Words & Images: Latesha Randell
Raglan is a small town 45 minutes from Hamilton, big on sunshine and character. It is perhaps best known for its surf breaks – with a legendary left-hand point break that is ranked 17th in the world. But even though the waves are world-class, there’s much more to experience in this friendly, adventure-filled place than just hitting the surf. My partner, Seb, and I decide to spend a weekend checking out some of the ‘must-do’s’.
First thing Saturday morning we’re out for our first stand-up paddleboard (SUP) experience with Raglan Watersports – who have a dedicated ‘paddleboarding school’. SUP is taking off all around New Zealand; it’s much easier than surfing to get the hang of, provides an amazing core workout, and allows surfers an option for days when the waves aren’t big enough. Owners Keith & Justine are passionate about watersports, and even run bi-weekly floating yoga classes on the paddleboards! We head out to the water with Keith, a chatty English bloke who is sports-mad. The signwriting on the back of his truck, ‘Get Up, Stand Up, Paddle for Your Rights’, elicits a grin from us both.
My board is massive, and when I push it out into the Raglan estuary (where the water thankfully is flat and calm) and hop on, I’m surprised at how easy it is to balance while paddling. To me it feels like kayaking on a mini-island! We paddle along, Keith giving me some helpful tips to move through the water smoother. “Keep the paddle nice and close to the board,” he tells me. “Pretend you’re pulling yourself towards the paddle.” It helps, and I start moving a bit faster. We tour around the estuary, and I quickly realise that my arms have some muscles in them I didn’t know were there! Seb is trying out fancier tricks and soon ends up falling in the water. I laugh, until he gets back up and plays bumper-boards, knocking me into the water too. After towelling off and thanking Keith for the fun lesson, it’s time for a slightly drier activity – horse trekking.
A scenic 30-minute drive from Raglan is Ruapuke Beach, home to Wayne & Penny Knuiman’s Wild Coast Horse Treks. This family-run business not only runs treks but also has eco-cottages on site for guest accommodation, so guests can enjoy spending more time at the beach. They introduce us to some of their 15 horses; today I’ll be on Rembrandt, and Jonti is all saddled up for Seb. Penny tells me that they love ‘speed dating’. “We’re pretty good match-makers, it’s a fun challenge to pair the right horse with the right person.” Over the years they’ve also nailed the perfect length for their horse trek – we’ll be out for two and a half hours today and it looks like the weather is going to be good.
Our group of eight sets off through quintessential Kiwi farmland, passing by lambs and cows, taking in the native bush and gushing streams. The horses occasionally stop to snatch at some juicy green grass, but are very sure-footed going down hills and over rocks – they clearly know what they’re doing! The views are stunning, and Wayne comments that for tourists visiting it’s a chance for them to see ‘the real NZ’. We end up on the sandy beach, and head into the whitewash to let our equine friends dip their hoofs. Now comes the exciting part – Wayne asks who’s up for a gallop down the long stretch of sand. Eight hands are raised in favour, and after a few pointers on keeping our reins short and butts raised, we’re off at high-speeds – it’s a bit bumpy at first until I begin to move with Rembrandt’s rhythm, and then my heart surges with the excitement of riding so fast with the salty wind in my face.
It’s early evening when we leave, both starving from the combo of fresh air and exercise and ready to eat! On the menu tonight is dinner at The Shack in Raglan’s township, a popular café/restaurant owned and run by married chefs, Justin & Alix Thomson. The atmosphere is buzzing with locals greeting each other as they take tables (the infamous two degrees of separation is more like one degree in Raglan!), and the low-hanging lights provide ambience. Hungry from our active day, we polish off a fish taco to start, grilled beef & cerviche mains, and then share two desserts – scrumptious apple & golden rum crumble, and haloumi & salted caramel. With free Wi-Fi and heaps of tasty Fairtrade, vegan, and gluten-free options, we can see why the locals love this place.
