REMEMBER that week back in August, the one just after the Olympics when it wasn’t dark by 5pm? The Eurozone crisis had gone on its summer holidays and the whole of London — starry eyed with Team GB’s success — was convinced that being an Olympian was the best job ever.
I do. Partly because I suddenly had to start watching rubbish TV again, but mainly because it was the same week I signed up to my very own Olympic legacy — six days learning to kitesurf in Egypt.
Kitesurfing is one of just two new sports that will make its Olympic debut at Rio 2016 (the other being Rugby Sevens, which doesn’t quite have the same appeal) controversially replacing windsurfing, which has been part of the Games’ roster since 1984.
An official description on the International Olympic Committee’s website describes kitesurfing as a combination of kite flying, windsurfing, wakeboarding and surfing. Having tried just one of the above — flying power kites on solid, mostly dry ground — I felt less than prepared for my foray into watersports, particularly when during a discussion with colleagues just days before leaving, I realised that I couldn’t do a single push-up – not ideal for a sport that looked a lot like it relied on upper- body strength.
Still, board shorts packed and factor 50 at the ready, I set off for El Gouna, a purpose-built resort in the desert just north of popular flight hub Hurghada, on the west coast of the Red Sea.
Built from scratch by property billionaire Samih Sawiris’ firm Orascom, El Gouna is a somewhat bizarre concept — a gated community of hotels and villas so completely cut off from the real world that it could be just about anywhere. Luckily, it also happens to sit on a stretch of coastline so perfect for kitesurfing that along just 10km of beachfront you’ll find five separate schools, catering to everyone from absolute beginners to the fanatics that come back two or three times a year to hone their skills.
The wind here is guaranteed to be decent for most of the year, and the temperature rarely drops below 25 degrees, but the major selling point is the huge, knee-deep lagoon that runs from the beach to several hundred metres offshore before reaching the heart of the Red Sea. The warm water makes hours whiled away paddling in the shallows easy, and instead of the wet suit that would be required anywhere in Europe, the kitesurfers here wear nothing more than a t-shirt and shorts despite spending all day on the water.
I’m booked into the RedSeaZone school, a simple set-up on the brilliantly named Mangroovy beach dotted with sun loungers, parasols and a beach bar. Despite the low-key appearance, it’s obvious this is a serious operation, with an equipment room consisting of hundreds of harnesses, helmets, boards and the stars of the show — logo-emblazoned kites ranging from a manageable-looking nine metres, to a frankly terrifying 13 metres-plus.
This sort of kit doesn’t come cheap — a decent kite can cost more than £1,000 before you even start on all the extras — but the focus on safety and insistence on getting me trussed up like the clumsy kid on a school trip is reassuring when I look out to sea and see the speeds (not to mention heights) that some of the pros are reaching.
Expecting an over-enthusiastic Antipodean instructor who’d wound up in El Gouna on an extended gap year, I was pleasantly surprised to meet my 100 per cent Egyptian coach Nemo, a softly spoken dream of a man who earned his nickname, he told me shyly, through being “small and good in the water”.
Like many of the instructors at RedSeaZone, Nemo came to work in El Gouna from Cairo as a beach boy — setting up the kites and looking after the centre — before taking to the water himself and revealing an unnatural talent not just for staying upright while rocketing across the water strapped to an 11-metre inflatable kite, but also for teaching other people how to do the same.
Seven years later he is one of the best kitesurfers in the country, an accolade that will almost certainly earn him a place in the team that Egypt takes to Rio in just under four years.
Impressed by the level of expertise I’m being treated to, our three-strong group of absolute beginners start slow — flying smaller kites on dry land to get a feel for the wind strength and direction, as well as learning how to control them with one hand so that once we’re actually in the water, we’ll be able to concentrate on the 101 other things it’s necessary to coordinate to stand a chance of success.
As a historically impatient student, naturally inclined to give up on things I’m not immediately good at, I’m surprised by how much I enjoy the relaxed pace of the tuition. Each part of the lesson is explained in full, and I’m given plenty of time to practice and watch others, so that once I move onto the next stage, it all make sense.
That’s not to say it’s easy. Far from it — this is probably the single hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do, requiring total concentration and the coordination of body parts far more used to sitting in front of a computer for hours on end.
