Surfing in Taranaki, New Zealand
LEARN about Maori culture, soak up the amazing scenery and make the most of surf-nurturing reefs as a result of the area’s volcano.
By Sam VincentEscapeFebruary 22, 20132:16pm
MT TARANAKI is a life-size version of the model volcano you made in primary school: a perfectly symmetrical, 2518m-high cone with the top knocked off like a ready-to-eat hardboiled egg.
All that’s missing is the bicarb soda lava. This iconic mountain, which doubled as Mt Fuji in the Tom Cruise movie The Last Samurai, dominates the New Zealand region that takes its name. Everywhere you go in Taranaki, on the west coast of the North Island, the eponymous volcano looms like a sleeping giant. As well as towering over Taranaki’s horizon, the peak is responsible for producing the region’s mild climate and for the rich black soils that make Taranaki New Zealand’s dairy capital. But of more interest to me is another side effect of the volcano: waves. Though Mt Taranaki hasn’t experienced a major eruption since 1655, the lava that has sporadically spewed from its mouth has created a series of surf-nurturing reefs and points in the adjacent Tasman Sea. This, coupled with the fact that Taranaki is a semi-circular peninsula exposed to swell from three directions, makes the region home to New Zealand’s hottest surfing. Armed with a surfboard, a wetsuit and a campervan, I’m spending a weekend sampling Taranaki’s waves. I begin my journey in New Plymouth, Taranaki’s sleepy capital and the starting point for the aptly named Surf Highway, a 105km road that circumnavigates Mt Taranaki, cutting through lush farmland just inland from the coast. Taking the Surf Highway south on a misty summer morning, my first stop is Rocky Lefts, a point break near the town of Okato. Having taken my campervan down 5km of pot-holed cow tracks to reach the break I had expected to find it deserted; instead I find a busy carpark and a busier line-up, with 30 hardcore locals surfing perfect 1.5m waves wrapping around a rugged point. It’s a scene I would repeatedly encounter throughout the weekend: though Taranaki does not have the same international profile as the North Island’s backpacker surf town Raglan ("the Byron Bay of NZ" as one local put it), for those more interested in improving their bottom turns than their bikini tans, Taranaki’s cold (but bearable) waves attract surfers from across New Zealand and the world. As the name suggests, Rocky Lefts is a left-hander punctuated by rock formations: it’s a challenge I’m not used to and though I get some great waves during a two-hour session I often pull back for fear of crashing into the rocks, leaving the locals to duck, weave and, in the case of one guy, even perform aerial manoeuvres over the obstacles. With the wind keeping southerly beyond noon I spend the afternoon exploring Taranaki’s northern surf breaks, where I experience offshore conditions and mid-sized waves. Highlights include the surf spots Graveyards (the ominous name belies its surprisingly gentle waves); Fitzroy Beach (New Plymouth’s premier break with hollow, fast rides); and Back Beach (an exposed beach break below a steep cliff and a distinct, three-tiered rock formation). After a huge day in the water I am grateful that Taranaki is New Zealand’s premier dairy-producing region; on the recommendations of a friend I head to Okato’s groovy Lahar Cafe (64 Carthew St) for great Kiwi coffee with lashings of sweet local milk followed by their scrumptious chicken satay burger, said to have devotees throughout the whole of Taranaki. The next morning the wind has swung around to the north, meaning my best bet for waves is Taranaki’s south coast. But before I can get there disaster strikes: pulling off the Surf Highway to check the surf at a black sand beach break called Kumara Patch, I reverse my campervan into a sandy ditch, from where it refuses to budge. An embarrassed knock on a farmer’s door and a tow with a tractor later, I am back on my way in less than half an hour. It’s a testament to the laid-back nature of Taranaki that I get out of trouble so easily; in many parts of coastal Australia, I suspect, the locals would leave visiting surfers in such a predicament so as to keep their waves to themselves. The smile I had assumed at the farmer’s helpfulness gets wider when I hit Taranaki’s south coast: nothing there, just perfect waves. Following the recommendations of staff in Dream Time surf shop in the town of Opunake, I head first to Mangahume, a right-hand point break where I would score my best waves for the weekend: clean, 50m-long rides in pristine water the colour of a Maori greenstone carving. The wind is offshore, the water temperature is a balmy 18C and though 20 locals are also in the line-up, they welcome my presence, loudly hooting each wave I catch. Mangahume Point isn’t just revered by local surfers: the spot is tapu (sacred ground) for the local Maori community, with an ancient burial ground nearby. If you visit, therefore, be sure to access the break through the rivermouth path, rather than through the cemetery. In fact, Mt Taranaki itself is rich with Maori spiritual significance. According to legend the mountain once resided with the rest of New Zealand’s volcanoes in the middle of the North Island, but was banished to its present location after losing a fight with the volcano Tongariro to win the heart of the beautiful mountain Pihanga (who was by all accounts smoking hot, even for an active volcano). To this day it is said when Mt Taranaki is shrouded with rain clouds he is crying for his lost love. I have my last surf for the weekend that evening at Stent Road, 37km south of New Plymouth. New Zealand’s most famous and consistent surf break, the local council has given up replacing its oft-souvenired road sign, now marking the spot with a spray-painted boulder that has proven less popular – and more difficult – to steal. A rocky point break offering long, tubing rides, Stent Road is a world-class wave and infamous board-breaker. When I visit the waves are big but slightly messy, with an onshore wind making them occasionally dump with spectacular force. During an hour-long session I experience some good waves but also some spectacular wipe-outs (though luckily my board – and body – avoid being smashed on the rocks). As I trudge back to my car and pass the spray-painted boulder, I chuckle at the thought of how many Stent Road street signs must have been nicked over the years. After a weekend surfing Taranaki’s waves, the only souvenir I’m taking with me is a scalp full of sand. — The writer was a guest of PiwiWiwi Campervan Rentals. — * Go2 – NEW ZEALAND — Getting there Air New Zealand flies from Brisbane to New Plymouth via Auckland or Wellington. Alternatively, fly to Auckland and drive the 357km (4hr 30min) south to New Plymouth, the start of the Surf Highway. See airnewzealand.com — Staying there Based in Raglan (157km north of New Plymouth), but also offering pickup from Auckland airport, PiwiWiwi is New Zealand’s only campervan rental company aimed specifically at surfers. Each van has been outfitted with internal board straps, allowing room for up to four surfboards (including two longboards) without taking up sleeping and living space. Company owners Niall and Anna are keen surfers, so have designed the vans from personal experience (the underseat wetsuit storage area is particularly handy); they are also knowledgeable on where to surf and where to camp. And the name? Niall is a Welsh Kiwi ("Wiwi") and Anna a Pom Kiwi ("Piwi"). See piwiwiwi.co.nz More: See newzealand.com or taranaki.info
Originally published as Surfing in Taranaki, New Zealand