We featured this rad trip to New Zealand’s Remote Fiordland in issue 173 of the mag. Jackson Coffey, Jordy Lawler and Cooper Chapman went where the wild things are and the roads aren’t.
Journey To The End Of The Earth
Jackson Coffey, Jordy Lawler and Cooper Chapman go where the wild things are.
By Alex Workman / All photos Matt Dunbar / Intro by Warrick Mitchell
The far southern edge of the world is a beautiful place. The snow capped Southern Alps of New Zealand tower high along multiple miles of remote coastline boarding the Tasman Ocean. These mountains provide the backdrop for the 2.6 million hectare world heritage Fiordland National Park – one of the great natural areas of the world.
Two of the world’s largest tectonic plates, the Australian Indonesian Plate, which stretches as far a field as the Himalayas and Pacific Ocean (which border California) collide in the Fiordland.
These two plates grind together with gigantic pressure creating the worlds most active fault line a mere six kilometres behind our home. They’ve forced the mountains high into the air, which have then been shaped by glacial ice ages and tens of thousands of years of weather and corrosion. These dramatic snow capped mountains have created a geographic barrier leaving the southwest corner of New Zealand largely untouched.
Despite the isolation the human history is surprisingly rich in this corner of New Zealand wilderness. Maori visited here in ‘whaka’ on huge voyages in search of prized jade or greenstone. The first sailors and whalers to visit New Zealand’s shores based themselves on this coastline due to its deep fjords and rich wildlife. The first sailing ship, the first house and the first beer brewed in New Zealand all occurred along these wild coasts.
My father came here as the next wave of explorers. His goal was to spend a year or two in the wilderness chasing his dream. Our Mum graduated from Melbourne University and visited with friends for the famous hiking trails. They met on these trails and later applied to the government to build a house in 1968. They worked thirty years along these remote coastlines with the mountains on their back doorstep, and the ocean on their front. During those times the hills were alive with helicopters hunting for wild venison. Our family home would often have three or four helicopters on our front lawn.
I’d never even seen anyone surfing until I visited my cousins in Australia. Afterwards I began chasing some mellower spots on an old single fin. Years later some surfers landed on the beach while I was walking home with my board. We talked about waves and I invited them to come back and stay on another visit. It turned out my favourite fishing spot was indeed a great wave and a new era of pioneering and surf hosting begun.
My brother and I kept the family home while I spent many years working abroad. However my mind and heart always drifted back to our remote coastline and the rugged landscape of the Fiordlands. Eventually we put our hosting into a more structured set up and opened the doors to those looking for a true wilderness adventure. Despite how many times you experience it the shear backdrop and natural beauty of this place never grows old.
I thought that we would be staying at a place with other people for a start. [Laughs]. The first thing that came to mind was that the water was going to be really cold. I knew that the waves had potential but like anywhere didn’t expect to score the whole time … but we did big time!
The landscape is like nowhere else in the world. There are mountains everywhere and just so much land with massive waterfalls, lakes and glaciers. It was incredible. When we flew in we landed on a massive glacier, which was a once in a lifetime experience. What really stood out for me was just how untouched the place was! It was amazing to experience especially coming from a busy place like Sydney.
The region is pretty much the total opposite of where a surfer would go for a surf trip. It wasn’t like just jumping off a boat and you’re at a wave like Indo. We had to trek through shitloads of bush, mud and rocks whilst sand flies are eating you alive.
One of the waves we surfed was the best beach break I have ever seen. This wave was like my dream wave. Out the back you could do some turns and it was really playful then on the inside it drains to about a foot of water and just barrels for about 5-6 seconds into a channel. I honestly thought I was dreaming at one point.
Our tour guide Warwick [Mitchell] was the man! He grew up in the same house we were staying at and had the whole place absolutely wired. I don’t know if we would of survived if it wasn’t for him. [Laughs]. He’s a man of many trades and did everything from hunting, cooking and guiding us to the best waves. There is heaps of wildlife in the area and every day Warwick would hunt or dive to put food on the table for us. We were having so much lobster and eating like kings!
