This is the story of a world first endeavor, an expedition to kitesurf one of the 7 wonders of nature. This story was set to test our team against a series of grueling physical, mental and strategic demands; some we were prepared for and others we were not.

I first realised I wanted to kitesurf on Table Mountain on my second climb up this iconic mountain in Cape Town, South Africa. I’d spent the past months kitesurfing in the ocean below the mountain. It was time to do it on top.

The top of Table Mountain wasn’t ever going to be the safest kite spot in the world but with 16 years of kitesurfing experience to call on, including 15 years travelling the globe as a professional instructor, I reckoned I could cope. But I decided to call in a little help anyway.

I asked around and was told nobody had done it before, so I couldn’t get any advice on how to approach my adventure. I did manage to find some willing accomplices though, and we set about planning our adventure.

Table Mountain, Cape Town - Graykite Surf

Our group was a 4 man team of professional kitesurfing instructors and school owners, Chris, Christian, Hilmar and myself, whom together have over 55 years of experience kitesurfing. Between us we were probably as well equipped as anyone to make sure our adventure was as safe as possible.

For over a month we played with the idea daily, trying to read the conditions as we looked up at Table Mountain from the world famous kitesurfing spots at Blouberg and Big Bay. We eventually decided to kite on Pink Lake, and for the climb we chose Skeleton Gorge, a steep ascent winding its way through the stone pine forests of the lower mountain gorges to the rocky heights high above Cape Town.

One morning we woke and the day had finally come.

Table Mountain, Cape Town - Graykite Surf

After a couple of wrong turns as we traversed towards the Skeleton Gorge access point we finally found the trail marker and were ready to begin the ascent. Our boards were on our backs as we climbed vertical ladders, hiked through the jungle and passed up through Skeleton Gorge.

Table Mountain, Cape Town - Graykite Surf

Table Mountain, Cape Town - Graykite Surf

As we crossed paths with other hikers on their descent, they were surprised to see us with kite equipment.

“Are you guys going to surf in the woods” we would hear.

“Is this the right direction to the beach”. we would say.

Table Mountain, Cape Town - Graykite Surf

We pushed on closer to the summit, though after 2 hours of climbing with all the gear we were tiring a bit. Visibility was only a few hundred meters but we stuck to our route as best we could.

Table Mountain, Cape Town - Graykite Surf

As we neared the end of the gorge our hopes started to fade. With the cloud cover the wind was very light, only 8 knots at most which would not be enough power for our 11, 10 and 8 meter kites.

After two hours hauling our gear through the mist and clouds this left us feeling pretty down, but we carried on regardless and our spirits were lifted when sunlight broke through just as we stumbled on Pink Lake. The famous Table Cloth lifted as if to bless our mission and the warmth of sunshine revitalised our strength as we drank in the spectacular views from the roof of the mountain.

The Cape Doctor was onside too. Cape Town’s famous wind, the friend of all kitesurfers, started to blow smoothly across the lake. We were pleasantly surprised to find that there were no swirly wind patterns on the lake or strong mountain gusts. This was when we knew that our plan was about to become a reality: we would be able to kitesurf Pink Lake on top of Table Mountain.

It was now or never.

Table Mountain, Cape Town - Graykite Surf

Table Mountain, Cape Town - Graykite Surf

Finally, the moment we had been striving towards was upon us, as I attempted the world’s first seconds of kitesurfing on top of table mountain. The feeling was simply incredible. A feeling of exhilaration and success, the knowing that we did it against so many odds, we achieved our goal, it was now a reality! The feeling of the wind, the water the freedom of kiting on top of the world where no one had ever kitesurfed before was nothing short of awesome.

Table Mountain, Cape Town - Graykite Surf

Table Mountain, Cape Town - Graykite Surf

Shortly afterwards Christian also got his moment of exhilaration, as he kitesurfed his way across Pink Lake and into history. By normal standards it wasn’t a particularly amazing kitesurfing session. The wind was a little light, and we couldn’t do any tricks or freestyle. But where it was made it special.

Table Mountain, Cape Town - Graykite Surf

We had kitesurfed on top of Table Mountain, South Africa.

Table Mountain, Cape Town - Graykite Surf

Table Mountain, Cape Town - Graykite Surf

The sport of Kitesurfing has evolved quickly since its humble beginnings just a few short years ago.

In a way, it makes sense to trace its roots back to the evolution of Surfing. However, the sport of Kitesurfing has had the luxury to evolve in a more modern age, with a wealth of technology and innovators to help it on its way.

Today we see design of the highest level performance and specialized kitesurfing equipment, with modern kites and boards resembling Ferraris of the Sky compared to their earlier Model T Ford and VW Beetle counterparts.

Surfing, Man and Predestination

Angel Paintings
There’s no getting away from it

I think it is safe to say that Surfing was almost predestined to evolve into this unforeseeable yet somehow inevitable future, creating the water sports we have come to know today, like Windsurfing and ultimately Kitesurfing. It’s all a process of adding dimensions.

The roots of surfing are surely ancient. The sport was born in a time and place long ago, and probably far away. Time must have felt endless yet short for primordial man, living by the command of his primal instincts and the grace of Mother Nature’s forces.

Sun Worship
Image credit http://donglutsdinosaurs.com/

Once he had mastered his local environment, survival and reproduction were no longer the only things he had time to consider. As he sat staring at the sea, surely his intrigue at the forces of nature would have stimulated his imagination, ultimately leading to his determination to harness the raw power of the wave. And this must have given him an itch more intolerable than his fleas, an itch to override his mundane hunter/gatherer instincts and ride the real and figurative wave.

