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There came the time each day when we
broke out of the dense bush onto a pristine beach of
golden sand. The low lapping turquoise waves highlighted in white traced
the tight arc of the cove.
After eating, some of us slept in the shade of the trees where the bush meets
the beach. Others
sunbathed. A few rolled their pant legs and waded in the lazy surf. Some
of us stripped to
swimwear and took the plunge. The tranquil Tasman Bay tempted us, and then
us in its electric blueberry Jell-O waters. We
went under but remained perfectly visible. We
emerged cleansed, cooled to a near-chill, and ready to walk.
Come along for the adventure!
THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY
APPEARED IN DECEMBER, 2008.
MOST RECENT UPDATE: 2014.
WALK IN THE PARK
downpour would have been plenty welcome. Turns out there’s little rain
in the rain forest of New Zealand’s Abel Tasman National Park in March,
or anytime, for that matter. Early March sees the waning of summer down
under, of course, and conditions along the fabled coast path couldn’t
have been better. Our three days in the bush (New Zealanders use “bush”
instead of “jungle”, “woods”, or “rain forest”) were sunny, warm, and
dry. That didn’t mean we didn’t get wet. The two-thirds of us who walked
the route over three days stayed moist thanks to daily climbs up and
over the lush headlands that characterize this corner of the South
Wet? Yep. And not just with perspiration. There came the time
each day when we broke out of the dense bush onto a pristine beach of
golden sand, dropped our day-packs, found a seat on a weathered white
foundling of driftwood, and broke out our lunch sacks. The food was
ample if simple, and the calories earned and quickly burned along the
trail. The sand was warm; the sea breezes welcome. The low lapping
turquoise waves highlighted in white traced the tight arc of the cove or
lined the strand like a straightedge. After eating, some of us slept in
the shade of the trees where the bush meets the beach. Others sunbathed.
A few rolled their pant legs and waded in the lazy surf. Some of us
stripped to swimwear and took the plunge. The tranquil Tasman Bay
tempted us, and then swallowed us in its electric blueberry Jell-O
waters. We went under but remained perfectly visible. We emerged
salt exchanged for
sea salt, cooled to a
Our group crossing the
first bridge by the
south entrance to the Abel Tasman Coast Track.
ready to walk.
Yep. Twenty-three miles of the Abel Tasman Coast Track. In three days.
Four hours to do eight miles on day one. Seven hours for a more rugged
eleven miles on day two. Two hours for four stunning miles on day three.
Two guides shepherded our group of about two dozen walkers paying for
the privilege to raise blisters, swat sand flies, soak their shoes, and
try to live without make-up, jewelry, cell phones, TV, computers,
and clean clothing. The walking was
nothing to fear:
just putting one foot in front of another on a very
well maintained trail. One big headland crossing taxed the lungs of the
fittest of us for about 30 minutes after lunch on day 2. No one, except
me with my big camera rig, carried anything more than a basic knapsack
of the size used by college students to carry books and belongings to
class. Most of us wore some kind of hiking boots with ankle support, but
this popular trek, on New Zealand’s Great Walks list with a bullet, is
much easier than the other famous long-distance marches I’ve
the Routeburn Track, the Tongariro Crossing, the Heaphy Track, and the
Kepler Track. Boots would be useful in wet weather on a muddy trail,
but, otherwise, a good pair of athletic shoes or sturdy hiking sandals
would work fine, especially on days 1 and 3. At the trail’s several
crossings of tidal estuaries, water shoes or bare feet with shorts or
rolled pant legs are the right
answer; I carried my hiking boots through the running tides in these
The track undulated as
followed the coast. Each
day presented us with head-
lands to climb and
YANKS, BRITS, AUSSIES, AND OTHER PAKEHA
Atop the headlands, we
gathered to gawk
and take photos. The climb rewarded us
with a chance to pause and enjoy the view.
ages, genders, and nationalities made up our group. Our youngest members
were in their twenties. Our oldest member was in his eighties, but he
bailed out and left his son and daughter-in-law to finish the walk and
joined his wife on the always-optional boat trip that followed our
itinerary and paralleled us offshore. We were Americans, Canadians,
Brits, Aussies, South Africans, and even a couple of Kiwis from New
Zealand: people with remarkably homogenous lives and lifestyles who
differed most by minor food preferences and funny ways of pronouncing
There were couples: most were
men and their good-sport wives. There were foursomes, too: couples who
enjoyed each other’s company and frequently traveled together. There
were solos, too. I was one, but there were other men and several women,
too. At the overnight lodges the solos were paired with other
like-gender solos, regardless of whether two solos might find another
arrangement preferable. Although we spread out over perhaps a
quarter-mile, the youngest amongst us did not race through the track,
nor did the oldest dawdle. And, while some walkers preferred to stay to
themselves at least part of each day, the group was a something of a
cocktail party without the alcohol.
