Think of Kenya and it is the plains of the Mara and the foothills of Mount Kenya that spring to mind. Yet, look to its glittering coastline for stunning beaches and a myriad of watersports. Africa expert, Sian, finds her feet kitesurfing in Watamu.
Kitesurfing has been gaining huge interest over the past few years. Only discovered around 40 years ago, it is a relatively new sport, yet there are high hopes that it will get its first spot at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Like me, if kitesurfing is something that you have always wanted to try but don’t quite fancy braving cold English waters for, then Watamu, on Kenya’s coast, is the perfect place to pick it up.
With empty, long, white sandy beaches as well as warm, calm water and strong and steady trade winds for the vast majority of the year, it is a wonderful spot for both beginners and advanced kitesurfers. The best time of year to catch the breeze in this part of the world is between December and April for the Kaskazi wind and between June and September for the Kuzi, which is a bit stronger. I visited at the end of June when the wind averaged around 20mph in the afternoons, allowing for a little lie in or the chance to explore the lovely town of Watamu before lessons began.
Whilst staying at Medina Palms, I was put me in touch with Ben, owner of Tribe Watersports, and Watamu born and raised. Having only ever flown a kitesurfing kite on the beach before, I signed up for beginner lessons and after a quick intro with my instructor, I was given a life jacket and a helmet and harnessed up. Before I knew it I was standing in waist deep water practicing with the kite again. A 2-3 hour lesson was the perfect length as although you do not use the strength in your arms as much as you might think, kitesurfing still manages to find muscles you never thought existed.
As I visited before peak season, I was lucky enough to have one-to-one lessons and so the pace was completely tailored to me. After about an hour of practicing landing and relaunching the kite, as well as just getting a handle on it, I began body dragging. Thanks to the name, I had quite a good idea of what was involved, and was slightly apprehensive, but actually doing it was a lot more fun than I had anticipated! Positioning the kite low to the water in the direction you would like to be ‘dragged’ in, you then steer the kite with one hand, lie on your side and rudder yourself with your other arm, allowing yourself to be dragged, head first, after the kite. After the first few attempts, it felt as if half of the Indian Ocean had gone up my nose and the other half into my mouth as I was screaming with excitement (you can go very quickly!). The thrill of moving so quickly through the water was truly exhilarating! The purpose of learning to body drag is for when you inevitably fall and lose your board, you know how to move through the water quickly to retrieve it. Once my instructor was happy was my ability, I was given a board so the fun could really start.
Having been an avid sailor for many years and tried my hand at a fair amount of wakeboarding, I was certain that kitesurfing would be an effortless blend of the two and I was sure that I would succeed in the first few attempts… Oh how wrong I was! Instinct dictates that you want to pull the bar of the kite towards you, yet that just powers the kite, sending you flying into the water. Cue drinking more sea water… Having had quite enough of being catapulted into the ocean, I adopted a new tactic of not pulling on the bar at all, instead concentrating all my efforts on standing up. This meant I was then forgetting to move the kite, resulting in more back flops into the water. Not quite as easy as I first thought…
After a few stern words with myself I was not going to be beaten and on the second day I finally started to get the hang of it. I had mastered standing, if even for a short amount of time, but as I started going further and further, my next concern was how on earth I was going to turn! My kiting instructor was superb throughout all of this though and imparted enough knowledge to get me through the next few steps, allowing me to concentrate on the things that would improve on my (serious lack of) skills. I was then able to spend a good hour or so going in and out from the beach, each time feeling like I had more and more control over the kite.
I had enough time for 6 hours of lessons in 2 days which was quite intense. Really, I would recommend practicing for 2 hours a day for 3 days to get to a level where you feel comfortable enough to hire equipment and practice on your own. I would thoroughly recommend doing a beginner 3 day course and then return to the safety of Tribe for the remainder of your stay to hire equipment and continue practicing on your own. The instructors are always on the beach, either teaching or honing their own skills, so you will not be without help. With the constant onshore wind and excellent standard of teaching, Watamu is a fantastic place to learn the ropes before taking your new sport around the world with you!