The New Zealand we know is merely the very tip of a mostly submerged continent.
Millions of years of tectonic activity have forced it up above the sea, forming two intriguing slithers of land which feature some of the most varied and dramatic scenery on earth. There are active volcanoes, vast ocean fiords, cascading glaciers and white sand beaches that stretch as far as the eye can see. And, thanks to it’s positioning, it’s bombarded by swell generating weather systems on all sides.
The wilder of New Zealand’s two landmasses is the South Island, which sits a mere three thousand miles north of Antartica and is usually at least partially covered by one of one of the long white clouds from which the nation takes its nickname. This Spring I decided to visit, lured by the landscape, the roaring forties and a dizzyingly set-up rich coastline.
Here are a series of lineups captured during a two and a half week sojourn, along with some points of interest from the areas in which they sit. Of course, this is just a mere scratch of the surface, a minuscule snapshot of what the South Island’s three and a half thousand miles of coastline has to offer.
A sparse population combined with the inability to check most spots from a conveniently perched clifftop car park means finding empty waves is rarely a problem in the South Island. Towering headlands regularly make access to playful wedges tricky, including at this particular beach, where a steep twenty-minute ascent down a crumbling sand dune is required.
The far south coast bears the brunt of powerful southern ocean swells, which march uninterrupted up from Antartica. Luckily Southland’s craggy coastline provides ample shelter from the onslaught. The angling of this particularly bay sees incoming swell collide first with the imposing cliffs, which extend from it’s the northerly end, before refracting back to meet oncoming waves, forming the iconic wedges for which it is so well known.
Like many spots included here, this beach is also a favourite with local sea lions, who are a blend of grumpy and comically inept on land but present a force to be reckoned with if you meet them out in the lineup. This was the location of Albee Layer and Kain Daly’s famous tussle with a pair, which you can relive here.
The lineups around the South Island are filled with wildlife. Aside from sea lions (which you’re actually far more likely to encounter napping on the beach, as seen in this image) there’s a whole array of beautiful and rare sea creatures swimming around you while you wait for a wave. Some, like the endangered yellow-eyed penguins and Hector’s dolphins, are exclusive to New Zealand, while others, including various species of shark, are well gorged on the aforementioned and so far less likely to bother you here than elsewhere in the southern hemisphere.
This bay sits almost on the far southerly tip of Southland; in an area renowned once again for its sea life and wild weather. The waves also break in close proximity to the remains of a 160 million-year-old woodland, which spent many years standing proudly on a floodplain before being repeatedly covered by volcanic debris and then submerged by the ocean. This unique process has literally turned the trees to stone, creating one of the most extensive fossilised forests in the world.
In the south-eastern corner of the island sits the Catlins forest park, which comprises miles and miles of rugged coastline, agricultural land and dense temperate rainforest. Captain Cook didn’t manage to land in the region thanks to the howling offshores that now groom the coasts many exposed beaches, leaving the area to the local Maori, who lived in a series of small settlements for around 800 years prior to the arrival of ‘The Endeavour’. The area wasn’t visited by Europeans until the mid-1800s, when a whaling station was set up on the peninsula that can be seen in the background of this image. Now, almost 200 years since the station closed, Southern right whales are slowly making a comeback to the area.
After days of driving along the east coast searching for waves in the torrential rain, I’d all but given up on the region, when this crazy river bar, a stone’s throw from the main highway came into view. The raging river flow had sculpted a perfect knee-deep bank, with a procession of sheet glass 4-6 footers reeling obligingly along it. There were a couple of intrepid souls trying their luck, dodging the large chunks of tree speeding through the take-off zone on the torrent and presumably keeping their mouths held firmly shut each time a poo-brown lip buried them in the shingle. Even shooting this lineup was a pretty hairy experience, with huge articulated lorries filled with pigs flying past regularly just a few feet from my face.
Although this point sits in close proximity to one of the South Island’s more densely populated regions, you wouldn’t know it from the wilderness of the surroundings, with a serene forest-covered valley, interrupted only by a river and a steep dirt road leading down to the bay.
On this morning, a good looking chart had seen the masses drive up from the city, however, an impermeable blanket of fog rushing through the ravine made it almost impossible to shoot. As the tide pushed in and the lines began to lose the point, the lineup emptied and I called it a day. Heading back towards the city along the top of the valley, I looked back to see a small aperture in the fog, blow open by a little puff of offshore wind. As the lines became more groomed, a few found the inside of the point, allowing me to finally snap a mist-less lineup and no doubt delighting the few surfers who’d stuck it out.
The west coast of the south island sports over 500 miles of wave-rich coastline, before it succumbs to the deep lacerations of Fiordland. The southern part of this coastline represents New Zealand’s least documented surfing frontier, while the area around Greymouth serves as the region’s hub. Unlike some of the amazing South Island town’s that started life as gold mining settlements, Greymouth’s infamously terrible weather precluded the inception of a burgeoning tourist trade, leaving the town looking a little sorry for itself. The area does, however, boast a variety of excellent waves, including a pair of quality sandbars on either side of its harbour entrance, as a well as an abundance of setups heading both north and south. While many locals hope the town’s image will one day be enough to trump its climate to reel in the tourists, presumably, the local surfers deem non-stop rain a small price to pay to surf a lineup a million miles from the obscenely crowded sub-tropical tourist hotspots in the North Island.
Words & photos @lugarts