Loitering With Intent

Covert operations in New Zealand.

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In the small rural town where I live, the coast is rugged and indented with little headlands and coves, river mouths and points. But most local surfers frequent the same few spots in town, rarely looking anywhere else. Much of that is simply of habit and convenience, as they can park their cars right in front of their favorite breaks. Part of it is social. They surf with friends, exchanging local gossip and tips on the best sandbanks. They get the wave count they want and can grab a good coffee nearby. It’s easy. So the breaks farther out of town—those sheltered from view by farmland, commercial forests, and rough bush—are left alone and undiscovered.

If this were California or Australia, these more remote places without public road access would have been well searched by now. Each spot would have a host of regulars, and it would invariably become some nasty piece of work with some claiming to be “the locals” who harass any strays in “their” zones. 

In the last few years, a few surfers and myself have begun exploring the outside valleys and peninsulas for waves. It’s much harder than it sounds. The terrain is steep, there’s no cell service, and access is scarce. There’s often serious hiking involved, and you don’t take anything you don’t need. Winter is the best time of year—bigger swells from powerful weather systems, more offshore wind, and fewer prying eyes. But that season is cold here. It snows sometimes in the hills where I hunt for waves, and good winter clothing is seriously essential. Survival may depend on it if things go badly.

In my photographs, I try to capture the remoteness, the rural character, and the unique vegetation of my agricultural region. I sometimes have a mate paddling on the shoulder or riding a wave to give human interest and scale, but it’s surprisingly hard to get anyone to come with me. No one wants to tramp with food and water and gear only to potentially get skunked with crap waves or have an ugly confrontation with a violent farmer. While I do sometimes get queried—mostly from overseas surfers coming to New Zealand on vacation—I explain that I’m not a surf guide. I could never trust someone I don’t know. So I typically go it alone. 

I try to examine how I can insert myself into a place to shoot, as opposed to thinking too much about how I’m going to be prevented from getting in there. The extraction phase must also be considered. It’s an equation of risk versus reward. 

When I do take someone, I’m very picky about whom I drag along. And there are rules. I pick mates who don’t hang out in bars or trendy cafés where they might be tempted to hold court or try to impress a pretty face. I like people who breathe through their nose and keep their mouth shut. Guys who are grassroots and definitely not sponsored. Underground surfers who are experienced and competent in a wide range of wave types, and comfortable if the size gets up a bit and things get hollow. Our clothing and board bags are dull and camouflaged. No surf labels. Man-of-the-land kits to readily blend in with the farm culture and attire. An affable manner to calm an angry farmer is also a plus. We use basic hand signals to communicate silently if a farmer is near. We avoid ridgelines where we could be spotted from a distance and bare dirt tracks—especially in winter when the ground is soft—so we don’t leave behind telltale footprints. No wrappers or peelings are left behind. On the way in, we identify rendezvous points and an observation post in case things go pear-shaped.

For high-risk spots, I have the option of deploying a sniper’s ghillie suit. It obscures the human shape, and I become a shaggy blob that’s invisible from only a few meters if I stay still. The fabric doesn’t rustle, so I can slowly move off a track silently and undetected. Instead of shoes,

I sometimes wear three pairs of socks on the soft ground. It’s one of the tips a former SAS sniper and pace tracker taught me. My lenses are fitted with camo coats. My cover story? I’m an amateur ornithologist studying marine birds and their nesting sites. The eccentrics who do bird photography also use the same camo and the same lenses that I do. I make a point of researching which species of marine birds inhabit each area, to make my story as believable as possible in case I’m ever really pressed.

When I emerge from dense forest and slither on my belly to a gap where I can see the surf zone—and there are clean lines of nicely groomed swell hitting on a point and peeling off against the offshore wind with the spray fanning off the lips—and knowing that I’m probably the first to see that spot breaking…that’s what I live for.

In truth, though, I get skunked a lot. But I’ve discovered dozens of empty or near-empty spots over the years. These are some of them. 

Feature photograph by Cody Keepa.