Words by Helen Abramson | Photos by Tanya Rütti and Helen Abramson
The auto rickshaw juddered to a halt on the dirt track outside a large blue gate, behind which lay a couple of bamboo huts set amongst dozens of palm trees leading down to the shore. A young man with a cast on one leg was waving at me and hobbling over. He seemed to be expecting me, which was a relief.
I’d been travelling for nearly 24 hours overland from central India out here, to the island of Rameshwaram, at the very tip of the Indian subcontinent and just 50km from Sri Lanka. I’d taken two rickshaws, two buses, an overnight train and another four-hour train, and had made it at last – sweaty, tired, hungry and giving off a rather pungent and distressing smell.
Rameshwaram is one of the world’s holiest sites for Hindu pilgrims. It also happens to be by far the best place in India to kitesurf …
The cast-clad guy was 21-year old Govinda Hivrale, who won the opportunity to train with 2011 women’s world kiting champion, Inês Correia, after showing off his skills at India’s first and only Red Bull kitesurfing event a few years ago.
He had badly broken three of his toes while practicing Parkour and was understandably gutted not to be able to get in the water for the next couple of months. He welcomed me in and I sat down to the first of many south Indian feasts over my four days here – masala fried prawns, veg coconut curry, dal and rice.
Rameshwaram is one of the world’s holiest sites for Hindu pilgrims. It also happens to be by far the best place in India to kitesurf, and one of the most picturesque in the world.
“We moved lock stock and barrel to Rameshwaram for the wind, and the wind alone. We get three hundred kiteable days a year …”
Situated in the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mannar, this sacred island in the state of Tamil Nadu is connected to the mainland by a dramatic 2km-long rail-and-road bridge.
Jehan Driver, founder and owner of Indian adventure-sports holidays company Quest, set up camp here two years ago after leaving his old kiting base near Mumbai in search of better winds. And he sure found them.
“We moved lock stock and barrel to Rameshwaram for the wind, and the wind alone. We get three hundred kiteable days a year, with speeds of around 25–30 knots, and it doesn’t matter which direction the wind is going – we’ll pitch up on any side of the island to avoid offshore blasts,” he told me, visibly excited.
I was there as a beginner, against the advice of seasoned kiters, who informed me that conditions were pretty dire in India. I ignored their scepticism, as none of them had been to the east coast to try it.
Goa, on the west coast, has a relatively popular kitesurfing scene, but a very short season of three months and unreliable winds even then, while Rameshwaram has dependably strong winds ten months a year, and you can even come here during the monsoon in October if you’re willing to put up with a couple of hours rain a day.
REMOTE BEAUTY AND RED TAPE
It took me some time to find out where exactly I was going, as the Quest team have successfully kept their kiting spots a well-kept secret (until now), and for a good reason. There are currently only three basic beach huts and a tent for guests.
However, things are about to change, as they’ve bought up extra neighbouring land running right down to the beach at Swami’s Bay and are renovating a homestay property which will mean guest capacity doubles to about 16 people. These numbers are of course still tiny, which is what Jehan wants.
He’s keen to spend time getting to know his guests as well as to keep lesson groups small. “The conditions here are ideal for all abilities – shallow waters, reliably strong winds and plenty of space out there to kite. There’s no intimidation for beginners – everyone involved is part of our kiting family – and it’s never crowded out there.”
A six-hour International Kitesurfing Organisation (IKO) beginner’s course is a lot cheaper here than in many parts of the world, and the setting is as remote as it gets. Quest’s base camp is at the other end of the island from the main temple, so it’s blissfully quiet. There are no shops or restaurants in walking distance, which is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I was in heaven.
We watched a mesmerizing blood-red sunset, and later witnessed a comet shooting through the clear, star-studded sky …
The palm-tree filled site is 50m from the white-sand beach, where the domes and spires of the pink Swami Vivekananda Memorial loom over bobbing fishing boats.
