Base Layer Basecamp

Searching for Surf in the Land of the Long White Cloud

By Noah Cohen; Photos by Mark McInnis

For every ounce of sheer beauty that this corner of New Zealand holds, it always felt like a “pay-to-play” type scenario. Much like the rough and tumble humans forged by the wind and weather that call this place home, it has a subtle “harden the F up” to it. Or, if you aren’t the kind of guy that wears shorts with his wellies while you’re out tending to the sheep (like me), you can live in your BN3TH base layers for days at a time. And I must say, my biggest regret of the three amazing weeks spent in New Zealand was not packing more long pairs when it came to matters of underwear.

Relentless headwinds engulfed the sprawl of green hillside like a gusting wildfire, stunting our progress as we trudged along the fence line, and clanged its rusted coils against its poles. We finally happened upon a goat trail the led to the sand below, hopped the fence and a stumbled down to a playful wedge. It always seemed to be blowing here in New Zealand, and the trick was not wishful thinking in favor of it laying still, but rather finding a cove or a nook or a lee sheltered slightly from its prolonged exhale. Or conversely, a wave that was howling offshore.

One bay in particular became our basecamp. Plagued (or blessed, depending on interpretation) by nonstop northerlies, the south-facing stretch of sand nestled between tall, craggy cliffs on either end offered ample respite from the blustery winds, coupled with plenty of room for the southerly swell to march its way in. With the help of a little cliffside refraction, a wobbly and moody little righthander resided in the corner, and for what it lacked in uniformity it more than made up for in the fact that it was surfable through all tides and many different sizes. It certainly wasn’t a dish with a whole lot of flavor, but it was a meat-and-potatoes staple, served up in front of a backdrop as picturesque as any.

Crowd Atlas

We stood atop the hillside, surveying the scattered beachbreak peaks from above while the last gasps of autumn sunlight drenched us in gold, before retreating beneath the horizon. Droves of surfers moved dutifully to and fro in the distance down below, with ant-farm efficiency in their collective pursuit of the shifting swell.

New Zealand is a country in which it seems almost challenging to take a misstep. The infinite hectares of sheep-speckled farmland, minimal man-made monstrosities, and a raw and rugged coastline being met by equally powerful South Pacific energy, make it a locale you could never spend long enough in, constantly finding an updated placeholder for your excitement and attention span.

After the first bottle of beer was popped that evening, it was always going to be an uphill battle to strike up the motivation to tussle elbow to elbow with an after-work Auckland crowd. In silent acknowledgment, it was decided that this one would be given a miss in favor of sinking piss. The trip was in its infancy, after all, and there lacked urgency and the “last chance for romance” sentiment that cradles the final stanza of adventure. 

Though it would be fair to say that the five members of our cast: Pete Devries, Dane Gudauskas, Mark McInnis, Nate Laverty and I all house a certain affinity for the deep south, we began our New Zealand sojourn on the northern isle, arriving in Auckland and making our way down the west coast, encountering numerous fun waves en-route. Also of note, was that we may be the only group of surfers to ever visit this blessed nation and balk at visiting the world-famous lefthander of Manu Bay, Raglan. Crowds, combined with regular-foot brains (sorry Dane) saw us sniffing around Taranaki-town instead, and we settled for a right-hand point there on the larger days, while reveling in some sand-bottom tubes just to the north as the swell eased up.

The comparative issue with its southern neighbor though, was that everyone else seems to enjoy the warmer weather and ease of access that the North Island holds, so finding peaks sans people proved a trick. We ambled around from town to town in search of waves and pies and Pete’s favorite “breakfast butties”, which were a sort of egg/bacon/cheesy goodness between fluffy pastry.

Each of the aforementioned zones gave glimmers of brilliance, but we lacked that one true “eureka” session that produced the score that we had traversed the globe looking for. After a dozen days or so, we tossed in the towel and scooped southbound airfare.

Southern Hospitality

After spending a fortnight in unfamiliar northern territory, the trek south truly felt like a bit of a homecoming. Pete and I had enjoyed many weeks collectively in this region, and it was refreshing to be back amongst the land we loved, bouncing along deserted dirt-tracks, weaving through potholes and crossing fingers for conditions to align at some of our old favorite haunts.

Often during daily surf commutes, we found ourselves passing a familiar farmhouse on a corner, with a fenced-in yard filled to the hilt with sheep. Nate had made it known early on that the film’s focal point was actually not one of surfing at all, but more ideally, it was three proverbial fish out of water (Peter, Dane and I) attempting to grab hold of the squirmy sheep and give ‘em a proper shearin’. It just so happened that our man on the ground and one of the nation’s most gifted lensmen, Rambo Estrada, knew the farmer in question and was able to arrange for Nate’s wishes to be granted. After a brief intro, Nate’s always up front and inquisitive personality fast-tracked our friendship with the fella, who coincidentally happened to be one of the area’s keenest surfers. Not only did he facilitate our shearing dreams, but he also threw us in the back of his ute and hauled us down to his secret paua (abalone) harvesting spot, nestled at the foot of a long, roping lefthander.

Due to the limited diving masks and my shellfish allergy that rendered the paua relatively unexciting for me (save their gorgeous shellular homes) I wound up parking it on the beach, enjoying a moment of peace against the beautiful evening backdrop. The solitude was short-lived, however, as a giant sea lion made its way ashore and was very vocal about taking his space back. Thankfully they’re far more cumbersome on land than in their oceanic domains, otherwise it would be a downright daunting prospect to go face to face with juggernauts like these.

The boys made off with a nice little haul, and we headed back to the shearin’ shack for a traditional feast of bbq’ed paua and lamb. Though I can only testify for the “turf” portion of it, it was clear the man certainly knew his way around a grill. All in all, the day proved to be one of the most memorable experiences we had in Land of the Long White Cloud, and further reaffirmed that the Kiwis are some of the most hospitable people on earth. 

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