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HOME AT FIRST'S-

NEW ZEALAND

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BARELY

ROUGHING IT

in PARADISE

Photos © Home At First

-
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 swallowed
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.

 

A WALK IN THE PARK
          A short 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 Island.
          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 cleansed: sweat

 

salt exchanged for sea salt, cooled to a

Our group crossing the first bridge by the south entrance to the Abel Tasman Coast Track. Photo © Home At First.
Our group crossing the first bridge by the
south entrance to the Abel Tasman Coast Track.

near-chill, and ready to walk.

          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, shaving,

 

newspapers, cars, money, shopping,  

iPods, 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 experienced: the Milford Track, 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 stretches.

The track undulated as it followed the coast. Each day presented us with headlands to climb and descend. Photo © Home At First.
The track undulated as it
 followed the coast. Each
day presented us with head-
lands to climb and descend.

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. Photo © Home At First.
Atop the headlands, we gathered to gawk
and take photos. The climb rewarded us
with a chance to pause and enjoy the view.

          Mixed 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 the same  

 

language. There were couples: most were

ambitious 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

marching 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 two-thirds centuries

One of our guides, Aneika, is a local resident of Maori descent, and proficient at paddling the waka war canoe. She clearly enjoyed taking us through the National Park landscape she considers her native homeland. Photo © Home At First.
One of our guides, Aneika, is a local
resident of Maori descent, and proficient
at paddling the waka war canoe. She
clearly enjoyed taking us through the 
National Park landscape she considers
her native homeland.

since this first encounter.

 

          Such 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 the Abel Tasman 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. Photo © Home At First.
The creation of Abel Tasman
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.

          Before 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 walkers 

come to the Abel Tasman just to walk in the

 

beauty, 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.

A lacy canopy of 25-foot-high Wheki fern trees is otherworldly evidence of native New Zealand rain forest. Photo © Home At First.
A 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
         environment.

    There are too many people, and the environment is suffering.

IT'S NOT EASY BEING GREEN

Guide John Glasgow, whose family has owned property within the Abel Tasman National Park boundaries, is a dedicated, likable naturalist with a powerful message for his charges. The presentation begins on Day One at this Maori sculpture garden by the entrance to the track. Photo © Home At First.
Guide John Glasgow, whose
family owns property within
the Abel Tasman National Park
 boundaries, is a dedicated,
 likable naturalist with a
 powerful message for his
 charges. The presentation
begins on Day ONE at this
Maori sculpture garden by
the entrance to the track.

         The 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 guides.
          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

spectacular real 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.


INFRASTRUCTURE

          Our 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

On our second night on the track we stayed at Meadowbank Homestead, replica of the Hadfield family's original home in the remote Awaroa section of the park. The house is comfortable, and maintained in a style tied to the historic early settlers of the Nelson Region. Photo © Home At First.
Our second night on the track we stayed
at Meadowbank Homestead, replica of the
Hadfield family's original home in the
remote Awaroa section of the park. The
house is comfortable, and maintained
in a style tied to the historic
early settlers of the Nelson Region.

and food and walking the path alone.

 

 

          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. Photo © Home At First.
Water taxis make regular pick-ups and
deliveries of visitors at several beaches
along the Abel Tasman Coast Track.

SEA KAYAKING

Sea kayaking appears idyllic, but requires at least as much effort as hiking up and down the headlands on the Abel Tasman Coast Track. Photo © Home At First.
Sea kayaking appears idyllic, but requires
at least as much effort as hiking
up and down the headlands on
the Abel Tasman Coast Track.

          Sea 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 15 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 the

 

wind and chop of the open bay.

 

 

          Wilsons 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. Photo © Home At First.
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. Photo © Home At First.
Former rugby player, now driver for
Wilson's, Hemi Lawrence provides
guests with a strong, positive
first and last impression.

          Wilsons 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 founder

 

John Wilson was honored in December 2007 with

the Queen’s 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. Photo © Home At First.
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.

business, Wilsons has courted association with

 

 

the local Maori and has been assisting several indepen-

Walking along a pristine beach section of the Abel Tasman Coast Path: this land is not your land. Photo © Home At First.
Walking along a pristine
beach section of the Abel
Tasman Coast Path: this
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 national treasure.
          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.


 

Abel Tasman Coast Track

  Photo © 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
Various Boat/Walk/Picnic excursions
          You can add a
Wilsons Abel Tasman National Park 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 in the Nelson Region is arguably New Zealand’s best microclimate, so visiting Abel Tasman is possible and usually quite comfortable at all times of year.

GETTING TO ABEL TASMAN NATIONAL PARK:
          The park entrance is about 90 minutes drive time from downtown Nelson city, where
HOME AT FIRST has its Nelson Inn 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.

The wilderness of the Abel Tasman Coast Track begins 90 minutes west of Home At First's lodgings in central Nelson city. Photo © Home At First.
The wilderness of the Abel Tasman Coast
Track begins 90 minutes west of Home
At First's lodgings in central Nelson city.

 

Mapua's Smokehouse Café stands next to a row of corrugated fish processing sheds at Mapua harbor. Don't be put off. The setting is perfect, and the food superb. Photo © Home At First.
The JELLYFISH CAFE & BAR STANDS next to a row of
corrugated fish processing sheds at Mapua
 harbor, INCLUDING THE SMOKEHOUSE DELI AND
FISH & CHIPS SHOP, home of excellent take-
away fresh and smoked fish & mussels.

ENHANCEMENT:
          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.

   

 

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:
NEW ZEALAND.

 

The Abel Tasman National Park is easily reached from
HOME AT FIRST’s lodgings in NELSON.

NELSON is easily reached in NEW ZEALAND.

NEW ZEALAND is easily reached from HOME AT FIRST.

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