In the early 1970s, the Canadian Club whisky company launched a print advertising campaign featuring an athletic and glamorous young couple in swimwear skiing down the face of a sand dune in Morocco. “Sand Skiing in the Sahara. Even if you don’t win the downhill race…it’s a beautiful way to get a suntan,” states the bold text above the pictures. After a brief description of the couple’s adventures on the dunes, the ad gets to the punch line: “Later we toasted our adventures with Canadian Club at Hotel du Sud in Ouarzazate.”
The 1974 ad was part of a larger Canadian Club campaign launched in the 1950s which featured lesser-known sports in exotic locations. Besides sand skiing the ads promoted sand yachting in Belgium, hydrofoil skiing off the Greek island of Corfu, hang gliding off a glacier in New Zealand and spinnaker riding in the Grenadines islands, among others.
Even though sand skiing was relatively unknown before the Canadian Club ad, it did have a small following in the United States and Europe. Sand skiing races were held as early as the 1950s in California and Florida.
The earliest documentation I found of sand skiing in North Africa, was two 1937 photographs by the legendary portraitist and fashion photographer Lee Miller, when she resided in Cairo. Both images show the poet and writer Robin Fedden and his friend Mary Anita perched atop a sand dune with their skis, looking to descend. The accompanying caption explains that they were unable to tackle the dune because the skis would not slide on the sand. There is also mention of a snake that appeared in their path, which may have also caused them to abandon the slopes early that day. In 1939, another series of photos made by ACME News Pictures shows Egyptians and Westerners sand skiing near the Giza pyramids. One photo features a western woman in skimpy shorts and a man being pulled by a camel through the sand, while another photo shows two Egyptian men in traditional robes or galabaiyas skiing down a sand dune.
Today, sand skiing has been replaced by sand boarding, the desert version of snowboarding. Tour agencies around the world are selling sand boarding as a way to discover new destinations off the beaten path. There is even an online magazine called Sandboard Magazine dedicated to the sport. The publication features hundreds of sand boarding locations across the globe, most of which are in the United States and Australia. However, some spots are in more exotic locations including Chile, China, Mongolia, Namibia, and Yemen.
Sand boarding aficionados and tour operators seeking to promote the sport in Egypt speak of a popular belief that sand boarding has its roots in ancient Egypt. “Sandboarding, a sport rumored to have been invented by ancient Egyptians who surfed down golden dunes of sand on planks of hardened pottery and wood, has been reborn in the Sahara Desert,” says the website of Look At Egypt Tours.
The ancient Egypt angle spiked my curiosity, so I contacted my good friend and professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, Dr. Salima Ikram and asked her if she knew of a tomb that had a relief painting of sand boarding in pharaonic times. She immediately wrote back saying, “There is absolutely no evidence that the ancient Egyptians sand boarded—there are no images in tombs or references to such activities in texts.”
It may be cool to think that ancient Egyptians were gliding down sand dunes, but unless there is concrete evidence to refute Dr. Ikram’s claim, we cannot attribute the origins of sand boarding to the pharaohs.