At a time when I should be counting every single cent after having my year and work plans turned upside down by Covid-19, it seems perfectly logical to me to last-minute impulse book a surf weekend in the Far North with eight strangers. It will be good for my mental wellbeing, I tell myself, and I really do want to learn how to surf better. I need this.
Dylan, the manager/head surf instructor at Muriwai Surf School, has organised the trip alongside his French partner, Charlotte. The family business has been open at Muriwai Beach for 18 years and at different times over the past couple of years, our group has all done some sort of lesson with him.
We meet in the carpark behind a vet practice in Albany. Wetsuits, food, bags are precision-packed inside, with nine boards loaded and tied on to the roof. It's an engineering feat.
Off we head, destination Ahipara, on the west coast at the base of Ninety Mile Beach. It's a solid four-and-a-half to five-hour drive, so we spend the time getting to know one another sharing embarrassing stories. I'm usually the queen of embarrassing stories, but I blank. Ah, what about that time I fell down a seawall in front of many, many Saturday walkers, only to have to interview Mick Fleetwood the following day with a scabby face and swollen lip? Yup, that'll do. I feel like a bit of a name-dropper, but it's okay because John has a better story about the time Sir Bob Geldof got him thrown out of a pub.
Geoffrey is showing us videos of his salsa dancing. He's really quite good. He's also got the shortest surfboard of all of us, which means he's probably the best surfer. We're all of a similar level, in the advanced beginner surfer range, and we're looking forward to getting some regular waves over the weekend, and advancing our skills a little bit more.
We arrive in Ahipara at about 8.30pm. The van is unloaded and Charlotte magics up a delicious vegetarian meal rounded off with Geoffrey's home-made key lime pie. Geoffrey is a man of many talents, it seems. His pie is delicious. I fall asleep to the sound of the ocean, dreaming of waves and pie.
Saturday morning, and I'm up earlier than I ever am naturally at home. I grab a mug of coffee and wander across the road to the beach. What we couldn't see when we arrived in the dark last night is spread out before me. The beach stretches in both directions, a few houses dot the hillside. A lot of them appear to be holiday houses and it's still too early for the summer crowd. It's a beautiful, serene place.
We're staying at Endless Summer Lodge, a six-bedroom, two-storey 1870s kauri villa. Hosts Anna and Blaine have been running the lodge for the past 18 years. They do their best to keep everything as eco-friendly as possible - the showers use solar-heated rainwater, and there is composting and recycling. We have the run of the whole house, as we've booked as a group, but it's usually open for individual bookings. It's immaculately clean and the rooms are warm and cosy with towels, heaters and quality linen provided. Shoes aren't allowed inside, they'll ruin the kauri floors, but a basket of warm fleece slipper socks by the front door is a lovely touch.
There are double rooms, twin rooms, and a four-bed bunk room, all sharing four bathrooms and the use of a well-stocked kitchen and herb garden. Out the back, off the kitchen, is a huge communal table and a pizza oven, but it's a little cool for breakfast under the grapevines on this morning. The front balcony is the perfect place to enjoy my coffee, and the view across the lawn with its hammocks, deck chairs and ping-pong table, to the ocean beyond.
Charlotte and Dylan have effortlessly whipped up a healthy breakfast of fresh fruit, cereal, smoothies and home-made bread. They are the perfect hosts, nothing is too much trouble and they genuinely seem to be enjoying what they do. Fuelled up, we're ready for the water.
We spend the morning surfing directly across the road from the villa. Dylan is in the water with us and he is the perfect instructor - calm, clear, relaxed and incredibly knowledgeable. He's been surfing since he was 4. He never shows frustration with us and helps us read the waves, paddle well, and also gives us a bit of a shove when we need help getting on the wave. It's small, but we're happy. Beaming in fact.
It's decided we're going on an excursion further north for the afternoon. Destination Tapotupotu Bay, the northernmost spot that can be surfed in the country. Google Maps says it's a two-hour journey, but we're taking the short cut along Ninety Mile Beach. Ah, slight hiccup, our lowrise van can't get around the rocks. Ninety Mile Beach is an official highway, but it's mainly suited to four-wheel drives. Back to the road we go.
Tapotupotu Bay is easy to find - just head north until you hit Cape Rēinga, then swing right on to a gravel road and keep winding down to the bay below. There's only a block of toilets and a small DoC campground here. No one is in the water and the waves are small and clean, peeling both left and right, which is good for goofy (left) footed amateurs like me who can only turn one way well on a wave. The sand is golden, the water aquamarine. If it was 10 degrees warmer it would be about as close to paradise as you can find. It's worth squeezing into an already wet wetsuit for.
We surf until the sun is nearly behind the hill, then drive the extra five minutes to Cape Rēinga on the way home just in time for sunset. There is something incredibly special and spiritual about this place. I could stand for hours watching the Tasman Sea collide with the Pacific Ocean, and the swirls and whirls of the never-ending currents are mesmerising. But it's cold, and we have a two-hour journey back to home base in Ahipara.
Saturday night's after-dinner entertainment is reviewing videos and photos of our surfing techniques that Charlotte has been documenting all day. There's a lot of laughing at how ridiculous we look, not at all like Kelly Slater and his mates. Dylan gives us excellent pointers and I'm excited to try out some of his suggestions tomorrow. I can barely keep my eyes open. It's been a big day.
Sunday morning and we're on the road mid-morning, heading to Taupō Bay on the east coast. It's another little slice of Kiwi paradise, this time with a few baches scattered around the horseshoe bay. The waves here are smaller than we anticipated but my aching body is fine with that, and without yesterday's chilly wind, it feels like summer. Once again, it's just us in the water, and we're joined by a baby stingray cruising the shallows. There is nothing like the thought of potentially standing on a stingray to help with your paddling. A quick picnic lunch and a snooze and we're back in the van for the four-hour trip home.
Once back home, it takes a moment to unfold my stiffening bod from the van. I can feel ab muscles that I thought had disappeared for good after the birth of my third child. I feel rejuvenated. This is really living, we say, and hatch plans for more surf adventures as we say our farewells.
CHECKLIST: FAR NORTH
Dylan and Charlotte are currently finalising dates for the next surf trip, all levels welcome. Contact Muriwai Surf School for updates. email@example.com muriwaisurfschool.co.nz
Two nights accommodation, transportation, video and photo technique analysis, coaching, all meals (plant-based) and snacks included and board hire available, from $699pp
Endless Summer Lodge Shipwreck Bay, Ahipara. endlesssummer.co.nz
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