Surfing. Pastime of the effortlessly cool, sport of the effortlessly coordinated. Neither of which I am, and these being attributes that you tend to just have rather than acquire, I am destined to always fail at surfing. Not that it’s a bad thing entirely. Surfers are eaten by sharks more than most, as are they attacked by jellyfish, the kraken and all manner of other nasty ocean creatures I suspect. No one likes board rash either do they? Or putting on cold, damp wetsuits? So there you have it – despite sucking at surfing myself, surfing sucks also and as such, I couldn’t care less.
Except I could. In the 11 days we spent on the West Coast, I reckon the majority of those were spent either sitting on beaches staring forlornly at surfers catching wave after wave, or repeatedly tumbling head first into knee deep water as I attempted to conquer the waves myself. It had taken me by surprise in all honesty – I knew nothing of Tarinaki, aside from it being a bulbous shaped lump on the midriff of the North Island – so it was with an all too familiar sense of foreboding that we saw we were to be driving the ‘Surf Highway’ and that failure, pain and a few lungfuls of seawater were therefore imminent.
We’d arrived following a long and dusty coast to coast drive from Napier, which had been uninspiring at best. It was a journey of endless straight roads, arid farmland and rather depressingly for the second time on our travels, Palmerston North, a place which John Cleese summed up well by stating “If you wish to kill yourself but lack the courage to, I think a visit to Palmerston North will do the trick”. He subsequently had a local rubbish dump named after him. So it was with great enthusiasm that we ditched the van and made a beeline for the Tasman Sea as soon as possible, with the black sands of Kai Iwi beach providing the opportunity. This is volcanic country once again, with the still active Mount Tarinaki as its heart and the out reaching roads and rivers wriggling away from it like veins and arteries, feeding the surrounding region of rich fertile soil and blackened beaches. And it was on these beaches we spent the next few days, relaxing in the sun and exerting ourselves as little as possible. Since our feet destroying efforts on the Tongariro Northern Circuit, we’d mostly been on wind down mode, preferring horizontal sands to vertical slopes, so we left the volcano and the surrounding national park alone, sticking to the coast. We were in no rush, so spent our days enjoying beach side barbecues, fush and chups and some stunning sunsets, while also visiting some of Australasia’s most famous surfing spots at Opunake and Stent Road. The Surf Highway came to an end at New Plymouth; home of an impressive museum, New Zealand’s cleanest beaches and a woman at the info site who within two minutes of asking for nearby campsites was telling us where she bought her underwear from. Lovely.
One of New Zealand’s most popular tourist destinations came next. Now I know what your thinking – but it wasn’t the impossible to resist attractions of ‘Sheepworld’ up in Auckland, nor was it the bizarre life size mock-up of Stonehenge found down in the Wairarapa. No, what we had in fact come to see was a dank and dark world beneath the concealing hills of Waikato, where a vast subterranean network of caves pulls in over half a million tourists a year. This was Waitomo. You can see glow worms all over New Zealand, all over the world in fact, but it’s here that they congregate in a mass seen in few other places. As I’ve said before, Kiwis do have a tendency to embrace nature and turn it into a playground, and in Waitomo they’ve done exactly that. A multitude of companies offer a bewildering array of tour options; from walks in dry caves to abseiling, cliff jumping, swimming, climbing, black water rafting and even an aerial runway – all underground. Opting for a tour somewhere in the middle of the lame to extreme scale, we soon found ourselves rappelling 30 metres down into the gloom and into the underground river that flows throughout the caves. With eels around our ankles we sploshed our way up stream for a look at some glow worms, firstly as a starlit canvas on the roof above us, before finding a lower rock face on which we could see worms closer up. They’re not worms at all it seems, but moth larvae which use their light to attract insects for food, including the very moths they’ll become, the cannibalistic weirdos. Picking up some inflated inner tubes we floated back down stream in the darkness, silent except for the occasional screams of someone being devoured by eels, to where the walls closed in so tightly we could only continue on foot. For over a kilometre we squeezed through ever narrowing gaps and into rapidly decreasing light, until the glow worms vanished, the macabre looking insects ceased scuttling and then eventually, there was nothing. Absolute silence and absolute darkness. The feeling when the tour ended and we got our heads back above ground and into sunlight? Absolute joy.
There was a distinct lack of salt in our lungs by this point, so we set our sights back on the coast and more importantly, onto the waves. We were bound for Raglan, the very epitome of a surf town. The streets here are like a scene straight from a Beach Boys record; shaggy haired surfer dudes stroll the streets while dashing young men and women spill out of the bars and coffee shops – I suspect somewhere there’s even a lady named Rhonda offering general assistance to people. It’s the sort of place my Dad would describe as ‘hip’ – the sort of place you visit once and never leave, and for a while, it seemed like we were going to do just that. We’d timed our trip to Raglan to coincide with my birthday (what better than failing miserably at surfing to compound the misery of my disappearing youth?) before leaving the next day for Hamilton, the dull younger brother of Palmerston North, where our campervan was booked in for its biannual Warrent of Fitness, the NZ version of an MOT. The plan was to take the van in, receive it back with a cheap and clean bill of health and then travel North the same day, what could go wrong? Well an estimate of over $1000 of work required for it to pass went wrong, that’s what. In monetary terms that’s already a lot of cash, but when I tell you that for us it amounted to about 166 nights of accommodation, 500 evening meals or over 5000km of petrol then well, you get the picture. Suspecting a classic backpacker dupe we went for a second opinion back in Raglan, which as painful as it was meant four more days on the beach. We ate some more seafood and drank some more seawater, albeit involuntarily, until eventually we got the van back – now with a fresh Warrant of Fitness certificate for just $200 of work – and made for New Zealand’s North Land. So what did we learn from our time here? Firstly, the Hamilton AA service centre may have a tendency to bend the truth somewhat. Secondly, Black Water Rafting is not nearly as much fun as White Water rafting and lastly, it’s evidently clear that despite my best efforts, I have not yet mastered surfin’ so far, eh?