Professional kite surfer Ben Wilson is standing on the white sand of a Fijian island, his eyes shifting constantly between the “kiters” he's coaching. Even one of the world's best can't see everything, though, including a black training kite that suddenly spirals of control, plummets and crashes on his head.
Wilson untangles himself from a jumble of lines and quickly relaunches the beginner's kite with a shrug and wave.
I can feel the tightness in my arms and my neck, and know it's not from physical exertion. Hendy quietly suggests I relax and connect with the wind and the kite.
Within minutes the marauding kite is at it again. This time it dongs fellow instructor and former ironman champion Trevor Hendy, who again helps the kite back to where it is supposed to be, up in the Trade Winds cruising under Fiji's precious blue sky.
Now a clutch of people who were on the beach are by the bar. Namotu runs over just 1.5ha and while there are plenty of places to shelter the bar's palm frond roof has withstood cyclones. It's a good place to be while the training kite and I get know each other.
The fortunately harmless crashes are part of the first hours of a week spent at Wilson's Jeep Kite Surfing School, one he has temporarily relocated from his base on the Sunshine Coast to Namotu, about five kilometres south-west of Fiji's main island, Vitu Levu, and roughly 25km from Nadi.
The tiny 1.5-hectare island was once mostly treeless but is now a work of art, sculpted to tropical island perfection by Australians Scott and Mandy O'Connor after they bought a long-term lease from villagers at nearby Solevu.
Kiters of all levels – beginner, intermediate and advanced – have congregated on Namotu for a week of intensive training. I am in a group with three other beginners. Wilson and Hendy plan to have us all kite surfing by week's end. “The learning curve is not as crazy as it might seem,” Wilson says.
We fly the training kites for about two hours on the first day. I hit no one else and feel a sense of progress, yet I'm tense and twitchy. Not all my feelings can be summarised in the successful sailing of a small, as-yet landbound kite.
In the earliest days of kite surfing, some 15 years ago, kiters had no way to control the power of the wind. Among experienced hands, stories of horrific crashes are as prolific as coconuts that dot the palms shading the island's two pools.
In the last four years there has been a healthy leap in kite safety. Newer kites can be rapidly depowered by simply letting go of a bar, part of a push-and-pull steering mechanism used to control the kite: let go of the bar and even in a gusting wind, the kite de-powers and hovers overhead (in neutral gear) with little force.
Hendy recognises I'm tense. I, too, can feel the tightness in my arms and my neck, and know it's not from physical exertion. Kite surfing doesn't require strength: kites can be controlled with one hand. Hendy quietly suggests I relax and connect with the wind and the kite.
A handy breeze is blowing - a minimum of 10 knots is needed to sustain the kite – and a flock of experienced kite surfers flies along a reef-break about 400m off the island called Namotu Left. From a distance, their collective skills seem impossibly beautiful. The only way I might ever join them is to heed Hendy's words.
Day two dawns and all beginners graduate to the kites we will use on the water. First I fit a harness around my stomach. The steering bar and the four lines connecting the kite and I are attached to it. Importantly, there is a quick-release latch should our friendship need to end in a hurry.
Hendy is holding on to me at the back of my belt when the full-size kite first lifts off the sand. I feel a shot of power – “bar out, bar out,” says Hendy – before the de-powered kite rises with little force.
For some hours I practice working with the kite and the wind. It is far more rewarding than fighting on two fronts. Fear continues to drift away.
After some hours, all four beginners progress to the next stage; flying the kite while being dragged through the water. Hendy and a Namotu boatman will follow us.
Over the next two days I manage to get the kite doing figure 8s but when I'm slow to de-power, the kite pulls me thrillingly almost right out of the water. Somehow I never once lose my shorts.
During "body dragging", the kite often crashes into the water: a sensitive tug on one of the kite's lines is required for a relaunch. I struggle with this and once while trying repeatedly to do it, I float to Vanuatu – OK, not quite, but you get the idea. Eventually I climb into the boat for the ride back to Namotu.
The week with Wilson and Hendy isn't just about kiting. The organisers describe it as a Lifestyle Week. Celebrity chef and My Kitchen Rules co-host Pete Evans is a mate of Wilson's and presides over Nomatu's kitchen, often serving tuna caught by the island's fisherman. Nikki Fogden-Moore, Wilson's co-host and a vitality coach, leads us for stretching on the beach in the mornings. There is time to practice the ancient art of hammocking.
But when the wind blows, everyone on Namotu grabs a kite. Wilson learnt his craft on the island, and even after travelling the world plying his trade he has found nowhere else to compare to it. Other guests – the island accommodates just 23 – sing Namotu's praises. Silicon Valley angel investor and keen kiter Ariel Poler sums it up: “This is the best kite surfing spot in the whole world, without a doubt.”
After some 16 hours of land- and water-based lessons over five days, it's time for a ménage-a-trois of sorts: me, the kite and a twin-tip board. Hendy treads water nearby to offer final instructions.
On this day the wind isn't strong, and to generate the power to get out of the water I need to position the kite above my head, make it dive close to the water, pull it back to the sky and rapidly repeat the process. The hours of lessons come together. My kite control is reasonable; I embrace its power.
After three attempts I rise from the water. I feel its smoothness under the board, realise I am kite surfing, then fall. Though the longest of four rides lasts a measly 30 seconds, the indefatiguable Hendy cheers each time.
I've a long way to go before I can truly claim to have kite surfed, and still more to get back to the beach sans boat. Yet I made a wedge of new friends on Namotu, my kite included.
Greg Clarke travelled to Lifestyle Week on Namotu as a guest of Ben Wilson's Jeep Kite School.
- Lifestyle Week including Ben Wilson's Kite Surfing School will be held again on Namotu in July 2014. There will be another in Noosa in early 2014 – the dates are yet to be confirmed. More at www.benwilsonsurf.com/kiteweek