Part One can be found here...
Waking up to the morning sunshine on your face as you unzip the door to your tent, the sound of water gently lapping against the shore, barely a stones throw away from where you lay your head. People would argue it couldn't get much better than this. Well, they're wrong. Stirring the others from their sleep, a collective groan resonates around the empty car park in front of the Pacific Ocean doing its best impression of a lake. Dejected and heartbroken, we strap the boards back on the roof, pack up and climb in. How could the reports be so wrong, we were far from expecting great conditions, but something would have been preferable.
With nothing left to lose at this point, and we did have the rental car for another night anyway, we persevered. This being my last weekend in New Zealand, we might as well keep driving south chasing the dragon, the mythical swell, hoping to catch it with an exposed headland. The west coast was off the cards, no choice but to stick to our guns. We waste no time in swinging the car back onto Highway 25 and pointed our trusty Hyundai south once again.
Wildly conflicting ideas bounce around the car on where we should head. Ali suggests we cut our losses and disappear inland, head to Rotorua and the natural hot springs, and of course the inevitable stench of sulphur, we say no. T chimes in and claims we should head as far south as possible, just hop on the ferry to the south island, dismissing all and every sensibility, we almost agree. Goose doesn't care, he has control of the radio now, he shrugs and continues to devour another OSM bar. I meet in the middle, we drive to Mount Maunganui.
Eyes glued to the coast, every distant white cap piquing our interests, but like mirages in the Sahara, they relentlessly mock us in hallucinatory visions of false optimism. The car falls silent, defeat hangs in the air, I put the camera down and gaze out. The sub-tropical surroundings almost lift the mood. Considering how small New Zealand is, it never fails to astound how varied and vibrant the landscapes are. The west coast is all black sand, dense jungle and rugged wilderness, but barely an hour east at some points and you're greeted with white, sandy beaches, palm trees and idyllic settings.
Turning inland before Bowentown, we swerve away from the coast as the highway bends away with Matakana Island blocking all and every swell from reaching landfall. The ocean disappears from view and our attention turns inward. As the road rejoins the coastal highway, it had arrived. It was slop, but it was welcome slop. Genuine whitewater breaking in the distance, up and down the coast, we were finally getting closer. Driving through Tauranga, anyone would have thought we had stumbled upon perfect peeling rights, any other point in my life and we would have kept driving, or just did something else for the day. Not now, I needed this, we all needed this, one last surf in New Zealand. Mount Maunganui presented itself, our surfing mecca for the day. We turn off the road at the first available exit. Pulling up to the beach, we scramble out and over the headland.
Gazing out and giddy, hoots and hollers ringing out, it was like none of us had seen surf in years. Cutting our losses and fed up of driving, we decide to get in anyway. Barely breaking over knee height, it will do just fine. One thing we didn't have to worry about were crowds. New Zealand, barring the spots of Raglan and Piha, crowds weren't much of an issue on the best of days, let alone today. Sprinting down to the water, leaping in one by one, an overcast autumn day, the conditions were perfect.
Tandem surfing, party waves and making the absolute most of rubbish conditions, this was soon turning into one of the best sessions on record, the effects of desperation are truly remarkable. A couple of hours soon pass and serious hunger started to kick in, Goose having dusted off the last of the OSM bars, we were starved. A dive into town and a stop at the Astrolabe for some post-surf burgers was a solid plan. Just as we were getting out though, it was inevitable we would attract the attention of some locals. Five of them, heading straight for us. If the sight of 2ft mush sent us giddy, watching a pod of killer whales swimming straight through the lineup floored us.
Free Willy had a profound effect on me as a kid. I became obsessed with these black and white apex predators and shifted my career goals to that of a marine biologist, solely for the purpose of freeing these majestic creatures from captivity to feel the spray as they leapt over me. Turned out, science wasn't my forte, and thus the dream swiftly ended. Either way, since the age of six, all I had wanted was to see them in the wild, none of that SeaWorld bullshit. Arriving in New Zealand, I set out to do one thing; see them in their natural habitat. Almost two years in this country and I had just about seen all other wildlife on offer; humpbacks, dolphins, kiwis, penguins, hobbits and residents of Hamilton. The orca however, always eluded me.
The three adults were sat further out in deeper water, with the two juveniles, being much smaller, were barely a stones throw from the shore. The pod drifted right through us. Not stopping, they continued down the beach and around Moturiki Island and followed the coast north. We were all speechless, completely taken back by the sight before us. Orcas are rarely spotted this far north and especially not this close to the coast.
None of us could stop smiling, our faces ached from the experience. We had to keep asking each other if we actually saw that, and if it actually happened. It took all four of us to convince each other throughout the entire drive back up to Auckland. My time was coming to an end in this country, one that I had finally felt at home, but one I did have to leave. An aching feeling convinced me that something was missing, that something was left unresolved, but this trip certainly eased that pain. Kia Ora, Aotearoa.
Part One can be found here...