One foot in the front strap, one in the back. Arms out for balance, bunny hop forwards and go! I started to slide slowly but steadily down the slope, picking up speed as I glided over the packed-down sand. Woah, I didn’t realize I would be able to do this on the first try! But my exhilaration quickly turned to embarrassment as I took a turn and then a tumble, ending up on my side with a mouth full of sand. My delighted children laughed out loud. They, of course, had made it to the bottom without a single fall from any of them. Sometimes, kids just pick these things up quicker than their parents.
We had come to a series of huge sand dunes on the coast just outside Mossel Bay in South Africa’s Western Cape. Traveling with another family, we had been looking for some fun things to do with our children – aged between 7 and 11. My Swedish friend had spotted this activity and decided it was just what we needed. She had it easy, she was a snowboarder. Me? I hadn’t even put on a pair of skis in more than twenty years.
Sandboarding is one of those sports that few people have heard of but everyone should try at least once. You don’t need much equipment other than a basic board and some sturdy shoes to give it a go, but to really do it properly you should probably use a reputable company as we did. On an earlier visit to Namibia we had seen tourists flying down sand dunes on dodgy looking pieces of cardboard; it looked fun but I’m not sure what your travel insurers would say. This option would, of course, be a lot cheaper (even free, if you don’t mind finding your own way to the dunes) but in my opinion it is worth paying out to get a proper board and to be shown where the best type of sand is.
Setting up the experience couldn’t have been easier – we booked it all online and the company guides met us at a gas station off the main road and took us to the huge dunes bordering the Atlantic ocean. As well as the activity itself, I had been hopeful of spotting a few dolphins as we waited our turn to set off; unfortunately we weren’t lucky this time but we were told it was common to see not only dolphins but also whales at the right time of year from the elevated position on top of the dunes.
What we loved about Dragon Dune Sandboarding, the specific company we chose, was the pure enthusiasm our guides had for the sport. They were also completely confident from the get-go that the kids would be fine – and they were right.
We were in a group of about 20 people but were divided into two sub-groups so that no one had a long wait at the top of the dunes. There were two different types of boards to try; the first was the stand-up sort, very similar to snowboarding (but, as we discovered, not exactly the same and, in fact, those that were experienced snowboarders had to relearn how to stand to get the balance right).
The other was the sort where you lie down on the board and just fly! I have to admit, I loved the lying down, largely because it was a lot harder to fall off. But what I enjoyed most of all was watching my children have so much fun doing something energetic and adventurous. Even the youngest of our group, my friend’s seven year old daughter, was boarding like a pro within the first few minutes.
Later, I asked our guide Leon from what age children could start learning to sandboard:
“As a company we like to start training at a minimum of 6 years old,” he said.
“From this age we found children are aware of the things they need to do to help with their balance to stay on the board.
“Up to 10 years we teach youngsters on special boards with only a strap binding. This makes it easy for them not to struggle by taking their feet out of the bindings. From 11 upwards we work with professional boards with proper bindings to protect the ankle from any injury.”
He said that he encouraged children to stay low at all times while riding and never try to jump out of the strap bindings before the board stopped.
“Children in general have a much better balance than adults when learning,” he added, which I definitely didn’t disagree with!
So what sort of conditions work best for this sport? The day we tried boarded it was wet and quite cold – something which actually helped us in the end. Walking up the dunes was hard work and would have been much harder in the burning sun. But what we hadn’t realized was how important the type of sand was. Apparently the reason why we were able to fly so fast and so smoothly was because we were on river sand. The science of it all was a bit over my head but I was very happy that we chose the right place for our first sandboarding experience.
And did Leon have any more advice for budding boarders? “Check out for hidden sandstone,” he said. “If you are using a wooden board, one ride over hidden sandstone will shred the bottom of the board in pieces.
“Wear a helmet if you try bigger dunes. Try to ride early in the mornings or late in the afternoon to prevent riding in the heat of the day. Climbing dunes can be quite exhausting so bring enough water. Always wear a hat and sunblock.
“But most of all remember – sliding on sand can be a lot of fun!”
And this I certainly agree with. By the end of our morning we were all exhausted but elated. The only thing complaining were the muscles in my legs as I trudged my way up the long dune for the third time in order to launch myself down yet again. But so exhilarating was the ride that all aches and pains were quickly forgotten.
Although I will admit, it was not easy getting up the next morning.
Here are a few other places to try sandboarding around the world
Not very high but very steep and fast. Always fun.
Cerro Dragon, Iquiqui, Chile
Apparently the “birthplace” of dune surfing
Reputed to have some of the largest dunes on the planet
Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado
The high altitude makes the climb to the top of these 700ft dunes quite a challenge