Road Without End - Delving into New Zealand's Deep South
Words by Ben Weiland
Photographs by Chris Burkard
The quaking house shook me awake. Outside it was still dark, but the shaking made it impossible to fall back asleep. We scrambled for our gear, hoping to reach the southern coast by daybreak.
"Can you feel the house shaking?" Pete Devries asked Jesse Hines.
"Yeah, I think it's the swell coming in," Hines replied.
Outside, the surf slammed against the breakwater and sent jets of spray fifteen feet into the air. The ground reverberated with each shock of the liquid battering rams. The force had collapsed portions of the sea wall into the ocean. Swell was coming.
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On the previous day, an hour before our Air NZ flight had landed, I walked to the back of the plane to find a better view. Looking outside the cabin window, our low approach treated me to a dramatic opening act. Below, two tectonic plates converged, creating a mountainous uplift rising out of the sea like dragon's jaws tearing through the earth's crust. The valleys between its fangs were quilted with farmland. Above, whipped clouds dissolved into a bluebird morning. I combed the coastline with my eyes while picking through a bag of trail mix. Mike Losness spotted a triangle of whitewash melting along a river bar. From this height, it looked like a land of storybook perfection.
But the coast's treasure chest of wave setups lay dormant. The promise of the triangular whitewash we had seen from above turned out to be waves only waist-high and trickling in. On such a rare blue day, maybe the deceiving swell was a lesson for us about how man's striving after perfection is frustrated time and time again. Perhaps. But with the report of a swell building overnight and miles of coastline to be explored, we we're undeterred.
Clouds rolled in overnight, bringing with them the first evidence of swell. In the dark, we left the breakwater, our hearts set on the uncertain reaches of the south. Only a few days ago we had found ourselves in very different worlds. Mike Losness was making it happen at the US Open—surfing heats and signing posters among the herds of Huntington onlookers. Further south, Jesse Hines was tanning on cabaña-lined beaches and cruising through balmy Mexican barrels. Pete Devries was on Vancouver Island where weeks of wave doldrums, pesky fog, and lineups clogged with blue foam boards prodded his patience. In a van bearing us down a two-lane road into the unknown, we now found our ambitions tuned to novel ideas like discovery and adventure. No phone reception, no internet. We were in a new place, a place pregnant with potential, and obscure to most of the world.
Winter kept roads desolate. Inside the van we shared a tote bag filled with granola bars and fruit leathers, passing time with compulsive snacking. We followed a gravel road to an unbridled left point break: stormy walls of water broke over lava rocks padded with kelp. A set broke on the outside and swept wide, blanketing the point with a turbulent wash. Across the bay, rogue peaks pitched out, fanning stately rooster tails in the wind.
"Look at that house," Losness pointed at a cabin halfway up the headland. The comment suddenly brought the size of the surf into perspective. Even the smaller waves on the inside of the point towered above it.
Down road from the point we passed a cove. Reams of whitewater flooded its narrow mouth. It looked like the other closed-out beaches in the area, but Devries' keen perception saw something in it. "I bet a right would break on the inside of those rocks when the swell is almost flat and the tide comes up."
Would it go flat? We needed to find a beach protected from the swell—only a matter of time on this corrugated coast.
The storms that created this swell began on a conveyor belt of furious ocean called the Antarctic Circumpolar Current. Westerly winds drive the ACC around Antarctica at 125 million cubic meters per second, making it the most powerful ocean current on the planet. It's no wonder that nicknames for its latitudes include the Roaring Forties, Furious Fifties, and Shrieking Sixties. In the storm train, monstrous seas and roaring winds feed on each other and drive wave energy northward. Still raw from its turbulent beginnings, the swell quickly comes up against the South Island. Its life suddenly ends as it trips over rock slabs, beaks over sandbars, or explodes against cliffs. A branch of this current follows the same path as the swell and drops sea surface temperatures to around 40 degrees.
