Carving Dune
Surfing fun in earth's harshest realms

The desert air smells like scorched paper tinged with lemons, shimmering in the relentless heat. Undulating dunes tower 1000 feet over your head. You leave a trail like a giant sidewinder as your board skids right, skews left. You lean into a steeper slide, pick up speed...and glance down just in time to see the tip of your board plow into the dune, tumbling you head over heels into the sand like an ostrich. Mouth scrubbed out with dirt, you hitch a ride back to the top for another run.

See also...
... by Sandy Brundage
... in the Scope section
... from September 9, 1999

It's a surfer's dream -- steep waves frozen at the peak of power, waiting timelessly for board and rider to tip over the edge. But there's no water in sight. From California to Brazil to Egypt, sand dunes are the latest meccas for anyone who wants to surf year-round.

Sandboarding is the cutting-edge sport that started over 3000 years ago, when people took to the slopes on boards of wood or fired clay. There are photographs of modern sandboarders dating back to the 1940s. But when ski slopes became the hot destination for boarders in the 1970s, sandboarding became the oddball cousin.

Even so, today there are about 42,000 sandboarders worldwide. Elite boarders, including Peru's Marco Malaga, South Africa's Axel Sander and Joshua DaMore of the United States, ride at competitions like the "SandMaster Jam" over California's Dumont Dunes or the World Sandboard Championships in Monte Kaolino, Germany. A cursory glance at the events scheduled for the World Championships tells you that this is no traditional sport. While there's the usual Grand Slalom, there's also the "Duel Slalom" and "Bad+Mad" -- a massive wave of riders launched simultaneously, all fighting to carve the same scrap of dune.

Julie Pilcic, top-ranked female sandboarder and self-described "glutton for punishment", has been part of the competition scene for six years. "During a run I feel a mix of exhilaration and fear," she said. "Fear of falling and breaking my neck, and at the same time an adrenaline rush that I'm flying down this hill so fast, the wind rushing through my hair. But the worst part is that you bring half of the dune home in your clothes, hair, and ears."

Jumps, gaps, chutes, slides: They're all features of sandboarding's hottest dunes. From Australia's Mindarie Keys ("sick jumps, insane downhill runs") to China's Taklaman "desert of death" Dunes, there's a place for any board powered by courage. Colorado's Great Sand Dunes National Monument beckons with 700 feet of steep sand. Peru's Cerro Blanco Dune tosses in scrub brush and rock for an added challenge. For beginners, there's the sandboarding school on South Africa's Cape Town dunes.

If you're a surfer already, whether on snow or water, it's an easy jump to carving dune. Take a look at Sandboard Magazine and Dune Riders International, the governing organization for the sport, before making the leap. Don't worry about getting scraped up. Unless you're boarding over gravel, you won't lose skin. And what's a couple of sand bruises compared to the exhilaration of a magic carpet ride?

Sandy Brundage has stalked adventure in North America, Europe, the Middle East, and odd corners of cyberspace.