Spring is normally the time to enjoy some long awaited warmth in the days, get outdoors and smile inwardly at the oncoming summer. It is not normally the time of year associated with chasing swells around the Tasman sea.
It is, however, amazing how quickly you can find yourself in another country, camera cases in tow, lacking sleep and prepping yourself for a cold flush of water from what is likely to be the last southern hemisphere storm of the season.
When I got the call to ‘cross the ditch’ to New Zealand to surf a break on the North Island that is rumoured to have some of the longest left hand points in the world, it did not take me long to make the decision to book the flights and go. I had been to the North West of this amazing coastline back in 2012 and lucked out, just not getting quite enough swell to really light the place up. This time though, with a very, very solid weather system drilling a hole in the south Tasman Sea, things were looking promising.
Leaving Sydney on a magical spring day where the mercury topped out at 28 degrees to head to a place where jackets, beanies and thick winter wetsuits would be required, seemed like a stupid thing to do. But if you have the taste for a surf break, and you really want to see what it can deliver, then you have to be willing to put in the effort, pay for the flights and make it happen.
Spring in Sydney
I arrived in Auckland around 10:30pm and was picked up by a mate of mine who had been surfing a rare east coast break for the past few days – a break he has been visiting for over five years and this was the first time he managed to really get it good. It was impossible for me to join him on that part of the trip as I was chained to my desk getting this new website platform finalised and launched. It was killing me to see the photos Mick was sending through each day of this incredibly perfect wave, no people and blue skies. But I plugged away at the website, got it finished and knew that another weather system was spinning up for the west coast that was meant to be even better.
Most of the world’s attention was focused on Fiji where some were saying the swell was going to rival the XXL swell that hit during the contest a few years ago. For me, chasing the less obvious is more appealing and I had the inside word that this swell had to hit New Zealand before it reached Fiji. There would only be one place in the whole country that would handle the conditions and that was exactly where Mick and I were headed.
Mick Freeman has been described recently in some of the surfing worlds online forums as the most ‘scoringest’ bloke alive. He has a knack (and a flexible enough schedule) for showing up at some of the worlds best surf breaks when they are absolutely perfect. If ever there was a person you wanted to attach yourself to, it’s Mick and I am thankful to call him a friend.
Chasing swells like this requires a lot of commitment. It is nowhere near as easy as heading off on a luxury surf charter where everything is done for you and all you need to do is show up and surf. Firstly, there is the getting there. To reach the wave we wanted to surf involved an international flight, a few hours in the car to reach Hotel Freeman (a.k.a Mick’s Mum’s place) a 3:00am wake up to drive four hours to the break with the plan to arrive at dawn to start photographing and surfing only to discover that the tide was too high and the winds too strong to really have any quality waves on offer.
We sat in the car at the top of the hill waiting, watching, waiting and watching for hours… Then we went for breakfast, then went back and watched and waited some more. Eventually we left and booked a room to stay for the night. We had a look at the latest weather observations and realised that the weather pattern had shifted slightly and the winds were only due to swing at around 4:00pm. Time for a siesta.
Right on time the winds swung, a late surf and epic sunset and the first set of photographs were in the bank. Still, it was not quite what we had come for so we went for a hot shower and something to eat, regrouped and checked the weather again.
It looked like Sunday was going to be the day. The morning was not too promising with the tide, but from about 11:00am onwards things were looking good.
To fill in the time while we waited for the tide to drop we decided to hike up the largest hill in the area to see if we could get a view of the whole point break setup. We trespassed a little to shorten the journey, then bush bashed up through the pine forest. On almost reaching the summit I cleared the trees on what I thought was a ridge only to realise it was a very well maintained 4WD track. We could have driven to the top… Such is life, our way was more exciting and made the view even more rewarding.
Eventually the tide dropped and the surf started to come to life. Whilst the swell might not have been as large as what we were hoping, the first wave I rode that day went for a long, long way. I’m going to put it out there and say it was a kilometre. After I had done about 15 turns I was starting to overheat. Given I was wearing a wetsuit with an attached hood, I just stood up on my board and flicked the hood back, then reset my line and hacked into the face for at least another 12 turns before the ride ended. The walk back up the point was going to take some time. Even if I did not get another wave, I had just surfed more than I normally would in a week at home. Seriously it was incredible. The photographs of a wave like this really don’t do the place justice, you are only looking at 1/1250th of a second, one fraction of one turn on a wave that may have hosted twenty or more. Was it worth the effort, it sure was and I would do it again tomorrow if I could. It’s a pity there are only a handful of swells a year that get this place going!
