Words: Cathy Williams | Photos: Various photographers
Kite festivals are popular all over the world. The world’s biggest kite festival is probably the Basant Mela Kite Flying Festival in Lahore, Pakistan, which hails the start of spring. There, tens of thousands of people gather in the streets to fly their kites, be it on terraces, roof tops, or even standing on vehicles.
Kite festivals around the world
American kiters David and Susan Gomberg, patrons of the Cape Town International Kite Festival, are extremely well-travelled kite fliers. They have participated in more than 100 kite festivals in 35 countries, including Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe, the South Pacific, and across North and South America. But it’s the Cape Town International Kite Festival that has earned a special place in their hearts. “We love Cape Town and the people we have met through Cape Mental Health. We will definitely be back,” said Susan Gomberg, despite having dislocated her shoulder anchoring a big kite in gale force winds at the 2011 event.
Local kiters Keith Mould, from Knysna, and Greg Mountjoy of Windsong Kites, in KwaZulu-Natal, are part of the international kite circuit and travel every year to different festivals in places as diverse as India, Bali, Indonesia and Germany. “Kiting is a wonderful way to connect with people from all over the world,” says Mould, who has an impressive collection of over 300 kites.
Every kite festival has its own flavour. The Cape Town International Kite Festival is organised by not-for-profit Cape Mental Health and raises funds to help provide free mental health services in the Western Cape. It is very much a family-focused event that brings together people of different ages, abilities and cultures, who enjoy watching and flying kites. Giant inflatable ‘show’ kites are the main attraction, with stunt kiting displays and Rokkaku kite battles also on the programme.
Although power kiting has only been popular for a couple of decades, kites have been flown for millennia. It is not known exactly when and where the first kites were flown, but cave paintings in Indonesia suggest that thousands of years ago local people were using leaf kites, possibly for fishing.
One of the first times kites were written about is 2,200 years ago when a Chinese general used a kite to measure how long a tunnel his army needed to dig, to secretly reach inside a walled city. The earliest Chinese kites were usually rectangular and flat. From China kite-flying eventually spread along trade routes across Asia to India. Kite fighting became popular in many countries, and although the rules and kites differed, the idea was usually to cut your opponent’s line.
Explorer and adventurer Marco Polo carried stories of kites to Europe more than 700 years ago, but it took several hundred years before kites really took off in Europe.
Although some people think Africa is the only continent without a kiting tradition, South African kite-making dates back to the days of slavery. The Swaeltjie kite (swallow or bat kite) is believed to have originated in South East Asia and travelled to Africa more than 350 years ago via Indonesian and Malay slaves. Today these kites are still being made by descendants of slaves, particularly in Cape Town. Goosain Davids and his grandson Mujaid make particularly fine Swaeltjie kites and have won the Heritage Kite Award for the past two years running. Goosain says that they make their kites using bamboo sticks, fishing line and a special kite paper. “Other people use tissue paper, but we use the original kite paper. Where we get it from is our secret. It is a shop in Cape Town, but I’m not saying where.”
Kites for science and war
There are many records of kites being used for scientific research, including Benjamin Franklin’s experiment in 1752 to test if lightening was electricity, which he was lucky to survive. Alexander Graham Bell (inventor of the telephone) built gigantic man-carrying kites in the nineteenth century. One was made of 3,393 tetrahedron shaped cells locked together. The Wright Brothers also experimented with kites in their quest to invent the aeroplane, and their first plane in 1903 was modelled on a Hargrave box kite. In 1901 Guglielmo Marconi used a kite to lift an antenna for the first transatlantic radio transmission in history.
The British, French, Italian and Russian armies all used kites for enemy observation and signalling. During World War II the American army used a specially designed kite – the Garber Target Kite - for target practise.
Since the 1980s there has been a renewed interest in kiting for sport. New materials like ripstop, nylon, fibreglass and carbon graphite have made kites stronger, lighter, more colourful, and durable.
Using kites to pull people or objects is at the heart of today’s power kiting and was pioneered by George Pocock. This English school teacher patented a carriage drawn by kites in 1826. The Charvolant was able to reach speeds of up to 32 km/h hour; quite a speed considering this was long before the first car hit the road. New Zealander Peter Lynn, proud Guinness World Records holder for the world’s biggest kite, is credited with popularising modern day kite buggying with the development of lightweight, affordable kite buggies in the 1990s. Today a skilled kiter can reach speeds of over 110 km/h, and some enthusiasts do extreme buggy jumping where the kite literally lifts buggy and rider into the air.
The 1980s and 1990s also saw the development of water relaunchable kites, which can fly even when wet. This helped to make kitesurfing a reality and today there are an estimated 250,000 participants around the world, including many in coastal parts of South Africa, where there is an abundance of the two main ingredients: wind and sea.
There are different styles of kite fighting and different rules that are created and localised to the country or region where they are held. In Thailand, kite fighting has been deemed as an official sport with competitions being held year round. In Japan the traditional form of kite fighting is called Rokkaku. ‘Rok battles’ are a highlight at many international kite festivals including the Cape Town Kite Festival, where up to six contestants participate at a time. And in other parts of the world like India and Afghanistan it is common practice to coat the line of kites in crushed glass and cut your opponent’s line (as seen in the movie The Kite Runner).
Fly your kite
‘All about ability’ is the theme for the 18th Cape Town International Kite Festival, proudly hosted by Cape Mental Health in association with Heart 104.9FM, which is taking place in Muizenberg on 3 and 4 November 2012.
“This year the kite festival will celebrate our organisation’s slogan ‘all about ability,’ which reflects our belief in the ability of children and adults with mental disability to acquire skills, develop their potential, and live full and contributing lives,” said Ingrid Daniels, director of Cape Mental Health.
The Cape Town International Kite Festival happens on (and above) the lawns surrounding Zandvlei, Muizenberg (corner Axminster and The Row). Open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, the event offers lots of parking and easy access by train (False Bay or Muizenberg Stations). Entry is just R20 for adults and R10 per child.
Bring your own kite, buy one there, make a kite or simply marvel as giant kites take to the skies. If you can’t make it to Cape Town, go fly a kite on any safe, open space.
Where you can find a kite
More details on the festival
For more information visit
www.capementalhealth.co.za, email or follow the event on Facebook for regular news and updates at www.facebook.com/CTKiteFest.
Making your own kite
To make a kite visit www.drachen.org
Kitesurfing: www.kitesurfingafrica.org lists most retailers and hot spots.
Kiting information is courtesy of www.gombergkites.com, www.wikipedia.org and www.drachen.org.