Surfing New Zealand

I purchased a van shortly after I arrived in New Zealand: A Mitsubishi L300 1983 with over 300,000 kilometers for under two grand $US. I would come to regret my decision after I blew a head-gasket about a month later; that’s a whole other story, but for the one month I did have my van, what a dream surf trip.

The van, dubbed Lady Africa by its previous owner, was pimped out with faux zebra pattern fur and two cabinet shelves built out of wood beams which separated the front of the cab from my living quarters.

I rigged a bed out of thick foam and hand-me-down blankets and pillows and sheets. When lying down in bed I could see out of the front windshield through a circular hole, much like a port-hole window on a boat.

My van also came equipped with all essential cooking utensils and a Hula Homer Simpson wobble action figure.

I would wake up many mornings, the only soul around on some remote beach access road with no facilities, up the berm from a rugged, black-sand, pristine beach and look out the port hole to a view of the rolling surf and almost constant off-shore spray. Out the back window I was greeted to a clear view of an 8,000 ft. volcano, perfectly cylindrical and snow-capped.

No junk mail or spam, no cell phone, no rent, no taxes. I was living off the grid–for a short time anyways.

From the same auction site that I made the ill-advised van purchase, I made another less-than-brilliant buy. Having never ridden a fish design before, I was surprised to see one listed at a starting price of $50. I won it for $80US.

Sweet deal, I thought, only to realize later in the water that this board, which had originally been a wooden longboard, or a “Mal” (Malibu) as they call it Down Under was not the ideal board to take out in 6-foot Raglan.

Just getting to Raglan alone was an adventure. I had gone well into my fourth decade of life somehow without learning to drive a manual transmission.

Some people never learn how to swim, but I was determined to learn. In hindsight, it probably would have been better for me to have learned before I departed, but the experience added to the adventure.

I’m pretty sure my trip was the most expensive manual driving lesson ever.

For the first month I was in New Zealand, I lived with a family in the small agricultural town of Te Awamutu, dubbed the Rose Capital of NZ. (Located one hour inland from Raglan, Te Awamutu was where I did a volunteer work program at a spinal cord rehab clinic).

I would practice driving the van late at night (old-school column on the steering wheel). I stalled many times in the middle of the ubiquitous and totally confusing roundabouts. I was learning manual for the first time, on the opposite side of the road with the steering wheel on the opposite side of the car in a country where tailgating is a national sport.

I drove on the wrong side of the road a couple times and only corrected myself, minutes later after headlights were coming straight at me. I practiced parking on hills and one night picked the remotest and steepest road in the area, only to stall in front of a driveway at 11 at night. Out of the 15 houses on the block, I pick the one that belongs to a bloke who was just getting home as I stalled in front of his driveway.

God bless the Kiwis for being some of the politest, most accommodating people on the planet. This bloke didn’t honk at me or get out of his car or yell at me; he stayed put with his turn signal on, waiting for a couple minutes before I was able to get my van up the hill.

My first true test of mastering stick shift was driving to Raglan and back alone.

Halfway there, the road starts to snake down from mountain valleys to the steep decline through giant fern groves leading to the Raglan Harbour.

I’ll cut to the chase as I could go on about the beautiful drive. When I finally get to the scenic overlook I am absolutely floored by the setup at Manu Bay, one of Raglan’s three main breaks.

Dozens of lines of swell wrap around the bay. There seems to be an endless number of peaks. Back home where I surf, on an epic day there will be maybe five lines of swell. Raglan it seemed had an infinite number of swell lines, like the widest pair of corduroy pants in the world.

There were less than 10 people. The wind wasn’t ideal. The waves were choppy, scary…

Locals know where to jump from the rocks to get to the break in the shortest amount of time. I opted for the long walk on slippery rock. I slipped once and felt like crying for my mommy.

The swell lines look like they’re being pushed on-shore, but when the waves break, there is blindingly-strong off-shore spray. It’s a very confusing, shifty peak. I have not come at the best time, but there I was at that time.

I hesitate at first to take a bigger set wave with my new board and it being my first time surfing in New Zealand and riding a fish.

It’s the end of summer here, so the water is still relatively warm; a spring suit wasn’t even needed.

The strong rip pulls me further out to sea. Every couple of minutes, I have to paddle back to the lineup. I’m being driven northwest, following the contour of the bay. A moment of fear enters the mind that I’ll end up lost at sea.

The waves look like they’re double overhead from far away but by the time they get closer to shore (and shore still being miles away!) they are a still scary but a more manageable five to seven feet.

I paddle into my first attempt and pop up but the millisecond I try to turn, my new wooden fish fishtails from under and I wipe out, ruining my chance to get one of the notoriously long lefts here at Manu Bay.

After a few more fishtail wipeouts, I wish I had my board from back home. I finally catch one decent ride and then get caught inside and pummeled and cut my ankle on some rocks. The stress of the stick-shift van ride and knowing I’d have to drive home, plus the exhausting surf makes me call it a day.

