Landlocked and ripped apart by a war that has spanned the better part of 40-years, Afghanistan is probably the last place you would expect to find an emerging and intensely passionate surf community.
Yet, perhaps it's that very nuance that has given rise to a crew who are seeking positives out of their home country, amidst a life's worth of unhinged turmoil. Last year, the first ever expedition was launched to find waves in the country's 800km-long Hindu Kush mountain range, that stretches out from central Afghanistan to northern Pakistan, honing in on the notion that exploration truly is the essence of the human spirit.
Born in Afghanistan's capital city of Kabul, Afridun Amu has been vehemently calling for a strike mission, and a crew, to sample the wilds of his country in search of an inland, above-ground haven, all to help spread stoke to his afflicted countrymen. You may recall that Afri emerged on our radar in May 2017, when he was announced as the first ever ISA competitor from Afghanistan.
But even before that, Afri has spent the better part of three long years putting together an expedition to tour Afghanistan in search of a surfable, accessible wave. The kind of meticulous planning you'll need when venturing into realms unknown. Skip forward to June 2017 and a crew had been gathered, with the aim of punching into Afghanistan's mountainous regions and utilise those powerful river waves that flow down from ice-capped peaks. Their journey was to be documented and turned into a short film, capturing the first ever surgical strike mission in Afghanistan and, quite possibly, the first ever surfers to ride waves in the country.
Afri's also been at the forefront of helping to curate and cultivate a burgeoning surf scene, working with the Wave Rider Association Afghanistan (WRAA), the country's governing surfing body, to instil a fun-filled perception of surfing to the masses. The good news is, back in June, they scored; a fast-paced river wave that may not be the biggest or cleanest, but marked a turning point in the mentality of exploring Afghanistan. We'll get to that.
“In a country that has been crippled by war for the last 40-years, every human’s right to pursue happiness is easily forgotten,” says Afri, when I ask about the decision to make a docu on surfing in a war-torn country.
Even though the arid heat of an Afghan summer can climb to a stifling 49 degrees C, it made sense to set off early in the season. The climate in higher altitudes would be at a more manageable temperature, and sometimes, harsh Afghanistan winters can make some mountain ranges impassable.
Let's just put this in perspective for a moment. How far would you travel to surf? The nearest body of water to Afghanistan is either the mysto-waves of the Caspian Sea, via Iran or Turkmenistan, or, the Gulf of Oman through Pakistan and into southern Iran. Not a travel journey that should be taken lightly, given most public information warns against traversing the border of Iran and Afghanistan, advising to steer at least 100 miles clear. Seeking an aquatic kick from Afghanistan's major arterial rivers may seem a radical move (but who's defining the extreme scale of seeking waves?) but as Afri says, it was born out of necessity.
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” he says. “Skateboards were invented in the 60s, because surfers wanted to feel the joy of surfing even when there were onshore winds and no swell. In the 50s, surf enthusiasts that lived far from the sea started looking for new, alternative waves to pursue their passion not only when on holidays, but also right on their doorstep. That was the start of river-surfing. Eventually the technology for artificial waves emerged from this idea.
We were surfing that wave and amongst all the cheering and the surrounding locals, one guy takes out a gun and points it at us
“We followed the same logic, only applying it to the mountains of Afghanistan, where we kind of knew there are plenty of powerful mountain rivers there. These were our destination.”
On the first day of the expedition, while exploring around 150kms north of Kabul, it was the Panjsher River that delivered. A roaring river wave, that, although small, offered up enough potential for a slide in a country where waves really shouldn't exist. But the physicality of surfing that wave didn't come without its own sketchy, and unique, moments of terror.
“We were surfing that wave and amongst all the cheering and the surrounding locals, one guy takes out a gun and points it at us,” says Afri. “I had no clue what and why that was happening. Luckily the locals we were with could calm down that crazy guy and eventually everything went fine. But still, in that moment, everything could have exploded.”
I ask Afri about what the wave is like and he laughs: “A small wave for a surfer, but a giant aerial for the surfing-world.”
But to surf it? “Definitively tricky,” he recalls. “Especially for me, who was the least experienced river surfer amongst us, well, actually, I'd only started river surfing just for this expedition.
A small wave for a surfer, but a giant aerial for the surfing-world
“We only managed to surf a fraction of the waves we discovered. Jacob Kelly, one of the most experienced Canadian river-wave experts (I guess he has easily scored 100-different-river-waves by now), was one member of our expedition team.
“However, missing equipment (as we financed the entire trip ourselves), the security situation and the 'no-hospital-avaliable' constraint forced us to be cautious and not challenge our guardian angels too much.
“Some aspects of river surfing are identical to the ocean, but there are others that are completely different. While an ocean wave is dynamic, a river wave is static, it doesn’t break but basically remains unchanged for quite some time and you surf without moving as you do in the ocean. For me, in the ocean, it feels like you use the wave’s energy to move, you become one with the wave, while in the river, it felt more like a fight against the wave, so that the energy doesn't wash you away.
“As preparation for the expedition, I surfed in the Munich's Eisbach river, probably the world’s most popular river wave. Shane Dorian was in Munich for the premiere of his new movie and came to Eisbach for a short session.”
There's no denying that scoring a wave in Afghanistan is a remarkable feat and a testament to the dogged nature of human will. But a docu promoting surfing in Afghanistan, at a time of conflict and turmoil, seemed an extreme remit for spreading stoke. “News generally tends to be biased towards the negative as we humans seem to be hungry for scandals and disaster,” says Afri when asked about the situation in Afghanistan right now.
“Inside and outside, almost all news about the country is negative. This is of course part of reality, but it’s not everything. Our documentary shows other, unknown facts of Afghanistan, not only black and white, but the beauty of the countryside, the people’s urgency, the mystical magic that still fills the air in so many places there - surfing is only the entry point to all these aspects of Afghanistan.
By telling a different story about my home country, I wish to contribute on ending the negative spiral in people’s heads
“By telling a different story about my home country, I wish to contribute on ending the negative spiral in people’s heads. Who would have thought that a simple board could open such a magical box?”
But for Afri, and a team of surfers curating a scene in Afghanistan, tourism for the country isn't just a pipe dream: “Let’s be realistic, tourism, right now? No. At least, not soon. But that doesn’t matter because it's a vision for the future. A vision that goes along with the development of the country. A vision in which it is possible for anyone to safely travel throughout the country and enjoy the beauty of its magical vibe. A vision that is worth working for.
“But hey, this was the first expedition and Rome wasn’t build in a day either. To be continued.”
To support the documentary called Unsurfed Afghanistan go HERE. The team has so far secured around £6,500 of its £12,000 target.