Western Sahara: Lagoon kitesurfing

A journey to a far-flung spot offers the chance to learn the exhilarating sport, while the desert slowly reveals its beauty

By Lucy Grewcock
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:17 BST, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 11:44 BST
Kitesurfing at Heliophora.

Kitesurfing at Heliophora.

Photograph by Lucy Grewcock

It looks like another planet, I think to myself, as I peer out of my adobe hut at the arid sea of scrub and rock before me. In the distance, flat-topped mounds back featureless sands, and desert plains stretch to the horizon until they merge with the sky in a heat-induced haze.

Western Sahara is one of the world's most sparsely populated regions, and with no direct flights from the UK, my journey via Casablanca had taken seven hours: if it hadn't been for the faster flight connection added earlier this year, it would've been double that.

You may wonder why anyone would come here on holiday at all. But 30 paces west of my hut, away from the desert plains, the sand slopes towards a shimmering lagoon. Open to the Atlantic at one end, this vast bay is protected from the ocean by a finger of land — the Rio de Oro peninsula — with Dakhla city sprawling along its length.

Whipped by year-round winds, the lagoon's waters are ideal for kitesurfing. A decade ago, the first kitesurf school set up on its northern shore and, today, more than 10 'camps' offer tuition and full-board accommodation. It's one of the best places on the planet for beginners.

While there's a cluster of schools in the north, I went further south to Dakhla's most remote camp, Heliophora. Opened in 2014, this beachfront eco-camp has 38 beds and a fully kitted-out kitesurf school. While the north shore can see more than 200 kiters on busy days, the waters here are blissfully uncrowded.

"More power!" Salah, my instructor, calls as I swoop my kite while floating on my back. The wind is blowing more than 20 knots and the thought of pulling on my kite lines for more power is a daunting one, but, trusting Salah, I go for it. "You got it!" he whoops, as I launch out of the water and skim across the surface on my board. It feels amazing.

With consistent winds and the sun shining late into the evenings, I'm able to spend lots of time out on the water. At low tide, the lagoon remains shallow for more than 200 metres; this means I can safely kite out to where the experts are jumping through the air, the city of Dakhla just about visible on the opposite shore.

One evening, I take a taxi to the city and shop in the souk for antiques and Moroccan tea. As the week wears on, I discover more about my desert home, learning that the empty plains hide vast tomato farms irrigated by 500-metre-deep wells.

With each day that passes, the Sahara reveals more secrets: I visit a tiny oyster farm and slurp 12 fresh molluscs on a desert-backed beach; and when I comb the sands I find crab shells, huge conches, a camel skull and layered chunks of fossilised wood — relics of trees that died centuries, or maybe even a millennia, ago.

Towards the end of the week, I join a day trip to a secret stretch of water, where I kitesurf across the lagoon while white flamingos watch from the shallows. By the end of my trip, I'm noticing minerals glittering in the earth, the myriad colours of the sand, and the different tunes played by the wind.

A kitesurf paradise hidden in the desert, there's far more to this place than first meets the eye — and there really is nowhere else like it on Earth.


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