Survivor NZ winner Avi Duckor-Jones visits Kaikoura to find a people unbroken

by Avi Duckor-Jones / 12 August, 2017
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Mad-keen surfer Avi Duckor-Jones says the breaks are better too.

I had been here before, as a youngster, when we travelled as a family to watch whales carve through the ocean astonishingly close to the boat. Later, a friend and I drove up to Wellington from Otago after our final exams and it was around here that we had our most decidedly “New Zealand” experience.

Barefoot by the Ohau Stream, we picked apart a crayfish and then followed the flow up to the waterfall, where half a dozen baby seals slid around like blobs of black mercury in the pool below.

More recently still, in 2010, I took overseas friends to Kaikoura during a cross-country surf trip. They later proclaimed it to be their favourite spot, overjoyed that we could surf Mangamaunu at dawn, then hike up to Mt Fyffe hut to the snow in the afternoon.

This time was different. Everything changed just after midnight last November 14 when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the region. Kaikoura, many were saying, was bound to become a “ghost town”.

I had read about the boarded-up and quake-damaged shops, where business was down by half or more. Looking at photographs of the seabed shelves thrust up from the ocean by up to 2m, I felt as though I was seeing something I shouldn’t, like someone peeking through a window at night.

But the upheaval of the seabed intrigued me for other reasons. As a surfer, I could only imagine what new breaks had been created by the earthquake’s reshaping of the land. I decided to find out.

The first difference was the drive. Six months on, State Highway 1 from the north remained closed, as it will for another six months; so did the road south to Christchurch, though it subsequently opened at Queen’s Birthday Weekend. Instead of the short coastal route from Picton, I was redirected to an arduous seven-hour inland journey of almost 500km. I passed moody mountains shrouded in mist, many of them already dusted with snow, through dense forests of the Lewis Pass and along the wide-open plains past the surging water of the Hurunui River. It was undoubtedly beautiful, but as the hours wore on, I could see why Kaikoura was hurting. For many travellers, it had simply become too difficult to reach.

Avi Duckor-Jones (far left in Survivor NZ. Photo/Scott McAulay

Arriving by night

Reaching a destination at night is always slightly unsettling, and this was no different. At the backpackers, The Albatross, the others who had braved the journey looked up in half-surprise as I stepped in out of the dark. Like the tropical marine turtles that can be carried astray by a wrong sea current, they seemed a little disorientated to have found themselves in Kaikoura at all.

I woke early to a big south-east swell. In town, many shops were fenced off or had “keep out” tape slung across their porches. Heading north out of town, I passed the SH1 sign with the destination ominously obscured with a piece of ply.

At Meatworks and Graveyards, the first couple of surf breaks off Kiwa Rd in Hapuku, the swell was big and unpredictable, so I decided to drive on and check out Mangamaunu. Sets were rolling in and the waves seemed to hold their shape across the entire bay. I suited up and jogged across the train tracks to the beach.

After stumbling across the slick boulders, I launched into the whitewash and paddled out. Behind me, truck convoys had begun heading for the slips, and helicopters filled the skies, like gulls circling for fish. A set came through and I turned, paddling hard. I felt the lift and leapt to my feet, carving down the face of the wave into a deep bottom turn. I kept surfing the wave across the bay, the enormous mountains filling my field of view. Even though my face was numb and my eyes began streaming from the wind, I couldn’t remember feeling this happy.

After asking around about the new surf breaks, I was directed to Shanksy – Wayne Shanks, a keen surfer who has lived in Kaikoura all his life. A wiry 51-year-old with a mischievous grin, he is the owner of Kaikoura Surf Company, one of the two surf outfitters in town, and he surfs most days. He says the quake has virtually wiped out his profit, and when we spoke, he was nervous about the winter ahead.

Shanksy was one of the unlucky ones, his shop so badly damaged that it was deemed unfit for use. In the meantime, he had created a pop-up shop with a fraction of the stock.

