a light aircraft flies past snow covered mountains in new zealand's fiordland national park, photographed by dan kerins

When the Land was Godless and Free

Words by Dan Kerins & images by Dan Kerins



Rarely these days does an image stop me dead in my tracks. We see so much and so fast that it takes a lot to slow or stop the scroll. But, the image above hit my eyeballs hard and caused me to stop and stare – and it was part of a small set that were each as good as the last. When I’d swiped to the end and soaked them all in, I looked at the icon and handle above the image on my phone, expecting this to be the work of a big-name, full-time adventure surf photographer with a penchant for colder climes; you know the sort. But it wasn’t. The images were shot by an old acquaintance of mine, an ex-pat Brit living in New Zealand named Dan Kerins who shoots (great) photos on the side of his day job. A wilderness surf trip? Light aircraft landing on the beach? I wanted to know more! I wanted to see more! Dan kindly obliged, and here he shares with us a selection of the images from his winter “everyman adventure” to a remote bay in the far south west of New Zealand, and the stories behind them. Buckle up. – Ed

 

A little bit of me dies inside when I hear the phrase “done a place”. You don’t do places, places do you; and the south western corner of New Zealand’s South Island will do you good and proper.

Aoteroa’s Fiordland is still a wild place, thrust from the earth by seismic undulation, hewn by water and ice, lashed with unrelenting meteorological tantrums from the roaring Forties and Antarctica. In a country that looks like a mineral water bottle label anyway, it is the brightest jewel in an already jewel-laden crown.

Designated a National Park in 1952 and later a UNESCO world heritage site in the 1990’s, the drama, unadulterated beauty and scale of Fiordland’s landscape can’t really be overstated. Cavernous fiords, mountain ranges, dark secretive forests, slithering clean rivers and desolate beaches riddle the entire region.

It was against this pure and eye-wateringly rugged backdrop that two small planes, one filled primarily with beer and the other with our un-athletic international crew, hummed and wobbled westward in search of surf, some well earned rest and a little taste of adventure.

For an expedition of this scale with such a great deal of potential for things to go wrong there really hadn’t been a lot of planning, beyond one chaotic and at times unintelligible meeting in a local pub. The sole outcome of that meeting was a shopping list that was predominantly guesswork (with the exception of the beer order; that went through several rigorous revisions).

 

We didn’t really even know each other that well. We were all mates and mostly keen surfers from our local area, but we hadn’t exactly grown up together – with the exception of Surge and his Dad Ned. Essentially we were just an eclectic bunch of working men, bound for fortune and glory (or an emergency air lift to safety).

Novelty really does release dopamine. We sat in stunned silence for the entire flight in, adrenal glands throbbing, setting out across this big untamed place. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Some fog lingered in the deep valleys and weak winter sun rose to cast long crisp shadows from the east, illuminating snow laden mountain peaks.

This was a beautiful morning in the middle of the southern winter. We crossed the last glistening ridge and the ice and snow fell away to reveal a vast green gnarled expanse, braided with brackish, shimmering rivers and our destination: the wild coast beyond.

We set about unloading the planes onto the beach we had just landed on. One plane got stuck in the soft sand so we pushed it out and taxied it around. We waved goodbye to our only way out before reality struck, and it felt great.

Our accommodations were rustic, but adequate; a musty DOC (department of conservation) hut set behind a large and windswept beach, it smelt of night sweats and fungus but the fire worked and it was empty. We collected firewood, unpacked our extensive array of gear: fishing rods, boards, wetsuits, diving gear, food, rifles, knives, nets, gumboots, waterproofs, pornographic playing cards, stacks of beer, cooking utensils and one solitary tent for Rich the Plasterer from Watford who, I kid you not, when he snores makes the heavens shake.

Despite the relatively weak historical bonds between us, our eclectic natures and different backgrounds actually made for an unlikely yet great team, with each of us bringing our unique skill sets and knowledge to the table. It was clear from the start we were going to get on and pretty quickly a routine developed. The necessary cleaning and cooking chores where divided up, and distinct times for sporting pursuits/manly rugged outdoorsy endeavours where offset by heavy drinking sessions full of banter, distracted games of cards, and rambled story telling.

The surf? The surf pretty much pumped the entire time we were there.