On the second day I take to the water armed with a new, part-inflatable kite (crucial for those inevitable beginner crashes) to master the art of body-dragging – catching the wind in either direction and using it to swim across the lagoon and back. After a morning in the water trying desperately to replicate Nemo’s effortless command of the so-called wind window, I realise I’ve barely had a single thought about anything else for the past three hours.
My arms may ache but mentally this feels like total relaxation; even lying next to a pool with nothing to do, my mind will often wander back to work, but there’s something to be said for being dragged out of your comfort zone to completely clear out the cobwebs.
Each day after my lesson we descend, ravenous, on one of the resort’s many restaurants — a decent enough selection of eateries that, as I later find out, may all be individually branded but are ultimately owned and staffed by the Orascom Group.
The developer’s dominance of the resort gives it a slightly Truman Show-esque feel (that Jim Carrey film where he discovers his whole life is a TV programme, filmed in an artificial dome world) – albeit one populated with white sands, palm trees and a unfailingly welcoming bunch of people.
Sitting in one of the open-air restaurants on the marina, it’s easy to forget you’re in a country that, barely 20 months ago, was in the grip of the Arab Spring, the wave of popular uprising that brought to an end the 30-year rule of Egypt’s dictatorial president Hosni Mubarak.
During the unrest in early 2011 El Gouna’s tourist industry – its only industry, really — was shut down for several weeks when the governments of its core clientele of French, German, Russian and British tourists advised against travel to the region.
Our own foreign office was actually the first to lift restrictions, sending British sunseekers back to the resorts and providing some much needed business for the locals, who claim there was nowhere safer to be during the protests. Even Sawiris, who had his pick of a property portfolio spanning London and Switzerland, spent that turbulent February in his El Gouna villa.
Fast-forward to September 2012 and the same mix of nationalities seem to have returned to the Red Sea undeterred, and no doubt encouraged by the country’s new government and its post-Mubarak charm offensive to convince the tourism industry that Egypt is open for business. My hotel, part of the Swiss Movenpick chain, is buzzing with a mix of families and couples even though school holiday season is officially over. But despite there apparently being more than 700 guests here, the hotel’s huge expanse of land, numerous restaurants and four swimming pools means it never feels busy.
On the last morning, I arrive back in the water and am handed the final piece of the puzzle that’s been eluding me so far — the board. Carrying a piece of wood about the size and shape of a snowboard with foot straps on one side and tiny fins on the other, I wade out to sea for a final attempt at breaking the back of the sport.
Though the pictures may say otherwise, over the next few hours I manage what feels like significant periods of time out of the water, though in reality I imagine they were barely more than two to three-second bursts of motion. It feels brilliant and I start to understand why so many of the people I meet here are repeat customers, hooked on the adrenalin that a few moments commanding both the wind and the water inspires.
Flushed with success the amateurs among us trudge back to the shore, while Nemo and his fellow instructors stay in the water to give us a demonstration of their skills.
Zipping across the water and leaping into the air while twisting and grabbing their boards they look ultimately cool, and clearly know it — they time jumps perfectly to please our cameras and whiz past just close enough to send an arch of spray over our heads.
Later that evening the instructors invite me to spend my last night in El Gouna at the weekly kitesurfers’ beach party at a neighbouring centre along the beach. With no noise pollution to worry about and the heat of the day lasting well into the early hours, our group of London-weary journalists spends the night dancing non-stop among the strobe lights, surrounded by fresh-faced students and bleached-haired adventure sports addicts.
I have to admit, I came to Egypt slightly dreading the surfer-dude-gap-year vibe that I imagined kitesurfing was all about.
But here, under a ceiling made of stars and with nothing to worry about other than whether I’ll wake up in time for my flight the next morning, it all makes a lot more sense.
I might not make it to Rio in 2016, but as Olympic legacies go this one will take some beating.
NEED TO KNOW
With Egyptair via Cairo to Hurghada www.egyptair.com
Mövenpick Resort and Spa El Gouna. Accommodation prices range between £90 to £160 per night for a double room including breakfast buffet www.moevenpick-hotels.com/el-gouna
Learn to kitesurf at RedSeaZone Watersports Academy, Northern Mangroovy Beach, El Gouna, International Kiteboarding Organisation (IKO) levels 1+2. Price including equipment and 11 hours of tuition for a group of two to four people costs approximately £280 per person www.redseazone.com