Stoked at Sunset
After our flight to Honolulu from Maui, we spent afew days back in Waikiki at the youth hostel - this time arriving in a less conspicuous taxi! We walked down the length of Waikiki Beach and out towards Daimond Head, one of Hawaii's defining landmarks. A trail snaked round the back of the crater and wound its way up to the peak where a warren of bunkers were crammed with fellow tourists trying to get a view of Waikiki Beach far below. This wasn't easy as it was partially obscured by the misty drizzle which was falling from a suddenly grey sky. An impossibly huge, chisseled and permatanned Park Ranger flashed a toothy white smile whilst trying to entice trippers out into the interoir to accompany him on some kind of nature ramble. There were no takers. Not only did his enthusiasm border on psychotic, we could all plainly see that the area where he intended to make this expedition was under black clouds which were downloading emphatically onto the trail. It didn't help that most of his audience were Japanese and couldn't understand the khaki clad, redundant wrestler, or, they just didn't want to take the risk of defacing their designer duds (many of the trendy young Japanese we saw around town wore designer t-shirts bearing aspirational wordy slogns, none of which made any sense, bizarre).
After putting off a planned surfing lesson in Maui, we discovered some money off coupons in the local 'Waht's on' guide. We get ready early and were down on Waikiki Beach by 9.00am, the perfect time, just after the serious surfers and a little too early for the other tourists! Hey, if you're going to make an ass of yourselves, you do it infront of as few people as possible, right?
We wandered up to the concession stand and the guy siad that even though the discounted tickets were for three people or more, he'd take us out for the reduced price anyway. Sallas was the epitome of a Waikiki beach dude. He told us he'd worked on the beach for over thirty years, wore aviator shades, a baseball cap and sported a splendid drooping moustache, his slim deeply tanned frame clad in a red vest and shorts, the entire ensemble intact as he led us out into the raging surf (ok, three feet at best!).
After being taught the absolute basics on the beach we took it in turns to be launched by Sallas as he stood waist deep and gave us a good shove as the wave raced past. We managed to get to our feet several times, Alex surpassing herself and almost getting right onto the beach with one ride. We were truly thrilled by the whole experience. After watching surfers all over the world, something clicked and we suddenly began to appreciate, albeit minutely, the spirit of surfing, it was fantastic.
Soon though, we were going to experience the real deal and the phemomenon that is the North Shore in winter.
WE drove up from Waikiki towards Sunset Beach and 'Ironwoods', the home of Ann and Roger McMahon. The small studio attached to their home was to be our base for the next week. On the way north, we passed the Dole plantation, row upon row of parallel pineapples in lines which followed the contours of the farmland, stretching out into the distance.
It wasn't long before we hit Haleiwa, the north shore's main town and, I guess, surfings' spiritual home. By all accounts, Haleiwa is sleepy in summer but the big winter waves bring in the cream of the world's boardriders to test themselves in the ultimate conditions - particularly competing in the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing.
Ironwoods turned out to be just beyond Sunset and was so close to the ocean, when lying in bed at night, the sound of the waves crashing against a ledge of fossilised coral drowned out the sound of the cars passing by on the main road infront of the house.
Our first experience of the monster surf was a trip to Sunset where incredible breakers pounded the beach, dragging tons of sand away as the water retreated to regroup. We were entertained by a dimbulb teenager who, in an assumed attempt to impress his friends, stood infront of the waves and was continually pummelled into the beach but kept going back for more.
