Sole Surfers – Kerala, India

The secret is out. If you want empty waves (for now), warm sea, chilled vibes and a cultural experience like no other then India’s Keralan coastline – long overlooked- is the place to head. And there are some pioneering surfers out there to help you make the most of it.

Words by Posy Dixon, photography by Stephanie Smith

Surfing and India are not exactly a common pairing but the secret is being spread as rumours ripple across Europe and beyond. India, we hear, is the home of warm waters, sandy beach breaks, seven months of reliable swell and crucially, a surfing population estimated at around 120 people. With over 4000 miles of coastline available, and working swell on both the East and West coasts, there are a hell of a lot of waves to go around.

White, pasty and somewhat over-indulged from the festive period, a group of us full-time UK dwellers were particularly enamoured with the idea of escaping the British Isles in January, so booked a trip to India over the first few weeks of the year. A small amount of research revealed that there are only a handful of people exploring and promoting surf tourism in India, and refreshingly, in the spirit of true pioneers, there is little competition or animosity between the surf clubs and houses that have popped up along the Western coast. Online, you’ll find quite the opposite – maps outlining explored and discovered breaks and glowing reviews praising the experience of surfing in India, and encouraging others to do the same.

For anyone considering a trip to India I’d always recommend a long stay, perhaps flying into Delhi, and then taking one of the infamous overnight trains down the coast to Kerela. However, for those who are short of time (ours was a two-week trip), and travelling with surfboards (unsurprisingly India’s trains are not yet fixed up with board racks), flying directly into Trivanthium airport, just a short drive from the ocean, is a safe and time saving bet, landing you right in the heart of a whole bunch of surf options.

We opted for a base in Varkala, a small cliff side resort and home to several surf spots dotted along a ten-mile stretch of coastline. It’s very cheap and easy to rent a house independently along Varkala’s North Cliffs, but as freshmen to the scene we opted for Soul and Surf, a surf-friendly guesthouse located on the quieter South Cliff stretch. Run by Ed and Sofie, a Brighton couple who happened to stumble upon this alternative surf paradise a few years ago, the guest house is a place where surfers of all abilities can lodge, rent boards, do roof-top sunset yoga and join a daily surf safari. Pretty much Heaven for those who want their Indian surf adventure delivered on a plate.

As soon as you arrive on India’s coastline you realise that surfing in India is going to be an entirely new and refreshing experience. For a start, the Arabian sea is warm, like you’ve never felt warm before. The experience of wading into bath temperature water at six in the morning is one I will never ever grow tired of. Secondly, you quickly realise that surfing is very new to the country, and being a surfer draws a fair amount of attention to yourself. In general kids point and stare at your boards, shout ‘boat’ at you, and occasionally even try to jump on board themselves should you give them the chance.

Throughout the season different spots work and there’s always something firing. Early season, December and January, is when the swell is smallest – one to two foot days are standard. With empty sandy bottom beach breaks and off shore winds the norm, it’s one of the most gentle, unintimidating places to learn to surf in the world. For advanced surfers, the waves aren’t exactly world-class standard, but the lack of magnitude is well compensated for by the lack of people in the line up. Average conditions between March and June see consistent three to four foot waves, growing to five to eight on a big day. If you hang about for Monsoon season the surf increases but it’s rarely clean, the chances of a clean off-shore day are slim, and you really need to be local to jump on those rare big wave opportunities.

Due to very mellow swell during our stay, we spent most of our mornings surfing at Golden Beach, just below Varkala’s south cliff. The beach break ranged from small and co-operative (nice slow peeling two foot lefts), to just damn evil. One morning was spent getting battered by a stormy collision of left and right swells, but that was one bad day out of a fortnight, so the odds are on your side.

As visitors to any country, it’s important to remain respectful of the locals and their traditions, so in the morning when we surfed down at Ed’s beach in the local fishing town of Edeva, everyone wore rash guards and board shorts, so as not to offend the beach regulars. It’s at this spot that Soul and Surf run their weekly surf school for local kids, an attempt to try and integrate themselves further with the local community, to give back a bit to the fishing families who kindly share their beaches with the influx of surfers that are now travelling to Varkala.

Surf School starts with an obligatory beach clean up session, followed by pop-ups and paddling techniques with twelve very excited teenage boys. Surfing-stance mastered, they pile out into the water (with terrifying enthusiasm seeing two boys can’t even swim) and within minutes they’re all riding waves back to the beach, huge smiles suggesting these kids have caught the surfing bug good and proper.

Further north on the west coast you’ll find the Mantra Surf Club and ‘Surfing
Ashram’, a seductively positioned place to surf and find spiritual enlightenment. The operation is run by Jack Habner, an expat American surfer and Hindi Monk, who founded the club in 2004, wanting to create a retreat-like community where people could use surfing as en extension to their prayers. People of all religious and spiritual inclinations are welcome to stay at the Ashram, but are expected to follow a strictly vegetarian diet, no booze, no cigarettes and no sex while on Mantra-turf. Yoga and mediation are optional. A surfing trip like you’ve probably never experienced before, and one that represents to one extreme, how holistic an experience surfing in India can be.

Meanwhile down in Kerela, although we weren’t following any kind of prescribed spiritual vibes, it would have been stupid to pass up on the numerous Indian Wellness systems available. In Varkala a traditional well-being system called Ayurveda is extremely popular, which uses a combination of dietary advice, massage and a copious amount of oil to address imbalances in the body. We enjoyed a free consultation at the local clinic (which we chose to ignore when the diagnosis involved giving up bananas, papayas and pineapples), followed by a rigorous full body massage. We left lubed up beyond recognition with potential acne popping from each pore, but it was a distinctly local experience that really shouldn’t be missed. Other extra curricular activities included hiking along the cliff top walking paths, feasting at fast-food dosa chain ‘Suprabatham’ for around 20pence, visiting elephant orphanages, and trying out more styles of yoga then you ever thought imaginable.

Our final day in Varkala ended with mugs of chai tea and a rowdy game of cricket on the Edeva beach. As we headed home in a van packed tight with bags of beach litter, it was more apparent then ever just how special our fortnight long Indian adventure had been. There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to tell anyone about how good spending January surfing in India really was, but that wouldn’t really be in the pioneering spirit that led us there in the first place. Go next year, and I promise you’ll feel exactly the same.

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