Sand tobogganing in a storm.
It sounds bizarre – and it certainly was.
When I decided I wanted to experience hurtling down a giant sand dune on a surfing-esque board, I envisioned perfect sunshine, golden sand and a backdrop of shimmering blue water.
But, as I arrived in Ahipara in the Far North of New Zealand with my wife Becky, we were greeted instead by a raging storm.
Torrential rain pounded our car and the waves crashed into the rocky coastline with what seemed like an added ferocity.
“Maybe we shouldn’t go, this is just ridiculous weather”, I said, unable to hide the frustration in my voice.
“Argh, how annoying, we’ve driven for ages to get here and now this”, replied Becky.
We were both getting tense and stressed about the prospect of a day wasted – not exactly the feeling you want when you’re supposed to be relaxing.
This was the start of our five month backpacking trip to Australasia and South-East Asia.
After a tiring flight to Auckland we’d hired a car and headed north, hoping for idyllic beaches and snorkelling paradise on the Tutukaka Coast and the chance to spot dolphins and whales in the Bay of Islands.
We seemed however to have brought the English winter with us and had experienced more rain than sunshine so far.
The prospect of venturing out into another deluge wasn’t too appealing.
And then, just as we were about to bail on the whole idea, the downpours eased a little.
We took it as a sign from the sand boarding gods and – in a “what the hell, let’s just go for it” type moment – we headed off.
Being outside felt “sweet as”, as the Kiwis love to say.
We hadn’t let the conditions spoil our fun and it was liberating to embrace the elements and not care.
And, no matter what happened, this had to be better than a moody drive back to our hostel.
We were soon soaked from head to toe, despite out attempts to use the foam boards as makeshift rain blocks.
But being drenched didn’t dampen our spirits and the 45-minute walk from Shipwreck Bay was actually enjoyable.
Our feet sunk into the damp sand, making clear tracks along the beaches, as we continued towards the worryingly high dunes in the distance.
The coastline felt atmospheric – almost eerie and deserted – in the rain, taking on a completely different character than in the sunshine.
We negotiated a couple of sections over slippery rocks and arrived at our destination.
Becky, who doesn’t have a head for heights, optimistically suggested a tiny, gentle-sloped dune was the one we were supposed to use.
A few tracks from previous boarders on a towering, mountain of a dune said otherwise.
“Oh my God, that is so steep” was our collective thought process.
No turning back now though.
We trudged up the slope to an embarrassingly low starting point and sat down nervously on our boards.
The words of the woman at Ahipara Adventure, where we hired the boards, raced through my mind.
“Don’t worry, they work fine in wet sand – just don’t go too high, a girl smashed herself up pretty bad yesterday.”
Not exactly a reassuring anecdote – but I liked the do-it-yourself approach to this adrenaline activity.
There were no instructors, helmets or safety barriers. No other people in fact – we had the dunes all to ourselves, almost certainly due to the rain.
It was just us, our boards and a gigantic sand dune in the middle of nowhere.
“Here it goes”, said Becky, as she shuffled the board to start moving.
She whizzed down, letting out a mixture of a scream and a laugh, and safely came to rest at the bottom.
I followed, opting for the brave (or foolish) lying-on-my-stomach-head-first technique, and flew down the slope, somewhat out of control.
It was unadulterated fun.
The rain continued to pour heavily but it didn’t matter.
We walked slowly up the sandy mound and slid speedily down over and over again, going higher each time.
Our attempts to steer or slow down by dragging our feet and hands in the sand were largely unsuccessful – and generally only achieved spraying our faces and bodies with the wet grains.
There were several comical wipe-outs, particularly from Becky, and after about an hour our sand boarding careers were over.
We now faced a walk back to the carpark, looking like we’d been dipped in sticky mixture of wet sand.
Remarkably we were saved by a kind Maori guy in his 4×4 truck, who was driving along the beach back from his family’s remote coastal property.
He gave us a lift – seemingly oblivious to the wet sand we were slowly depositing on his seats – and took it upon himself to educate us on Maori food, culture and everything else in between.
It was a quirky end to an adventure that started disastrously and almost didn’t happen.
But I’m glad that it did – not many people can say they’ve been sand boarding in a storm.