It’s a fine line between fun and fear and pleasure and pain.
Rarotonga is a place of great natural beauty. The contrast of the mountainous jungle, the beaches, the lagoon and the reef merging with the great Pacific Ocean. Many people associate Rarotonga and the Cook Islands with this sort of imagery. However, there are a few select people who know not only the dangers, challenges and risk, but also the great rewards that result in the most dramatic physical meeting point of these natural features. The place where enormous amounts of natural energy are dispersed, as oceanic swells unload onto the razor sharp outer reef of Rarotonga ‘The Rock’.
This story is about the waves themselves and the people who ride them, cutting a fine line between fun and fear and pleasure and pain. This is what surfing on Rarotonga is all about. It’s almost as if you cannot have one without the other.
Rarotonga is a ‘high island’ with volcanic origins and the surrounding waters are extremely deep. Think of the island as the tip of a cone shaped volcano that rises over 4000 metres from the ocean floor, in the middle of the largest ocean in the world. Therefore, Rarotonga gets swells from all points of the compass; ranging from northern Pacific swells in the summer months, to deep Antarctic southern swells, that travel unobstructed across thousands of kilometres of ocean to unload on the barrier reef during winter.
These waves are travelling fast when they meet the island. Although shallow on the inland lagoon side, the coral reef rises extremely steeply out of the ocean water and causes the waves to “barrel” (a term that is often substituted for tube, pit, or several other names). Basically the wave breaks in the shape of a drainpipe that allows a surfer to ride in the hollow middle part and be covered and surrounded by water. The solid shape of the reef causes the swell to rear up vertically in size before it breaks. Unlike places such as New Zealand where a 2 metre sea swell may generate a 1 to 1.5 metre breaking wave face; that same 2 metre swell hitting Rarotonga’s coral reef may generate a 2.5 to 3 metre breaking wave face, along with the odd random wave that will be well in excess of that.
On Rarotonga there are no soft or easy surf breaks. All the locations are very heavy with powerful top to bottom waves that are often breaking in waist deep water. If you fall off you will more than likely hit the sharp reef and hit it hard. Each cubic metre of water weighs one tonne - factor in that some of this water is falling from say 2 metres high and has been travelling in excess of 60 km per hour and you can build up a picture of how much explosive impact and destructive force there is as a wave breaks on the reef. All the surf breaks on Rarotonga are reef breaks; there are no beach breaks that generally produce much more forgiving waves. This is why Rarotonga is not a place to learn to surf. To be able to surf here successfully a surfer needs to be extremely skilful and competent.
Access to the surf breaks is notoriously difficult, as surfers have to go in and out over the reef of razor sharp coral and dodge large sea urchins called vana. Or alternatively, through narrow reef passages with numerous sharks and strong currents; it is not a user-friendly surf destination. These gaps in the barrier reef are called reef passes or passages, and along with several prominent protruding points around the island, provide the best surfing locations.
Other Pacific destinations have surf industries with surf tours and camps. Rarotonga does not and with good reason, as it is too heavy for most people and it is also not as consistent as other places.
Due to the location and shape of island there is almost always a swell somewhere. Wind direction is also an important factor in surfing as it smooths the swells and holds up the breaking waves. Ideal surfing conditions occur when the wind is blowing out to towards sea - this is called an “offshore” wind. So there is almost always somewhere on the island that is on the lee side providing sheltered conditions from the wind.
Now that you know this, you may think why on earth would anyone want to surf here? A good question - but this is part of the attraction of Raro. The intensity of the waves generated is beyond most surfers ability. Rarotonga is not a place for beginning surfers. But this intensity also generates a ‘buzz’ or adrenaline that drives surfers to risk their bodies riding the waves.
Probably the best way to sum up this relationship is in the words of Dwaine Mataa, a Cook Island Maori ex professional surfer, who is well known in the surfing world for his exceptional ability and his lack of fear. It is safe to say he is the best surfer on Rarotonga. When asked what is so good about the waves on Raro, he replies “No crowds, its very challenging, its extremeness and intensity, its beautiful and a good test.” He also added that “not a day goes by that I don’t pack myself.” He advises people looking to surf Rarotonga that “the surf will get the better of you, it will get you, and you will get hurt.”
Once again this brings up the why question, but Dwaine is a self-confessed adrenaline junkie who is addicted to pushing his limits in the water. It’s what makes him tick. “I first came here about 14 years ago as a stop off on the way back to New Zealand from Hawaii; I got more barrels in one week on Raro than in seven weeks in Hawaii.” Dwaine has seen visitors paddle out, sit in the water for 10 mins and then paddle back in saying “it’s unsurfable.”
Many surfers have had frightening times whilst surfing on “The Rock”, Dwaine included. On one occasion he was surfing a passage with a friend in a very large swell that was likened to moving mountains of water as tall as power poles. They tried to paddle back in after deciding that this was a bit out of their league; Dwaine then got smashed by a wave that snapped his board in half. He was washed in over the reef and then flushed back out of the passage. After twice more attempting to come in and twice more being flushed back out in the fast moving water Dwaine was exhausted and weighing up his escape options. He did contemplate drifting out to sea and hopefully getting picked up by a boat, but then decided against it and rolled the dice one more time in a last ditch effort. Luckily this attempt was successful and he managed to stand on the reef and make it back to shore. It was a close call and one that was very scary.
Brett Gibson who is a well known, larger than life character known as ‘Gibbo’ has had similar experiences. He first came to surf Rarotonga in 1987 and recalls that he once “kissed the sand when I got back in.” On another occasion he was towed 500 metres back into the shore by a mate, as he had hit the reef and badly smashed his shoulder. Gibbo was one the pioneers of surfing on the island; when he first started there were only 3 people surfing here, none of them locals. He recounts that some locals thought he was stupid, and many could not understand how he could spend hours in the water so unproductively, as he always returned with no fish or kai moana to eat. What a waste of time!! Where was the feed? On other occasions he had old mama’s yelling at him, telling him that it was too dangerous. Gibbo was the first to surf a certain reef passage that is a particularly hollow, fast and heavy break that has claimed several lives; even today many local Rarotongan’s will not go there and believe it to be a very dangerous and almost evil place.
Rarotonga is better suited to body boarding than ‘stand up’ surfing due to the difficulty and heaviness of the waves. It is much easier to catch waves and avoid being pitched onto the reef when you have fins and are lying prone on a body board, compared to trying to get up on your feet on a surfboard during the most critical moment of the wave. Stand up surfing is much more difficult than body boarding and this is magnified in Rarotonga due to the degree of difficulty of the waves. Simple physics tell us that a lower centre of gravity and a wider base of support increase balance and stability. If you see people riding waves in Rarotonga, chances are that most of them will be on body boards and this is the reason why.
Body boarding is now popular among the youth of the island. The first locals that started to body board regularly, from about 1993, did so for the same reasons that the people before them did and people still do today despite the risks and danger; for the fun and thrill of it.
Surfing in Rarotonga is a unique mix; with warm, clear water where you can see the coral and fish life beneath and all seems so peaceful. Combine this with the excitement, challenge, thrill, adrenaline and danger involved in surfing somewhere so unforgiving and heavy. Rarotonga’s surf is beautiful yet brutal and this is the attraction.
Special thanks to: Dwaine Mataa, Jeremy Wilmotte, Paka Worthington and Bret Gibson.