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Abel Tasman National Park - An adventure on the high seas

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July 2018 | By Shona Hore

16 minute read

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My name's Shona and I'm a guide at New Zealand Trails. After finding out that I was going on a three-day kayaking trip in New Zealand's Abel Tasman National Park, containing my excitement was near impossible. In fact it was impossible; I’m pretty sure I gloated to anyone interested (and some who weren’t)! Having travelled extensively throughout New Zealand and internationally, there are few places in Aotearoa (New Zealand) that I haven’t explored and this was one of them.  

All about Abel Tasman

Abel Tasman National Park is a wilderness reserve situated in the north of New Zealand’s South Island. This is New Zealand’s smallest national park at 22,530 hectares (55,673 acres) and is renowned for its golden beaches, sculpted granite cliffs and marine life and it's also world famous as a hiking and kayaking destination.  

The New Zealand Trails Abel Tasman experience

Usually on the Kiwi Classic tour, our guests are split between hiking in the Nelson Lakes National Park and sea kayaking in the Abel Tasman National Park. In this instance, we guide the hiking trip and a trusted partner takes the kayakers out on their adventure. So, when I turned up at the New Zealand Trails office for one of my pre-trip briefings, I was overjoyed when our operations manager broke the news to me that I had a trip coming up that had all kayakers, and that I was able to tag along. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the Nelson Lakes National Park hiking trip, but I had never experienced the Abel Tasman National Park, and it had been on my bucket list for years! 

A life-long love affair

I remember clearly the first time I visited the Nelson Tasman region; in my early 20’s, a friend convinced me to go to a festival near Takaka for New Year. I hadn’t seen much of the north of the South Island at that stage, so was excited to visit somewhere new. What ensued was an epic road trip and my first taste of the Nelson Tasman region – Kaiteriteri Beach. I felt like I had been transported into a postcard; before me was a beautiful beach, glinting in the sun with crystal clear, aqua coloured water fringed by a cute village and hills covered in native bush. This was the moment that began a long love affair with this stunning region.

Over the years I have hiked, camped, danced and indulged my epicurean side throughout the region but kept missing the jewel in the crown – the Abel Tasman National Park. Like many, I trawled the internet looking at all the amazing photos of crystal clear waters, golden sandy beaches and almost constant clear and sunny days (the internet never lies, right?). Having travelled and guided for many years now, I have learned to set my expectations more realistically. The sun doesn’t always shine, the water isn’t always calm and crystal clear and I had been told over and over how popular and busy the Abel Tasman National Park was. Much to my chagrin, there had been a massive storm come through just days before that had closed the main road (luckily beyond where we needed to be) and the forecast wasn’t looking the best for our trip. But, ever the enthusiast when it comes to the outdoors, I wasn’t going to let bad weather get the best of me.

We met our kayak guide and went through the obligatory friendly tease about my accent, much to the amusement of our guests. Yes folks, we too have small differences in our accents that ring like church bells in the ears of locals but are often missed by foreigners. My kiwi accent happens to be influenced heavily by the Scots who settled in the south, and as such, I have a slight piratey roll of my r’s. Perfect for ocean going adventures like this one!

Ready to launch

After a training session on paddling, and running through a map looking at the destinations we were going to explore, we launched from Little Kaiteriteri Beach. The day was overcast but warm, not the best for taking photos, but excellent for avoiding those nasty little burns under the nose when you forget to put sunscreen there – just a little tip to remind you to apply extra sunscreen if it's sunny and you are out on the water.  

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Who's watching who? Checking out a cormorant sunning itself on the shores of Apple Tree Bay

We started our paddle. It took a little bit of effort for my muscles to warm up to this different motion, but didn’t take long to adjust. The water was calm and the area was pretty quiet with minimal numbers of kayakers around at this time of the morning. Most people travelling north through the park launch from Marahau which is a busy location with tractors hauling boats in and out of the water and many kayakers launching from the beach there. Thankfully, we managed to miss all this while ambling our way peacefully up the coast, bypassing the morning madness. This is just one of the many reasons why having a guide here makes a huge difference.

Making our way up the coast, exploring little cracks in the rocks and caves, circling islands and looking for marine life, we listened to our guide sharing interesting stories about everything we saw. He managed to answer numerous questions from his insatiable audience – all while maintaining that typical kiwi laid-back (nothing's a problem) air.

We visited the famous Split Apple Rock, an icon of the area and a common feature in brochures and blogs throughout the world. This is easily accessible and I recommend visiting as a day trip from Nelson if you are short on time and want a taste of this beautiful park. Many companies offer transport options or you can catch one of the regular shuttles that operate out of Nelson. This is a great way to spend your free day if you are on our Kiwi Classic or Masterpiece tours.

The highlight for me on this paddle would have to be our lunch stop, at the secluded Coquille Bay. The beach was deserted except for us, and conveniently had a toilet situated there. We had a chance to explore along the beach, go for a short walk in the bush or just lie back and enjoy the warm day and the sound of the waves. With a call to lunch from our guide we found ourselves munching away on delicious sandwiches and fruit, followed by a hot drink and home baked bikkies (kiwi slang for cookies). After lunch we all sat in blissful silence, sipping on our drinks, savouring our bikkies and contemplating life, as thoughts drifted in and out with the waves. 

