Abel Tasman National Park
The most popular of New Zealand’s great walks is the Abel Tasman Coastal Track stretching 37 miles (60 kilometers) from Maharu in the South to Wainui Bay up North. Situated at the Northwest end of the South Island, the bay is protected from heavy coastal tides, creating ideal conditions for kayaking and canoeing. It also boasts the most consistently delightful weather of all of the NZ walks, hence the year-round popularity.
The park is named after Abel Janszoon Tasman, a Dutch Explorer who sailed up the coast from what is now known as the island of Tasmania (South of Australia) in 1642. He and his crew encountered the Maori when trying to make landfall and, by one historical account, the Maori offered a peaceful welcome and by another killed some sailors from their waka. Later, when approached by 11 waka, the Dutch returned cannon fire and killed a warrior in his canoe. The Bay where Tasman anchored was named Murderer’s Bay after the incident. It was later renamed Golden Bay, which seemed a bit better for tourism.
Abel Tasman National Park was founded in 1942 and covers 87 sq. miles (225 sq. kilometers). Some land was privately owned and remains so today, but most of the park has remained relatively undeveloped under the control of the NZ Department of Conservation. For thrifty backpackers, there are campsites and shared huts (sleeping 30 people each) that must be reserved up to a year in advance in order to stay overnight in the park.
When it comes to competitions, I have never been the fastest or strongest in any particular group. As a young girl, I always had the desire to race, but rarely finished near the front of the pack. Wispy girls and boys who ran like gazelles passed me with little effort. So naturally when I started playing soccer, I found myself protecting the back of the net in the goal. But when I started high school, soccer wasn’t an option for women, so my classmates and I organized to start a women’s team. We were successful after a hard fought year and I found myself starting as the goalie on the 1st women’s soccer team. Not having a propensity toward quickness and jumping, I recall saying that I had the will of an athlete without the body of one. After our team’s practice, I would stay on the field with another player who would continue to take shots on goal as I practiced diving for the ball. I often came home bruised and exhausted, and yet I knew I had given it my all on the field. While we finished the season with a mediocre record of 3-3 in the conference, I appreciated I had done something no one had ever done before. My teammates and I blazed a trail for women soccer players for years to come.
What I’ve realized over the years is what I lack in certain gifts, I more than make up for in two areas: motivation and determination. If I set my mind to doing something, I am willing to fully commit to seeing it through.
I recently said about a highly improbable task, “If it can be done, I will do it.”
That’s all part of the backdrop for 100 days.
Alisa and I agreed that we wanted some physical challenges on our 100 day journey and perhaps even regain some fitness we had lost through injuries and a work/life imbalance. So we researched tours in Abel Tasman and opted for a three-day walking tour with a well-established family-owned company called Wilsons.
Wilson’s would equip us with everything we needed for a three-day journey, from transportation to and from the park, excellent meals each day and comfortable accommodation at the family’s lodges along the track. Each day a guide would lead us through a section of the track, beginning from the far North community of Totaranui (named for a large tree the Maori used for making wakas) and working our way down to Marahau, the beginning of the Abel Tasman Coastal Track.
Before starting our trip, I set my Withings Fitness Tracker to a daily goal of 12,000 steps. The most I’d completed prior to the Track was about 18,500 in one day, so my goal was to break 20,000. Little did I know that wouldn’t be a problem.
Up is the New Flat
The first day, we were introduced to our guide, Sam, a slightly-built 20-something with a sweet face and short dirty-blond curls. It was his 8th season guiding for Wilsons and you could tell he loved the science of the forest as much as the physical challenges of the walk. Including Sam and his partner Lucy (enjoying the five-day Easter holiday break from her teaching job in Kaiteriteri), our group consisted of 12 people: a young couple from Brisbane, newlyweds from Kyoto, a family living in NZ originally from Germany, a solo traveller from Fargo, and us.
