Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

Our beaches: Surf, sand, spirituality - Wainui Beach has it all

In the second of a six-part journey across some of our most beloved beach destinations, reporter Jamie Morton and photographer Alan Gibson travel to Gisborne's world-famous Wainui.

David Timbs likens surfing at Wainui to a spiritual experience. Wainui's world-class waves have helped produce some of New Zealand's top surfers and are the reason so many boardriders have made Gisborne their home. Photo / Alan Gibson
David Timbs likens surfing at Wainui to a spiritual experience. Wainui's world-class waves have helped produce some of New Zealand's top surfers and are the reason so many boardriders have made Gisborne their home. Photo / Alan Gibson

A cool Pacific breeze is blowing through David Timbs' airy seaside abode.

On one wall hangs a framed poster of great New Zealand longboards and on the other is a portrait of the guru who taught him how to meditate, as he does each morning.

Beyond his deck, across the lawn and down some dune steps is his other temple - the world-famous breaks of Wainui Beach.

Here, the 61-year-old gets his daily dose of salt water therapy - that moment of clarity no drug can engineer.

"Yogis sit and meditate for 30 years to clear their minds, but surfers can get it sometimes in an instant," he said. "And then they spend the rest of their lives trying to figure out what it was."

Call it a Wainui state of mind.

If surfers like him had gods, they couldn't have made a better place than this golden corner of the East Coast to honour them.

Hugged by high headlands set against a big country backdrop, Wainui Beach stretches a little over 4km across the kind of sand you can sift through your fingers like flour.

Surfers are spoilt by several world-class surf breaks, and on any day you might find one all to yourself.

It's not surprising why some, though proud their ever-breaking waves stack up against the best on the globe, don't want Wainui's reputation growing too big.

For those waves, they can thank a wide swell window rolling toward the beach, bringing perfect walls of water from the north, through east and right round to the south.

They are moulded by underwater sandbars built from sand that is forever on the move, shifting offshore from soft dunes and ferrying material from one end of the beach to the other.

"For me, the surf at this beach is quick, steep, fast and hollow - it can be unpredictable," Mr Timbs said.

"The better you can read the water here, the better you get to surf. I've spent my whole life staring out into the ocean, so it works in my favour."

He's "18 again" whenever he has a board tucked under his arm - although the years have left the natural therapist and local identity less intimidated by the big breaks.

To stand astride them is divine - even psychedelic.

"The ocean wave is the only energy wave we can see, and we actually get to ride them. Could you imagine if you got to ride a sound wave?

"There's something coming through there that makes you think, this is a bit fuzzy, a bit cosmic."

Wainui, he reckoned, has always had a touch of it.

Even before the people of Ngati Rakai settled here and harvested the ocean's bounty, a tohunga chief with a powerful link to the spirit world arrived here around 1350.

The school he established, for the teaching and studying of supernatural powers, was known as the Wharekorero House of Learning.

Don't seek its remnants - the ancient site has long been reclaimed by the sea.

Gray Clapham has studied why people live in what he described as a "surfer's mecca".

Surfing and the culture that parallels it continued to have a huge influence on the social and political dynamic of the community, said the beach-based journalist, researcher and surfer.

"So many of our residents came here primarily to be close to the breaking surf, and there has evolved a sense of an extended surfing family.

"This almost tribal sense of belonging has become more entrenched as a second and even a third generation of locals has grown up to populate our community."

Mr Clapham and wife Sandy, who rented at the beach in the mid-1970s before buying their first home in 1979, were typical of an echelon of young people who arrived around the time.

"There weren't that many young families living at Wainui and Makorori then," he said.

"Most of the beach homes were operated as holiday baches by farming families from the Gisborne hill country, or were the residential choice of newly retired couples, most often farmers or vaguely bohemian town-folk attracted to a beachcomber existence by the coast."

These original locals mixed with surfers from Gisborne and afar, creating Wainui's melting pot population of just over 1500.

Many families were the product of intermarriages between these immigrant groups, and Mr Clapham suggested the fabric of the community was connected to the concept of surfing communities developing as modern tribes.

Wainui and Makorori surfers have a proud one, complete with customs, etiquette, a certain local dialect and an oral storehouse of knowledge and legends. One such legend is the mystery of who was the first person to surf in the area.

While Wainui has had an active surf life-saving club for the past 75 years, the first surfer to ride the fabled point at Makorori is believed to be Kevin Pritchard, now in his early 70s and living at Papamoa.

"I was out there with a few others but I know I was the first to paddle out and ride a wave that day," Mr Pritchard recalled of that fateful moment, probably in 1961.