Our arrival had coincided with the Rip Curl Cup taking place at Sunset and marquees and a small grandstand were already in place. Unfortunately, for a few days, the conditions weren't right for the competition and we drove past in expectation each morning only to see the noticeboard displaying 'No competition today, check back tomorrow'
Any disappointment was short lived as a short drive back towards Haleiwa took us to the Banzai Pipeline where monsterous curling waves, all in the 10-15ft range rose up and dashed themselves against the shore. Unbelievably, there were loads of surfers out there riding the barrelling waves, and being snapped or filmed doing so by an equal number of photographers. They stood patiently behind tripods supporting cameras with lenses the size of buckets, ready to capture the action. With the waves breaking virtually on the beach, the action was almost in your lap and we sat transfixed as the surfers caught the huge waves, standing up quickly on the lip of the wave and dropping down the face before cutting back into the walls of water that would occasionally barrel them up in a tube ride. They'd suddenly disappear, lost in the tumbling water, before zipping out as the wave collapsed. We witnessed gnarly wipeouts and broken boards too as the sufers rode, literally 'on the adge' - Awesome!
On another occasion, just up from Pipeline, we saw the unmistakable figure of a surfer we recognised from a documentary we'd seen about him on local TV. With his trademark mane of touseld blond hair, the guy was simply magestic, performing snapping cutbacks and stylish manouvers in 8ft surf, seemingly unaware of the interest he was creating on the beach. Then again, when you're about nine years old, as we guessed Jon Jon Florence to be, there's not alot that does phase you!
After another fruitless trip to Sunset, we set off down the east coast to continue our disjointed circut of Oahu. The landscape was very 'Jurrasic Park' until we reached the Byodo-un Temple, an exact replica of a Japanese temple which the guy at the gates informed us was "over forty years old" - staggering.
The temple was very peaceful though, set in manicured grounds complete with Koi Carp grounds. We bought a small packet of fish food and fed the fish - resulting in a scaley scrum leaving several of the greediest gasping for air whilst forced clean out of the water due to sheer weight of numbers. Alex's favourite Doves also had a taste for the fish food and she soon had a small flock eating out of her hand - literally!
In the morning, the conditio9ns were finally right for us to experience our first taste of professional surfing as a large field battled in the preliminary competition to fill the four qualifier berths for the Rip Curl Cup proper. A comentator on the PA continually updated the crowd on the standings as groups of four surfers had 30 minutes to to compile their highest two wave score. Eventually, the four qualifiers were decided and were presented with their trophies by Bethany Hamilton, the highly regarded 13 year-old rider who had recently lost an arm in a shark attack while surfing.
On our last day, we finally got the chance to see the world's elite competing at Sunset. We checked the noticeboard and found that Andy Irons and Kelly Slater would be taking part in their first round heats around lunchtime. THe closer it got to noon, the more the excitement seemed to build, directly proportionate to the rain that had been falling since mid-morning. By the time the world's top two took to the water we were saturated and the sky was uniformly grey, but the big guns didn't disappoint, they seemed to catch more and better waves than anyone else and appeared glued to their boards.
We'd reached the stage where if we stayed any longer we'd miss our plane so we reluctantly squelched our way back to the car through small streams of muddy water that had worryingly begun to spring up everywhere. We collected our gear and set off down the east coast again as traffic was at a standstill along the north shore due to the competition and the by now appalling weather. There were almost dire consequences to this as we approached a small bridge that was enveloped in rising floodwater. As we got closer, we could see vegetation, branches and even rocks in the fast flowing, tea brown soup. Cars were driving slowly through, creating bow waves which slapped against vehicles travelling in the opposite direction. Five minutes later and we'd have ended up sailing into the Pacific as, when we attempted the crossing ourselves, the water almost came half way up to the rental cars' doors! Almost on the verge of being marooned then swept away, we were out the other side and wondering how we'd explain away the tidemark and twigs in the radiator grille to the rental company.
We needn't have worried as, by the time we were getting need Honolulu, the rain had washed away all traces of our adventure. The rain was so heavy, the tall mountains which separated the east coast from Honolulu had sprouted gigantic waterfalls, cascading in silver ribbons for hundreds of metres down the sheer cliff faces.
Crossing the mountains from east to west resulted in us driving into the airport which was bathed in sunshine and looked as though it hadn't seen rain for weeks, such was the contrast between the two sides of the island.
It had been a close call but we'd arrived just in time to catch the flight that would take us back to what was becoming very familair territory - Faaa Airport and Tahiti!