The first day’s walk started where the ferry dropped us off at Totaranui and led us inland up over the range about 7 kilometers to the Meadowbank Homestead at Awaroa. We carried our day packs and water while the ferry shuttled our night bags to the lodge. On the trail, Sam stopped every few hundred yards to point out a useful plant or tree calling out the practical uses of each one. When hiking through Abel Tasman, you are at the mercy of the tides, since there are several crossings that can only be safely navigated at low tide. One such crossing stood between us and a hot shower and dinner on the first night. The crossing was probably half a mile across, though the first quarter mile was nothing more than wet sand, but the second required wading in thigh and waist high water. Following our willowy guide, we made it through with damp shorts but dry packs.
The Meadowbank Homestead Lodge at Awaroa Bay was a welcome retreat from the trail, featuring a ‘drying room’ for wet clothes and shoes, modern hot showers, and top-notch dinner prepared by lodge staff.
The next morning, we set out at about 9 a.m. for a two-hour hike with the group, starting on the beach at Awaroa Bay and again cutting inland up and over the range to the next beach. Most of our group left us at that stage to kayak the rest of the day, leaving us with the couple from Brisbane and our new guide, John.
John Glasgow is a living legend of the Abel Tasman Coastal Track. His family settled in the park in the late 1890’s and the track around Torrent Bay, and the adjacent Glasgow Bay, literally passes through his back yard. After 27 years guiding for the company and many more leading hikes throughout New Zealand, getting a tour of Abel Tasman from John is like following Gandalf around Rivendell.
He admitted to being in his “eighth decade”, likely around 70 years old, but he effortlessly scaled the hills and trails that had been his home since he was a child. He also served as a steward of the park, picking up bits of plastic and paper left behind by thoughtless visitors.
Advertised as a “well formed and well graded” track with an elevation of no more than 200 meters (650 feet), one might imagine the trail to be relatively easy. What wasn’t advertised is that while walking the track, you gain and lose 200 meters about every 20 minutes.
Setting off after a delicious and well-earned lunch at the beach at Bark Bay, John indicated that the trail would be relatively flat for the remaining 4-5 hours. That’s when I realized that up is the new flat.
I told John that I felt like a mountain goat. And then, of course, we saw two goats on the hill above the trail.
We ascended and descended with regularity along the coast range until we finally reached the lodge at Torrent Bay in John’s backyard just after 5:00 p.m.
After seven hours of continuous climbing and descending through spectacular scenery, we felt a bit battered and exhausted, but also very accomplished. We had walked well over 16 miles, totaling 32,891 steps. It was the longest either of us had ever walked in a single day.
Hiking can be a solitary endeavor, even in a group. People walking together often do so in silence, internalizing the sounds, smells and views. Our experience on the track was not too different. We’d occasionally talk with the other hikers or our guide, asking questions or chatting about current events. And Alisa and I would occasionally check in with each other to exchange the carrying of our well-loaded day-pack. Not to miss some of the internal work that happens on the trail, I asked Alisa about an hour into our first hike for three words that described how she was feeling. It was a thoughtful exercise that we did every few hours of each of our three days. Answers included “beauty,” “feet,” “hungry,” “grateful,” “painful,” “accomplishment,” and “wine.” (Thankfully, both of the lodges had bottles of NZ wine in stock.) It’s an exercise I expect we’ll continue through our journey. There’s a lot you can say in just three words.
On our third and final day of hiking, we departed Torrent Bay a little after 9 a.m. and climbed what John called our “probably” last hill (though what we learned later is that there is always another hill.) Once we reached the top of the hill, we enjoyed a vista overlooking Adele Island with a distant view of Nelson, the coastal city where we’d return later in the day. The track was truly flat for about 40 minutes – I couldn’t actually believe it – and then the grade slowly descended into the beach at Apple Tree Bay where we stopped for lunch. The kayakers in our group paddled in about 5 minutes after we’d arrived and we enjoyed our last lunch together on our 3rd glorious day of sunshine. (The temperature was in the mid-60’s – low 70’s every day. We couldn’t have asked for better weather.)
The last stretch of the Track took about 2 hours into Marahau, where we caught a taxi into Keiteriteri and stretched our trail-worn legs. The kayakers arrived about 3 p.m. and we headed together back to Wilson’s office to collect our luggage and then off to Nelson to say goodbye.
All in all, we covered about 32 miles in 48 hours over three days. Our sore feet and joyful attitudes were what we brought back with us from an unforgettable 3 day journey on the Abel Tasman Coastal Track.