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Published: January 8th 2014
Well, I'll say this of staying with people you find on couchsurfing.org: if you can roll with the punches, you may have some amazing experiences you did not expect.
My host in Paihia was Josh, a native-born kiwi and self-professed pirate. He is renting a house in Russell, a small yacht-favoring town just outside of Paihia in the Bay of Islands. He often hosts people and friends in his house, so there were 8 people that were there the first night I stayed! The bedrooms/couches/cottage were all taken, but they had an air mattress and a gorgeous view so I just slept outside on the porch under the stars. It was amazing!
Josh is an interesting character, a "retired" programmer and entrepreneur who now hangs around and spends his money as he sees fit. (Apparently his money is about to run out and he'll just busk along the coast for living expenses. Or live on his boat, which he owns.) Within about 30 minutes of meeting him, he told me about the electromagnetic devices the government uses to control the weather and create earthquakes, how he is watched by the government for knowing the truth, etc. Like I said, an interesting character. But, he was pretty friendly and I didn't have any weird gut feelings so I figured it was fine to stay with him and his friends. (I was right on that count. :D )
The first night we hung around the house for awhile, then eventually we drove down to the Russell yacht club, which was having a fundraising party. Josh treated us to hangi, which is a traditional Maori food. It's prepared the same way luau food is prepared. First you did a trench in the ground, then build a fire in it. Once the first has burned to coals you throw rocks in, which will serve as heat sources to cook your food. You then cover the rocks with wet sacks and banana leaves. Packets of food are then alternated with layers of sacks/banana leaves, until the whole trench is full. You then re-bury the food and wait for it to convert into deliciousness. The packets of food are just aluminum foil packets with chunks of meat, giant mussels, sweet potatoes, peas, stuffing, whatever the heck you want to cook to perfection. It was really, really tasty, and fun to eat with your fingers.
We were supposed to go sailing the next day, but the weather wasn't great, with high winds and a bit cloudy so after lengthy deliberation the group decided to go surfing on the west coast of the island, on the south edge of 90 mile beach (Russell is on the east side of the North Island). On the way there, we stopped at Ngawha (NAH-fah, the "ng" should be properly pronounced like the end consonant in "gong" but that's hard to pull off without sounding stupid; and in Maori the "wh" is pronounced like an "f") mineral hot springs. These mineral hot springs are kind of smelly pools of colored water that are heated naturally by thermal vents. It's basically a bunch of rectangular pools of water dug into the ground in an enclosure, each labeled with a sign. There's a sign on the wall that lists the temperature of each pool, with the temperatures in dry erase marker because they change every day with the thermal venting. But, you can eyeball it and tell which pools are the hottest because they have more bubbles. The bottom of the pool was coarse volcanic sand, but in some other hot springs it's more like mud and you can indulge in mud body art if you get bored. It was a really neat experience, to sit in a pool that was heated naturally like that.
After soaking away our toxins for awhile, we jumped back into the car (apparently you are not supposed to take a shower afterwards or you rinse off the healthy) and continued on to the beach. Our destination was a beach just south of Ahipara (possibly called Ahipara beach, I'm not sure), several kilometers south of 90 mile beach. There's no carpark -- you drive straight onto the sand and park there. We got there around 7 in the evening, but since the sun lasts until 9 there was still time for the gang to surf! Josh and Sophia (awesome German girl) had borrowed an extra board from a friend because one of their was not good for learning, so there was a board I could use! And someone had an extra wetsuit as well so it was time for Rinker to try le'surfing. Unfortunately, I ripped a huge hole in the bum of the suit (I literally ripped the wetsuit a new one) so it was a one-time use wetsuit.
Turns out surfing is hard. Well, I expected it, but it was a bit scary too. The current in that section was really strong along the beach. It wasn't dangerous like a rip tide, you could always get to shore, but it kept pulling me away from where the waves were breaking! And paddling was really tiring! And I really didn't want to get in the way of the people who knew what they were doing. I did anyway, of course. It was my special skill.
