Learning Curves: On surf 'n' turf
You're never too old to add to your sporting repertoire. Kitesurfing, diving, even golf - one venue in Egypt can teach you the lot. Simon Redfern struggles into a wetsuit and flippers and heads for the first tee
Sunday 24 December 2006
It seemed like a good idea at the time. My mission, which I had chosen to accept, was to spend a week attempting three sporting activities I had never tried before: kite-surfing, scuba diving and golf. My handicap, which I had no choice but to accept, was a surfeit of age and an insufficiency of talent.
At least I got the location right: El Gouna, which may sound like a Spanish Ars-enal supporter but is in fact an Egyptian resort on the Red Sea coast. It was constructed from scratch, starting some 16 years ago, and is distinctly stylish - Omar Sharif has a home there - with villas, apartments and hotels dotted around a network of lagoons.
More to the point, it is one of the premier kite-surfing locations in the world, thanks to an almost constant shore breeze. The Red Sea is also renowned for its diving, and El Gouna has its own golf course, with another on the way.
I was put in the care of the Kiteboarding Club - kiteboarding is the term for the sport used in the US - for the first leg of my labours. My instructor, Trish Ho, was built on elfin lines, at five foot and a fraction and not more than 8st in her wetsuit.
"Kitesurfing's mostly about finesse, not power," she explained. She made it sound so simple; apparently all you have to do is launch your kite, keep it at an angle to the wind - if you go straight downwind out to sea there's every chance you won't stop until you bump into the next continent - stand up on your board and off you go.
In practice, it's one of those infuriating pastimes that experts make look effortless, but which proves fiendishly difficult when you try it yourself. It has to be said that I did not get off to a good start; try as I would, it seemed impossible to get into the wetsuit Trish had selected for me from the rack before going off to prepare the kite. Silly girl, she must have given me the wrong size.
Trish returned, and observed my struggle. "You're trying to put it on inside out," she said gently.
The next piece of kit was a tight-fitting harness with so many hooks, belts, buckles and Velcro fastenings that it had more than whiff of S&M to it. The kite hooks on to this, with five lines attached to a bar which you hold in front of you and use to steer.
"Don't yank the bar up and down; think of it like steering a bike," Trish said as we practised on the beach. Easier said than done; just when I thought I was mastering the technique, an over-enthusiastic adjustment would bring the kite plummeting to earth or, more alarmingly, make it zoom downwind, into the aptly named "power zone".
When this happens, you're supposed to let go of the bar, which slackens the lines and depowers the kite. What you're not supposed to do is what I instinctively did: yank on the bar in a vain attempt to pull the kite back. This makes it pull even harder, and you get dragged down the beach. Poor Trish; of all the bars in all the world, she had to have me on the end of hers.
After four hours, the best that could be said was that I was marginally less inept than when I had started. I was spending the following three days doing the diving and golfing legs of my optimistic triathlon before returning; as I bade Trish a shamefaced farewell, I wondered if she would take a sickie when I reappeared.
At least at the Dive Tribe the next morning I now knew how to put a wetsuit on, but that was about the sum of my knowledge. I was just hoping I could make a better showing under the waves than I had on them.
In a morning classroom session I learnt about the uncomfortable things water pressure can do the body, how to cope with them, and how to communicate under-water. The afternoon I spent in the swimming pool, getting used to all the gear, and at the end, in contrast to the previous day, I was pronounced proficient enough to be allowed out to sea.
The following morning, it was time for my first deep-water entry. I ran through the checklist I had been taught: clasp right hand over mask and mouthpiece, place left hand on weight belt, dangle flippers over stern of boat, check no one is below you, look to horizon, take big step forward.
I descended slowly, equalising the pressure in my ears. With my instructor never more than a metre away, before long I was flippering along 40ft under, surrounded by fish I'd only seen before in aquariums, and enjoying every minute. When we returned to the boat I discovered that what I imagined was a 20-minute dive had in fact been 45, and in the afternoon I managed another 52 minutes.Both were recorded in the diving passport I proudly accepted as evidence of my progress.
After three days of marine endeavour, golf was surely going to be a doddle; feet planted on dry land, equipment just one club at a time and a white ball sitting still on the ground. And at the El Gouna Golf Club next day I discovered I was indeed a natural; I had a perfectly natural ability to hook the ball miles to the left (all to do with my left hip not rotating enough, apparently), however straight I aimed at the little islands with their yardage flags dotting the lagoon. For variation, I was also adept at shanking every fifth ball at right-angles.
Putting and chipping went a little better, to the extent that Nasser, the golf pro, feigned surprise that I'd never played before. "You have a lot to learn, grass chopper," would have been a more apt response. But the pleasure of every now and then getting the ball near, sometimes even in, the hole, became strangely addictive, and they practically had to drag me from the course as darkness fell.
I would like to report that after my final day's instruc-tion I occasionally reached my kitesurfing target as well, but sadly it was not to be. By the time it came to pack my trunks I had failed to get up on a board once. And yet it was all worth it for just 30 seconds of bliss while I was body-dragging, when you try and get the kite to tow you along without a board. For once, I got my steering and kite angle spot-on, and swept along just as I had been taught. If nothing else, I had learnt that life can be good even when it's a drag.
THE COMPACT GUIDE
HOW TO GET THERE:
Simon Redfern travelled to El Gouna with Longwood Holidays (020 8418 2513; longwoodholidays.co.uk), who offer seven nights b&b at the five-star Mövenpick Resort & Spa from £309 based on departures from 12-26 January 2007.
For more information about El Gouna, including golf: elgouna.com. A basic course (8-10hrs) with the Kiteboarding Club (0020 12 8842 839; kiteboarding-club.de) costs £155. The Dive Tribe (0020 65 358 0120; divetribe.com) offer Discover Scuba Diving from £73, boat dives from £34.
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