Every summer, droves of city dwellers head to holiday homes on Egypt’s North Coast – known simply as Sahel – to escape the heat and enjoy the calm, turquoise waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
They swim, relax, socialise, work out and now – thanks to the country’s first surf camp – ride some waves. Surf conditions here are ideal for a range of ability levels, says Omar El Sobky, founder of Surf Camp Egypt.
“You don’t need huge, big waves if you’re a beginner. During the week, there are maybe two days when we can surf as intermediate and advanced surfers, and the rest is good for beginners. You have a good balance between teaching people and surfing all summer long,” he tells The National.
Surf Camp Egypt started with a tiny community of surfers in Agamy, a city in Alexandria, in 2007. It has since shifted to a school with three locations on the North Coast, in the trendy Hacienda Red, Hacienda White and Swan Lake compounds.
“Sahel is the new ‘in’ place and if we want to spread the sport, we need to be where people are going,” says El Sobky, 36.
El Sobky learnt to surf 15 years ago in Atlantic City in the US, while working a summer job at a clothing store on the boardwalk. At the same time, his childhood friend Ahmed Shams was inspired to learn to surf back in Egypt after he saw a video of American professional surfer Kelly Slater.
He bought a surfboard on Facebook and taught himself with the help of a book and DVD. “I caught my first wave in September 2007 on my own and I was hooked,” says Shams, 34.
“The biggest challenge we have is that the majority of Egyptians, when you talk about surfing, are going to tell you we don’t have waves in Egypt. But actually in the winter we have pretty good swells in Alexandria and Marsa Matrouh [about 300 kilometres farther west].”
Shams and El Sobky started surfing together, driving from Cairo to the North Coast to hit the waves every chance they could while holding full-time jobs. Along with a third partner, Adam El Sendyoni, they founded their summer surf school in Agamy in 2010.
In 2017, they began operating in Sahel, where they teach children and adults the basics of the sport through lessons on the sand, in the area's man-made lagoons and then, eventually, in the sea.
In the off-season, Surf Camp Egypt organises two to three trips per year to top surfing spots such as Bali, Sri Lanka and Portugal. “We want to create Egyptian surfers who are surfing during the summer, surfing during the winter and also doing a trip or two per year. So technically, they’re surfers,” El Sobky says.
The school has a team of 11 instructors, most of whom were themselves students of Surf Camp Egypt. One of them is Leila Aziz, 16, better known as Lilo, who has been surfing at the camp in Hacienda for four years and became an instructor this summer.
“I always wanted to learn surfing because I like skateboarding and snowboarding, and I’ve tried wakeboarding before,” she says.
Surf Camp Egypt happened to be in the same compound where she spends summers with her family, so she signed up for the course. “I’ve only ever surfed in Hacienda Red and Hacienda White. I really, really want to go to Alexandria and try surfing there, but the waves are really big and I’ve got school,” says Aziz, who has two years left at Cairo English School.
She says adults are sometimes “surprised” that someone so young can be an instructor, but “they’re proud by the end of it”.
“When I’ve got other kids with me, they feel inspired,” she says. “I had a kid who came in and said: ‘When can I work at the shack?’. He’s like 10. It was adorable.”
Students who have come to the camp range in age from 4 to those in their fifties. They are mainly Egyptians, but some tourists have also discovered the school through word of mouth or social media.
On a recent Saturday, Thibaut, 25, and Lixue Wan, 40, two engineers working in the maritime industry in Alexandria, came for their first lesson after hearing positive feedback from a colleague.
“What I knew about Egypt was limited to the Red Sea. I didn’t hear too much about the North Coast,” says Thibaut, who is French. “Surfing was on my bucket list and I thought: 'Why not try it here?’"
“You would never expect Egypt to have such a beautiful shoreline,” chimes in Wan, who is Chinese. “It’s the first time I've come here.”
Sawsan Mohsen, 31, a nutritionist who is Egyptian, drives 90 minutes from Alexandria for her weekly lessons and is able to stand up on the board in the sea after her third session.
“It has been my dream since I was a teenager,” says Mohsen, as she wraps up her theory lesson with Aziz.
“I like seeing other people fall in love with the sport, just like I did,” Aziz says. “It’s the best thing in the world when you see someone else take their first wave. It really is magical.”
Surf lessons can be booked via Surf Camp Egypt's Instagram page