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Published: October 10th 2008
The foreign locales, exotic cultures and enticing cuisines which we encounter during our journeys are all experiences which make travel such a reward. Every now and then we come across something else which is a little different. While this can take many forms one of the most common is the chance to try new sports. And so during my journey to Peru as I sat conversing with some other travelers in my hostel in Pisco they set me on the idea to head to a nearby town to try some sandboarding. Sandboarding sort of goes without description, it is basically snowboarding on sand. What follows is my non-expert advice for a first time sandboarder:
Deserts are hot and there are no ski lifts there - Sitting by my hostel pool in the former resort town of Huacachina, I watched the small dots of my fellow travelers climbing the large dunes right beside me. The dunes were actually so big that the people lost their shapes up on the higher parts of the dunes. It was around one in the afternoon and it was blisteringly hot out. I was to be undeterred by the heat though. I had already signed up for a tour later in the day, but I was eager to get a bit of experience before then. Just as I was talking to the first few guys to enquire about getting a board, some others came back intent on returning later, it was just too hot right now to be doing that. I decided to go anyway and armed with only a water bottle and a bit of wax I headed off into the desert. It was not long until my legs started to demand a rest, I was in pretty good shape at the time, I was used to running for 6 to 8 kilometers a day but this hill combined with this heat was a bit too much for me. So about two thirds up the hill I decided to make my first run. I put some wax on the bottom of the board and strapped myself in. I jumped to my feet and … nothing.
Wax is a must - The thing about snow is that it is made of water and in addition it retains some liquid water within its crystals. So even with a little bit of pressure on some snow it provides a relatively smooth surface. Combined with the natural smoothness of a ski or snowboard, it leads to a fairly slippery surface. Deserts by contrast have almost no moisture, and sand is coarse, both part of the recipe for going nowhere. Also the boards, though once maybe slick, have been worn down by the repeated use, their bottoms are no smoother than a piece of plywood. So in order to compensate for this a lot of wax is necessary. The guys who rented me my board gave me a small Ziploc bag full, but as I was soon to find out this would have been good, if I knew how to apply it, for about 20 feet of boarding before I ran out. So the rest of this short journey proved that my board wouldn’t really go anywhere. The only way to get any speed was to compromise speed for safety. I first tried a few 40 degree inclines, then moved up to 50, 60 and 70 degrees. On the last one I finally got a good run in, though short because this stretch of sand was only 40 feet long.
Don’t try to cut, and be prepared for some sore ankles - After I had given up on my solo attempt I headed out for my tour I discovered that the first two problems would be solved for me. A Dune buggy took us to the top of the hills and the drivers applied ample amounts of wax with sponges drenched in it. But with the ability to finally cut loose it was a revelation that there would in fact be no cutting. Again to point out the difference between snow and sand, snow is a lot looser and therefore it is easy to do tricks like cutting back and forth. For a beginner at sandboarding this isn’t option. First of all just because you saw somebody do it on tv doesn’t mean you can be a snowboarder let alone a sandboarder. Even for those used to snowboarding, it is difficult to cut, there is just simply too much weight to move and too much friction stopping you. Mostly it’s best to just head in a straight line. Of those people who were with us, only one had any experience with snowboarding, and he said it was impossible to cut. And the inability to cut is compounded by the fact that the bindings on the boards were mostly cloth instead of at least some hard plastic which might make such an action more possible. So basically the beginner is relegated to point, go, balance and pray.
Don’t expect any great snapshots - A couple of the people out with me faked a couple of pictures where they were jumping of some obstacles, but that was actually the closest we got to anything other than a flat surface going down. Sand doesn’t generally make neat little places to jump off of, instead it is almost uniformally flat. Anyway most of were falling so much that it would have been impossible to get up the speed even if there was something.
You better like sand because you will be wearing it on your face - Even those amongst us who were the best balanced had some amazing wipeouts. Out of everybody I was the only one to once complete a run without a spill and the drivers were duly impressed by the fact. Usually I was one of the first few down the hill and got to watch the comedic attempts of the others following us. But that is not to say that I didn’t have some amazing wipeouts. On one I had the sand so hard with my face that a grain of sand got lodged between my teeth (especially difficult considering there isn’t a gap there for that grain to fit into). Another wipeout saw me roll down the hill head over heels for at least twenty feet. The best way I found was to head off on a bit of an angle and hope that no one got in my way, which was effective about 20% of the time. My rear hand dragged behind to help me stabilize myself too, creating a relatively stable base.
Let you valuables at home - One of the other guys on the tour had the misfortune of smashing his camera on one of his wipeouts. Luckily it was digital so at least he could salvage the memory card, but everybody was losing stuff. Sunglasses and watches fell by the wayside. At the bottom of one of the runs while I waited for others to catch up I looked at the ground and noticed a bead from a necklace of some previous sandboarder who had surely lost his or her necklace in a spectacular fall and this bead proof that their necklace had paid the price for it.
Sand + Sweat = Mud - Deserts are hot, you are going to sweat, and the sand which will get in everywhere will in turn cake your body with mud. I was amazingly dirty afterwards. I had sand caked to my face and every other part of my body was displaying at least some small patch of a muddy souvenir.
You’re going to be sore accept it - In the end sandboarding is a lot of fun. It is one of those things which is fun despite all the drawbacks. But all the abuse is going to lead to some very sore body parts, either from where you landed or from where you tried in a futile attempt to turn your board. In the end it wasn’t that bad though when I got out of the pool after a dip to clean and cool off, I stubbed my toe, breaking it in the process, so I was happy to have some other bruises to distract me from the pain.
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