Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Southern Alps of New Zealand

Arthur's Pass is what I had come to New Zealand for. I suppose I didn't know that when I stepped off the plane, but it's what I discovered two days later as I stood above the clouds at the top of Waimakariri Col looking at the West Coast of New Zealand...

The small stream I set up next to for my first night in the mountains.

Let me rewind. I'm getting ahead of myself.

As I drove into Arthur's Pass Village it was late afternoon. I just made it to the ranger station before it closed and I was greeted by a mild woman who kindly helped me choose a route through the national park.

I of course was chomping at the bit to do the most difficult and critical route on offer. I was already playing out how I would summit every peak along the way, and how I would arrange my tripod just so on some narrow ledge above a heart pounding plummet and get the most amazing pictures of grand vistas...

Waimakariri Riverbed. Hiking west.
Let me tell you something: park rangers in New Zealand are not the same as they are in the United States. She made passing note of the extreme difficulty, required equipment (of course I had none), and technical glacier crossing of what I thought would be the most fun route that I could accomplish in 4 days. And then she set me on my way with a route guide that also may have made mentioned something like "Suitable for experienced back country hikers only. Alpine experience and equipment essential".

What, like boots? That's alpine equipment right?

Now, I told her the amount of experience I had and she made little effort to deter me, so I walked out on my merry way. Had it been the United States, the park rangers would, and should have, physically restrained me when I told them my plan. Boy, was I in for a surprise!

I didn't hike long for the first day, as it was already early evening by the time I got to the dry riverbed that marked the beginning of my trek. I made my way for about three hours, heading west as the sun started to melt below the mountains ahead, before making my way to a grassy patch next to one of the many tributaries running down to the Waimak River. I set up camp as the light quickly faded and was soon laying under the stars. Eager for an early start the next day, I drifted off to sleep.

Monday, April 21, 2014

A Ferry, Hokitika and New Friends

Sunrise over Castlepoint Lighthouse

After one last morning surfing the bay, I was reluctant to leave Castlepoint. I'd spent two days and two nights there and enjoyed every minute of it (even realizing that I left my wetsuit on the roof of my car in Waimarama and having to drive for two hours to find the nearest surf shop).

Only a few days in and I already felt the time slipping through my fingers. It was as I left sleepy Castlepoint that it dawned on me that I had been very mistaken about the seemingly small country of New Zealand. There was more to see and do in this compact little island country than could fill every day for years. Perhaps even a life time.

A wider angle view of "The Gap"
The drive to Wellington was uneventful. Rolling, golden terraces and green hills kept my neck constantly swiveling as I strained to see each new vista with out running my too-wide camper off the too-narrow road. It was challenging to say the least.

Wellington was a clean and lively port city, and had I not been bent on getting as much fresh mountain air as possible in two weeks, I would have liked to see a bit more of it. As it was, I made my way to a grocery store and restocked my supply of trail mix, cheese, fresh bread, sandwich meat, and organic yogurt. I then made my way to the ferry, checked in and and followed the line of cars already making their way up the ramp and onto the ferry.

I settled in with my bag of trail mix and my kindle for the 4 hour crossing to Picton on the south island. I had intentionally scheduled the latest ferry that would still arrive in daylight on the South Island. That gave me more time to surf in the morning but not miss the supposedly beautiful views while crossing the sound to the south.

After reading for a while I got up to snap some pictures through the grimy, salt crusted windows outside. Of course, nothing really turned out so I struck up a conversation with one of my fellow passengers who was doing the same. Deanna was in the process of moving her entire life via her car from her home on the North Island to the small town of Wanaka on the South Island. She'd gotten a great job offer in a good location and had decided to take advantage of the opportunity. She spoke of missing her family already, but was determined to make the best of it. She had a kayak on one side of her roof, a mountain bike on the other, and just enough room in the hatchback's interior to fit herself. As it turned out, she was an outdoors enthusiast and had a few days to kill before she had to be at her first day of work. I was headed down the scenic and mountainous west coast, and though it wasn't the most direct route to Wanaka, she decided to follow me in her overstuffed car for some hiking and exploration.

The going was slow to ensure nothing blew off the top of her car, but we made our way to Hokitika, a small town nestled about halfway down the coast. It was a smallish town consisting mostly of one main street, on which rested several art and craft shop as well as a few pubs and restaurants. We grabbed dinner and I jumped into my wetsuit while Deanna took pictures from the beach with my camera.