Dutch explorer Abel Tasman never set foot on the part of New
Zealand that bears his name. He came close, dropping anchor in what we
call Golden Bay just west of Tasman Bay in December 1642. He believed he
was just off Tierra del Fuego, the southern tip of South America. Local
Maori paddled out to one of Tasman’s ships in their waka war canoes
and killed four sailors. Tasman named the anchorage Murderers’ Bay,
recording the first impression of the New Zealand natives by any
European. The impression lasted, fueling frequent hostilities between
Maoris and non-Maori New Zealanders (Pakeha) in the three and
One of our guides,
Aneika, is a local
of Maori descent, and
the waka war
taking us through the
National Park landscape
her native homeland.
since this first encounter.
were the memories of Tasman’s visit that the first official English
colonists didn’t come to this part of New Zealand for two hundred years,
arriving in 1841. When they settled this, the sunniest corner of New
Zealand, they found a region with good harbors, arable land, surrounded
to the east, south, and west by rugged, mountainous regions that
discouraged development. This almost isolated northwestern corner of the
South Island is today’s Nelson Region, bordered by three national parks
and the Tasman Sea.
NATURE & NURTURE
The creation of
National Park has enabled
the slow return of several
species of native hardwood
and podocarp trees which
had been lumbered nearly to
extinction. Today the park's
fragile ecosystem remains
threatened: by invasions of Australian possums, wasps,
stoats, and, of course,
legions of human visitors.
the park was established, lumbermen came to the hills northwest of
Nelson city, and stripped much of the region’s virgin timber from its
forests of hardwoods mixed with several giant podocarp species unique to
New Zealand. The logs would be dragged down to flumes or the small
rivers that carried them to the Tasman Bay for shipment out. When the
demand for lumber declined the industry died and several lumber
encampments became ghost towns leaving only a few farmsteads in the
region. Then, in 1942, Abel Tasman National Park, New Zealand’s smallest
national park, was established to mark the tercentennial of Tasman’s not
quite excellent adventure in Murderers’ Bay.
The experience of the natural glories of the Abel Tasman
National Park is, if anything, more intense alone. Now nine months away
from the Abel Tasman I still recall vividly the cries and calls of the
many unique birds of the rain forest — there are otherwise no land animals
to be heard or seen; the previously mentioned lapping waves on the
golden sands of several wild, unpeopled beaches; the prehistoric
surprise of a lacy forest canopy of 25-foot-high Wheki fern
trees; the swift inbound rush of the sea turning a meandering freshwater
stream into a saltwater bay complete with stingrays and, possibly,
sharks on the hunt.
Not everyone is as green as a Kiwi. Many
come to the Abel Tasman just to walk in
to get away from their normal lives, to pursue adventure without danger,
to rekindle their love affairs or, likely, to seek love. Few, I’d wager,
come to Abel Tasman because they want to hug a podocarp. But the guides
that lead you patiently through the park are anything but neutral on the
subject of the environment. Evangelical, yes. Passionate, even. Rabid,
occasionally. The point is made at the outset, with a quick visit to a
remarkable Maori sculpture garden. And the point is continuously
addressed throughout the walk:
• Man is naturally one with the environment.
• The environment is fragile.
lacy canopy of 25-foot-high Wheki
fern trees is otherworldly evidence
of native New Zealand rain forest.
• Modern man does not live harmoniously with the
• There are too many
people, and the environment is suffering.
IT'S NOT EASY BEING GREEN
Guide John Glasgow,
family owns property
the Abel Tasman
is a dedicated,
naturalist with a
powerful message for his
on Day ONE at this
Maori sculpture garden by
the entrance to the track.
guides mean well. Their frame of reference is a Garden of Eden. Their
ideal is the natural, pre-modern, even pre-colonial, New Zealand, when
Nature thrived with only the minor human impact of the pre-industrial
Maori people. Their message is attractive and powerful, especially
because of the fragile, serene beauty of the Abel Tasman Coast. I was
tempted to abandon my high tech ways, don a breechcloth, and go native.
Honest. And I wouldn’t be the first to be so seduced by the great green
gospel: the towns and villages on either side of the Abel Tasman
National Park appear full of people who have
dropped out of the modern rat-race and taken
up a New Zealand version of Thoreau’s Walden Pond. The successful among
them, economically, sell things or sell adventures related to the Abel
Tasman: camping gear, kayaks, art, crafts, water and land taxi services,
trips, picnics, and “experiences”. Others, probably less commercially
successful, are the teachers and preachers of the Abel Tasman: the
Those who really dropped out and have little or nothing to do
with outsiders — this is, I confess, a judgment not based on a scientific
sampling — seem less happy, innocent, apple-cheeked natives than the sad,
grizzled, failed flotsam of modern times.
