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Alex: Piha

August 20, 2011

I have been wanting to go to Piha since I decided to come to New Zealand. I’m told it is one of the most beautiful and most popular surfing beaches around. It did not disappoint.

One of the things on my must-do list while I am here in New Zealand is learning to surf. I got it in my head that Piha would be the place to do that, so when I heard the tramping club would be going on a day trip there, I was pretty excited. Certainly I wouldn’t be able to surf, but I could at least have a good look around.

So I woke up at seven-thirty in the morning, having forgotten to set an alarm but having a propensity for waking up early despite myself. I packed a bag and used my meager rations to cobble together a slim facsimile of a portable lunch. I got dressed in my tramping shorts (which I regretted later, but I didn’t bring any non-denim pants save pajamas) and headed out into the unseasonably cold and windy Auckland winter. After a short walk down to the library, I met the group assembled at the time, two of whom were Canadians whose almost-familiar accents comforted me somewhat.

The rest of the group assembled, and I learned throughout the day that they were all quite interesting people. There was a Norwegian girl with whom I bonded over our lack of melanin and resistance to cold temperatures. I learned from another member of the group, a native of Singapore, that Singapore has mandatory military conscription. There were many more people with even more stories, but I suspect they were much more interesting to me than they would be to you, dear reader. The important thing to note is that I did not know a single person on this trip when I left my apartment that morning, and now I have no qualms about calling a great many of them my friends.

There were twenty or so of us, and swe split up into cars for the forty-five minute drive to Piha. Our driver, a German, clearly had much less fear of winding mountain roads than I do. But, we arrived safely and totally intact, although a bit well-shaken.

Fighting off the bitter cold and driving wind, we trekked across Piha beach. Piha is famous for two things: great surfing and black sand. I have been on two other ocean beaches in my life, both of them standard-issue brown. I was aware, intellectually, that sand could be black, but I had never witnessed it. It was glorious. It was not the color of black I was expecting. It’s not the color of obsidian and midnight, but closer to the color of moon-lit asphalt. It was the color of well-loved band tees and better-loved engines. And it shimmered. There were tiny bits of shining particulate in the sand that made the whole mass look like a tiny, shifting night sky. It is a good thing that this sand was so beautiful, because the driving wind drove it soundly into every orifice and wrinkle of clothing I possess. I am still cleaning it out of my ears.

We arrived at another beach, the name of which I cannot recall and refuse to break my writing stride to look up. At this beach, a group of three of us climbed to the top of a small hill that looked out over the ocean. It expanded in a huge green-blue arc in front of me. It was as if the whole world was rolled out in from of me like an algae-colored red carpet. It sounds silly, but it made me feel okay. It was as if I understood at that moment that there is a whole big world out there, and it is just waiting for me to grab it by the horns. Standing there on this hill, trying my damnedest not be blown off by gale-force winds, I had a revelatory moment. The world is awesome, and it is mine for the taking. Moments like this make all the work and school and money trouble and all of it worth while.

At this beach, in the driving wind, a small group decided to go swimming. Although I had brought my togs, the idea of changing on an open beach was not appealing, and walking back wet was even less appealing. So I passed, resolving to instead swim when we arrived back at Piha.

After the bitter-cold swimming and a lunch break, we headed up another trail and into the bush. When I say we ‘headed through the bush’ I mean that there was, in fact, a trail but it was slim and ill-maintained at best.

When I first arrived in New Zealand, and first trekked through the bush, I was surprised at how few biting/stinging/cutting/burning/poisonous plants there are. In Wisconsin, tramping through the woods, even in jeans usually means getting stung or cut or whipped by something, but at the time I believed that not to be the case in New Zealand. I was wrong. Although one certainly does not need to worry about poisonous plants like poison ivy or stinging ones like nettles, Aotearoa certainly has its share of barbed flora, which I discovered first hand. Might I remind the reader that I was wearing shorts on this trip. My shins were burning by the time we left the bush, and one nice bright red line had drawn itself sharply across one leg.

Back on our original beach, the wind was stronger than ever. The wind on Piha has some interesting behavior, or at least it did on this particular day. The wind comes in off the ocean and bounces off the rocks and the shore and stirs up huge whipping cyclones. If previously there had been any hope of not taking a beach home in one’s clothes, it was dashed by that wind. We prepared ourselves mentally and ran into the icy-cold winter Tasman Sea. The water was actually quite pleasant (said the man who used to jump in holes in the ice for fun), but the wind made coming out of that water practically unbearable. I think I’ve finally gotten used to dealing with salt water. You would think it would be an easy thing, but I have so much experience with fresh water that it is hard for a mouth-breather like me to remember simple things like keeping my damn mouth shut.

Swimming complete, we drove back where about half of us ate ice cream and celebrated our day. We discussed in detail the myriad and exciting ways in which we intended to get clean and warm when we finally got home. Personally, I spent nearly half an hour standing in the shower, with the water as hot as I could stand.

So ended my day at Piha: legs burning, and furiously adding many new friends on Facebook.

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