An unexpected turn revealed a scalloped beach partially sheltered from the swell. At the far end, cliffs soared 500 feet out of the water, dominating the bay like ancient fortresses. Offshore gusts shaped unruly beach break into hollow peaks. Antarctica lay beyond the horizon. An empty camper trailer squatted on a pad of grass beside us. No one was around.
We donned boots, gloves, hoods, and 5/4's. Devries made a late drop and stood up in a barreling right. The lip arched over him, dissolving into a plume of watery crystals as it traced through the air. He deftly emerged down the beach. Losness and Hines joined him, pulling into overhead barrels, and sneaking out of a few. Hines punched through a collapsing curtain. Driving steep off the bottom, he attacked the face with two gouging carves and ended it with a hack. Losness did work on the lefts, traveling through tubes and launching pronounced frontside grabs. After a few hours he came in, still warm. He peeled off his hood. "That's one of the best beach break's I've ever surfed."
Someone else was walking the beach. Our paths merged on the way back to the van. He wore a brown cap, muddy gumboots, and a silver beard. He introduced himself as Sean, a recreational photographer and the owner of the camper. From the steep slopes overlooking the bay he observed penguins coming in and out of the ocean in search of food. Today he watched our movement in and out of the water as well. He welcomed us into his trailer.
Inside, a string of prayer flags spanned the room. A dreamcatcher turned in the window and a montage of family photos from the 70's hung above the stove. "My wife is up north right now," Sean explained. "She would rather stay home these days. Now it's just the camper and me. I'll stay in a place like this for a few months until I'm ready to move on."
"Where will you go next?" I ask.
"There are lots of hidden corners to find around here, I won't know until the time comes."
We packed up and followed the road deeper still. The forest was green, wet, and dreary with clouds. It hemmed us in with a dampened silence. We traced through a network of back roads, a labyrinth of tunnels carved through the bush. Rounding a corner we came upon the machine that did the tunneling: a four meter wide rotating blade wielded high in the air by the boom of an earth excavator. Relentlessly it bored through the trees. But the forest was more patient than the blade. It twisted within itself, steadily re-appropriating whatever space had been taken from it. Life here is a ceaseless battle. Perhaps people fight it to experience the wonder and fear in the power of the elements. The scale and ferocity of the land reduces man to a mere speck.
We woke up to the sun. The land was suddenly drenched in color. Creeks, lakes, and waterfalls danced. The surf was small and the tide was coming up, so we checked the cove that Devries spotted on the first day. True to his prediction, a right broke at the mouth of the cove. A crisp offshore swept the water. Set waves crumbled slightly on the outside and drifted onto the beach where they merged with a smaller inside bump, doubled up, and spun hollow off the cove wall. A rainbow dashed through the trailing spray. The sea glistened bright and clear. We were on it.
Hines and Losness hacked apart the punchy ramps, sending wafts of spray into the offshore breeze. Devries sat on the double up and tucked under a falling section. Pumping ahead, he set up for a second cover up as it opened into a gaping tube. The wave swallowed him as it took off down the line. Devries came up holding half of his board. Running up the beach, he grabbed another and headed back out. Not long after, an angry sea lion appeared roaming the lineup. It was time to move on.
At night we warmed our boots and gloves by the fireplace, by day we investigated all kinds of empty setups: sand bars, river mouths, coves, reefs, spits, points, wedges, ledges, and slabs. Only once did we see someone else surfing — three locals at a blown-out beach break.
We were on the trail of a hollow wedge we had seen in a photo, a spellbinding break that had eluded us so far. A dense fog rolled in and put the search to a stop, so we resigned to a farm-side café. Across from us sat a local surfer. Over lamb burgers and salad, we dug around for information about breaks further south. He told us a story about a man who was dropped off by a one-legged boat captain in an inlet and lived in a cave for six months, surfing an untouched wave peeling into the bay. A red herring, I thought to myself. Losness pried for the location of the wedge.
"Do you know where this wave is?" he asked, slipping him the photo. The wave was a symmetrical peak, glassy and green, pitching only a few feet from the sand. The local paused, peering at Losness.
"I'm not sure where that is," he offered with a wry smirk. "Could be anywhere, mate."
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