Meat Pies and Whiskey
Traveling editor and resident surfer Janos Palko reports about his recent surf trip to New Zealand.
The wind was strong enough to blow the rain sideways as it battered the fiberglass shell of our poor camper van. Seven shivering islanders huddled inside, mentally preparing to put on our already soaked wetsuits in the freezing rain before it gets too dark to surf. Also, we were parked in a parking lot-turned giant mud puddle. Even the sheep were giving us funny looks. We’d already had a reasonably fun morning session at Raglan's inside sandbar when a local tip led us to a secluded beachbreak 40 minutes away, just as it started pissing sideways rain. One of those surf checks when you kinda hope the waves suck so you feel no guilt about drinking whiskey in the RV all afternoon, warm and dry. Sheer excitement wraps our wet faces as we round the last curve in the muddy foot path leading down to a gorgeous black sand rivermouth beach. Well overhead A-frame peaks detonating on a shallow sand bar, groomed by the stiffest of offshore winds, and only four other humans spread along the half-mile beach. The kind of scene you dream about stumbling upon while you're laying awake, warm and dry, in your bed at home. It was raining too hard and us too frantic to even bring the camera out to snap a picture. We suited up and sprinted back down the trail. This, as we would come to realize, is the essence of the new zealand surfing experience.
The water is cold and grey-ish green but allegedly shark-free. The waves are moody. Unlike Hawaii, where the storms that blast us with swell steer away from us before impact, the storms around here develop on top of the two islands so you get a barrage of wind and swell from the same direction, which means you must carefully pick your nooks and crannies. Though truly world class on their day, the good spots are very fickle, with huge swings in tide and wind a constant issue. Spots are also spread out by hours of windy coastal driving, so knowing how and when the elements come together for each spot is a must. We spent two whole days driving Northeast from Rotorua to Mahia and Gisborne only to find the swell was too small and the wind had changed.
Raglan is probably the most consistently good wave in the country and also the most well-known. Despite the small town full of surfers, local and non, we found the lineup at Manu bay to be shockingly mellow. The waves were only head high but still, a lineup like this in Hawaii or California would have been a bloodbath of drop-ins, bad vibes, and a strict pecking order. Once the inevitable tide/wind change sours the surf, the beach scenery here is quite the sight. We had as much fun clambering up and down rock formations with mugs full of whiskey as we did surfing. Had i been born a goofyfoot i would seriously consider moving to Raglan from April to August.
THE most important lesson we learned was when frolicking and snapping pictures amongst the rocks and sand in this fine country, wear socks and shoes, and long pants, and possibly body armor. The sand fleas attack viciously, relentlessly, and without prejudice. Their painful, blood-drawing bite is only outdone by the two weeks and counting of what i can only describe as getting mosquito bites in the same spots every 40 minutes of every day. One of our crew, Will, had it the worst and i fear they may need to amputate some or all of his feet.
Seven dudes, a six-seat RV, and 9,300 miles (that’s almost 15,000 kilometres) of coastline to explore. Driving a large RV is quite the daunting task, more so when its pissing rain and everything you know about driving a vehicle is now backwards. Now try doing this for six hours in a foreign land, while everyone else in your van is guzzling whiskey to avoid having to drive. To answer your first question, yes, it turns out you can piss out the door of an RV at full speed. Having a partner to provide a human safety harness is highly recommended. Having someone stay sober to help with navigation is also recommended, but not likely.
And the people, the people were refreshingly open and friendly. Being from Hawaii, our whole crew has a subconscious (or at times conscious) hatred of tourists, and thus when we travel we try very hard not to come off as tourists out of respect for the locals. However, there were seven of us, we were all wearing matching red beanies (an homage to captain Steve Zissou's gang of seamen from Life Aquatic AND to prevent us from getting separated from the group) and if that didn’t give us away, the uncontrollable whiskey-giggles must have been a dead give-away. Yet, we were met with nothing but warm smiles and even wise travel tips. The proper surfer greeting is “Chur-bro”.
In all, we covered over 1000 miles in seven days. Saw the North, West and East coasts of the North Island. Piha, Raglan, Rotorua, Mahia, Gisborne, bookended with nights in Auckland. The whole place is incredibly charming. Even though we apparently missed the magic window of fall by one week, where winter swell combines with summer weather. We anxiously watched the weather charts in the weeks leading up to our trip and saw the temps drop from 70s to 50s as our departure date approached. I got scared and went to buy a jacket AND a flannel. Surprisingly, the weather didn’t do much to mask the charm of the place even though my feet were damp and cold for the entire week. The capital of Auckland is clean and modern, while the coastal towns like Raglan and Piha are shockingly idyllic and time-warped. Oh, and the meat pies are good… like, life-changingly good for something you can buy at a petrol (gas) station.