Words & Photos: Kelly Cestari
It’s been done. You are wasting your time. Two things we were told but surf exploration is a funny thing, if there is a wave and it falls within your capabilities, you will want to surf it. A waste of time it is not.
Photo credit: Kelly Cestari
Surfing the waves of Dubai was born through a Facebook wing-and-a-prayer. Dubai offers a proper surf season that is enjoyed by a vast number of ocean lovers. The only draw back is an ocean temperature reading of 36 degrees Celsius during an afternoon session.
The trip itself had been on the cards for over a year, but obstacles got in the way and then suddenly, like dominoes, everything fell into place. It took some time and because it took some time we hit a hurdle. With Dave Richards, Matt Pallet and myself scattered around the world, communication was slow.
As a result, the Wadi Adventure wave pool was fully booked during the times we'd hoped for, so that Matt and Dave could acquaint themselves with the nature of surfing an artificial wave and surf themselves into exhaustion with a wave every 90 seconds. Having lived in Dubai for six years, our new friend Carl de Villiers had established a web of connections and friendships and was able to secure us three hours of pool time all to ourselves at a favourable rate.
Arriving in Dubai, we let the adventure unfold, kicking off the trip with some snowboarding in the desert, an obscure thought brought to reality by Sheikdom. It is odd being ensconced in winter clothes, in sub-zero temperatures, but when the moment you walk outside it will feel like you’ve been slapped with a warm blanket.
In Dubai you adhere to the rules. If road rage is your Achilles heel, then find a cure fast. Do not raise your middle finger, ever. It will get you deported. Do not question the actions of the traffic police, it will get you deported very fast.
The Chinese are an ingenious nation, their food a delight the world over. “Do you feel like Chinese tonight?” Hours later we found ourselves in Restaurant 9. Running a business from a home is against the law, so its location remains unspoken. This restaurant has its own rule, no locals, ever. A restaurant either lives or dies by word of mouth, personal reviews a nail in the coffin or a Michelin star. A spread of local talk could and would result in the shut down and deportation of people, people whose families rely on the success of Restaurant 9. By locals they mean Emirate. A spy camera acts as a bouncer screening the answer to any knock at the door. A delayed response meets our knock. Our dinner party, 11 strong and absent of any Emirate, is granted entry. Entry only because we are escorted by a frequent patron, a patron with Asian features, a Filipino.
The sights and smells are a welcome assault on your senses. It’s hot, it’s sweaty and two fridges greet you on entry. Local and foreign flavors imbibe the atmosphere. This is no fine dining establishment. If it’s the sparkle of crystal glassware you seek and not the beading of forehead sweat, then this is not for you. Like celebrities, we are given the grand tour of the kitchen, the shelves stacked with precooked meals as a quick turnaround is key. Through the night, various meals are delivered and eaten; all are delivered with smiles and consumed with happiness. The next day we find out that the one dish, soft in texture and delightful in flavor, was pig intestine. Certainly not Halaal.
The visit to the wave pool is eagerly anticipated, but a full day still needs to pass and it is only breakfast. Carl takes us to the biggest mall in Dubai, which would take an hour to walk from one end to the other. An aquarium with mature sharks, manta rays and large schools of large fish are, to use an intended pun, but a drop in the ocean. We meet up with Mohammed, a well-travelled Emirate and very excited surfer. Wearing a traditional dishdasha (a long usually white robe traditionally worn by men in the Middle East), Mo starts the tour with a stop at the biggest sweet shop Matt has ever seen. A bag full of sweets and an empty wallet we continue.
You cannot visit Dubai without getting a proper glimpse of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. We look and quickly return to the comfort of air conditioning, wishing time to tick so the first wave could be ridden in the cool pool water.
Mo had arranged for us to spend the night on the family farm to break the two-hour journey to Wadi Adventure, but not without first visiting Big Red, a massive 300-ft high sand dune with sides the steepness of a black ski run. It was great entertainment as Mo floored it up the corrugated sand dune. Looking out from the highest natural point, for as far as the eye could see, it dawned on us that we are going to be surfing in the desert. Wave pools are not new, South Africa has two, but this one is special as the pool is functional for aerials, cutbacks and even barrels, and it is all ours for three hours. However, we still had to get through the night and Mo had planned more.
Photo credit: Kelly Cestari
The family farm is a luxuriant date farm, an Emirate tradition dating back many centuries. A meal has been prepared for us, but first we sample the produce. Mohammed's cousin, Butti bin Mejren, brings his falcons and we are allowed to handle these majestic subjects. Six in total, one is said to be a prize-winning specimen and Butti handles him with great care and respect. In Dubai, falconry is the sport of kings and the first place prize at the annual falconry competition is a brand new SUV. The birds must rest as must we, but not before we meet Mohammed's uncle and drink some tea with him.
The moment of realisation that you are standing in front of something you have been picturing in your head for over a year arrives. The pool was in a state of glassy calm as the weights drop, sending ten plumes of spray into the air. First four, then eight, then ten and out comes a wave. We all stand in awe as the dream finally becomes a reality.
Matt has already waxed up and needs to be told to stop for a line up photo, an order he reluctantly complies with. Dave has been here before so his wax is applied a bit slower, a bit more precise. He knows the nuances of this wave and waits to see Matt's response. The pool officials tell him which mark on the wall to line up with, otherwise you will under paddle and miss a wave. Matt doesn’t want to miss any waves, so this order is taken seriously. On the first wave he throws his tail into sending the section skywards, water glistening as it catches the golden light. A mountain acts as the backdrop with a keyhole slowly allowing the first rays of morning light to filter through. The second wave and every wave thereafter are met with an aerial of some form. The most attempted and most garnered by Matt is the stale fish, something that's been on his mind since booking his ticket.
The pool is mechanical, the ramp always within a metre of where it was last seen. The pool causes a refraction, so we skip the barrel option. Good barrel conditions take around seven minutes to develop as the pool surface must be allowed to settle. We wanted a wave every 90 seconds. Dave's past experience shows, the first wave is a layback followed by progressively better aerials.
An hour into the three-hour session and the boys are hitting their stride. Trading wave for wave the stamina never drains; they are young, spritely and fuelled with adrenaline and excitement. For three hours, plumes of mist are sent skywards from the rear of the pool. Matt has his mind set on landing a clean stale fish and frustration builds with its absence. Mixing the attempts with lien and indie grabs, he finally rides one out as fresh as the morning air. Dave quietly goes about putting on a performance that belies a lack of quality time spent in the ocean. Once a QS warrior and now a happily married man, he watches the Dubai forecast indicators, waiting for them to rise above one metre.
Despite being called the close out, a left and right is on offer. Matt has a go at the left only to shun it straight after. Dave is still quite happy on the rights. Reminiscing on his times in Cape Town, Matt attempts an acid drop from the pool wall. Dave tries the same, but completely misses the wave. For all its repetition, the wave pool is not easy to master.
It’s 10 a.m. and the next session has not arrived, no one declines the offer of a fourth hour. An extra cost well justified. The investment was made. The scouts' honour met. We scored 100%.
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Surfing in Dubai