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New Zealand- Voluntourism DownUnder

The Wild, Wild West Coast of New Zealand
by Christine Brooks

As a part of RTM's International Issue, we're delving into the world of voluntourism. Here, one of our readers shares her inspirational work exchange journey to New Zealand…

New ZealandI arrived in New Zealand at the peak of its summer on Feb. 4, and was immediately greeted by Peter, owner and operater of the Piha Surf Shuttle. His smile and thick New Zealand accent instantly told me I was home, though this South Pacific community was far from the place I was born and raised.

After a 45-minute ride, Peter and I entered New Zealand's protected rainforest, which left me speechless. All around us were thick, rich trees, plush grasses and vines. Peter rolled down the window so I could smell the magnificent native tea tree, which grew wildly among the forest. It was a little surprising to learn that New Zealand doesn't have many native animals, and that I wouldn't be seeing koala bears or monkeys swinging from any of the branches as I expected. Alas, there were not any alligators or crocodiles either.

The road to Piha, our destination, was extremely curvy, offering little room on either side for driver error. I saw no view of street signs either. When I asked Peter about this he assured me that he knew just where he was going. "No worries," he said. At the top of Seaview Road, Peter pulled over for a moment so I could see the ever-famous Lion Rock and Piha Beach in all its glory. It was paradise. A few more minutes on the road and we pulled into Piha Surf, where owners Pam and Mike Jolly greeted me with tea and coffee. After a few minutes of socializing, Peter was off again to shuttle even more people to one of the most famous surf beaches around.

Piha Surf - the campground at which I would be providing labor in return for lodging - was a bustling place. After a brief tour of the campground, I was left on my own. Within seconds, I dropped off my bags and headed down to the beach and its nearby town. After an incredibly steep and windy walk down the mountain, I headed into what I thought was the center of town to have a look around. It was then that I learned there wasn't actually a town center. It was more of a village, consisting of the Piha Store, the post office (open an incredible eight hours per week), a nonprofit art gallery and the Piha Volunteer Fire Department. After checking out the store and its small surf shop, I made my way down to the beach.

Before hitting the black sand I stopped to take in the various warning signs posted nearly everywhere! "Strong rip currents," "unstable cliffs" and "dangerous swimming" warnings were posted at every beach entrance. Two orange and red flags were positioned on the beach and swimmers were instructed to only swim betwen the markers to make any water rescues easier. My first day saw more than 20 swimmer rescues. However, I was tired and jetlagged, so that day I only dip my toes in. Swimming and surfing could wait.

After a much needed rest, I began my work with Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WOOF). WWOOF is an organization that allows people to travel all over the world and work in exchange for room and board. My work took place at Piha Surf, and was actually more fun than expected. I worked for three hours each day, doing everything from picking up sheep poo, to painting an A-frame, to repotting a plant. After that, my time was my own to relax, hike, surf, swim or just explore.

A few minutes down the road from Piha Surf I found an awesome waterfall known as Kite Kite Falls. It was truly an amazing sight, resting just a few minutes off the main road. My hike wound through a nearby rainforest, where the sights and sounds of the forest entertained me while the trees provided much needed shade for my first trip to Kite Kite. Each day in Piha, though similar to the day before, was never boring. It seemed that every trip to the beach or forest provided something different. So much so that I knew it would be impossible to soak in all that Piha had to offer during my short stay there. The weekends in Piha did offer change from the weekdays though. People would pour in from nearby Auckland and crowd the beaches, surf shop and the beach's only restaurant, Blair's. These weekend warriors provided entertainment though, as people-watching was at its peak.

The three eateries in the nearby town also brought nightlife to Piha. However, restaurants were more of gathering places with the nightlife consisting of surfers gathered to talk about the waves. The three restaurants, the Surf Club, the Bowling Club and the RSA Club, were more than happy to serve up Speicht's beer and steak burgers while locals gathered to compare stories. On my last night there, the lifeguards joined us but had to leave abruptly when a local woman went missing. Apparently this was nothing out of the ordinary.

As the guards charged toward the water, quickly changing as they made their way to the "rubber duckie" rescue boat, they were all business. It was obvious that they were true professionals and they too respected the power of Piha Beach's water. Mother Nature was no joke in this neck of the woods. Luckily, after an extensive search by boat, scuba and helicopter, the missing woman was found...in her kitchen. I guess this too was typical, as no one seemed a bit surprised.

The surf in Piha was challenging, as the waves were deceivingly large and extremely powerful. Surfers weren't required to stay within the beach's warning flags, but the flags did serve as important guideposts. I quickly found this out as the water constantly pulled me away from the flags towards the rocks. The first few waves sent me flying, causing even my surf instructor Jon Paul to laugh as I struggled to paddle out into the water. It's funny how calm the water always looks from the beach! After a few hours though, I got the hang of things and even managed to face the waves head on without screaming. Later I found out the waves I had been riding all day were small by local standards.

As the days turned into weeks, I knew my wonderful trip was nearing its end. Although I looked forward to the comfort of indoor plumbing, there were so many things about Piha I would miss, like the midday tea and chocolate covered biscuits. I would miss the Tui birds that got drunk off flower pollen, wobbling around while they sang, hanging themselves upside down by one leg from the tree outside my window. I would miss the sound of the ocean as I drifted off to sleep. Most of all though, I would miss the people.
I would miss how truly carefree the locals were, and just how wonderful they made me feel. There was something about the rugged New Zealand coastline and its gracious villagers that welcomed me and made me feel at home.

If you are lucky enough to get to New Zealand's west coast, stop in and see Piha. It will be time well spent. If you do make it all the way to Piha, I hope you take the time to visit the nonprofit art gallery and have a coffee at the Piha Store. Take the time to visit and get to know these people, I promise they are well worth the trip.

If You Go…

For information on voluntourism, or exchange travel,
visit WWOOF USA.

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