After it got too dark to surf we stopped by McDonald's for dinner. I made it a special point of going in there barefoot -- you can go barefoot anywhere here! It's amazing! I wish I could go barefoot everywhere in the states. Having satiated our stomachs, we needed to figure out where to sleep. Being the laid-back group that they were, they had headed out to this beach without a place to stay, so now we needed to find a place to set up tents. Easier said than done, of course, especially near 90 mile beach. After over an hour of driving around and deliberation they settled for a flat patch of grass next to a carpark/public bathrooms on 90 mile beach (it might have been a little bit illegal...) I didn't want to sleep in a tent -- it was a cloudless night and I was on the beach! -- so I hiked a bit away and plopped my sleeping pad/bag up on a sand dune and fell asleep to stars and surf.
That next morning, we returned to the same beach but the swell wasn't good so we decided to drive a bit down the beach to a better spot. The "road," however (I use that term very loosely) was over tumultuous lava rocks that went underwater at high tide, so we left Josh's low-slung car on the sandy beach, piled six people into a tiny 5-seater whose chassis was only slightly higher than Josh's, tied the surfboards to the roof with some twine, then set off bumping and rolling over the rocks. I winced every time we bottomed out on some rocks, but eventually we made it to a section of the beach with some surf that looked keen.
It was time, once again, for me to try and tackle the waves! (But this time without a wetsuit. The water was actually quite warm. Or, at least, it wasn't too cold.) I had only managed to catch one or two waves the day before, not standing up but just riding them on board. I wanted to see if I could catch a bit more consistently today, maybe try to kneel.
There are aspects to surfing that I've not really considered before. For one thing, there's an art to just catching the wave, let alone riding it. For the longest time that morning I couldn't catch a wave to save my life. Eventually a friendly family there told me that I was too far back on the board -- when catching a wave you need to be forward so your weight falls downhill, then you arch your back to keep the nose of the board from dipping under and flipping you onto your face. That helped, and I was finally catching a few waves! I couldn't stand up, couldn't even get to a knee, and I was still in awe of these guys who could catch the smallest swells that hadn't even broken yet, but it was an amazing feeling. I learned to hang out by the rocks, because that was where the wave would break first, then ride the wave sideways, and you can hear it break behind you as you shoot along. Really, really fun. I hadn't expected to enjoy it that much.
Of course, there's one thing you should know about the kiwi sun. It's murderous. You know that hole in the ozone? Yeah, it's right over the country. And about how I was not wearing a wetsuit and lying flat on a surfboard? Yeah, I went and gave myself lobster bum. That oughta make the flights back to the states interesting. At least I didn't totally fry my shoulders -- I reapplied my sunscreen religiously there, because my skin actually hurt from the sun. I just thought the legs and back would be okay. (FALSE.) Oh! Also, the skin over my ribs is a bit fragged, because when I arched on the board my ribs were digging into and rubbing on the waxed top (it's waxed so your feet grip in the water). So I feel a bit battleworn right now haha.
Well, all good things must come to an end, and I needed to get back to Paihia to catch my bus. And that's where things got fun -- halfway out of the beach, Carl cracked the tank that held his transmission fluid. So all the revving in the world didn't turn the tires a bit. And, please recall that much of the beach is underwater at high tide. And, oh, did I mention the tide was coming in? Yep, it was like a perfect storm of "oh crap." We hopped out, pushed car up the beach to a small section above the high tide mark, then Josh, Aurelie (French girl), Carl and I walked back to where we had parked Josh's car. And of course I still needed to get to Paihia to catch my bus at 4, and Paihia was a 2-hour drive away. We tried to see if I could just bus from Kaitaia (small town on the west coast of the island, so closer to Ahipara) but no such luck. So Josh drove Aurelie and I back to Paihia then had to drive back to Ahipara for Carl, Tommy, and Sophia. But, I made it to my bus with plenty of time to spare, and made it to Auckland, where I'm staying with the awesome Ben and Michelle once more before leaving tomorrow afternoon for the states. It's been a whirlwind tour, and I'm not quite ready to go back, but (at least for now) the real world calls.
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