And, occupying some of the park’s most
estate — illegally our guides insisted — are the custom luxury hideaways
of the few fabulously rich residents of Abel Tasman whose fortunes are
made elsewhere. Our guides suggested that such a greedy conversion of
the national park into exclusive, private ownership insures that the
heli-commuters who own these properties will never get closer to heaven.
The guides must find this a tough sell. Most of the upper middle class
walkers I trudged through Abel Tasman with looked enviously at the
handful of private getaway mansions we passed. Temptation often offers a
chance for heaven on earth now at the risk of eternal perdition later.
We had some risk-takers in our group.
lodgings were no mansions. But, after a day on the trail, the promise of
a comfortable bed, hot shower, cooked meal, even hors d’oeuvres with a
glass of wine, seemed the height of luxury. A bag of our clean clothing
and personal effects waited for each of us in our rooms at the lodgings,
ferried forward by the boats of the guiding company. Our self-packed
care packages ensured that the dirt of the trail would not accompany us
to happy hour, to dinner, and to bed. This element: a return to the
pleasures and conventions of society at the end of each day on the trail
is the key difference between paying to walk the Abel Tasman Coastal
Track with a guided group and paying much less to
rough it by carrying all your gear
Our second night on the
track we stayed
at Meadowbank Homestead, replica of
Hadfield family's original home in
remote Awaroa section of the park.
house is comfortable,
in a style tied to the historic
early settlers of the Nelson Region.
and food and walking the path
Because of the guided trip option, the
A return to the pleasures and conventions of
society at the end of each day on the trail is the key difference
be-tween paying to walk the Abel Tasman Coastal Track with a guided group
and paying much less to rough it by carrying
all your gear and food and walking the path alone.
possibility to walk in paradise
is made palatable to many who would not otherwise be willing to pull on
their boots for a three-day trek in the near-wilderness. Abel Tasman’s
guides must find this something of a philosophical compromise:
installing the conveniences of modern life in the park to attract
thousands of moneyed foreigners into the fragile environment. No wonder
the guides proffer their ecological evangelism with such zeal. They told
me, almost in whispers, that the trail — two yards wide and 23 miles
long — saves the otherwise mostly undeveloped park park by taking
almost all the traffic.
Word of the great
walk has spread
far and wide. International
visitor numbers have more than tripled in the last ten years (from under
29,000 in 1997 to more than 110,000 in 2007), making Abel Tasman New
Zealand’s fastest growing national park. The pressures of growth have
resulted in the Department of Conservation (New Zealand’s department of
the interior) putting traffic restrictions on
the park: a maximum of 50 guided walkers per day, and not more than 66
commercial visitors by kayak or any other self-propelled boat.
Water taxis make
regular pick-ups and
deliveries of visitors at several beaches
along the Abel Tasman Coast Track.
Sea kayaking appears
least as much effort as
up and down the
the Abel Tasman Coast Track.
kayaking now brings more visitors to the park than guided walking. Last
March when I walked the Abel Tasman with a guided group of about
hikers, a guided group of about half that many paralleled us just
offshore in sea kayaks. This group, similar in make-up and age to us
walkers, paddled the clear, turquoise waters of the Tasman Bay 2-7 hours
daily, beaching at a remote cove for lunch, and sailing in to the lodges
at day’s end. Those kayakers I asked all said they expected kayaking to
be easier than walking, but that they believed the paddling more
physically demanding than walking once away from the protected coves in
wind and chop of
the open bay.
Abel Tasman National Park is the Department of Conservation’s concessionaire,
with the exclusive license to operate the guided walks and run the
park’s two fully-equipped, staffed lodges (Torrent Bay and
Meadowbank-Awaroa). Currently, Wilson’s offers guided day hikes, and
two-, three-, and five-day guided overnight walks. Wilsons, which has
been Abel Tasman’s official guided walks concessionaire since 1982, has
offered guided sea kayaking trips since 1995. Like its walking
itineraries, Wilsons kayak adventures include day trips (most with
optional prepared picnic lunches)
Kayakers stopping for
lunch at an isolated
beach below the Abel Tasman Coast Track.
and fully-catered 2-, 3-, and 5-day overnight
trips. The 3-day and 5-day
overnight trips include at least one day of walking the Coast Track.
