Standing in line at the Air New Zealand check-in area at Los Angeles International Airport, I looked down at the huge rolling duffel bag resting at my feet and the massive board-bag completely blocking the aisle behind me, and wondered if maybe I’d brought too much stuff. I always find it difficult packing for a trip to a new destination, and asking Greg Browning, the Body Glove team manager who would be capturing all the exciting moments of the trip on film, what to bring ended up being about as useless as taking a straight guy shopping. “I’m bringing one pair of pants, one pair of shorts and three t-shirts,” he said, then added sarcastically, “and of course ten pairs of shoes to match all my outfits!” Thanks a lot, Greg! So I neatly folded nearly everything from the new Body Glove line into my bag, along with four wetsuits and four surfboards, and figured I was ready for anything. If anyone gave me a hard time about bringing my entire closet with me I would just remind them, “hey, I am a girl after all.” What Greg failed to mention until I had already checked in and we were awaiting our flight in the VIP lounge, was that we would be traveling all over New Zealand in a campervan! At that point I was sure I had brought too much stuff.
A little over ten years ago, when I was first learning to surf, my mom tried everything to discourage me, insisting that I should be “sitting on the beach looking cute in a bikini, not out surfing with the boys”. She was of the opinion that I would never get a boyfriend that way, which to her was very important. If she knew then that surfing would take me all over the world and plant me in a relatively small camper van, the only girl amongst 8 good-looking guys for a week, she might have thought differently. Not that I am in the market, my longtime boyfriend was waiting patiently at home. Still there’s nothing wrong with admiring the sights around me, right? I can assure you that the sights were great, both inside and beyond the camper windows.
After an all-night flight from Los Angeles, a strenuous shoulder-burning board-bag haul from the international to the domestic terminal in Auckland, and another quick flight, we officially began the trip in Christchurch. Craig Sheriff, Body Glove representative and our tour guide for the trip scooped us up from the airport, tossed the detailed itinerary into the backseat for us to peruse, and off we went. A few hours later we were washing off the stale airplane air in small but rip-able waist-high beach break. It reminded me a bit of the waves I first learned to surf at home except for the fact that it was offshore, clean, and un-crowded. The boys immediately began impressing me with their above-the-lip agility. Australian Dion Agius was particularly worthy of watching. I was suffering from a mild case of jelly-legs from all the traveling but despite the mushy waves Dion was flying through the air every time I happened to look in his direction.
We showered off, indulged in a big delicious meal, then stopped in at the local surf club to hang out with the groms and sign some autographs. My hair had hardly dried from the previous session and I was definitely still digesting, but when the groms asked if we would go surfing with them we quickly suited up once more. The tide had dropped and the waves were dumping all at once on the shallow sandbar, but every kid was grinning.
Alex and I
I’ve known Alex Gray since he was about ten years old and first learning to surf. He is now 20, a surf magazine cover boy, and one of the most entertaining guys I’ve ever met. Before changing into his wetsuit he had been wearing a disgusting denim zip-up shirt with a big 80s neon design on the back that said “Surf Club” and a brown wide-rimmed Australian hat that screamed, “young girls keep your distance, I’m very strange”,
and yet he is the type that can utter any cheesy pick-up line with a smile and end up with a pack of twelve year old girls following his every move. Running down the beach, he offered to trade boards with a shy kid toting a foam longboard who eagerly accepted the proposition. I followed his lead and my trading partner kept saying “this is such a cool board!” over and over again. I guess he didn’t mind the hot pink stripes and light pink leash. He was comfortable in his young masculinity. Alex and I then focused our attention on the mini-groms in the shorebreak, taking turns pushing them into waves. For me, one of the most renewing aspects of surfing is in helping a novice surfer to get a good ride. The ecstatic look on their faces while being propelled shoreward by the power of the ocean always reminds me why I started in the first place. There really is nothing more fun.
The next morning at 5am we loaded ourselves and all of our luggage into the campervan and drove a few hours North to Kaikoura. The piers and paved sidewalks quickly gave way to the rolling green hills of the New Zealand I had imagined. We drove up an unmarked, steep and rocky road into what seemed like a secret paradise. There was a wide open, lush grass field lined with artfully decorated cozy cabins and aesthetically pleasing gardens, dotted by a plethora of fruit trees, all set against a stunning backdrop of movie-quality snow-capped mountains. The cliff top view of a momentarily dormant right-hand pointbreak just below and a fun cobblestone beachbreak up the way only added to the ambiance. Taking a look around, I decided I could stop traveling and live right there.