The beach gave way to a large and ominous headland, and several smaller points and bays jutted out from the from behind the shadows of the bush covered cliffs. The water was frigid and thick; the next stop, Antarctica.

At first the surf was smallish, around head high and changeable with favourable winds. Our bread and butter wave was a 3-4 km walk from the hut, involving a river crossing, plenty of rock hoping and sloshing through boggy terrain. It was a reef break that didn’t break perfect every time, primarily a moody A-frame, but the good ones where good with a ledgey take off followed by an intense hollow section with a sloping shoulder to follow. If you were feeling game then a few pumps and you could thread the needle through to the rocks on the inside.

The surf remained friendly for most of the trip. On the best day it was double overhead and solid, the wind was a stiff, frigid off shore, and big moody peaks swung in from way out back. The boys all took it on though, making some great rides. Surge got a solid left and Olin a big long right, the bigger swell having lined up better over the reef and the rides looked longer and more predicable than we’d seen previously.

I could see another right-hander further up the point and it looked like it was firing. As the swell was peaking on the incoming tide the lined up right-handers where breaking fast and hollow, and absolutely mechanically down a very shallow looking reef. The problem was a minefield of big, stubborn looking rocks, littered through the line up.

The wind became gusty and the boys drifted in, so me and surge walked over to the point to investigate. We clambered over the rocks and streams until a front-on perspective gave a better visual on the makability of the wave. It looked do-able.

Olin, an Aquaculture scientist from wave-starved Nelson, was keen for second surf. We paddled out and sat nervously between two rocks waiting for a set.

I swung into the second wave of the set and made a steep fast drop that led to a clean and open face with a tight, fast pocket. I raced it as fast as I could and it stood up the whole way through until I kicked out moments from disaster on the very sharp, rocky inside. I paddled back out and watched Olin got a beauty that was exactly the same deal; real fast, mechanical, and hollow.

We surfed until the tide got too high and the winter dimness started to creep in.

 

Between surfs, in the remainder of daylight hours, our days where punctuated with bush walks, deer hunting, river fishing, diving, surfcasting and quiet, reflective, breathless moments in the long drop.

Before you pack your bag and kiss your loved ones goodbye, it would be irresponsible of me not to mention a few little things keep in mind – in fact, a few million little things. For those of you unfamiliar with NZ, there is a wee secret that unsurprisingly gets little coverage in the tourism literature – Austrosimuli umungulatum: the west coast sand fly.

Black, 2-3mm in length with tiny translucent wings, they’re like angry flying commas that will pierce your epidermis as soon as look at you and unashamedly gorge themselves, relentlessly, until punch drunk and horny on your haemoglobin. They give an annoying bite that leaves the point of contact itchy or swollen or both.

In this part of the world, even in the middle of winter, they exist in droves in buzzing black clouds. Swarming and working in large aggressive packs they can single out an exposed rump from a kilometre away and savage you, leaving you slapping and itching yourself like you have deep self-esteem issues. We battled and lost the war daily.

As the week had gone by the silence, freedom and serenity of the place had become intoxicating. In this multi-ball-hyper-speed age of algorithm and un-ceasing distraction we find ourselves in, places like this are coveted, and rightly so. Rare are places so lightly-ruffled by man, that have been left to be as they are; a reminder of a bygone time when the land was Godless and free, when biology ruled un-impinged.

We stood on the beach as triumphant as we were apprehensive to leave, getting slowly murdered by sandflies, the hum of the planes on the horizon signalling the end of this little adventure.

I reflected on the week. It had been an affirmation of all kinds of things: exploration, friendship, the splendour of nature and the subtle art of taking the piss out of one another.

Spending time in an National Park like this had brought a me whole new level of appreciation of the role conservation plays in our busy crowded world. It is something that New Zealand is fortunate to be able to do, and it does it very well. The foresight and vision of those who built the world’s National Parks were a stroke of genius and the institutions that uphold them deserve more credit and support than they get.

We boarded our ride home. It was another cloudless day with fresh snow, and silence fell once again on our otherwise chatty crew as we made our way back to the ‘real’ world; back to the madness of it all.

Follow Dan on instagram at @dankerinsphotog or check out his website www.dankerinsphotography.com for more of his fantastic imagery.


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