Push, push, roll

Nat Halliday revisits the time he skateboarded (yes, skateboarded) from Cape Reinga to Bluff.

It’s 2008, and I am 31 years old. I’m in the Auckland Airport with a huge bag, some cash savings and a plan to travel the 2000 kilometres to the southern tip of New Zealand by skateboard. I should probably have packed extra shoes.

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Skateboarding started small. Originally nothing more than roller skate wheels affixed to planks of wood, skateboards were the brainchild of Californian surfers in the 1950s looking for something to do when the waves weren’t on. They were also an efficient and low-cost form of active transport, a cheap way to get from A to B. If, in travelling from A to B, you stopped and had a go at dropping off a curb or riding a bank or a rail, so much the better. Over time, this “stopping off” has bloomed into a multi-billion-dollar industry that graces our screens, Instagram feeds, and even the Olympic Games, where both Park and Street Skating are medal events.

Distance Skating, however, takes the sport back to its origins, pushing and rolling. Instead of grinds, slides, drops, or lip and flip tricks, distance skaters are focussed on going a long way, or for a long time. A to B, to C, D and maybe E. I came across Distance Skating when I read about Jack Smith, the “founding father” of the discipline. By the time I heard about him, he had already skated across the United States three times, in 1976, 1984 and 2003. He has since completed the journey twice more. A long-distance legend, his Proline model skateboard from that first 1976 trip from Lebanon, Oregon to Williamsburg, Virginia, is now archived at the National Museum of American History.

I’ve skated my whole life; my parents gave me a yellow fibreglass skateboard for my eighth birthday. But this was something new. I looked into it, and found out about a guy who was aiming to skate across Australia. He was “warming up” by skateboarding the length of Great Britain. I got in contact and joined him on a few weekends, setting up my regular board with softer wheels. Soon, I had sourced myself the only specific distance board available at the time, a carbon fibre monster with mudguards and 100mm wheels, and started putting in the miles, skating the 10 kilometres to work and back each day, and doing even more at the weekends.

A few of us got into it. We joined bike races, tried the odd marathon along with hundreds of inliners, and went on ‘hoboskates’ (pack a bag, skate till you get tired, camp up and skate back the next day). Distance Skating was growing, and the Internet meant that like-minded individuals could share tips, ideas, equipment and routes. We put on the first 24-hour ‘Ultraskate’ in the UK, then started to run them concurrently with skaters in Seattle, pushing ourselves to skate as far as we could, as fast as we could, in a day. The 24-hour record went from 242 miles, to 250, to the current record of 313.9 miles, held by Joe Mazzone. That’s more than 505 kilometres.

The roads in Aotearoa are, at best, shocking. The country has a deeply ingrained love of chipseal. This was one of the things I didn’t appreciate when, after a tipsy dinner with neighbours, I hatched a plan to skate the length of New Zealand, a country I had visited a few times, and which fascinated me. I organised a term off from my primary school teaching job in Hampshire and roped in some American skate buddies, Adam Colton, Sheldon Lessard and Kari Grebe, to come along. The idea was to skate from Cape Reinga to Bluff in 20-kilometre chunks, with a support vehicle driving ahead and waiting for us after each section. The trip would be a fundraiser for the Lowe Syndrome Trust. (Jack Smith’s son died from the rare genetic disorder in 2003, and he raised money for the organisation on every future Skate Across America. Many charity distance skates around the world continue this tradition.)

We skated about five hours per day, covering 60 kilometres on some days, getting to 80 on others. Aotearoa is a beautiful place, and there is something special about crossing it at 10 kilometres an hour. You see the views, interact with passers-by, and get to know intimately the variations in landscape, gradient, microclimate and road surface. Especially road surface. Within days our shoes and decks were covered in tar from the newly-laid chipseal that bubbled up from State Highway 1 in the hot summer sun.

We had many close encounters with vehicles  ̶  tourist buses cutting blind corners in Northland, oblivious left-turning cars in Auckland   ̶  but the biggest danger was in parts of the country where the hard shoulder wasn’t so hard, consisting instead of gravel and dead grass. This made slowing down by foot-braking left of the white line almost impossible. Often the safest option was to stay on the smooth tyre track, tuck in behind each other, drop our heads and go as fast as we could so that, hopefully, the traffic didn’t catch up with us or we didn’t catch up with it. 

At the start of the trip, I was using a GPS tracker to keep daily records of time, distance and speed. On the third day, we topped 75 kph. After a while, though, we just used Adam. Adam was a professional downhill racer from the States, and we based the severity of each hill on his actions. If he was standing, we were good. If the speeds picked up and he got into an aerodynamic tuck, we knew the road was fast but safe. It was only when he stuck his leg out and used his shoe to slow down and his arms to stabilise and airbrake that we knew we were in trouble.

When we skated from Wellsford to Warkworth, I destroyed my left shoe in a day. New shoe in the morning, no sole by sundown.

We stayed at campsites at first, or freedom camped when there was nothing near, but as the trip progressed friendly supporters often offered us a bed and a well-needed shower. Our route took us down through Auckland, Hamilton, Rotorua and Taupo, across the Desert Road, and along the west coast of the lower North Island to Wellington. Then we hopped on the Cook Strait ferry and continued along SH1 for the length of Te Waipounamu. The only detours were skipping around the Brynderwyn Hills, avoiding roadworks we had been warned about, and getting kicked off the last stretch into Wellington by the police. It was our only run-in with the law. 

Unlike in many countries, skateboarders in New Zealand are legally allowed on the road, and most of our encounters with the local constabulary ended with a polite “good luck, stay left and stay safe”. Though after crossing the 1.8-kilometre-long Rakaia Bridge (which involved skating as fast as we could until the last second, then jumping up onto the siding and holding on tightly as trucks barrelled past), a patrol car was waiting for us. The officer wound the window down, called us “crazy bastards!”, then drove off. 

We rolled into Bluff on the afternoon of January 31. I had worn out three left shoes and had one leg that was noticeably bigger than the other one. The Skate Across New Zealand had taken 43 days, 34 of which were skating days. We covered 2048 kilometres and raised more than $3500 for charity. But my particular highlight was meeting my future wife. Julia knew about the trip from a New Zealand travel forum and we had promised to meet up for a beer. She decided to join the team, helping to drive the car in the North Island then cycling alongside us through the South Island. After the trip was over, we kept chatting. In 2010, we moved to Aotearoa with our five-month-old son. He’s 14 now, and we live in Lyttelton with him and our two other kids   ̶   still here, and still rolling.

Words: Nat Halliday

Photos: Adam Colton