Surfing has taken me all over the world, to some of the most beautiful places imaginable. There is something to be said for the sight of crystal clear water and white sand beaches adorned with palms, however growing up in California makes me identify so much more with grass, mountains, and wetsuit worthy water temperatures. New Zealand felt like home, which immediately resonated within established pleasure pathways in my brain. The weather is similar. The waves felt familiar. Yet sitting in the water, the sight towards land was so much more pure than the vistas to which I’ve grown accustomed. While most of the California coast is covered with million dollar homes or millions of condos, New Zealand is raw and green.
Maybe the open space and fresh air helps the people to be more relaxed as well. Showing up to a quiet beach with a logo encrusted campervan, multiple cameramen, and more than a handful of eager pro surfers in California would usually elicit at least a moderate degree of opposition from local surfers. To my surprise the locals in New Zealand were very welcoming. That first night in Kaikoura, the whole town seemed to show up to have a barbeque. One of the local boys named Levi who joined our crew at this point, had taken Greg and Alex diving for dinner. The two Californians, established lobster divers back home, were bewildered by the thick nets of kelp and came up empty. Levi however scored fish after fish with the same eager and humorous approach that he applied to everything else he did.
Levi, being himself
That night we feasted on freshly caught fish, lobster, and paua, courtesy of Levi and his father. The paua was a particular treat for us Californians since Abalone (as we call it) has been so over harvested along our coast that it is illegal to fish and rare to find.
An hour before sunset, just as the tide was dropping enough to make the waves more appealing, the entire cast of characters from the barbeque relocated down to the beach to catch a few more waves. To us, it still seemed much less crowded than home, but I overheard a local girl claiming she had never seen so many people in the lineup. I waited to hear her continue into a complaining rant along the lines of “who are all these people and what are they doing at our spot?” Instead she turned to me with a smile, asked where we were from, and then said, “it’s so cool to watch you all surfing, I’d love to go to California someday!”
The following day we spent mostly in the water, enjoying exceptionally fun waves with the local crew and ending up sun-burnt and surf satisfied while trying to pack up the campervan for another long haul further up the coast. On the ten pm ferry between islands, we crowded together in front of a laptop to laugh and exclaim over the day’s footage. In my mind, Mike Losness was the star, and over the course of the trip he would become my new favorite surfer. While Dion’s airs were probably more radical, Mike flowed from turn to turn with the type of style I dream of displaying. He was definitely inspiring to watch.
Mike airing, photos courtesy Jonny Wardrop
Alex, throwing in a turn of his own
Around midnight, we accepted another member into our group. Australian super model and WCT pro surfer, Luke Stedman crammed himself and his boardbag into the already overly packed campervan. Welcome to the group, Luke, now snuggle up! That first night we spent all sleeping inside the camper together was literally a little too close for comfort. I crammed in the back next to Alex and Dion and woke up to Alex breathing heavily about five inches away from my ear. The smell of so many guys in such a confined space was atrocious! Fortunately, we only had a few hours to spend until sunrise signaled it was time to hit the road once again.
Luke and Alex
After another day’s drive, we pulled up to a left point that looked like a lot of work especially to our sleep deprived eyes and road rumbled bodies, but as the tide filled in it turned into another magical session and Luke settled into the crew with a few fins-out turns of his own. Despite the fact that I felt exhausted even before paddling out, that session turned out to be one of my best. The wave reminded me of a favorite surf spot back home, yet it was longer, more powerful, and significantly less crowded. I felt giddy paddling out to get another wave with sets marching in and only a small group of friends in line to catch them. For the second time in a week, I decided I could easily travel no further and set up a new home right there.