We’ve chosen to stay somewhere a little different tonight – in Raglan’s one and only luxury yurt; Nikau Sanctuary. Peter & Robbyn Storey built two yurts nestled amongst a grove of Nikau palms back in 2010, and offer a comfortable stay in the main yurt, with relaxing lomi-lomi massage if desired in the smaller neighbouring yurt. We love the unique roundness of being in a yurt, and are amazed at how well-equipped it is – kitchen, bathroom, outdoor spa and a BBQ are all part of the experience. The fairy lights dotted up the cedar roof poles towards the ‘eye of heaven’ offer some magic when we snuggle in to enjoy our peaceful sleep.
It’s action time again in the morning – we’re going to challenge our muscles with Raglan Rock, a rock climbing, abseiling, and caving business run by Gareth Jones. This adventurer knows how to spin a good yarn, and keeps us entertained on our hike through lush native bush, pointing out herbs and fungi that are good to eat and sharing a bit of his life story; which includes professional motorbike racing, personal training and engineering. We pop out of the bush to discover we’re on the top of a cliff with an incredible view – there’s even a waterfall nearby. Gareth organises the ropes, showing us Italian hitch, alpine butterfly and figure of eight knots that will be keeping us safe as we abseil down.
I’m slightly nervous approaching the edge, but once I get the hang of abseiling, it’s tons of fun. The second time I try bouncing off the rocks and getting some good air! Gareth calls out encouragement the whole way, “That’s it! Perfect! You’re doing awesome.”
Seb decides to have a go climbing the cliff, and Gareth shows me how to ‘belay’ (pull in the slack of the rope) as his ground-support partner. Apparently if Seb were to fall I’d shoot up in the air, so I tell him falling isn’t an option! I didn’t need to worry – he clambers his way up like a natural, using the tiny crannies and knobs to eventually reach the top as we cheer from below. We leave determined to try out some of Gareth’s other climbing spots – he has locations all over Raglan, including some right on the water like the ‘Stupid Fat Hobbit’ climb, which you reach via kayak.
We grab fishburgers (big and tasty) down at the Raglan Wharf, to stock up on carbs before setting off to Te Akau, a tiny rural town on the opposite side of the Raglan harbour where a kayaking adventure awaits. JD (Jeffrey Duston; one of many ‘JD’s’ in his family back in the U.S.) greets us on arrival at the Wild West Ranch – his project for the last 4 years, with a range of eco-accommodation, fun American memorabilia, and the biggest private surfboard collection I’ve ever seen!
This is JD’s outlet for his love of kayaking; he ran a kayak tours business in California for years, and brought a number of kayaks to NZ when he made the move over. “Don’t even get me started on getting those bad-boys through customs,” he chuckles. We leave our bags in the ‘Captain’s Quarters’ (our room for the night) and head down to the water. It’s a lovely evening for a paddle, and we marvel as we pass what locals term ‘pancake rocks’; layers of limestone stacked unbelievably high, some standing precariously in the water, which we’re able to navigate our kayaks through. “Te Akau is Maori for ‘Rocky Coast’,” explains JD. “You can see why!” It’s such a beautiful evening and I find the gentle splash of our paddles cutting through the water a very soothing sound.
We follow JD down the last stretch of our tour, a narrower, shallow stream and are pleasantly surprised to finish up in front of a waterfall! He tells us that the pizza oven is ready to go back at the ranch, and we return to crack some beers and get our chef hats on for creating our
own pizzas from all the yummy ingredients JD’s wife Celeste has prepared. A night spent under the stars swapping travel stories and eating more pizza than I thought my stomach could fit is the perfect end to our Raglan adventure.
This lovely little town sure knows how to dish up fun… for more than just the surfers!
Wild Coast Horse Treks
W: ➜ www.wildcoast.co.nz
W: ➜ www.raglan.net.nz
W: ➜ www.raglanrock.com
Te Akau Adventures