Photo Credits to Deanna

After sunset, we headed to the outskirts of town to check out a trail lit by glow worms down a damp crevasse. It was pitch black except for the green glow running up the damp cliff faces on either side of us. We tried hard to get a decent exposure of the scene, but it was just too dark and my impatience with the whole affair outweighed my desire to photograph the experience. Deanna insisted that I try several times, but even a 15 minute exposure wasn't enough to get more than a speckling of green on a field of pitch black.

The next morning after exploring some of the jade engraving shops in town and watching a glass blowing presentation, Deanna hit the road towards Wanaka and I headed inland, towards Arthur's Pass. It would be the toughest trail I had done (little did I know at the time).

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Castlepoint: a Hidden Beauty

Castlepoint. A place I would have happily stayed for many days. Beautiful bays surrounded by sun-warmed hills covered in soft grass. Sea cliffs. Winding trails through the country side leading to breath taking overlooks and hidden waves without a soul in the line up. I was enchanted. I spent equal time in the water, mostly alone, and in the hills with my camera.

The people I did meet were, as always, friendly and one young ferry worker in for the weekend from Wellington led me to a hidden break he called Christmas Bay. We climbed barefoot, surfboards in hand up a steep ridge before breaking from the trail and hiking through prickly heather and thistles down a steep embankment. At the bottom, a pod of seals sat fat in the sun, idly watching our descent. I was baking in my thick neoprene wetsuit. The conditions were perfect and we surfed in the sun all day. I was fairly certain that I would die of dehydration on the climb back up, but it was impossible to leave the water. Set after set of turquoise waves rolled past us in an unbroken chain of perfection.

On my second day, I surfed other breaks, including the main beach break in front of the village and "The Gap" pictured above. The seals joined in on my session there, and I would have given anything for a waterproof housing for my camera on more than one occasion. The backdrop was breath taking and I don't think the smile ever left my face. Conditions slowly became wild, but the sea cliffs protecting the entrance to the bay (how the gap got its name), kept most of the wind and chop outside their walls. I wished for more board under my feet at one point (or less exhausted shoulders).

When exhaustion finally set in, I paddled back to shore and decided to put my legs to use. Sunset wasn't too far from the horizon so I hurredly stripped out of my rubber, grabbed my tripod and set into the hills.

Watching waves filter in through "The Gap"
I spent the last hours before sunset ascending a wooded hill that leveled out and opened to a view of the bay I had spent the day surfing in. It was a fantastic evening. The wind was brisk, but the lingering sun kept a warm kiss on my skin as I walked through the tall grass. All in all, it was a good day and I would be sad to see it end. The following morning I was to drive to Wellington to catch a ferry to begin my adventure on the South Island.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Exploring New Zealand's East Coast

Does this count as a selfie?
It had rained as I slept. The sky was still overcast and threatened further downpour as I pulled out of the turnoff where I had spent the night. Ocean Beach was my first destination, as recommended by a local out of Napier the night before. Hopefully I would score.

Ocean Beach is hardly what I expected. It consists of approximately 5 permanent residential structures and two to three more trailers, all parked in front of a rather desolate stretch of beach, lined by green grassy hills from horizon to horizon. There were certainly waves. And current. Lots of it. The swell had arrived as predicted, but the wind was uncooperative. For those of you who don't surf, that means a near impossible paddle through heaving white water. There were no clear sets, just choppy white caps giving up their foam to the stormy skies. I decided to brave the paddle in hopes of finding that single drop in.

I didn't make it very far. The disorganized waves seemed to conspire to push me back to shore as my shoulders burned with futile effort. The current swept me down the beach several hundred yards in a matter of minutes. Exhausted and panting, I finally left the water and trudged back up the beach. And tried again.

This time, I waited and watched the waves first. I did what I should have done from the beginning: Observed the ocean before choosing how to attack. I found what looked like a patch of deep water that might provide a rip out past the breaking waves and waited for a lull in the sets. My patience paid off and I was soon past the white water, waiting for my first wave.

There were no clean lines, no curling lips. Only moving peaks that might provide a drop and a two or three second ride. But it was enough. I was in the water. Looking back at shore provided a beautiful if somewhat gloomy backdrop of ominous sky and mountain tops.

As I waited for a wave to come my way, I began to notice that the rip that had so conveniently taken me past the break was now dragging me even farther out to sea. Already tired from the exertion of making it this far, I became nervous about being taken out so far. I began to paddle back towards the beach and found it almost as difficult to make it back in as it was to get out. But an obliging wave came through and provided me with both my exit and a fun little ride back to the beach.

Surfing wasn't so successful, but this log provided a few good long exposures.
I decided to call it quits, based on the conditions and opted to use the morning for exploration and photography of the beach before driving on to Waimarama.