So, totally stoked we drove back to Auckland and checked into the airport hotel, note to self: Don’t book the 6:00am flight from Auckland to Sydney. Having to be at the airport at 4:00am is not fun when you only get to bed at 11:30pm after a full days surfing…
I arrived home and spent the rest of the week photographing a swimsuit catalogue for an international client. A full week of chaotic early mornings, hair and makeup, models, shot directors, days of pushing uphill against the weather and days of too much sunshine to handle. We worked hard and got the job done, just! That afternoon I had a shave and a shower and headed to a mates wedding. It was to be a night of celebrations then a weekend off taking it easy after the hectic schedule of the last week…
I was at the wedding, rocking my best three piece suit (as in my ‘only’ suit) when the constant vibration of my phone, which was on silent, got the better of me and I walked outside to take the call.
There had been a little whisper of heading to Tasmania for a swell, but the last I heard it was not going to be worth while, so forget the mission, enjoy my friends wedding and catch up on some much needed sleep after what was a crazy week photographing both sides of the Tasman. But this call would change all that. When you are having a crazy week, flying around chasing waves, you may as well keep the ball rolling and that is exactly what happened.
With Tasmania off the plans, the boys had started looking elsewhere and a few phone calls later had been let in on a secret wave along a stretch of coastline that was one of those ‘Peter Pan’ waves, so called because it ‘never, never breaks’. A local that grew up there, but had since moved to Sydney, was flying in for the day, yep, one day! He invited us to go with, said it was going to be worthwhile. I figured if the local boys are willing to fly in for a day, who am I to argue, so I booked a flight while standing outside the wedding reception and, knowing the weekend was about to take another turn, I went back in to celebrate with my friends before heading home to pack my camera gear (truth be told I had not un-packed it yet, I just needed to shuffle a few things around into different bags), and I was off.
When you arrive somewhere late in the evening the only thing you really want is a shower and a good nights sleep. However our host was intent on showing us a bit of his hometown hospitality, hospitality that would run throughout the next 24 hours and totally blew me away. He had rung ahead and spoken to his mates who had organised a BBQ of such amazing delicacies that if the Queen herself had been invited she would have been impressed. Sure it was a later night than I had hoped for but with such good company and such amazing food it was worth losing a little sleep over.
The next morning was a tricky one, we met up with the local crew as the jet skis and boards were shuffling around the car parks in the half-light of dawn. A few breaks were checked and we decided to paddle an amazing looking reef slab. Before heading into the water I started taking a few line-up photographs. One of the local boys asked where the photos were going, he was not keen for his local break to be publicised, so I made a promise to keep the secret, no names, no clues and no indication of where we were. So all I will say is we were south of Sydney and North of Hobart.
The waves were certainly worth the mission. Rather than try and put into words what the ocean does, I always prefer to let the photographs do the talking. Sure it could have been bigger, it could have been more consistent, it could have been a lot of things. But in the end, I think you will agree that any day you get to surf a wave like this is a good day.
After long enough in the water to render my thumbs frozen to the point of uselessness and my core shivering we called it a morning and headed in. A little more local hospitality with a lift on the back of a ski saved me the swim through a pretty hectic beach break, these people were seriously welcoming. The lunch that followed was even better. No pies at the bakery in this part of the world. The locals pride themselves on gourmet and love sharing their culinary skills with a hungry bunch of surfers.
As the wind shifted we had a few options for the afternoon, none of them were that good so we decided to load up the car and put in a few hours driving for a late surf at a very well known break. It really wasn’t much but the chance of scoring it in the morning was possible so we found somewhere to stay, made ourselves at home and had a look through the days photographs before a very, very welcome nights sleep.
After a super fun Monday morning surf at a very uncrowded Winki on Victoria’s Surf Coast it was time to head to the airport. Sitting at the gate waiting for my flight, I tapped out most of these words. It was kind of surreal to think of the distances covered in the last few days.
As I was booking my flight home I had a guilty feeling about this kind of Fly In Fly Out mission to photograph and surf. Given I’m a person who really does care about the environment I was starting to worry just how large a carbon footprint I was leaving behind for the sake of this journal. When I got to the payment page of the Qantas flight there was an option to ‘offset’ the carbon footprint of my flight, total cost 73c. 73 cents! That’s all it takes to offset the emissions of carrying me and my camera gear interstate on an Airbus Jet? To be honest I have absolutely know idea how or where that money is spent, perhaps it’s to plant a tree, either way it took that pang of guilt away and I flew with a clear conscious, kind of!
Surfing is, to most people, considered a green sport. We really don’t need much, a board a wetsuit and we are enjoying natures free fun park. However when you really start to look at the requirements of a surfer, the environmental costs start to add up quickly. For a travelling surfer or a Fly In Fly Out mission, it all quickly adds up. Motorsport it is not, but clean and green it certainly isn’t either. I am pretty sure my 73c carbon offset for my flight has made absolutely no difference, perhaps the ecology of the travelling surfer is a topic for a future edition of the Saltmotion Journal… This one was all about chasing waves!
Enjoy your day,