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Two hours south of Auckland, New Zealand’s most iconic wave has drawn surfers to its perfectly manicured walls since the 1960s, after it first appeared in Bruce Brown’s classic surf flick The Endless Summer. With 10,000 miles of coastline and constant exposure to swell from both the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean, it was inevitable that the country would harbour a world-class wave or two. And there it was, the goofy-foot answer to Bruce’s Beauties.
Raglan is far from New Zealand’s only world-class wave, however. Both coastlines are riddled with high-quality surf — you’ll find everything from the fun beach breaks of the Coromandel Peninsula to the epic reefs of Gisborne and the endless points of Northland. But with its easy access and reliable conditions, Raglan remains the perfect place to orientate yourself.
New Zealand itself was created 100 million years ago when it broke away from the Gondwana supercontinent and drifted off like two pieces of an ancient jigsaw puzzle. In Maori mythology, however, it was the demigod Maui who brought the North and South Islands into being. Maui caught a fish as big as an island, which his older brothers helped haul to the surface. The brothers were supposed to wait until the god of the sea had been appeased before cutting up the gigantic fish, but they grew impatient and began to carve out pieces for themselves. These became the valleys, mountains, lakes and rocky coastlines of the North Island, which is still known to the Maori as Te Ika a Maui, or Maui’s fish.
The brothers must have scooped out a few extra bits around State Highway 23, where our van lurched from side to side as we traversed a series of twisting hairpin bends. After leaving the sprawl of Auckland behind, the landscape shifted from rolling farmland to the lush, forested hills of the Waikato district. Our van hugged a steep cliff along the final stretch of road before a deep bay came into view below us. The first thing we noticed were the lines of swell piled up to the horizon.
We pulled into the car park where vintage Kombis sat alongside state-of-the-art behemoths. Kiwis and foreigners milled about their vehicles, or lounged on the strip of grass separating the car park from the rocky shore, chatting and watching the water. The gently peeling 3ft waves were all the motivation we needed and we scrambled for our boards.
While hastily screwing my fins in I heard someone ask, "What’s that you’re riding there?" I turned around to see a man who looked to be in his mid-50s with a mane of shoulder-length white hair. He was holding a sleek fish with wooden-keel fins under his arm, which explained why my stubby surf craft had caught his eye. I handed my board over to him to have a look. He sized it up, giving an approving nod. "Looks like fun out there, should get even better on the low", he said.
"See you in the water, mate."
Despite the flotilla of shortboarders, loggers, Mal-riders and fish aficionados, the atmosphere in the line-up was similarly amicable.
The following morning, when the surf pushed to 6ft, the wave took on a different persona. The longer period heft in the swell kicked the back ledge into gear, throwing up heaving barrels over a shallow rock shelf that drained for 150ft at a time before opening up into a high-performance wall. The pecking order also became more clearly defined, with a solid contingent of local tube-hounds dominating the sets on the outside. Not many waves went unridden.
Somehow, I found myself still out there at dusk in a rising swell.
Unfamiliar with the line-up and afraid of getting obliterated by a set wave, I drifted deeper and deeper out to sea, until the impending dark forced me to suck it up and catch an uneventful wave in, along with a newfound respect for Manu Bay.
Our home for the following week became the basic Te Kopua Whanau campsite near town, where the sliding door of our van opened on to the back of a sprawling estuary. Days were measured by the rhythm of the waves, as we surfed, meandered around Raglan and decided on the best time to have our first sundowner (around 5.30pm, it turned out).
At night, we’d alternately listen to rain pouring down on the roof of our camper van or the choir of insects. But the mornings were always the same: a light offshore wind funnelled down the valley, brushing the ocean into textured lines.
We looked at Whale Bay and Indicators many times, and yet always found ourselves drawn back to Manu Bay. The car park became the small world around which we orbited, meeting Kiwis and fellow travellers from around the world, revelling in the convivial atmosphere and user-friendly waves. There are far less crowded lineups, to be sure, but it was an ideal place to feel the pulse of the Kiwi surfing experience.
Finally, the swell went flat and we reluctantly pointed the nose of our van inland to continue our New Zealand adventure. This wasn’t a surf trip, after all, and there was much of Maui’s fish left to explore.
North Island classics
Shipwreck Bay: Some 180 miles (290km) north of Auckland, near the township of Ahipara, lies Shipwreck Bay and a series of excellent sand-bottom left points that can deliver some of the longest waves in New Zealand on their day. Like Raglan, the wave is split into a series of breaks and features a mellower inside point called Wrecks, as well as a more challenging outside point known as The Peak. The Wreck is closest to town and easy to access, but you’ll need a 4WD to get to The Peak, or be prepared for a long walk. Being further north, the water is typically warmer and the climate borders on subtropical, with endless sand dunes stretching up the 90-mile-long (145km) beach. The downside is Shipwreck Bay needs a pretty big swell to break and is a rare occurrence — Raglan will typically break more times in a week than Shipwreck Bay will in an entire month.
Nearest town: Ahipara.
The Raglan Bar: A series of shifting sandbanks make up the Raglan Bar, located at the entrance to Whaingaroa Harbour on the opposite side of Manu Bay. When the elements all align, the sandbanks link up to create an incredible right-hander that spins off for ages with barrels galore. It’s also far less crowded than its famous cousin across the bay. But the wave comes with a few caveats: it’s fickle and breaks far out to sea with torrential rip currents, thanks to water moving in and out of the harbour mouth. Having a boat to get to and from the line-up is strongly advised, and you need to be aware of your surroundings and know what
you’re doing. The quality of the wave also depends on the tide, with incoming tides optimal. In the right conditions the Bar can hold up to 12ft, but is for intermediate to expert surfers only.
Nearest town: Manu Bay.
Matakana Island: Matakana Island is home to a series of world-class beach breaks that lie just off the tip of the Mt Maunganui peninsula on the North Island’s east coast. To get there, you have to take your own boat or catch a ferry across from the mainland. Paddling across on a surfboard is strictly prohibited, but you are allowed to use a kayak. Matakana’s glorious peaks come alive in a good northeast swell and have been ridden regularly since the 1970s, when legendary Kiwi surfer Kevin Jarrett transported himself and a couple of friends to the wave in his family’s commercial fishing boat, where they revelled in the powerful lefts and rights. Even today, Matakana retains the feeling of a pristine paradise. There are only about 250 residents, no shops or restaurants, and thick pine forests cover the island from end to end.
Nearest town: Tauranga.
- Getting there: Raglan is a two-hour drive south of Auckland.
- Where to stay: There are several backpacker places and high-end lodges close to the waves around Whale Bay and Manu Bay, but limited options for camper vans. There are two nearby campsites — Raglan Holiday Camp has fully serviced amenities, while Te Kopua Whanau is bare bones.
- Type of wave: Rocky left-hand point break.
- Best conditions: Raglan works through the tides, but Indicators and Manu Bay typically prefer the low tide. The famous left gets swell year-round, with March–May the most pleasant months for good waves.
- Nearest town: Raglan, about 8km east.
- Things to know: If Raglan gets too crowded, head out on to the coastline south along State Highway 45. Littered with waves, it’s not called the "Surf Highway" for nothing.