“Surfing provides that little bit of an opportunity to get some Zen time, away from the toils of everyday society,” says Mike Spence, the Freeride surf store boss whose four decades in the business includes building boards, representing New Zealand at international level and founding a surfing publication. “It gives you time to think, to get that dose of serotonin through the sun and experience the invigoration of the water.”
They’re sentiments echoed by fellow store-owning and surfboard building icon BJ Smith, founder of Seasons Surfboards, who says that surfing “encompasses everything”: “That feeling of solitude, those beautiful days, it’s good for the mind, it’s good for the body, it’s good for the health. It’s just exhilarating.”
It was another Kiwi board-builder—inspired by a couple of US travellers—that helped established modern surfing in New Zealand. When American surfers Bing Copeland and Rick Stoner landed in Aotearoa in the late 1950s, they made Piha Lifesaving Club their home for a few months befriending local lifesaver Peter Byers and showing him, along with some other locals, how to build those iconic fibreglass Malibu boards.
When Mount Maunganui hosted the first national surfing championships in 1963, there were only a few hundred surfers in the entire country, but by the end of the decade the sport had exploded, with an estimated 15,000 practitioners. Aotearoa sent its first team to the world championships in California. New Zealand surf flick Children of the Sun was released in 1968, and eight years later, Piha hosted what would become the very first event of the first World Professional Surfing Tour. Since then, the country has regularly hosted all manner of international events, and just last September it was announced that Piha will be the first stop of the 2020 season for competitors of the World Surf League’s Challenger Series.
However, the history of the sport in Aotearoa goes back way further than the ‘50s, with accounts of the first European settlers arriving to the sight of Mãori surfing (whakahekeheke) on boards—or kopapa—constructed from logs or bags of kelp. Mãori surfing specialist Jhan Gavala did a PhD on the subject, and discovered that Taranaki was likely the first spot to be surfed—up to 700 years ago. In early Pãkehã journals he noted references to prominent wave riders such as Te Rangituataka from Ngati Maniapoto.
Such pioneering Polynesians tie in nicely with the commonly held (mis)belief that Hawaiians invented the sport, but though those Pacific peoples undoubtedly perfected surfing, it’s now accepted to have started in Peru—possibly as long as 5,000 years ago. Pre-Inca pottery has been discovered depicting fishermen ‘surfing’ on boards-cum-boats fashioned from reeds known as caballitos de totara—a form of wave riding that’s still practised today.
Surfing in Hawaii began around one thousand years ago, with 12th-century cave paintings proving it to be a popular part of Polynesian life, significantly, to be enjoyed as a pastime rather than as a method for catching fish. Captain Cook and his crew first witnessed it in Tahiti in 1777 (and Hawaii the following year), with his ship’s surgeon, William J Anderson, writing in his diary that he “could not help concluding that this man felt the most supreme pleasure”. Indeed, some historians believe that early accounts of surfing may have even partly inspired Thomas Jefferson to add the “inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness” to the Declaration of Independence!
And as if Mark Twain wasn’t already awesome enough, he can also be credited as being one of the earliest surf writers (of sorts), too. “In one place we came upon a large company of naked natives, of both sexes and all ages, amusing themselves with the national pastime of surf-bathing,” he notes of his Hawaiian trip in Roughing It, published in 1872. Twain describes how surfers would wait for the perfect moment to fling themselves upon a “foamy crest” before “whizzing by like a bombshell!”. The scribe had a crack at surfing, though his wave-riding skills proved nowhere near as formidable as his legendary wit, his board striking the shore “in three quarters of a second”, sans rider, who had been flung to the seabed “with a couple of barrels of water in me”.
BJ Smith also recounts that Hawaii happens to be the setting of some of his fondest surfing memories (“riding the Sunset Beach pipeline”), as well as “all the great spots around Africa”. But he came to be believe that ultimately, “there’s no place like home”.