If he was Wainui's first surfer, then the Quinns are its first family.

Maz Quinn is arguably the greatest professional boardrider New Zealand has ever produced and became the first Kiwi to make the World Championship Tour.

His legend is stamped from beaches across the world to a giant Quicksilver billboard at the entrance to his hometown, and his siblings have found their own glory in the waves.

Jae became the world junior surfing champion and Holly secured the New Zealand women's championship in 2002 and placed second in the world juniors.

Auckland-based Maz is often home for a visit, and dad Garry Quinn, who runs the Okitu Store, chuckled when thinking how close the other two had come to moving back from Australia.

"Jae even shipped his cats back - they're still here."

Maz counted himself lucky to have grown up among a stable of top Wainui surfers, some of them old mates he still shared waves with.

"Down the south end of the beach, there were just heaps of kids my age surfing ... five or six of us lived within just 100m of each other."

Growing up without a surfboard just wouldn't have been the Wainui way.

"I guess if you live at Wainui Beach, the surf is there on your front doorstep. It's pretty hard to get away from."

Tony Ogle certainly couldn't escape it.

Its call was strong enough even to lure the renowned artist and surfer from his self-designed dream home at Bethells Beach.

His new seaward vista - a pair of hammocks, swaying pohutukawas and the ocean's turquoise hue - is something straight out of one of his famed landscapes.

"The sunrise here is really special ... It creates this amazing glisten on the water because the sun faces more southeast than due east, and in the mornings it really does have its own kind of light."

On late afternoons, great dark shadows sweep down from the hills above, and sunsets creep down across the twilight sky, casting a glow over Mahia on the southern horizon.

The countryside - dry, hard, sparse, big, dramatic and beautiful - is now "soaking in" to his work.

"It has all of those Pacific colours I'm drawn to, and that margin between land and sea that I'm always looking for."

Wherever he goes, camera and sketchpad come with him.

Wainui life is an Aucklander's dream - besides the logging trucks that regularly rattle past, or what locals describe as a growing "wall of wood", there's little traffic and zero stress.

School for Luke, 7, and Jamie, 5, is a short walk down the street.

"Without sounding too smug, it's really quite an early retirement for me. I'm at that point of my life where I'm bringing up young kids, but being here I'm able to do that in a fairly leisurely way."

And he's become one of the tribe, now mucking in with locals to combat the beach erosion that has been worrying property owners.

As a born and bred Wainui surfer, coastal scientist Dr Amber Dunn approaches the issue from another unique point of view.

Where some locals feel their beach is being eaten by long-term erosion, Dr Dunn sees a cyclic, storm-generated process, with large waves taking sand to and from offshore sandbars.

She believed the answer to protecting homes lay in allowing the beach to continue this eternal cycle, and has been working alongside authorities on management plans.

With her academic background and her whakapapa to iwi Te Aitanga a Hauiti, she considered herself a kaitiaki, or guardian, of Wainui.

"Wainui is a spiritually and culturally significant place because my late brother, mother and father have their final resting places in these waters," she said.

"What makes it super special is I go to this beautiful beach to visit my parents and brother, a place that uplifts me and makes me warm inside. It revitalises me, reminds me of the really important things in life - family and the love of a family.

"It's that place - the place you go when you are troubled, unclear about things, need clarity, need inspiring ... It revitalises the soul."

David Timbs calls it his "India" - the place where he feels home, centred, and more comfortable than any other place on Earth.

As for its waves, he doesn't bother trying to describe the spiritual experience of riding them.

Apparently, you can't.

"It's simply a space between your thoughts. How do you write about a space between your thoughts?"

Wainui Beach

Location: Wainui Beach can be found just north of Tuaheni Point, about 8km east of Gisborne, on SH35. From Auckland, the drive is just over six hours.

People: At the last census, the beach had a population of 1515. These are a mix of original locals, surfers who moved here from the 1960s onward and more recent newcomers.

Famous for: What else but surfing. Exports include Maz, Jae and Holly Quinn, Damon Gunness, Blair Stewart, Lisa Hurunui and Bobby Hansen. Also its pristine white sand, striking East Coast landscape and close-knit community.

Special features
Its surf breaks: Not for novices. The popular "stockroute" breaks in swells with west to northwest offshores from one to eight feet high, typically at giddy zoom. "Cooper street" is also a variable left and right-hand beach break, as are "the chalet", "lone pine" and "whales".

The series

Yesterday: Waimarama
Today: Wainui
Tomorrow: Whitianga
Thursday: Raglan
Friday: Mokau
Saturday: Mt Maunganui.

- NZ Herald

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