WILSONS ABEL TASMAN NATIONAL PARK
Former rugby player,
now driver for
Wilson's, Hemi Lawrence provides
guests with a strong, positive
first and last impression.
operates a fleet of boats that act as buses, taxis, and as sightseeing
cruisers along the Abel Tasman coast, dropping and picking-up hikers and
kayakers by schedule and on request throughout the day. Wilsons operates
real buses, too, picking up clients for their Abel Tasman experiences at
towns scattered around the park and at hotels and inns throughout the
city of Nelson, the region’s capital about an hour southeast of the
park. (Pick-up and drop-off is possible at Nelson Airport, too.)
Wilsons is a family business with eight generations of history
in the Nelson Region of New Zealand. Sixty-eight-year-old business
John Wilson was
honored in December 2007 with
Service Medal for his role in putting
Abel Tasman National Park on the
international tourism map. Mr. Wilson’s wife, Lynette, is a descendant
of the Hadfield family, who arrived with the first English settlers in
the Nelson region and whose family estate was at Awaroa near the current
Meadowbank lodge in the center of the Abel Tasman National Park. Lynette
Wilson’s book about the Hadfield family’s pioneering lives in this
remote part of New Zealand, Awaroa Legacy, was published in 1999,
and is promoted on the company web site and following an after-dinner
multi-media show at the Meadowbank Lodge to interested guests.
Despite being a European colonial family
John Glasgow (left)
presents the often
tragic history of the pioneering Hadfield
family at Meadowbank Lodge the last
evening on the Abel Tasman Coast Track.
has courted association with
the local Maori
and has been assisting several indepen-
Walking along a pristine
section of the Abel
land is not your land.
dent Maori sea kayak operations in the park in recent years. The
legacy of the Wilson family’s long history (in New Zealand years) in
Nelson is its own extremely close identification with the land, a
stewardship that to outsiders can seem almost proprietary, similar to
that of the Maori. Visitors are well-treated guests, but — unlike in
American National Parks — they are not encouraged to feel any sense of
belonging to this place or even that the Abel Tasman is a New Zealand
Instead, the Abel Tasman is portrayed as timeless, spiritual, and
beyond the capacity of visitors to fully comprehend, while being
operated like a private family estate. More grand art museum than
playground, the Abel Tasman welcomes us to walk through, but discourages
us from much more than looking, appreciating, and leaving.
The experience is a delight for the senses and a treat for the body, but
also a mini-course in Kiwi
realpolitik: New Zealand manages
its considerable natural wonders as
Theme Park New Zealand.
Tasman Coast Track
© Home At First
IF YOU GO:
Wilsons Abel Tasman National Park offers a
menu of activities packages, with something for almost every
age, fitness level, budget, and time constraint:
Half-day, Full-Day, and 2-, 3-,
& 5-Day Guided Walks
Half-, Full-, and 2-, 3-, & 5-Day
Guided Kayak Trips
You can add a
Wilsons Abel Tasman
experience as part of your
HOME AT FIRST
independent New Zealand Fly/Drive itinerary. There is no extra
charge to have us make all the arrangements for you. The weather
is arguably New Zealand’s best microclimate, so visiting Abel
Tasman is possible and usually quite comfortable at all times of
TO ABEL TASMAN NATIONAL PARK:
The park entrance is about 90 minutes drive
time from downtown Nelson city, where
HOME AT FIRST
lodgings. Visitors can drive to the park entrance or to
nearby villages of Motueka, Kaiteriteri, or Marahau
where they can join activity operators for kayaking,
walking, or boating experiences. Many operators, like
Wilsons Abel Tasman, offer free pick-up and drop-off
services door-to-door from Nelson lodgings.
wilderness of the Abel Tasman Coast
Track begins 90 minutes west of Home
At First's lodgings in central Nelson city.
JELLYFISH CAFE & BAR STANDS next to a
corrugated fish processing sheds
harbor, INCLUDING THE SMOKEHOUSE DELI AND
FISH & CHIPS SHOP, home of excellent take-
away fresh and smoked fish & mussels.
If you drive, you must absolutely plan to stop
at the Mapua harbor for dinner at
THE JELLYFISH CAFE & BAR,
to experience some of New Zealand’s culinary delights
prepared and served delightfully at the harborside
restaurant at sundown. Fish, shellfish, lamb, and
chicken are on the menu, assisted nobly by various evil
desserts, delicious local wines, and frosty beers.
Reserve ahead to get a picture window table for the
sunset on the harbor.
Few natural spaces are as
uniquely varied as New Zealand.
Home At First offers lodgings
in regions across the length
of New Zealand.
Our exclusive "New Zealand Activities
Guide" has hundreds of suggestions for things to see
do when you travel with Home At First
Abel Tasman National Park is easily reached from
reached in NEW ZEALAND.
NEW ZEALAND is easily reached from
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