So on that note, we take a look at some of New Zealand’s finest surf spots…
Starting closest to home, Piha, the birthplace of the modern sport in New Zealand, is the region’s most popular surfing spot for good reason—famed for its brooding black sands, legendary Lion Rock and year-round breaks. Less experienced wave riders should make for the south side, while north Piha provides a more challenging right-hander swell. Further north still, Muriwai’s equally enchanting black sands spill into equally regular right- and left hand breaks—though beginners need to be wary of rips. Plus, you can check out that legendary gannet colony.
Bay of Plenty
Mount Maunganui, or ‘The Mount’, is the bay’s most well-known—and probably most popular—surfing destination owing to its hollow shore and right point breaks good for all levels, while Matakana Island, across Tauranga Harbour, offers swells for the more confident. Arataki, 10 minutes from Tauranga, is another fine spot for all skill levels with both left- and right-hand breaks.
North Island’s east coast is home to some of New Zealand’s most consistent breaks that, though may not be the tallest, provide plenty of provoking runs for even the most experienced of surfers. There are ample areas for novices too. There are plenty of places to test your mettle in and around Gisborne, most notably Waikanae Beach (very beginner-friendly), Wainui Beach (right- and left-hand breaks, head to the southern end) and the never-ending barrels at Makorori Point.
Both coasts of Northland are pummelled by year-round surf to cater for all, with stand-out sites including Mangawhai Heads (whose left-hand break overlaps the river bar), and Sandy and Matauri Bays on the east. On the west awaits Ninety Mile Beach—especially The Bluff break around halfway along the sandy stretch—and Ahipara’s Shipwreck Bay, whose long barrel sections provide plenty of challenges for the more adroit surfers.
Happy place Raglan is not just among the coolest of Kiwi towns, but an internationally-renowned surfing destination home to Manu Bay, the longest left-hand break in the world (as far as 2km) and scenic star of iconic 1966 surf flick The Endless Summer. Ngarunui Beach is best for beginners, and Whale Bay for those with more hours under their belt (or wetsuit).
Riders know they’re in for a treat in any region with a designated ‘Surf Highway’. Officially State Highway 45, the route skirts the Taranaki peninsula (named one of the world’s best regions by Lonely Planet in 2017), its most northern beach being Fitzroy, famed for its hollow barrels and driftwood-strewn sands. Other gems include Oakura, backed by eateries and boutiques, and the ominously named Graveyards known for a left-hand break best tackled by the more confident. Not only will you often have one of the countless beaches here entirely to yourself, but will be surfing in the shadow of the mighty Mount Taranaki.
Another gem right on our doorstep (kind of), the Coromandel peninsula is peppered with heaps of hip surf spots, most notably along its east coast. More serious surfers should make for Te Karo Bay’s right- and left-hand breaks, just above Tairau, while the golden sands of Hot Water Beach not only overlook opposing breaks at either end, but also boast those iconic hot springs to soothe the muscles afterwards. Whangamata is one of the region’s coolest hubs, home to one of New Zealand’s most picturesque coastal stretches, spilling onto some of its most reliable surf, usually suitable for riders of all skills.
The Canterbury coast has exceptional swells that hit from all directions, with many of the best breaks, conveniently, to be found around Christchurch. Sumner is the obvious choice, the Stoke Street end boasts a gentle break for beginners, while Taylor’s Mistake, just under an hour from the city lures the more skilled surfers. New Brighton and North Beaches both offer generally short but heavy rides that can be tackled by novices.
For the ultimate in secluded surfing, make for the breathtaking Catlin’s Coast on beaches such as Purpoise Bay, where you have a fine chance of sharing the waves with some Hector’s dolphins—and yellow-eyed penguins at nearby Curio Bay. Dunedin is a fine base to explore some beaches that boast both left- and right-hand breaks for all, like the golden Smails and Karitane Beaches. St Clair Beach is much visited owing to its reliable break (some say New Zealand’s most consistent) and bar-lined promenade.