New Zealand, although definitely featuring on the surfers’ map of the world, still only attracts a fraction of travelling surfers – especially when compared to its neighbour Australia, where long established surf culture is all part of the nation’s psyche.
New Zealand does have its own population of committed surfers, the numbers of which are steadily growing, but in a land which numbers a population of only 4 million the surf breaks are often blissfully deserted (assuming you don’t mind sharing the wave with a dolphin or two). What’s more, although this fact is often overlooked, like its cousin Australia, New Zealand has many high quality and world class waves and breaks of every description – beach breaks, point breaks, river mouths and reefs.
So, whether you are a total beginner who wants to learn to surf or an experienced rider, New Zealand has something for everyone – from gentle and fun to monster tow-in waves and challenging reefs.
Learning to surf in New Zealand
There are many places which offer you the opportunity of learning to surf under expert guidance – often a much shorter (and less frustrating) route to initial competency rather than going it alone. Options range from one hour lessons to a week long (or more) surf camp where accommodation and lessons and sometimes a world of extras and meals are included.
www.lineupexplorers.com lists some of the surf camp options in New Zealand.
Surf shops, scattered all over the North and South Islands (Gisborne has a good number), often offer surf lessons and/or equipment hire as well as advice on the best places to go.
www.surfing.co.nz lists all of New Zealand’s professionally accredited surf schools and surf instructors so you can be sure of top quality and safe instruction.
www.catlins-surf.co.nz – this is my personal favourite. Run by Nick Smart, a local legend, colourful character and big wave tow-in surfer, the location of this surf school gives you the unique opportunity of learning to surf accompanied by Hector’s dolphins – the world’s smallest and rarest marine dolphin.
Where to go – some of the best surf breaks in New Zealand
This is by no means an exhaustive list – the options are far too many – but it might get you started.
Taranaki region, North Island – Highway 45, which runs around the coast, is known as the Surf Highway due to the many surf options, all within a few miles or less of each other. The geological formation of this area gives you a 180° swell window meaning you are sure to find a wave somewhere on the coast unless there is absolutely no swell.
The north of the region around New Plymouth is typified with beach breaks while the regions south is full of lava reefs which typically produce challenging, powerful and hollow rides.
Raglan, west coast, North Island – New Zealand’s world acclaimed surfing Mecca complete with its iconic point breaks. Beware though, it is often crowded here whether the conditions are good or not.
Gisborne and East Cape and coast – Gisborne’s vibe has become young and happening in recent years, partly due to the surf community which has grown up there. Gisborne itself has a wide range of surf options (reefs and beach breaks) all within close driving proximity and a journey up the east coast presents you with many more.
Mahia Peninsula – again the geological land formation here gives you options to pick between opposing coasts and the most favourable conditions with regard to swell height and direction, wind direction and tide. Often empty so scoring a wave to yourself here is possible.
Dunedin and the south coast, South Island – this is the territory of the big wave tow-in surfers – wave heights here can get monstrous in a big swell and many of the breaks can take it as big as the ocean can produce. Papatowai, on the Southern Scenic Route, is widely considered to be the centre of the big wave scene and is worth a visit to watch the local surfers even if you are not up to the challenge yourself. Outside of big swells there are plenty of options for surfers of all skill levels.
A few tips for New Zealand surfing
If you really want to go surf exploring you will need your own transport – many of the breaks will otherwise be inaccessible to you (unless you are with a mobile surf school or surf camp).
Water temperatures – there is huge variation here. If you are surfing the Northland in the summer then boardies can be the order of the day and you might even get away with a shorty in winter depending on how hardy you are. However, if you are planning to surf the south of the South Island you are going to need at least a 3/2 steamer wetsuit and in winter you will need to go as thick as you can bear along with booties and hood (it’s cold!)
Solitary surfing – if you fancy a wave to yourself then avoid anywhere in the Auckland region – Piha for example – and anywhere accessible by car day trip from Auckland, including the Coromandel.
Sharks – yes they are here including Great Whites (or White Pointers as the Kiwis call them), Mako, Bronze Whalers and Tiger sharks to name but four species. The good news is that there hasn’t been a fatal shark attack in New Zealand since 1968 and none on the North Island since 1911. This is because the coastal waters of New Zealand are so rich in sea-life the sharks are well fed. You might want to avoid surfing near seal colonies though to be on the safe side. To get it in perspective, sea lions, which can be aggressive in the water, and spiky sea urchins are far more likely to be a problem than sharks.
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