A 15 second exposure from Waimarama Beach towards Bare Island.
Waimarama was only slightly more surfable than Ocean Beach and it wasn't long before I was out of the water and taking pictures again. I was able to take the picture below using my new 10 stop neutral density filter from hitech. Unfortunately, there was a lot of light leak, something that the filter received mixed reviews about online. The corners of the image were covered in flares of bright vignetting. I was forced to crop a large bottom section out and spend a lot of time with a healing tool to fix the top corners. The end result was still quite satisfying for my first try at a daytime long exposure.

I spent a good portion of the afternoon walking up and down the beach, drawing curious looks from locals as I waded around in my wet suit with a heavy tripod and camera. As the afternoon grew to a close, I stripped out of my wetsuit, and prepared to head to Castlepoint 4 hours down the coast.



Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Surfing New Zealand's North Island, Day 1

New Zealand is divided into the north and south islands, with the Tasman Sea to the west and the Pacific Ocean to the east. Both islands and both costs have distinctive characteristics and personalities when it comes to the surf. The Tasman side of both islands tend to receive sizable swell year round from the Antarctic storms pushing up the coast. Accompanying this year-round swell are often strong onshore trade-winds. One classic break that receives the benefit of these storms and also happens to be quite sheltered from the wind is Raglan. The breaks that make up Raglan are Indicators, Whale Bay and Manu Bay. When the size and direction of the swell is right, locals claim that all three breaks line up for one 800 meter ride. This is where I made my first stop in New Zealand.

I wasn't the first one in the water, but I was close. I slept in my camper van above the surf and woke 30 minutes before first light. I began my morning listening to the waves and straining my eyes in the pre-dawn darkness, imagining that I could see the sets roll in. As the sky lightened on the horizon, I continued to observe the breaking waves as traffic started to trickle into the lot, and eager surfers got out of their cars to check the morning conditions. I let a few of them get into wet-suits and watched them paddle out. Waves with out surfers on them are hard to judge and paddling out at a new break can be daunting. Submerged obstacles and sharp wrocks can draw blood and broken boards from over-eager and under-educated surfers. I watched the first surfer, on a longboard, catch a beautiful, clean chest high wave and ride it elegantly for 50 or 60 meters and immediately scrambled into my beat up Quicksilver 3/2.

The current was swift and I struggled against it as I paddeled to the top of the point. I joined the three other surfers already in the line up, nervous about my first time in the water. Would surfing after 9 months land locked in a Middle Eastern country prove difficult? Or would it be like riding a bike? I let the others take their turns and finally had a wave to myself. I paddled in, felt the wave accelerate under my pushed myself up... and promptly fell off my board. Apparently not like riding a bike. I spent much of the morning this way, but found that the less I thought about the motions, the more they began to feel familiar. It wasn't long until I felt as though I'd never stopped surfing.

Unfortunately, just about the time I was feeling comfortable in the water again, New Zealands most popular surf break began to get crowded, and with the crowd my opportunity to catch waves significantly diminished. I enjoyed another hour in the water, chatting with a gentlemen from Colorado who now lived in Sydney, Australia. I caught a wave or two and decided to get on the road. I originally intended to stay for two full days in Raglan, but due to my airport fiasco I was forced to settle for a morning session before crossing to the East Coast and meeting a promising new swell in Hawke's Bay.

With no real information other than break names and general information garnered from Magicseaweed and Surfline's websites, I headed towards the East Coast town of Napier. The drive was long and extremely beautiful. Terraced farmland rose on either side of me and scenic views awaited at every turn. Waterfalls, mountain tops and golden farmland surrounded me. It was my first indication that I was in paradise. I wasn't in love yet, but I felt the first pull at my heart when I pulled off on a gravel road to discover this site below me:

Scenic view on the road to Napier. North Island, New Zealand

I arrived to the small but busy coastal town of Napier in the late afternoon and found the first beach access I could. As I pulled into a cul-de-sac, clean lines of swell were filtering in, rising and peaking and falling back down again before finally crashing feet from the rocky beach. The swell had arrived, but I was in the wrong place. The beach head was too steep and there were no sandbars anywhere in site. I suppose I could have paddled out, and even caught a wave. One wave. Before I was slammed forcefully into the rocks, facing serious pain and a broken board on my first day. I later discovered that surfing and swimming in Napier is not allowed or recommended due to very strong rip currents.

With out a clear plan and no where to surf, I decided to find dinner and catch a movie at the local cinema. I would do some research while I was at it and have a clear destination for the next morning. The locals proved very friendly and I was soon directed to check out Ocean Beach and Waimarama Beach, a short hour's drive down the coast.  I'd head there the following morning.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The First Two Days

Wow. Where to begin?