Man, watching the ebb and flow of the endless sea of waves, captured the answer to his longing.

Endless Longing

‘I am Man. I will ride wood on wave!

And Man made a hopeless attempt to ride the first bit of driftwood that floated by, without much success. So he adapted his primitive tools to carve that first performance shape, the change that would let him balance and carve on the wave.

Finding a new and exhilarating experience, his longing became his addiction.

The figurative wave became his literal release, as he found his eternal Zen, harnessing the untamed forces of Mother Nature. In time, his addiction gave birth to a culture which gave birth to a revolution. How could Man have known that his primal quest to ride wood on wave would eventually create The Californian Dream?

As wave riding was mastered, man’s insistent evolutionary drive to Surf bigger waves was conquered. It was only natural that he would seek the next logical step, to harness and master the next dimension, the power of the wind.

The second dimension

Second Dimension
No, not like that

From this came the adaptation of ‘sail attached to board’ and, lo, windsurfing was born. Man was now able to zip cross the water, at speeds faster than any other non motorized craft. This new two dimensional sport was a true waterman’s delight.

Windsurfing Tarifa
Like this

Windsurfing offered both the freedom to move long distances at speed on the water and a tool to ride the waves while harnessing the wind. But what would come next?

The third dimension. Natch

3D
3D!

Could primordial man, while first carving his wooden plank, have envisioned an age where human size high performance kites would zip the surfer along the water at death defying speeds? A way to conquer a third dimension and launch the rider to incredible heights while performing visually spectacular gymnastics in the sky, requiring only tiny control inputs to a bar and kite?

Whether he envisioned it or not, it happened. Today the sport of Kitesurfing is a true wonder to behold, and a life changing sport for all who learn its secrets. From this new sport another new culture has emerged. Beaches the world over have been transformed by the colours and silhouettes of kites up to 24 meters in size dancing across the skyline.

The beginnings of Kitesurfing

The humble beginnings of Kitesurfing in the late 1980s saw ‘kite like’ equipment such as basic paraglider canopies attached to the would-be kitesurfer, as he struggled on a basic surfboard or windsurfing board. This primitive attempt worked. To a point. However the rider only had one place to go: downwind.

Beginning of Kitesurfing

Next stop Africa!

Think about it. Tarifa was one the the birthing grounds of the sport. Before modern(ish) equipment arrived, the kitesurfer could not move up wind and ultimately back to the beach, so unless you were both careful and lucky the next stop after leaving the beach in Tarifa could be Africa.

Although this method of traversing the Straits of Gibraltar from Spain to Africa offered the rider a very reasonable €70 saving versus taking the ferry from Tarifa to Tangier, it was not optimal for the progression of the sport.

As a sailboat tacks against the wind, so does the modern day kitesurfer, enabling him/her to arrive back on the beach at the same spot he/she left the beach from. This is called travelling upwind, and creating the equipment to master this was key to the development of the sport.

Early Upwind Kite
An early upwind-capable kite. Cameras weren’t great back then either.

With the early foil kites, water starts were very difficult – they’d fill up with water. So if you made a mistake and dropped your kite you were pretty much stuck, just floating around in the ocean. Then, towards the late 90’s, the first LEI (Leading Edge Inflatable) Kites arrived on the market.

Leading Edge Inflatable kites

LEIs offered the vital ability to steer upwind and relaunch from the water but, for the first few years, these new kites on the market only had 2 lines, giving the kitesurfer decent steering control but no safe braking (depower) system.

In the year 2002, almost as a symbolic millennial transformation in the progression from wood riding to modern kitesurfing, the much higher performance 4 line kite was introduced to the market. 4 line kites offered two huge improvements over what had come before.

Modern safety systems

Firstly, 4 line kites provided a simple and functional safety release system and controlled braking.

Safety release systems in the late 90´s were like a shoe lace loop on your shoe, and the only way to release the kite from the rider was to place your finger in the loop and pull. The problem was that when the kitesurfer needed to release the kite, he or she would have already been out of control and it was highly problematic to complete this safety release procedure.

With the introduction of the 4 line bars came the toggle, push and release safety system. With this system, when the kitesurfer finds him/herself in an emergency situation, a worst case scenario being pulled out of control at high velocity, the toggle and push made it very easy to release the kite from the rider – you just push the toggle, and the kite depowers while remaining attached to you. This has ultimately prevented many serious accidents.

Tricks and Freestyle and stuff

The other great advantage of the 4 line kite is that it has far superior flying characteristics that offer the rider the ability to perform spectacular new tricks. Today’s performance kites allow very high levels of advanced freestyle and wave riding with amazing levels of controllability and stability that were unimaginable not so long ago.

Gray Freestyle
Freestyle

More tricks, more fun and fewer broken people? That’s what we call a millennial leap in technology!

Professionalism

Today Kitesurfing has its own world professional tour (PKRA), Governing Body (IKA), and official educational body (IKO). The sport of Kitesurfing will truly hit the world stage for billions of people to see with its Olympic debut in the 2018 Toyko Games.

Olympic Kitesurfing
www.kitesurfing.lydiasnider.com
From wood riding to here – where next?

For now we will only see one discipline, speed racing, at the 2018 Olympics. Yet who knows – although we have arrived here at the current zenith of kitesurfing (and surfing) evolution, beginning with that age-old quest to ride the waves, perhaps in time the Olympic committee will adopt the 18 other disciplines of Kitesurfing, including freestyle and wave riding, and allow the world to be inspired and captivated by them.