I do not go directly for a hot shower. There are things to be done first. There’s a trail climbing up the side of the Hakarimata ranges. I’m loading up my day bag with weight. A man gets out of the car next to me, pulling on running gear. “Are you doing the big loop?” he asks. I didn’t know there was a big loop. “No,” I replied, “I’m just going up and down. I want to get used to having more weight on my back. I’m getting ready for hiking season.” We exchange further remarks about how quiet things should be but how busy the car park is. He sets off, I expect he’ll pass me on his way back down. I enter the forest. People are everywhere. Maybe it’s a popular spot. Maybe the lifting of the second lockdown has encouraged people to get outside once more. Runners pass me, I pass other walkers. Over 1000 steps climb up the ridge. I hear someone shouting encouragement to their friend. I reach where they’re shouting from and they’re surprised to find I’m not their friend. I come out on the top, climb the lookout tower and gobble up the view. A wave of rain is on the other side of the hills. I hope it isn’t coming this way. I’ve gotten used to the warmth of early Spring. On my way back to the steps I stop at the Department of Conservation sign. There’s another exit 5km along the ridge. From there I can follow the road back to the van. I’m an experienced tramper. I’ve got water and waterproofs. Doing more is exactly what I want to be doing. I commit to the loop. The quality of the trail disappears immediately. The wooden steps replaced by streaks of mud where previous walkers have slipped down what may once have qualified as a track. I know there isn’t another climb coming. I make quick work of the ridge, finding myself again on steps down and then a gravel path. The road back, I’m pleased to say, had a footpath. I got back to the van for lunch, ate my sandwich and drove into Hamilton.
In Hamilton I buy hut passes for imminent hiking adventures. There’s not much else happening in town. Some gardens, lots of parks. The kind of place that I imagine would be better with friends, somewhere to go for a coffee, to grab a beer. I decided to go Raglan, time at last for the long awaited shower. I drove onto the wrong side of the hills into the earlier spotted rain. Lights on, windscreen wipers waving back and forth. I actually don’t remember how long ago I last complained about the weather. At least today I’m driving through the rain. The weather is meant to be good again for the next couple of days. I thought I’d have one night in Raglan, do some laundry, have a shower, go up Mount Karioi, maybe watch some surfers. Then look at where I can use those hut passes. There’s not much out at Raglan that appeals to me but it’s a place that I feel I need to have seen with my own eyes. On arrival at Raglan Holiday Park I ask for one night. The woman behind the reception of the holiday park tells me there’s a deal. If I buy two nights I’ll get a third free. This seems like a good deal. I decide I’ll take it, I can always figure out something else to do while I’m here. I drive to my pitch. A few patches of grass over I notice a Toyota Estima I recognise. I have a message from Ellie asking when I’ll be in Raglan. I reply, I’m here now, next to your van. I catch up with my pals from Ahipara. Where have you been? What have you seen? We must have just missed each other around Whangarei. I stayed out on the coast, they stayed around town. They’ve been in to town already, thinking about what to do while they’re here. The subject of surfing comes up. Harper goes through the details. I’m keen. This is the motivation I need. Someone else to do the hard work for me. Harper makes the call to Green Wave. We’re booked in. Tomorrow I am going for my first surf lesson.
I had to get cash out to pay for my time in the sea and pick up breakfast supplies for the mornings I wasn’t expecting to be here for. Raglan smells like coffee in the morning. I wouldn’t be surprised if the village smells like coffee all of the time. One of the top things to do in Raglan is go to Raglan Roast for a coffee. I added this to my to-do list for tomorrow. Having no idea what to expect from the session with Green Wave which probably work out in my favour. I don’t know what to worry about, so I don’t worry about anything. Ellie, Harper and I arrive at Ngarunui Beach. A truck with what appears to be a shipping container on the back rolls in to the car park. We’re introduced to Zennor, our mentor for the afternoon. He shakes hands without hesitancy, making strong eye contact. I would already trust him with my life, which is good because he’s in charge for the next three hours. We’re joined by another couple who have been learning all week. Zennor gives us all a rough size assessment before handing out wetsuits. I squeeze into the black neoprene. Next up are boards. We pair up, carrying the long planks of polystyrene down on to the black sand. Zennor leads us through a short surf yoga session, balancing on one leg, stretching out muscles I’d never normally use. The sense of calm is enhanced. I learn the basics out of the water. Which way will I stand? Regular or goofy. I step on to the board in what feels like a natural way to me, which turns out to be a regular stance. Then Zennor talks through the stages required to go from lying down to standing up. Raise your chest, bring your hands under your ribs. Slide your back knee forward, push on to your finger tips, bring your front leg into the centre of the board. Up you pop. On the beach, not moving the pop up method is challenging. How I’m going to manage on the water, wobbling, rushing forward on the crest of a wave is anyone’s guess.
