thin booties are the way to go. We tried various types of booties but the thin diving types were by far the best.

20 litre karrimor back pack, with minimal padding, worked well. I had 2 camel packs, 2 litres for energy juice and 2-3 litres for water.

Tracking & Communication

We tried various tracking systems, so our support crew could keep track of us, but the best was the iPhone / iPad combo. I also recommend the life proof covers for the phones.

The Unlimited Kitesurfing Expedition iPhone and Case

Our Uniden VHF radios were okay for coms between Zack and me, but were more or less useless for coms with our support crew. The cheap licence free radios would probably work just as well.

Emergency Repair Kit

We carried basic repair kits, including sail tape, duct tape, and spare fins. Luckily we didn’t need to repair any kites on the go, but we both lost fins. A small hand pump is also a good idea although we didn’t need it.

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Support

The Unlimited Kitesurfing Expedition Beach FinishA special thanks to The Unlimited, who were our headline sponsor, and helped a lot with the logistics, and getting permission for us to cross the border. Thank you also to Sin from Kitesports Africa for supplying us with great kites and support, to Hansa who gave us a lot of free beer, and to Dew Water who kept us hydrated.

The absolute must have on a trip like this, is a great support crew! Massive thanks to both of our Dads, Peter and Iain, my Uncle Ian, and Alec, who were always positive and supportive, and ready with cold beers at the end of every day, and great food and fine wine every night. They embraced the philosophy of the trip with great gusto, and had an adventure and a lot of fun. And that, at the end of the day, was what it was all about…

Zack Buchan (Left) and Ross Walters (Right)The Unlimited Kitesurfing Expedition - Zack BuchanZack Buchan (Left) and Ross Walters (Right)

If you have any questions about the expedition, or you are planning an expedition of your own and would like our input, please feel free to post them in the comments below. If you would like to republish this story, please contact the editor.

Written by

Ross Walters

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