After feasting on a Thai Chicken pizza in the mellow town of Raglan, I drive home, making it safely back to my host family’s house.

With the confidence gained knowing I made it back from Raglan—only stalling once in a car park—I now felt ready to venture on my own and explore the central and southwest coast of the north island.

My host family set me free and off I went. For a few weeks, I was on a highly spiritual surf journey. While driving in the van, I didn’t listen to the radio once (this was an easy decision as NZ radio stations play Gwen Stefani and Pink ad nauseum; though in the remotest beach towns on the bottom of the south island, the radio would pick up a brilliantly-programmed old-school hip hop station—in the middle of nowhere).

There were some days I barely uttered a syllable. The Kiwis are nice but reserved. Most of the time, the only time someone greeted me was after I greeted them first. Maybe this was because I looked like a burly vagabond. There were times I talked to myself so I wouldn’t go crazy.

While driving I was in the moment the whole time, not thinking about anything I had to do when I returned to the U.S. or about missed opportunities, broken relationships … I was totally in the present.

An hour into my drive I came upon stereotypical NZ beauty. Ireland-green terraced rolling hills with extraterrestrial rock faces jutting out from the paddocks. Wide, crystal-clear rivers with whitewater rapids escort me along the single-lane country-side road, which is for some reason called a highway even though it looks like a rural road in the Appalachians.

And then my van ascends a hill surrounded by nothing but grass and sheep and precipices in the periphery. I suddenly witness a perfect thick-peeling left with off-shore spray, total glass. Ahhhh, this is why I came here.

Pull into town which overlooks the wide river mouth and the incoming wave flow.

This particular place was a modest little village (I don’t want to give out any specific names except popular spots I visited). I saw many specks of beach hamlets like these that I could see myself relocating to.

New Zealand’s value system for the most part, resonates with me more than the U.S. No flash like here in SoCal where everybody tries to outdo one another with their Benzes, Beamers, Bentleys and Hummers. Kiwis are modest and by and large don’t like showing off their financial wealth.

At this first unknown to the outside world break, I see four people out in the water and I join them. All are welcoming. After catching some fun rides, I take an ice cold shower at the well-kept public facilities that most beach towns have.

I resorted to getting a pair of cotton undies a la Speedo style. Made showering more of an organic experience.

I cooked on my propane grill, watch the sunset, get in my van and read under two push button battery-operated lights I purchased from the $2 store (with the exchange rate it’s more like the $1.30 store). I’m asleep by 9 p.m. and once again wake up to ocean views at sunrise. No cops come and hassle me.

I will live this lifestyle for a few weeks only in New Zealand but it feels I could easily do it for three years.

I surf a town called Gisborne on the north’s East Coast. “Gizzy” gets consistent swell and I had my best surf in NZ here. The town itself doesn’t have much going on. There’s a challenging hike that takes you through cow pastures and right next to the cows. Watch for the chips.

But when in the water at Gizzy, in between sets, I turn around and enjoy the view of a large hillside dotted with hundreds of sheep. This feels way more in-tune with nature than looking up and seeing million-dollar McMansions stacked up against each other.

By this time, my partner, travel mate and “Shelia” had brought both our boards after I pleaded with her to do so because of my awkward wooden Mal. Thank God she was able to bring the boards because it made all the difference in the world paddling into consistent head-high long rights.

We surfed Gizzy for a few days in a row and were already feeling like locals.

I saw so many different kinds of lineups; it’s hard to imagine there being any more.

The lineups are as diverse as the scenery itself in the relatively small country. New Zealand is an armpit compared to the size of Australia.

Unfortunately, I got skunked while visiting NZ’s more well-known surf spots like Mt. Maunganui and Whangamata. When it’s flat on the east-coast, it’s really flat. Still managed to get great surf in a few small beach communities near the gorgeous wine country, which required a remote drive through some of the most scenic country and mountain vistas I have ever seen. Truly a paradise here!

My favorite surf towns were those that had unspoiled views of both ocean and mountains. Both coasts have this idyllic paradise. I hope it will last long. Real estate is booming here as wealthy Yanks, including celebrities that have houses here but probably only use them once every other year, claim a stake of paradise. Can’t blame them…

The South Island west coast is the most dramatic and raw. Staying at a beach-side backpacker’s watching the surf near the Pancake Rocks at Punakaki will be a life-long memory.

So will seeing yellow and blue-eyed penguins in the wild saluting the sunrise with wings spread wide, beaks elevated, UV rays energizing the flightless, comic birds. Watching them waddle into the surf and coming back onshore in social packs after sunset.

I could go on and on about New Zealand. But I will stop here for now and just hold on to that complete feeling of freedom living out of my van and exploring different surf spots in exquisite New Zealand.

In the famous words of General MacArthur, “I shall return.”

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