My trip started with a bang, to say the least. As I boarded my flight from Abu Dhabi to Sydney, I was excited to finally be on my way to New Zealand for surf and adventure. Unfortunately it didn't quite play out as one would hope, at least initially. With about four hours left before arrival in Sydney, my stomach began to turn flips. Food poisoning. As each painful hour drug on, I found myself spending more and more time on my knees in the cramped airplane lavatory. By the time we landed, I was so weak and dehydrated that I couldn't make it to the toilet without assistance and had to resort, for the first time in my life, to a little white barf bag. A wheelchair was waiting for me in Sydney, and I was rolled off to St. Vincent hospital where I spent 5 hours on an IV. Needless to say, I missed my connection to New Zealand.

When I finally exited the hospital, it was a bright, beautiful fall day in Sydney. I caught a cab back to the airport with high hopes that I might still make it to Auckland in time to pick up my rental camper van. On arrival, I was sadened to discover that I had missed the last flight to Auckland provided by my carrier. They told me that they would happily put me on the first flight the following day and that unless I was willing to pay a different airline, that was all they could do.

I reasoned that my luggage was already in Auckland, and that with only two weeks to see the country, it was worth the money to go ahead and get there the same day. I booked with Quantas airline just in time for boarding and was soon on my way. Two hours later, in Auckland, I discovered that Virgin Airlines had not only poisoned me, but also lost my luggage. I had just paid a hefty 400 dollar fee for a plane ticket the same day and to top it all off, the rental agency was closed and refused to refund my money for the first day despite the fact that I had spent it in the hospital.

As you may well imagine, I was beginning to experience a full gamut of negative emotions: anger, frustration and discouragement. I booked a room at the cheapest motel I could find and promptly went to sleep praying for a better day tomorrow. The next morning, I arrived back at the airport only to discover that the airline still had no idea where my luggage was. It wasn't until mid afternoon that they located it and it wasn't until well after 10 at night that I had it in my hands. With two days down the drain, I called back to my boss and begged for an extra day of leave to make up for my lost time. Of course, he said no.

I hit the road in my shiny green and purple camper van and headed for Raglan, looking forward to a sunrise surf session to wash it all away. I drove for three hours, parked my van along side the road overlooking Manu Bay, crawled in the back and closed my eyes, dreaming of blue, curling waves. When I woke the next morning, I was rewarded with this:

Lines of swell to the horizon, arriving at two of Raglan's three world class point breaks.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

New Zealand!

5 days. New Zealand. Two weeks of hiking my way around one of the most beautiful landscapes this world has on offer. I'll surf uncrowded waves against a backdrop of cliffs and snow capped mountains. I've already got my route planned, though I will be tracking the swell as the day gets closer. A cyclone is due out of the north and will make landfall early this weekend. Fortunately I will miss most of the flooding and wind, and arrive just in time for the offshores and well over-head waves. As the swell passes, I'll head south in my rented camper-van surfing various breaks around the north island, before I ferry across Cook Straight. The south island is majestic, and as some may already know is where the Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed. Think big mountains, beautiful waterfalls, ever changing weather and relative isolation.

I'll be bringing my camping gear as sleeping in the comfort of a camper-van isn't really my style. When the waves die, I'll find myself a good trail head and head out for a few days with my pack.

This will also be the first iteration of my gear check for my year in South America. I'll get a feel for what it's like to backpack with a surfboard, which I expect to be a fair bit more challenging than what I'm used too. I'll also quickly discover gaps in my gear as it has been some time since I've hit the trail. All of this will be done from the relative safety of a first world country. Unfortanately, I lost a lot of my outdoors equipment during the move to Bahrain. It's been rather expensive stocking back up, but here's the list so far:

  • Osprey Aether 70 pack
  • Kelty rain cover
  • Paha Que Solo tent
  • Kelty Cosmic Down 20 degree bag
  • Self inflating iso mat 
  • Coleman mess kit
  • Ultra-light camp stove
  • Asolo boots 
  • Various rain gear and clothing
  • Quicksilver 4/3 wetsuit
  • JBS custom surf board
  • Wool socks x2
  • Sunscreen (Zinka)
  • Weatherproof matches
  • Match case
  • Magnesium striker
  • Cuban cigars
  • Xikar cutter
  • Nikon D7000
  • 50mm 1.4 nikkor
  • Tokina 12-24mm
  • Nikkor 70-300mm
  • Manfrotto tripod
  • various filters
Anything I'm missing? Suggestions? Leave a comment and save me some misery on my trip!