There are no more dry runs. We march into the water, wading out to waist deep. The wetsuit nullifying the cold. Being in the ocean feels good. Zennor gets me on the board first, then gets me stood up, leaning on his shoulder for balance. I get the idea of what standing up on a surfboard is supposed to feel like. He turns the board around, pushes me into my first wave and I fall off almost immediately. I loved it. I grab my board, and head back to Zennor. This time he has me lying on the board. I’ve got to do the work now. I get the push into the white water of the next wave. I pick up speed, I’m doing it, I’m catching a wave. Then I remember I’m supposed to be getting on to my feet. Hands in, legs somewhere, splash. I’m rolled in the wave, board and all. I start to practise, trying to remember the technique. Being on the board, trying to check my balance before the wave hits. I’m too far forward, pushing the nose of the board under the water. I go down rather than forward. I start to correct my positioning. Paddling more, making sure the board is lined up. Catching waves becomes easier. Now I’ve got to find the right balance between thinking about what I’m doing and simply letting my body make the moves. By the end of the first hour I get it right once. Once is enough. I pop up, onto my feet. The board still picking up speed. I’m trying not to look down, trying to look forward. I realise my feet are in the wrong place, I try to adjust and lose my balance. I crash into the water. By now the whole group have drifted down the beach in the strong current. Zennor calls us in, we plod back along the sand to where the waves break a little more square and go again.
In the water, there’s the sound of cheering, whooping. Thumbs up passed across the line as we watching one another fail and succeed in equal measure. With more practise I find I’m catching more waves, which gives me time to get better at the pop up. Others I try to catch and miss, going for a spin in the shallows, rolling in the waves. Other waves knock me over, wipe me out. I don’t care. I can feel the smile gripping my face. This is excellent. I can see why people talk about getting stuck in Raglan, and how easily people become addicted to the waves. I have no idea how long we’ve been in the water for. Time disappears. I don’t feel tired, the thrill of catching the next wave takes over. At some point Zennor begins waving us in, our time is up. Emerging from the water the weight of the wetsuit, the weight of the board take over. No longer supported by the ocean everything becomes heavy, harder. The fatigue catches up. We carry the gear back to the truck. The other couple with us agree to come back tomorrow. I don’t hesitate, I ask if I can hire gear too to have another turn. Zennor decides this will be ok. We peel ourselves out of our wetsuits. Ellie, Harper and I return to the camp, clean up and head into town for a beer and a burger. The endless power of the ocean having encouraged a more than healthy appetite.
The next day I wake up with the dull ache associated with unusual activity. My legs, lower back, and my ribs remind me they exist. I wander in to the village, by a coffee, take a look around. Famed for appealing to the bohemian crowd, there are art galleries, second hand stores, and food options from all corners of the globe. Raglan certainly lives up to the hype, exceeding my own expectations. I make my way back to the beach, try to remember the right stretches from yesterday. I definitely don’t complete an as thorough warm up before i’m back in the waves. The current is different today. The waves more spaced out, easier to line up. Better to practise in. I’d been given a shorter board, more manoeuvrable but harder to catch the waves with. The first half an hour were spent adjusting to the new length. Getting my body position right.
Between waves I’d watch others. The huge explosion of white surf, the tiny black body emerging, cruising along on a forward trajectory. You have so much more time than you think. Others slowly move up into the standing position, managing their balance, adjusting their feet. They ride the wave all the way to the shore. Once I had adapted to the board I found I was catching more waves, riding them for longer. I was able to spend more time getting used to the general feel of things. Once I’d found the weird middle ground between thinking about what I’m doing and letting instinct take over. I couldn’t get my head around how natural surfing feels. How does my body have any idea of how to ride a piece of polystyrene on a fast moving wave? My expectation would be for my body to want to get off. Staying on my feet is the more natural reaction. As the session goes on, the waves grow taller, the surf becomes more powerful. I’m wiped out again and again. I spin with the board. The tide goes out, the shallows become inexplicably shallower. The current becomes stronger. Getting out to catch the next wave becomes harder. Today I feel the fatigue before I’m finished. I still have to climb the cliffs behind the beach to return the board. One more good, clean catch and I’m done. I walk down the beach, the weight of the board dragging me into the ground. My hands and feet are saturated. The constant barrage of the sea and sand has rouged up my soles, scraped the skin on my hands. My body is in ruins.
