Let's go surfing now

Last updated 05:00 21/04/2011

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Ask surfers and they will tell you the bottom part of New Zealand has some of the country's best surf. On a sunny Southland afternoon, reporter KIMBERLEY CRAYTON-BROWN sets out to see what all the fuss is about.

Photographer Robyn stands in shoulder-deep water and tells me to paddle around so I am facing her.

She raises the waterproof camera to her eye and lines up the shot.

I hear the wave coming and can tell by the look of shock on her face that it is close.

A split second later she disappears beneath a mass of white before spluttering to the surface. I am laughing so hard my arms will not co-operate, and I miss the wave. And the next one.

Despite my chief reporter's fear I am going to end up an afternoon snack for a shark, I am pretty confident heading out to Curio Bay that the sharks and I have one thing in common - an aversion to the freezing cold waters of the south. That is what I keep telling myself anyway. After growing up in Northland I have my own idea of what temperature the water should be for swimming in, and I can assure you it is not 13 degrees.

Catlins Surf owner and surfing instructor Nick Smart promises I will feel the cold only for the first five minutes or so.

After struggling for a good 10 minutes to get into the full-length wetsuit, I can see why – those things are like portable saunas. I'm not sure how I am going to go paddling on a board after using all my energy trying to suit up, but follow Nick down to the beach to give it my best shot.

Nick, who grew up in Timaru, has been surfing since he was 15 years old and remembers spending a lot of holidays at his grandparents' farm in the Catlins. "I started surfing when I was 15 and never stopped."

He has followed the waves to Australia, Hawaii, Tahiti and Indonesia, where he lived on and off for 15 years, and now calls the Catlins home. Seven years ago he set up Catlins Surf School, which he runs with partner Tomoko Amano, and says he started the school because he was an outdoor person who did not fancy working inside.

"I love surfing and teaching people what I love. The Catlins has the best and most consistent surf in New Zealand as we get the biggest swells and have some of the biggest surfing waves in the southern hemisphere," he says.

Nick instructs students in the smaller surf in Porpoise Bay, and says there is always surf suitable for learners in the corner of the bay near the Curio Bay campground. He runs the school from the campground, seven days a week, and says it is the perfect place as there is a shop and hot showers nearby.

The clean, unpolluted water, great surf, uncrowded beaches, friendly locals and free wildlife viewing make the Catlins an ideal place for surfing, Nick says. Dolphins can be seen out in the bay while American tourist Diana and I practise standing up on the board – nose level with the line drawn on the board, push yourself up, knees slightly bent.

It all seems easy enough with the board grounded nicely on the sand, and a lot warmer too. The dolphins have gone when Nick tells me

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it is time to test my skills on the water, which is even colder than I expect, but after a few minutes my feet have numbed enough that I can't feel them any more.

I have to confess I have a slight advantage over Diana. My brother, also named Nick, is a surfer and throughout the years I have been out in the warm waters of the north with a surfboard at the ready, picking up some basic skills as I went.

Once we are out in the water instructor Nick picks a wave, lines up the board and tells me to stand up when he yells `go'.

I guess it is like getting back on a bike – as soon as the wave comes along I remember what to do and I'm up and away. There is nothing quite like the feeling you get standing up on a surfboard and riding a wave into shore, especially in a setting like Porpoise Bay.

Next it is Diana's turn, and as she paddles out through the breaking waves we are joined by a Catlins local. Porpoise Bay is well known in the south for its friendly wildlife and while the dolphins have kept their distance a sea lion has decided to catch some waves of its own.

Rolling through waves and popping its head through the surface from time to time it casually swims within a metre of us, not the slightest bit worried by our presence.

After the 90-minute lesson we return to dry land, arms exhausted and hair full of salt but full of energy.

Leaving the area and due to return to America, Diana has another amazing memory to take back with her but wishes she had time for more lessons to really master the sport.

DANCING ON THE WAVES

Riverton artist Wayne Hill has been a surfer for more than 40 years and says surfing has become his life in a way. "My whole life involves art-type work and surfing.

I get the pleasure of making boards and going and trying them out," he says. "It is such a bonus making your own equipment, it is an artform. It's like you are painting a big canvas and you take that functional piece of artwork out and dance on the waves with it."

That, he says, is the only kind of dancing he does. During summer he teaches surfing at the Southern Institute of Technology Certificate in Surf and Surf Lifesaving and says he teaches because he loves it.

"Purely the smile on somebody's face when I see them ride their first wave. That excites me every time, I do it for that," he says.

He takes the students all over the southern coast, from the heart of the Catlins, Te Wae Wae Bay, and the start of Fiordland. He keeps an eye on the weather, tides and swell forecast and says nine times out of 10 they get a good wave somewhere. The best thing about the surf in Southland is that the swells are consistent, Wayne says.

"We get the roaring 40s hitting us all the time, coming up from the great south. We get more swell than anyone else." Southern surfers had to take the good with the bad, he says.

"During winter it gets quite cold. I just put a couple more layers of wetsuit on, booties, gloves. The good part of that is you get these crystal-clear, sunny days with nobody else in the water. You get these perfect waves coming in and no-one else around. You could be the only one on the planet."

He has surfed throughout the world, but the south will always be his favourite and will always be home.

"I cry when I come home. Flying into Southland and watching the different shades of green, the salt air and sea water – you can just smell everything again and it's beautiful. There is something clear and crisp and beautiful about the air here."

- The Southland Times

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