The whole time over there I felt like Bear Grylls. We were pretty much were dropped in the middle of the Fiordland and survived off hunting and gathering. The experience of being so far from civilisation was like nothing that any of us were used to. As hard as it was adjusting it was very rewarding. I’ll never forget scoring the some of the best waves without anyone out other than some of my best mates in such a wild place. It doesn’t get any better than that.
The whole place was like something out of Game of Thrones. I’d never seen snow before and it was snowing on and off the whole time we were there. Flying over in the helicopter and landing on a glacier was one of the wildest things I’ve ever experienced. I got to touch snow for the first time. Needless to say I was pretty stoked!
That was the coldest water I’ve ever been in. All the trips I’ve ever been on have always been in warm water like Indonesia. I’ve never done any real cold water trips. I was wearing a 4mm wetsuit and it was freezing cold with the stiff offshore winds.
That left was one of the best sand bottom bars I’ve ever surfed. It had a river running out which made this triangular shaped wave and we had one day that was just pumping. Everyone was frothing. The set up is just amazing. I want to go back and surf it again. To surf A-Frames we had to walk 3km in, deal with the sand flies, then 3km out, again with sand flies as company. After treks like that we’d come back to the accommodation, have a few drinks, cook some food and play cards.
We had no idea what to expect when it came to food because we were so isolated. But every night we would be eating the best home cooked meals you could ever have. They would shoot deer, dive for lobsters and other than a few staples they had at our shack they went and hunted for.
I was super blown away by how well Warrick [Mitchell] could live so far away from society. He would collect his own water and the whole house was set up to preserve his own food. He has his own boat and all these pumping waves right on his doorstep. The whole time we were just tripping out looking at the mountains and feeling so small in this wild place.
It was the perfect ‘get away from your phone’ week and back to what many of us felt when we were younger. It was amazing. It reminded me of when I was younger growing up in the caravan traveling around Australia.
Warrick’s house was on the side of a riverbank and he had a tinny that could fit eight people and he would ride this boat through the river to get out to the waves. You had to be such a good driver to navigate the crossing because you could flip the boat so easily crossing the bar. I was in awe of his ability out there. He’s a total character.
I had never heard of where the Fiordlands were before we headed out there. When I looked it up on the map I knew it was going to be freezing. Once we go there it was so much wilder than what I expected. We flew right over the Fiordland National Park and I think Jordy, Jacko and me were just in awe of what we were seeing because there was hardly a word spoken.
It was something that you would see in National Geographic. It’s hard to describe just how beautiful it was. There wasn’t another soul around and it was simply untouched. It was such a contrast coming from a crazy place like Sydney.
When we first saw this rivermouth we came in from behind the break on the boat and it really looked like nothing. We thought, ‘Ok here we go, this is going to be a bit of a stitch up’. But from land we saw its potential and realised that this wave could get pretty good with a bit of swell. We surfed it back to back days as the swell started filling in and on the final day it was just pumping. That was the session that stood out the most.
Getting to the waves was always a big deal. We were only able to surf once a day or twice max. It’d either be a forty-minute boat ride to a wave or a hike over sharp rocks in booties for a few k’s each way. We’d also have to factor in the tides. So you really picked the sessions you were going to put in for. It was all part of the adventure though and it all came together in the end.
When we went diving for crays Jacko and I couldn’t find anything but Warrick would just pop up with seven crays in half an hour. We were just baffled! [Laughs]. I didn’t even see one underwater.
Warrick was so dialled in. The way he could read the land, get around on a boat, hunt and adapt to everything in the environment was pretty amazing. It just came so natural.
I think all of us enjoyed living off the land. A lot of my time traveling is spent going to events so I don’t really get many opportunities to have experiences like that. I really tried to make the most of it and adapt to the elements. There’s no point in not having a good time. It was probably a trip that I might not ever experience again. It wasn’t your run of the mill surf trip and I appreciated that for a change.
*A huge thanks to Warrick Mitchell and his team from Awarua Guides