Naomi Rowley pulls on the wetsuit and braves the waves at a surf camp.

Sharks. It's probably inevitable that with 10 strangers crammed in a van for five hours en route to a surfing school, the topic of sharks will raise its, well, dorsal fin.

You'd be amazed how quickly shark jokes can wear thin as you prepare to spend five days bobbing, seal-like, in the ocean, but bravado wins out. You wouldn't want your new surf buddies to think you're chicken now would you?

So it was with some relief we arrived at the New Zealand Surf 'n' Snow Tours' three-bedroom, dormitory-style Ahipara Surf Lodge, almost on the sand at the southern end of Ninety Mile Beach. The lodge comes complete with all comforts from barbecue, TV and acoustic guitar to surfboard-print duvet covers.

But most importantly Ahipara lies in easy reach of a plethora of surf beaches - some popular, some secret, some difficult, some suited to beginners. And surf was what we were here to do.


Surf `n' Snow Tours' five-day surf camp covers all skill levels from beginners needing the basics to advanced surfers just looking for a few tips and access to the best breaks. The surfing venue each day depends on where weather conditions are best.

As a novice, the first thing expert instructor Kane taught me - before we even left the car - was that surfers are indecisive and terrified of commitment. As we sat for what seemed like hours watching what, to my untrained eye, seemed like one perfect wave after another, I was inclined to agree.

After the patience lecture, the next lesson was in the art of standing on a board. With our boards dug firmly in the sand for safety, Kane took us over - and over - the three-step move for getting upright - push yourself up, pull your legs and feet underneath you on the board and stand up. Easy right? In theory and on the sand, yes. So to the boards in the sea.

To my shame, almost everyone but me was merrily standing on the boards almost straight away. I, however, was hanging around the white-wash, tangled in seaweed and my leg rope.

As the sun set and we were washed ashore for the last time that day, I realised - once I got over the fact 10 people I didn't know had seen me in a wetsuit making a fool of myself - I'd actually had a fantastic day. And, after a refreshing beer by the barbie I decided I was really looking forward to the rest of the tour.

I wasn't feeling quite so rosy when there was a demanding knock on my door at six the next morning. We were out the door by 6.20am, and by 7am I was sitting upright on my board saying "g'day" to the locals of stunning Shipwreck Bay. And on this bright new morning even the waves were co-operating, peeling off beautifully one by one and giving us rookies ample opportunities to catch clean water. Day two ended much the same way - though I knew I'd had a workout paddling against the current and trying to stay upright on my board.

For three more days we slipped happily into classic Kiwi surfing holiday routine - driving to the beach, a day in the water, back to the lodge, beer in hand watching the picture-perfect sunsets over Ninety Mile Beach.

The Surf `n' Snow instructors were full of encouragement, offering excellent, practical advice and pithy one-liners such as "respect the ocean and it will respect you". And mid-afternoon on day four it all came together - I caught a wave, stood up and rode it in. No sweat! I felt like the world was, well, my oyster and I understood the exhilaration that keeps people coming back for more of this sport.

I'd recommend the Surf `n' Snow tours for keen learners. The groups are small so your tuition is thorough and intensive, and you bond closely with your surf buddies, sharing triumphs and tiny tragedies. What's more, you spend your days at some of Northland's most stunning beaches.

I finished the five days a little bruised, a little bitten (crab, not shark) but thoroughly hooked.

Further information: Surf 'n' Snow operates one and five-day surf tours as well as private or customised tours.