While I had been out surfing, Ellie and Harper had attempted the Mount Karioi track. They turned off the main road into the campground as I was leaving. They’d only been gone for three hours, all the signs suggested it was likely to be a 6 hour return trip. I would have been surprised if the Department of Conservation were that far off. When I got back I asked what happened. Near the beginning of the track they’d come to a near vertical mudslide, no footholds. No handholds. The only support in getting up were loose fence posts. They wouldn’t make it if it was like that the whole way up. I was in admiration of their decision to turn back. This is often one of the hardest choices you can make. We make a return to the beach for the evening. Being this close to the West coast meant catching a sunset was on the agenda. The sky is empty. The show goes full twilight spectrum. Blue to purple. White to orange. Everything to black.
Mount Karioi was my plan for my final day in Raglan. The shattered cone of the extinct volcano dominates the skyline. I approached the track with a greater sense of respect than I might have had I come without a warning. I hadn’t walked far before I found the mudslide. I looked back, convinced this couldn’t be the trail. There were no orange triangles. Nowhere through the bush looked as well walked. This had to be it. Following the advice I used the fence posts to haul myself up, my feet sliding halfway back down with each step up. By the time I reached the top of this first challenge my thoughts were also on turning back. Next to me was the dry dirt trail coming up from around the side. I had come of the trail. I was glad to be on solid ground, moving quickly along the now steadily rising mountain side. Before long, my opening mistake came back to me as a warning. Chains were slung down similar, steep banks of mud. With few tree roots to find purchase I was hauling myself up by my arms rather than pushing up with my legs. At the chain’s end I found flat ground and relief. Both were short lived. The flat ground is like raw cake batter. My boots sink in, when I pull them free, they’ve doubled in size and weight.
I enjoyed the rush of achievement when I reached the first marked lookout. The summit was now only an hour away. I climbed ladders up and down the jagged ridge line. I slid down bare rock faces. I stumbled through the brain training obstacle course of deep mud, wet wood, and solid stone. Which way looks safest? Which way looks fastest? I slipped along the edge of chewy mud, adding coats of dirt to my legs, my hands. I scrambled along rocky platforms above steep drops offs to the forest below. Two topless men passed me on their way back down. “You’re nearly there,” they told me. What I didn’t ask was “Am I five minutes away nearly there, or half an hour nearly there?” In the end it was closer to half an hour. I emerged at the radio tower. I moved down to the helicopter landing pad to the most ridiculous view yet. 5 girls decked out in Instagram influencer gym wear, all looking far too clean were sat along the edge. Coming up the opposite side of the mountain only takes an hour and is significantly easier. The actual view may well have been the biggest I’ve seen. Sprawling farmland rides the hills of the coastal plan. Mountains rise in the distance. The ocean spreads out to the near infinite horizon. On the edge of the world I can barely make out the white cone of Mount Taranki. In the middle of the landmass are two more white haze domes, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe. Getting up here was a challenge. Getting back down is going to be equally hard. Slow and steady wins the race. The only person I’m up against is myself. The only outcome is a successful descent. I skirt around the unbaked mud cakes. I abseil down the chained cliffs. I get back to the van in one piece.
There’s enough day left for me to make another stop on my way out of Raglan. Bridal Veil falls. I’ve gone several weeks, maybe even months without actively seeking out waterfalls. I had this one pinned on my map. I had time. The car park is busy. I move quickly through the view points. A torrent of water plunges over the cliff tops into a bowl beneath. Not unlike turning the tap on in your sink at home. The main difference perhaps being the rainbow painted on the spray by the rapidly falling sun. I race back to the van, hoping to make it to Lake Ngaroto before night falls for good. The drive tests my patience. I get stuck behind an Estima the whole way. They have as much trouble maintaining speed up hill as I do. They turn into the first car park at Lake Ngaroto, I follow the road to the end. Stealing the only obvious spot left on the lake shore. The Estima comes in minutes later, the woman in the passenger seat is laughing. I think she had a better idea I’d followed them the whole way only to sneak ahead right at the end. I laugh right back. The sun disappears, leaving an orange glow over the lake as a reminder. The distant and mechanised glow of Hamilton lights up one corner of the night sky. The Milky Way fades in until the Moon rises orange in the East. The edge of the galaxy fades out. I fade out not long after.