Ride The Wind: The Latest Extreme-Sports Craze
The latest extreme-sports craze sweeping the globe, kite buggying involves being dragged along at speeds of up to 110 kph by a giant kite. Adrenaline-junkie Dan Roberts risks life and limb to give it a try.
If you ever flew a stunt kite in the park as a kid, you’ll remember how much fun it was – the kite dive-bombing dog walkers as you made it swoop and swirl through the air. Well, imagine a kite that’s 10 times bigger than that, so powerful it lifts you off the ground with each gust. Then imagine being perched precariously in a flimsy little three-wheeled buggy, being towed by said kite at breakneck speeds of up to 70mph…
Welcome to the mad, mad world of kite buggying, where adrenaline-addicted lunatics risk life and limb for the sake of some high-speed thrills. Good sport- nutter that I am, I’ve agreed to give it a go. I head down to Camber Sands in Kent, a windswept stretch of beach that’s a mecca for extreme sports enthusiasts. The wind driving in from the Channel makes it the perfect spot for windsailing, sandboarding, kitesurfing and, of course, kite buggying, a sport invented by New Zealander Peter Lynn in the early 90s.
My guide for the day is Mick Collins, a former pro kite-buggy racer and now instructor with Brighton-based Air Born Kites. I pull into the car park on a dazzling Saturday morning, meet Mick and head excitedly for the beach.
Learning to fly
As he unpacks bags bulging with high-tech kit, Mick explains that the first thing any would-be buggier has to master is flying one of the huge, powerful Flexifoil kites he’s unfurling.
“Done any buggying before?” he asks.
“Not since I was a kid,” I reply, casting a wary eye at the rather daunting-looking multicoloured contraptions laid across the sand. “Right. You’ll need about an hour with these bad boys before we get you in the buggy,” he says. “It’s not that windy, so I’ll start you on the 3.5-metre one.”
Mick explains that there’s a whole range of kites up to 10m sq which they choose depending on the wind speed. More wind, bigger kite is the basic formula. Then he squats down on the sand and draws a diagram to explain the basics – think Crocodile Dundee in a fleece and you’ll get the picture.
“The key thing with buggying is the wind window,” says Mick. “The wind is strongest directly in front of you, then gets weaker until it’s overhead or directly to your left or right. You always want to keep it in that window in front of you so you’ve got enough power to pull the buggy.”
“Good, now for the kite. Grab those,” he says, indicating a pair of long, lever-like handles. “It’s really simple – tilt them towards you for power, away to brake.”
Mick demonstrates, grabbing the handles which are attached by four long strings to the kite. He steps back and the kite leaps into the air, then he swooshes it this way and that for a bit, explaining various technical details.
“Right, now you,” he says, bringing the kite to land and handing me the controls. I take a few steps back and the kite jumps up again. It’s amazingly powerful, especially when the wind gets it, but I’ve soon got the hang of it. I land it and Mick tries me on a bigger, 4.9-square-metre job. Feeling cocky, I swoosh it around a bit before a big gust lifts me right off my feet, wiping the grin off my face.
“Powerful, isn’t it?” says Mick, chuckling.
Having mastered the kite, Mick lets me at the buggy. It’s a lightweight contraption you steer with your feet, like an old-fashioned go-kart. I get the kite airborne, then keep it hovering overhead (which, believe me, is easier said than done) while I plonk my butt in the seat.
“Remember the window,” says Mick, narrowly avoiding a beheading as the kite swoops down. I steer the kite left and the wind takes it again, so I steer the buggy in that direction and suddenly I’m flying across the sand. It’s incredibly exhilarating and I let out a loud whoop.
“Brilliant!” shouts Mick. “Now turn the kite left and follow with the buggy.” The kite goes left, but – as I try to turn after it – suddenly it’s behind me, yanking my arms out of my sockets. I try to turn, but in a split second I’m flying through the air with the buggy tumbling after me. I let go of the handles but land awkwardly, bending the fingers of my left hand back violently. Wincing, I sit and nurse my throbbing hand as Mick and the photographer come sprinting over.
“You OK?” asks Mick, concerned.
“Yeah,” I mutter through clenched teeth. “I’ll survive.”
When I’ve got my wind back and can move my fingers again I give it another go. Same drill, kite overhead and into the seat. I try again and the kite smashes to the sand – again. I let it reach the edge of the window; the wind drops and it drifts pathetically to earth.
It’s incredibly hard to negotiate both kite and buggy at the same time. It’s also intensely physically demanding. My hands, wrists and shoulders ache from being yanked all over the place – as do my abs, which you really work when it pulls.
“Come on Dan, nearly there,” urges Mick. I try again and then, suddenly, I’ve got it! The key is to turn the kite first, then the buggy, and keep turning left, then right, in big circles as the buggy speeds across the beach.
“Cracked it!” I holler as I fly past my instructor, grinning like a madman. It’s top fun and, like Mick said, once it clicks you instinctively know how and when to turn. I spend the next half hour flying about, skidding the buggy in tight little turns and going on long, wind-in-hair straights along the water’s edge. Fantastic.
Eventually my time’s up and I reluctantly exit the buggy. “So how’d I do?” I ask Mick as he packs up the gear. “Not bad for a first go,” he says. “Great crack, isn’t it?” And, despite my battered bod and throbbing fingers, I have to agree. Tired, sandy, but with a big grin on my face, I follow Mick up the beach.
“One thing,” I say, as he looks back at me. “When can we do it again?”
By Dan Roberts