On my first evening there, we watched a mesmerizing blood-red sunset, and later witnessed a comet shooting through the clear, star-studded sky like something out of a disaster movie, before its sparkling golden tail burnt out after about five seconds.
Fortunately I wasn’t the only one to see it, or I would’ve been fairly sure I was hallucinating.
Running an extreme sports company in India is a difficult business. Jehan, with a diploma in adventure tourism from Queenstown, NZ (where else?), buys all his kiting equipment from abroad, which means it’s expensive, as well as a logistical and legal nightmare to import.
He’s also faced with an uphill battle to keep the reputation of kitesurfers positive amongst the authorities. In 2013, four Swiss guys kited from India to Sri Lanka without permission from either country, and all coastguard border controls have since been warned about kiters.
However, Jehan is well liked and respected in Rameshwaram, and recently took it upon himself to train the local coastguard in kitesurfing safety, especially since he’s aware Quest won’t always be the only kiters out there. “It’s simply too good for other people to stay away for long,” he admits.
The energetic Rameshwaram support team are mostly boys who grew up in a Mumbai orphanage. Earlier this year, Australian kayaker Sandy Robson stopped off on her epic kayaking trip from Germany to Oz to train the Ramesh boys as open kayak instructors.
These kids are getting opportunities to work in a growing adventure sports industry, and gaining hugely useful experiences along the way.
One of the newly qualified instructors, 20-year old Rizwan, much like most of the Indian population, couldn’t swim – until he met Jehan. The country’s lack of capable swimmers is of course crucially relevant to the development of the kiting scene.
India’s top female kitesurfer, Charmaine Pereira, Quest’s chief operations officer and another of the Red Bull protégés, tells me, “This is what holds back most Indians from getting more involved in the sport. Most adults are petrified of the water. Then there’s also the fear of getting tanned and turning a couple shades darker – not a big plus around here.”
RIDING THE WIND
We got three windy days out of the four I was there. The team are well set-up to prevent boredom on no-wind days and to cater for non-kiters; you can take your pick from wakeboarding, stand up paddle boarding, snorkelling or kayaking. There’s a whole range of water life around, such as dolphins, dugongs, tortoises and, a few miles further out, whales.
We kayaked 10km around one of the 22 uninhabited islands … all the while gliding over the unbelievably bright turquoise water below us.
We kayaked 10km around one of the 22 uninhabited islands that surround Ramesh, over corals and past shimmering schools of fish (plus one dead spotted sea serpent, and sadly no dolphins), all the while gliding over the unbelievably bright turquoise water below us.
Our kiting days were spent at Fisherman’s Cove, a flat lagoon on the northeast of the island, shared with a local water park. And by water park, I mean a fenced off section of the beach with a trampoline and a few kayaks and jet skis for hire.
The Quest kids force-fed us kulfis (Indian ice creams) and helped set up the kites before we ventured into the bathtub warm shallows.This was definitely not wetsuit weather.
It’s a surprising kitesurfing haven in the midst of religious India. Two worlds colliding strangely, but it works.
I shared my lessons with one other girl, and Jehan gradually coached us to fly the kite with (some) confidence. My wakeboarding and snowboarding experience gave me a head start, but only once I had mastered the unruly kite. By day three (and a very generous 6 hours) I was up and away, and eventually even got the hang of travelling upwind… sometimes.
I crashed out in style for my last ride with a dramatic rescue. I went way too far out, drifted several hundred metres while I struggled to relaunch my kite, and eventually came ashore bedraggled and exhausted amidst colourful fishing boats and racks of drying seaweed.
I looked up to find an audience of dozens of confused pilgrims and fishermen, who watched as the boys helped me out with my kite after hopping on their mopeds to get to me quickly. Rather a lot less cool, controlled kiter and more damsel-in-distress than I was hoping for.
At the end of my brief stay, I was reluctant to leave. It’s a surprising kitesurfing haven in the midst of religious India. Two worlds colliding strangely, but it works.