After surfing past sunset, we cruised into Gisbourne passing numerous “No Vacancy” signs and nearly emptied a pizza shop of their stock. By the time we had eaten and actually processed the fact that every motel was full, it was clear we would be spending a second night without a shower, all piled into the campervan. Since the weather was warm and the sky full of stars, a few of the crew decided to sleep out in the open. That sounded good to me! Jonny Wardrop, a Body Glove team rider from Christchurch, and I theorized over the best way to set up the outside sleeping area while Craig stashed boards underneath the Land Rover. We set up a tarp over the sand dune and tall grass and then figured that if the Land Rover were moved closer to the campervan, it would help block the wind and the setting would be perfect. Craig jumped into the car to move it, momentarily forgetting about the boards underneath until a painful crunching sound instantly reminded all of us! Fortunately for Levi who had only brought one board on the trip, his wasn’t the one damaged. What could have been a depressing situation turned into a catalyst for laughter under the stars as we thought back to the completely mangled tail and knocked out fins. Craig just shrugged his shoulders and said, “The board wasn’t going very well anyways, I’m glad to be free of it.” Maybe everything does happen for a reason.
The next few days elapsed in a blur. We took turns napping under a tree in “Gizzy” between fun paddle-intense surf sessions. The entire crew was overcome with laughter as Levi and Alex, the two youngest members of the group, lost repeatedly at “the Moose” drinking game at an Irish bar,
and then set off on their own to try to find some excitement (girls) on a quiet Monday night in town.
They came back empty handed but not without having written all over each other in permanent ink. In the morning, they awoke much less lively than previous days, telling stories of climbing a huge hill with sleeping bag, pillows, and plans to spend the night until it seemed they might accidentally roll off the hill while sleeping and trudged back down to the hotel. At this point the Alex and Levi comedy show was just beginning. Alex found a long walking stick on the beach and then carried it with him from that point on, asking anyone who would listen where he could find a hobbit. A few days later while driving past a paddock of sheep, they insisted the campervan stop so that they could get out and try to catch one. Alex slowly hopped the electrified fence and began to assess the situation and devise a strategy while Levi immediately took off running down the hill, his body gaining enough momentum to overtake the speed of his legs, and I imagined him suddenly going down into a series of summersaults, but the sheep had already safely escaped to the far end and the boys returned to the camper defeated once again but not discouraged. Boys will be boys.
Finally, the moment I had been waiting for since hearing of the planned trip to New Zealand months before arrived. We departed for Raglan. As a goofy-foot with a strong affinity for long left point breaks, everything I’d ever heard about Raglan made me think it would be a contender for my new favorite wave in the world. Needless to say I was very eager to surf it. After driving down a long steep rocky driveway to a house that seemed as if it must have sprouted up from the ground like the trees around it, I walked out onto the balcony that overlooked the top point at Raglan and felt excitement burst through the cloud of my exhaustion and takeover. The next morning I bounced down the smooth grassy path, winding through chest high wildflowers, and out over the big rocks to the water’s edge. The waves weren’t perfect, but it was just our crew in the lineup.
That afternoon while the boys cooked up a feast on the barbeque I snuck down to the point and sat out in the water by myself. It had been cloudy all day, but as the sun slowly sunk down to the horizon a few rays popped through the clouds and illuminated the waist high waves that would come through one at a time, only every once in a while. Occasionally I’d look back up to the house amongst the trees and see the boys pointing towards the horizon, telling me a set was on the way. It didn’t matter that the waves weren’t perfect. The setting was as good as anything I could have dreamed. I sat there and took it all in, trying to imprint the feeling of that moment and everything that had led up to it in my memory, the dizzying drives, the short nights, the silly boys, the un-crowded waves, the beautiful backdrops, the new friends. Sometimes I’d hear them whistling, or maybe it was the birds, just as a golden-lipped wave would peel towards me. I rode as many as I could and then walked back up the track and into the trees with a smile, savoring every sensation, trying to ignore the fact that I had just finished my last session at a third place I knew I could easily call home.
That night Alex, Craig, and I packed up our stuff and drove off to Auckland. Alex and I had a date on the Morning Show, so we would meet up with everyone one last time, later that afternoon at the airport. Just like that, the trip was over. One thing I’ve learned after years of surf trips, it’s the people not the destination that determine the outcome of a trip. You can be in the most amazing place in the world, but the people around you are what make it worthwhile. I definitely appreciated the company on this trip. We didn’t score Raglan as I had hoped, but if you live by the philosophy that everything does happen for a reason, at least it gives me a very good reason to return.
Thank you Body Glove!!!!