Kitesurfers catch the wave in Mauritius

Her blonde hair dripping with salt water, top Austrian kitesurfer Gabi Steidl cuts through the translucent, emerald green waves of the Indian Ocean.

Kitesurfing — a hi-tech hybrid of surfing and kite-flying — is fast winning converts: riders harnessed to kites who stand on boards and skim, surf or even leap, often hanging in the air for several seconds.

With its world-class winds, plenty of breakers and calmer lagoons for beginners, Mauritius is determined to cash in.

”It’s just the most beautiful island and the conditions are perfect,” said 31-year-old Steidl, who gave up a career in publishing to follow her passion full-time.

”It’s like a huge wave playground.”

Back on the beach, a dozen kitesurfers check lines and launch their kites as the midday sun hits its peak.

Thomas Brennwald (46) from Cape Town says his home waters in South Africa are rather cold for kiting in July. He was bowled over by his first visit to Mauritius 10 years ago.

”I hope people here stay this friendly,” he said.

The waters around Le Morne — a huge clump of rock where runaway slaves used to hide — are a mixture of reefs, crashing waves and lagoons.

Some kiters — also known as kiteboarders — come just to test themselves on the notorious ”One Eye”, says Felix Nollmann, who runs the nearby Club Mistral water-sports centre. His guests are not allowed to try it — it is just too dangerous.

Huge, green walls of water roll in from the ocean, gathering pace as they curl into a perfect tube before breaking in a ferocious thunder of foam.

”This is one of the fastest waves worldwide,” Nollman says. ”If you’re kiting on ‘One Eye’, you always have a bit of speed — and you need it … If not, it catches up and smashes you on the reef where there are lots of sea urchins and coral.”

Golden rules

According to Toby Braeuer, whose website says on average five kitesurfers die each year around the world, technical improvements and increased kite control mean the sport has become safer.

Braeuer advocates 10 golden rules, including staying away from hazards, keeping a close eye on the weather and taking advice from locals about potential dangers such as currents and rocks.

”If you stay within these rules, it is a very relaxing sport. But if you break these rules, you can die,” he says.

”Go and take a lesson. That’s very important.”

After three lessons in a lagoon on the island’s windy east, this correspondent is still looking forward to being able to stand up on the board — apparently the hardest part of learning.

French and Hawaiian enthusiasts began experimenting with early versions of kitesurfing more than 20 years ago. As late as 1997, only a few dozen were dabbling.

Today an estimated 200 000 people worldwide kitesurf. The technology has evolved from flat kites with two strings to space-age ones with inflatable rims that help fallen kites relaunch.

”Strong gusts come, you just push away the bar,” Braeuer said, adding that safety improvements had been key to boosting the sport’s popularity.

Targeting tourists

Kitesurfing could help Mauritius reach its ambitious target of two million tourists per year by 2015, more than twice the current number.

”We have the lagoons, we have the space for it,” Nico Kux, an instructor and early enthusiast, told Reuters. ”Mauritius is an incredible place for kitesurfing and it’s not just Le Morne.”

He believes kitesurfing could account for 10% of tourists in Mauritius by 2015, although his early forays into the sport were not initially welcomed. ”Everybody wrote me off, of course — big boy, playing with a kite,” he joked.

Last month, he organised a ”Kiteival”, inviting top kitesurfers from around the world for an event over several days to showcase the island’s attractions. Some needed no persuasion.

”Where else can you kite all around the year?” said Jobst von Kirchmann, a European diplomat based in Mauritius. ”You put your MP3 player on and go for a ride for a couple of hours, looking at the mountains.”

Von Kirchmann may enjoy it, but the need for physical flexibility, stamina and an appetite for risk means champion kiters are getting younger and younger.

Standing nearby in dreadlocks and dark glasses, Thomas Cocquelet, a 20-year-old Frenchman who was world champion in 2005 and is still one of the world’s top 10 kiters, says he rates Mauritius highly.

Greg Thijsse, a laid-back 22-year-old from South Africa, has been competing at top levels for several years.

”It can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing,” he says. ”Ever since I started, I was hooked.” — Reuters

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Ed Harris
Ed Harris works from Clearwater, FL. If you truly seek to right injustice know it may take longer than the life you give. -Ed Harris- Father, Husband and Veteran. Ed Harris has over 1940 followers on Twitter.

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