Wish You Were Here: Shaking Out Winter and Surfing on a Spring Moon in the South Pacific (Nobody But the Dolphins and Me)

by Owen James Burke

Scuttlefish writer Owen James Burke is currently rambling around New Zealand, living in a house truck with a camera, surfboard and speargun in search of stories, waves and fish. We’re putting together a waterperson’s guide to the island nation, but meanwhile, we’ll be publishing stories and photographs, short updates along the way from the Yankee in Kiwiland. -CD

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The South Pacific may not have had the vantage of this past week’s full eclipse, but it saw your blood moon, northern hemisphere, and raised you this spring moon. Photo: Owen James Burke.

My time in New Zealand, I can state with assurance, has been full of zigs that should have been zags. This week, in many respects, had been no different. That is until last night.

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Photo: Owen James Burke.

I’d planned to cross paths with a building swell on Wednesday evening, and after thorough preparation—water in the radiator, oil in the engine, camping gear, spearing and surfing equipment, groceries and cookware—I looked at the label of the bottle whose contents I’d just emptied into my Holden straight 6 to discover that I’d just loaded the trusty engine with premium transmission fluid. There aren’t too many differences between engine oil and transmission fluid, but transmission fluid would not have served my poor old engine well had I taken her over several mountain passes with what I’d served her. I hurried over to a mechanic and embarrassingly divulged my negligence, and my tale of woe—I had waves to catch, for goodness’ sake.

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Raw Paua gets a tune up. Photo: Owen James Burke.

Graciously, the gentlemen at Instant Auto had mercy on me. They put the two cars they were working on off to the side and pulled Raw Paua into the garage for an emergency, oil change at Formula One pit warp speed. “Well, we can’t let this get in the way of a man and his surf,” the gentleman resolved.

20-30 minutes later I was off. Now all I had to do was fuel up. Around the corner at the BP, my dreams came crashing down. The LPG (or propane) pump—the only one within 30 kilometers—was in pieces, its nuts and bolts on the ground with three servicemen at her ready. Still resolute, I strolled up to the counter of the station and asked when it’d be ready.

“Oh, maybe two or three days.”

“Two or three days?!” The attendant could tell I wasn’t pleased, but was perplexed as to why.

“We have bottles if you need LPG now . . .”

“No, I need it for my truck, over there,” I said, pointing.

“Well, you can just take a bottle.”

“No, my truck runs on LPG.”

She was stymied. It wasn’t the first circumstance under which I’d had this conversation, but it may well have been the most dire. Back in the 1970s during the petrol crisis, many cars and trucks were retrofitted to run on LPG, which was far less expensive (and remains marginally so now). Today, running your vehicle on LPG is more of a nuisance than anything, and I’ve become no stranger to reasons why.

I hopped in the car and made the 60 kilometer round trip to the next nearest station, but by the time I’d fueled up and found myself back on the road, I was forced to come to terms with the grim reality that there was no way I was going to make it to surf before sunset. I grabbed fish and chips from a corner store, went home and called it a night. I’d wake up first thing in the morning and book it down the coast then.

The local surf report was calling for “perfect 10 conditions” with 4-6 foot waves with intervals of about 17 seconds and offshore winds—these are the days small-wave surfers dream of. I pulled around the point at 9am, shocked, and utterly dismayed at this sight:

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Photo: Owen James Burke.

I took a seat at a nearby cafe, had a couple of espressos, knocked out some work and continued on down the road, figuring the surf was probably just as dead elsewhere nearby.

Taking my sweet time getting down to my camping spot, I stopped off at the ledge of a rock-reef on the side of the road and, in lieu of my better judgement, went for a recognizance dive in order to look for early season crayfish (spiny lobster), mostly because earlier that day, a drunken old-timer told me that they’d begun to work their way into the shallows, and suggested I start looking.

There was still some leftover swell from the southerly that I’d been hoping to surf, and conditions were not optimal, but the air was warm and the seas were subsiding some.

Breaking through a silt layer at about 25 feet, I found some cavernous rock piles that looked like they might be likely hiding holes. A quick spin around a set of boulders revealed a few paua (or “abalone”, the namesake of my red roving chalet-on-wheels) and one small crayfish.

I dropped my spear (which I attach to a float above) to mark the vicinity and returned to the surface to replenish my lungs.

A few more plunges produced nothing more than a pair of paua and one undersized cray. To add insult to injury, upon reaching shore and pulling my catch bag in, I discovered I’d forgotten to pull the drawstring shut; the paua were gone.

A pittance, yes, but thankfully, I’d come prepared with backup.

I continued down the road to a surf spot where things weren’t looking so hot either. But then I took an odd turn past a cemetery and down a dirt road, where there were a few clean sets making their way over the shallow boulders. The sun was about to set, but since I still had my wetsuit on from diving, I figured I’d just as soon hop in and catch a few waves before it got dark.

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Photo: Owen James Burke.

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Photo: Owen James Burke.

After an hour or so, I got out, dried off, and began preparing a cursory campfire spread:

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Seared scallops over potatoes and kale, sautéed with garlic, onions, chillies and lemon, all hand-caught from the sea and hand-picked from the garden.Photo: Owen James Burke.

The next morning, in spite of a dull surf report, I awoke to find this:

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Morning surf beckons. Shot from Raw Paua. Photo: Owen James Burke.

I surfed unaccompanied for the better part of two hours before deciding that it was time to return to the blank page, and the espresso pot.

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. . . But there’s always time for another quick one in the arvo (PM). Photo: Owen James Burke.

Now, as I’m eyeing the lineup—which I’ve deemed too crowded (there are but 5 neoprene heads bobbing up and down out there)—and watching the sun dip behind the snowcapped peaks in shorts and a tank top, I’m left feeling troubled. How will I ever go back to the crowded surf of my home port? The only reasonable response I can conjure for myself at this moment—if I’m being plainly honest—is that I probably won’t.

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Photo: Owen James Burke.

I only wish, dear reader, that I could share with you more of these sights, and the magnificent sounds and smells that accompany them, but I suppose this South Pacific moonrise will have to do, for now. —OJB

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