Surf's Uphill in Newcastle
Lee Henry goes mountainboarding with Surfin' Dirt
Located in the beautiful climbs of the Mourne Mountains, Northern Ireland’s one and only mountainboarding facility, Surfin’ Dirt, has blazed a trail for extreme sports in the north and indeed throughout the whole of Ireland since its inception in the summer of 2002.
Now in its fourth year, the park and its owner, Gary Parr, have gone from strength to strength, welcoming and training-up over three thousand budding boarders.
Blessed with breathtaking views and a natural downhill course, Surfin’ Dirt is a godsend for Northern Ireland’s many adrenaline junkies. As the only mountainboarding park in Ireland, Surfin’ Dirt has become something of a Mecca for boarders from all over the country, attracting more converts from north and south of the border with every season that passes.
And in August of this year, the park will host the Irish Open mountainboarding tournament, a veritable who's who of the UK and Ireland’s premiere mountainboarding talent.
At the course you will see young boarders no older than fifteen decked out with helmets and protective pads of every kind, strapping on their boards before hitting the slopes.
Busy preparing the adjoining Surfin’ Dirt shop – stocking everything from knee pads to the latest, greatest mountainboards – Gary Parr, the indisputable messiah of Irish extreme shops, welcomes all-comers with open arms.
Parr describes himself as ‘young at heart’, but lionheart may be more fitting. After all, this is the man who has almost single-handedly launched and fostered extreme sports this side of the Irish Sea.
Not happy with Surfin’ Dirt, Parr also had a hand in the recent opening of Northern Ireland’s first indoor skateboarding park, 56 SK8, in nearby Newcastle. But his obsession with all things extreme began with a different kind of sport.
‘I got into extreme sports through kiting,’ Parr divulged. ‘I had always wanted to power kite and needed something to drag me along the beach, so I bought a mountainboard. But mountainboarding is all about hills, so it was a natural progression for me.
‘I met a pro mountain boarder in England, a guy called AJ Watkins; he taught me how to ride. AJ had previously opened centres in England, and when I found out there were no mountainboard courses in Ireland I thought I’d give it a go.
‘Mountainboarding is an easy sport to get into. One hour on the board and you know all the basics. And with a bit more practice, you’ll soon have it under control. And these types of boards are all-terrain boards. Once you’ve mastered them you can tackle dirt, grass, rocks, sand, mud, anything! Ireland is superb for the sport. There are hills everywhere. What more do you want?’
More tracks would be Parr’s stipulation. With big-brand sports shops now stocking the best in mountainboarding equipment and the Surfin’ Dirt visitor and membership lists increasing with every new season, it is clear that the demand for extreme sports in Northern Ireland is on the up.
‘It seems that nobody wants to take that plunge,’ surmises Parr. ‘We’re trying to get more centres opened around the country, but we’ve still got a long way to go. Insurance is an issue, it can take a fair chunk out of your income. But you have to love the sport if you want to be successful. Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and go for it.’
As the fearless kids begin to show off their moves – racing along curves and bends and leaping from the various ramps set up along the mountainside – Parr explained that not all riders are so young. Surfin’ Dirt also has a number of over fifties who regularly turn up to use the hill.
‘Mountainboarders are pretty adventurous people,’ Parr beamed. ‘They realise that mountainboarding is going to be a fun thing to do. It’s not always about who can pull off the bravest moves or run the fastest tracks.
‘We get people from all age groups turning up. Seven years old is our minimum age, for insurance reasons. I’ve had to turn away plenty of kids younger than that. But I’m the oldest kid on this hill. We’ve even got boards with breaks that your nanny could ride!’
The mountainboards themselves are certainly fit to cope with the rigours of Surfin’ Dirt’s varied terrain. Fitted with safety boat straps and an elastic wrist cord to save the rider from decamping in mid-flight, they appear as your average skateboard, only bigger, stronger and a lot more versatile.
Of course there are dangers involved, but parents and relatives can rest assured that all boarders attending the Surfin’ Dirt track must adhere to Parr’s strict policy of wearing protective gear at all times.
‘The first time you get on the track you get an introductory lesson. We teach you how to control the board, how to stop in an emergency, and after that you’re free to ride. But if someone falls over, you’re encouraged to go and help that person. There’s always encouragement to do better all of the time.
’There’s also a lot of support between boarders,’ Parr says, watching as more enthusiasts arrive through the gates. ‘At the end of the day, it takes kids away from their computer screens and amusement arcades and gets them out into the fresh air. It’s healthy and it keeps you fit. And it’s gorgeous when you get to the top of the hill. If you get fed up mountainboarding, you can always just sit down, chill out and soak up the rays. And the views aren’t bad either!’
Check out the Surfin’ Dirt website for more information.