Chasing it on the forty-sixth parallel
Number one in what will likely be a series of one: Te Waipounamu
If you’re anything like me (and for the sake of this story, let’s say that you are), you probably spent your formative surfing years with an idealised version of surf-utopia, featuring gin-clear tropical water, tradewind-groomed groundswells kissing shallow coral reef, coconut trees lining white-sand beaches, dusky sun-kissed maidens (or dusky sun-kissed blokes), melted wax, mild sunstroke, second-degree sunburn, and all the other hackneyed tropical trappings that have fuelled the surfing travel dreams from Day Dot.
Growing up as a surf-obsessed kid on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, my nascent grommethood surf/travel/adventure fantasies featured all the above, and I developed a real love for places like Indonesia and Hawaii, indeed anywhere within spitting distance of the equator, where the waves are hollow, the water is warm, and the living is easy. It’s a love that continues to this day.
But living where I currently am, my ideas of a surfing paradise have now expanded to include frosty mornings, frozen windscreens, long trudges across sodden paddocks (where one can hear the ice-covered puddles cracking under one’s gumboot), polar bluster, thick rubber, chattering teeth, astonishingly shrunken genitalia, isolation, solitude, and jaw-droppingly expansive natural vistas in clean and largely pollution-free locales.
It's a different kind of paradise.
They breed ‘em hardy in the deep, deep south. Thick full-length wetsuits are a prerequisite for even the brief summer months, and as the seasons change and the days start to shorten, hoods, boots, gloves, and a roaring fire on the beach become more a necessity than an extravagance. In short, it gets brutal.
However, the chill of the water is in inverse proportion to the warm hospitality of the local bodyboard crews. They love their surfing, they love the outdoor life, they fish, they hunt, and generally live a good, no-nonsense life on what feels like the edge of the world. Caramel lattes are eschewed in favour of venison biltong, shot and dressed in the field then cured in a homemade smoker. It’s the diametric opposite of Bondi or the Gold Coast, at least it feels that way to me. Were Grizzly Adams a southern hemisphere bodyboarder, I feel this is where he’d live.
...oh yeah, the waves.
There’s a multitude of bays and miles of beachbreaks, ranging in quality from total crap to thick wedging A-frames, but conditions can change almost instantly as polar lows come roaring in and smash the coast. Glassy conditions are rare and fleeting. There’s a couple of reefs but not many, and they generally break a little weird. In my opinion the best waves here are the rivermouths. A highly active hydrological system feeds innumerable rivers, spawned by glacial meltwater from ancient glacial valleys way upstream in the snowfields. These rivers make their way to the coast where they meet shingle beaches comprised of fist-sized rocks, and constant wave action hammers the rivermouths shut. When enough riverwater backs up, the banks burst and a shallow shingle-rock slab-bank is blown out of the opening. The result is a filthy though ephemeral grinding slab, throwing up barrels spinning in near-freezing water, with nobody around for miles, that sometimes only lasts a few hours before tide and wave action hammers it flat again.
It’s next-to-impossible to predict when and where a bank will blow out, and if it happens when conditions aren’t right (which is often) it'll be a total non-event. Also, many of these rivers reach the sea in areas that have no roads. Quality waves, though often frustratingly inaccessible and all-too-fleeting. And cold!
“Come down this way before the comp, I’ve got a little mission for us!”
I was down in Te Waipounamu for a contest, but I had a few days to kill either side of the contest window and a hankerin’ for adventure, so when the Mayor Of Southland* called me up, I didn’t have to be asked twice. The population of full-time year-round bodyboarders this far south can be counted on one hand, and they pore over the charts with an enthusiasm bordering on religious fervour, looking for the brief moments of respite from the Roaring Forties mayhem that pounds the coast and makes the shoreline trees grow more horizontal than vertical.
There’s no such thing as a quick impromptu surf here. Most surfs take some degree of prior planning, preparation, and commitment (it’s just not a pull-up-in-the-carpark-and-chuck-ya-boardies-on type of place), and this surf mission started with a pre-dawn drive through farmland until we ran out of road, then a couple of kilometres worth of paddling a canoe downriver to the sea. It’s the first time I’ve ever paddled a canoe to the beach, but having seen Deliverance a bunch of times I knew exactly what to expect should I suddenly hear the sound of banjos. Fortunately, there were none to be heard, duelling or otherwise. We paddled on until we reached the mouth, beached the canoe, lit a driftwood fire, suited up, and jumped in.
The next two hours were spent trading shallow little spinning barrels breaking about twelve feet offshore, with nobody around for miles, at a place that has changed little, if at all, in the last five-thousand years, before a dropping tide dismantled the bank and mild hypothermia forced us out of the water, and an arduous paddle against the current back to where we’d parked.
The possible moral/s of this story, if indeed there is/are one, is that surf doesn’t have to be huge and perfect to be memorable, paradise is where you find it, the journeys can be as fun as the destinations, adventures are everywhere, time spent in nature is rarely - if ever - time wasted, and a life spent bodyboarding is a life well lived.
I hope you’re happy and well, staying healthy, and hopefully fitting in some adventures of your own.
// JASON SPENCE
*Not actually the Mayor Of Southland. It’s just a little in-joke I have with myself. He’s definitely the Mayor Of Southland Bodyboarding though. Thanks for everything, legend!