“It was only getting better,” he told me, referring to business leading up to the quake. “We were up 15-17% every year, so things were just looking better for us. Before the quake, the shop was the most stocked it had ever been in anticipation of the season ahead.” It is a lament I would hear from several other business owners.

Shanksy recalled driving through town directly after the quake to discover the front of his shop had fallen off, exposing his stock to looters. More than three dozen of his surfboards were ruined, some boards impaled by others as if in a fibreglass massacre.

Now the good news

But when asked whether the surf had changed, Shanksy lit up. The waves were better than ever. Mangamaunu was now breaking bigger on an easterly swell, and new sand bars were connecting the breaks, linking them together, making for the long rides I had experienced that day. Waves now had better shape and more power on prevailing winds. Graveyards now peeled across the entire car park in southerly swells, making for a longer ride.

There were obvious adjustments. The ocean floor had risen a lot with the quake. This meant a shallower duck dive and the discovery of new submerged rocks that hadn’t been there before. In fact, a local surfer had come off his board only to land on a new rock. He broke several vertebrae and was still walking with a limp many months later.

Of course, these were just the spots that had been surfed before. There were also completely new breaks caused by the quake. Gooch’s Beach in town had never had a wave before, but the quake changed that. With its sandy bottom, it now made an ideal place for surf school: beginners could learn on the strong left that peeled across a sandy bar. Now, there were dozens of grommets in town who wouldn’t have bothered before and Kaikoura would have a whole new generation of surfers.

Rusty works at Coastal Sports, the other surf shop in town. The 36-year-old agreed with Shanksy’s reports. Rusty’s family had been in Kaikoura for 150 years, and he knew the breaks like the back of his hand. According to him, Graveyards was now breaking further out, with cleaner rides. The inside section of Mangamaunu was popping up, and everything was shallower.

“We’re selling a lot of fins,” he added with a grin, alluding to the fact that surfboard fins are being constantly ruined on the new rocks that have come up. “Everything is new for us. We’re still learning.”

Brian O’Connor, an avid surfer and owner of the factory shop Southern Paua, has the tanned face and wide grin of a big-wave surfer. He also happens to be the local pastor. Although his business was hurting too, he was more eager to discuss the new surf breaks. Brian explained that previously there had been a small window in which Graveyards worked, but it can now be surfed three hours either side of high tide. There were numerous other secret spots that he was reluctant to tell me about. As we chatted, he paused and sipped his green tea contemplatively, then looked at me.

“You know, the first guys back here after the quake … were surfers.”

Chasing the ways

Surfers, by nature, are searchers. Part of the attraction of surfing is the pursuit of the wave. Often, the more arduous the journey to get to it, the more fulfilling the wave itself. It was no surprise, then, that every surfer I had chatted to in town was feeling a great urge to seek out these new breaks that existed beyond the end of the road, and it was time I sought them out myself.

I arranged for a boat to take Shanksy and me around the coast to examine the breaks beyond Mangamaunu. The skipper of our small vessel was Robert “Fecky” O’Connor. Squat and weatherbeaten, in a woollen jersey with a black beanie pulled low and gumboots on his feet, he had sold his parents’ house to get the boat, which he named Fecky.

We pulled into Blue Duck Bay, where an amazing left-hander peels in on bigger swells. Iron Gate, a favourite break among locals, was jutting higher out of the water, and Shanksy explained to me that during easterly swells, the wave wraps around it, becoming cleaner under the protection of the bay.

“A wee bit sharky,” he said. “Keeps the crowds down.”

Shanksy had surfed Iron Gate more than anyone. “I used to come to Iron Gate and be the only one here. Now look.” He pointed to the coast, teeming with diggers and trucks and with figures in fluoro orange vests and little white helmets.

The shoreline at Iron Gate had come up 1m at least, and it looked to Shanksy like it was a faster ride as a result.

