Taranaki: Surfing safari

By James Russell

James Russell and some mates head to the 'Naki to hang 10 and tame the waves of the reefs.

South Taranaki's surf highway is studded with great spots to get out on the water. Photo / James Russell
South Taranaki's surf highway is studded with great spots to get out on the water. Photo / James Russell

The Great Surf Gods of South Taranaki have a cold, sadistic side. On my first visit there, through a biblical rainstorm, I drove and trudged, until finally I stood on the beach, looking at the legendary "Kumara Patch".

It was oddly calm. I made my way easily "out the back", beyond the breakers but, as the first set loomed, I realised I had paddled my surfboard out in an incredible lull in the waves. Three gunmetal walls of water, each bigger than the last, reared up as the offshore breeze blew up. I stroked for the horizon and barely scraped over their tops.

As I crested the "last" wave, to my horror I saw the real sets stacked much further outside, like successive mountain ranges, already feathering, as far as the eye could see. I muttered a prayer, took a deep breath. BOOM! - tumble tumble tumble, gasp, BOOM! - tumble tumble tumble, gasp. And so on, until I dragged the wretched, gagging shell of myself up the beach to collapse in the dunes.

The colder months tend to serve up swells like this and, with three days of gentle southeasterly winds forecast, conditions again conspired to entice me - along with two surfing buddies - to seek out these waves again.

Thanks to the proximity of a constant supply of molten lava over millions of years, the Taranaki coast is a fan of rock fingers extending into the sea. As the mighty southwest swells roll up the country, slowing and warping as they meet the bulb of Taranaki, they rear and topple on these submarine reefs, expending their energy on a number of absolutely cracking breaks.

Within just 30km of coast, there are 11 world-class reef and point breaks, and those are just the ones the rest of New Zealand's surfing population know about. Get in with a local, and there'll be another handful on top.

From Auckland you need to allow four hours before you clear the south city limits of New Plymouth and embark on the Surf Highway 45, but we poked about en route for surf at Mokau and the famous tubes of Fitzroy Beach in New Plymouth itself. Neither was doing its thing, and we knew the wind was right for the undisputed jewel in the crown of the Highway: Stent Road.

The signpost to this break has been stolen so many times the council gave up and instead painted the name of the road on an enormous rock. It's understandable why the locals would want it for themselves when you see the wave. A spinning right-hander wraps into the bay, spitting out the exhilarated surfer after almost 100m of pure adrenalin.

As is often the case through autumn and winter, there were only a few wave-saturated locals out, who happily let us have our fill and laughed at our hooting, so we were soon satiated. Afterwards, we hit the scrummy Lahar Cafe in Okato for replenishment.

One quality surf under the belt, over coffee we speculated about where might be best for the afternoon surf, deciding that Rocky Lefts at the end of Puniho Rd showed most potential.

Less imagination went into the naming of Rocky Lefts than nearby Fin F***er, but both mean the same thing: beware of rocks popping out in front of you as you surf the waves, particularly when the swells are on the smaller side. The locals here have it wired, weaving around them for sport.

Surfed out, we headed for our rented bach at Oakura, via Butler's Reef Pub for a steak and a pint. Tomorrow, we thought, more of the same.

TRAVELLERS' TIPS

Where to stay: Is best found through bookabach.co.nz or other bach rental websites. Oakura has the most accommodation; Opunake, although further to drive, is likely to be half the price. Cheap deals can be found through the winter months.

Where to go: By far the coolest 'Naki surf shop around is Lost in the 60s at 39 Beach St, Fitzroy.

Further information: For surf reports check either surf2surf.co.nz or surf.co.nz. If you can visit midweek, you'll get a break to yourself.

* New Zealand Surfing Guide - the bible for surfers travelling New Zealand - is available from Whitcoulls or surf2surf.co.nz, RRP$39.

- NZ Herald

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