“Iron Gate has always been a bit slower,” he said. “Now it’s way faster, more critical.” He pointed out the rocks that had risen dramatically, but seeing them, I was reminded of the images I had seen of the rocks up north and was even more eager to see them for myself.

After farewelling my new friends, I picked up photographer Nick George in Blenheim, and together we drove to Clarence, where the road to Kaikoura was closed from the north. At Ward Beach, new rock formations ran like rows of teeth, the newly exposed seaweed a green plaque at their base. And there was surf: nice, powerful right-handers were rolling in. Past Kekerengu, a point-break set-up was working and I paddled out, catching short but fast rides, no one else in sight.

Then the road ended. After negotiating our way past the roadblock, we drove along slowly. I had the feeling that I was somewhere I shouldn’t be. The hillside was scarred with massive slips, and the road had completely fallen away in parts to become one jagged lane.

At Waipapa Bay, the shelf of ocean floor was thrust up and forward, and like the snow-capped Kaikouras, it stretched on, everything bleached by the sun. It had the feeling of a bombed-out city. Stagnant pools of seawater were strangely far inland; bull kelp, cracked and dry, hung from the rocks above me; calcified limpets were still attached to rocks far up the beach; dandelions had started to grow in cracks next to bleached paua shells.

There was a strong sense of things being out of place. This was an open-heart surgery where organs lay exposed to the air for the first time. A sparrow hopped along the rocks and landed on one of the cray traps that had once sat at the bottom of the sea.

We rounded the bay to Okiwi (Sandy Bay), the spot of much deliberation by Kaikoura’s surfers. The roll of surf echoed like the rumble of tractors. Peaks were forming with nicely shaped waves rolling in, peeling and breaking over the new and unknown boulders and reefs.

Things had disappeared. Paua by the hundreds. Roads. Businesses and houses. Rocks by which fishermen had identified their fishing holes. On Ward Beach, I met some students from the University of Canterbury whose professor had been studying the sea shelves for the past 20 years, his research now rendered obsolete by the quake. A friend later told me that a whole species of recently discovered “eyelash seaweed” may have become extinct as result.

But there was newness too. The newest part of New Zealand had surfaced, and with it, a great many more surf breaks. Still, I worried for my friends in Kaikoura, as the roads remained closed and winter approached. Lisa Bond, from Whale Watch Kaikoura had told me that she wanted people to realise that Kaikoura is open.

“It just takes a little bit to get here, but it is worth it. We have the newest piece of land in the world. Now, more than ever, we need people to come and see that what we have to offer is pretty special.”

A generous town

On my last evening in Kaikoura, I went for a run around the peninsula and reflected on my time there. I had surfed until my arms stopped working. I had swum with dolphins and gone whale watching. The town had taken me in with a generosity and hospitality that I had seldom experienced.

As the sky turned pink with orange streaks, I stopped at a bronze sculpture of a bird. A plaque explained how the bird, the Hutton’s shearwater, once provided a major food source to Ngati Kuri (Te Runanga o Kaikoura), who knew it as the kaikoura titi. Predation by introduced animals reduced eight colonies to two, and in 1990, the bird was classified as endangered, but hard work by the Hutton’s Shearwater Trust, the Department of Conservation, Whale Watch Kaikoura and iwi has halted the decline.

Like the shearwater, the community and surrounding areas are working hard together to breathe life back into Kaikoura. The words I saw at the entrance to the Kaikoura museum came to me then: “Ka ruku tatou [i] te moana o Matamata” – “Let us dive into the waters of Matamata”, referring to the kaitiaki whale that patrols the coast, looking after the shore dwellers.

It felt like an invitation, even a plea, to New Zealanders to come back to Kaikoura and swim in its waters again. The whales remain. The dolphins are still swimming. The surf is better than ever. Kaikoura is still here – it’s time to dive in.

This article was first published in the July 22, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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