After lunch we hit the water again to go exploring Apple Tree Bay. More caves and rocks to paddle through put our communication and steering abilities to the test. Seals dotted the shoreline as we paddled around a bend to behold Anchorage, our home for the night. We were greeted by a long stretch of beach, which seemed busy to us after a relatively quiet paddle so far. By international standards though, it was still pretty quiet. A unique backpackers bobbed in the bay, a cleverly converted catamaran providing dorm accommodation for kayakers wanting something a little different.

A night to remember

There were kayaks on the beach, kids playing cricket, people swimming and a hub of activity. We found out that there was a school group staying at Anchorage while we were there, which dampened the spirits a bit, but our trusty guide found a relatively quiet spot close to the beach and amenities to pitch our tents, and the teachers were vigilant about making sure the children were well away from us campers. This proved to work as I hardly noticed that they were there, save from a sea of tents out the back of the campground. The only annoyance was someone illegally flying a drone overhead – there is nothing like the sound of a drone to creep up your spine like someone scraping fingernails down a blackboard. There is a ban on drones in all New Zealand's national parks, but having stalked down the beach looking for this disturber of the peace, I realised quickly that it was fruitless; they could have been tucked away anywhere in the bush and trees that lined the beach. A deep breath later, it was forgotten!

Having pitched our tents, we still had some time before dinner to explore or relax. I love exploring the ocean, so strapped on some flippers, donned a mask and snorkel and went for a paddle. Slowly exploring the rocky shore around Anchorage, I was excited to find many small fish and the highlight was a sea horse zipping around the ocean floor, pausing to check out its surroundings by wrapping its tail around the small rocks dotting the sea floor. The further I got to the end of the point, the murkier the water became (courtesy of the earlier storm) and resulted in a stingray giving me a huge fright, popping up out of the sand and darting away. I may have made an embarrassing squeal into my snorkel, but thankfully no one was around to hear. I completely lost track of time exploring the coast, so upon checking my watch to find I had been out for over an hour, I realised it was time to head back, or miss out on the pre-dinner snacks and an ice-cold beer – and that would be a travesty!

Following a delicious meal, drinks and jovial conversation, the evening was ours to enjoy. As we were all party animals (sarcasm inserted here), we were all in bed by 9pm! Pretty tired from a decent paddle and with earplugs on hand, I climbed into my tent and buried myself in the comfort of my sleeping bag. Drifting quickly off into a deep slumber, I heard nothing of the other campers or school children and woke late in the evening around midnight. I crept out of my tent to use the facilities, and chose to wander down to the beach afterwards before heading back to bed. It was such a beautiful evening, I had the beach to myself and stars were peeking out from the clouds dispersed throughout the sky. There was plenty of ambient light from the moon, so I perched myself on a large piece of driftwood and reflected on the day. As a guide I get to visit many beautiful places on a regular basis, so it is easy to become a little complacent when seeing these sights over and over again. However, there are some moments in this job when there is a little bit of calm and quiet, and usually that is when I get an all-encompassing sense of joy, a big grin cracks my face and silently I say to myself “I can’t believe this is my job”!  This was one of those moments. After an immeasurable amount of time, I slowly wandered back to bed and drifted off to sleep.

Day two - adventures await

Waking to the gentle vibration of my alarm, a new day and a new adventure lurked on the horizon. I jumped out of my sleeping bag, threw on some clothes and climbed out of my tent. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I gazed out at the day and quietly fist pumped the air. What was before me promised to deliver an internet-worthy Abel Tasman day! The sun was shining, the water glistening and my camera was at the ready for the day ahead. The water in the bay was so reflective it was hard to tell where the water ended and the sky began. Epic!

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Paddling up for some "kayak through" pancakes - a delicious way to start the day!

Consuming a hearty cooked breakfast and gulping down coffee, we were ready to start the day. We packed up our gear and tucked it neatly back into the kayaks, ready to make our way to our next destination. With a quick stop for some “kayak through” pancakes (another unique experience), courtesy of the floating backpackers, we headed off, slicing through the glassy water in our kayaks. 

This morning's adventure involved a paddle up-river at Sandfly Bay, with paddle being an exaggeration. The tide was coming in, so the water gently pushed us upstream. Relaxing into our seats we soaked up the warm glow of the morning sun while listening to the deafening sound of birdsong in this little valley. The water was so clear we felt like we were hovering over the sand below and at times it looked deceptively shallow. Shore birds sunned themselves on rocks while we quietly glided past, moving deeper into the bush until we came across a swing bridge hovering high above the river. This heralded the first humanity we had seen since setting out that morning. With a friendly wave to a family walking the Abel Tasman track, we turned around and headed back out to the ocean. Sad to leave this magical spot (I could have stayed and listened to the birdsong for hours), but excited for the adventures to come, our next stop didn’t disappoint. 

Don't let the name put you off - Mosquito Bay

Mosquito Bay was a gorgeous little beach with a lagoon tucked away behind it and a bush-clad island in front, an easy wade away at low tide. This place was definitely worth an Instagram shot. With only two other people there, it was the perfect place to stop for morning tea (a hot drink and biscuits enjoyed between breakfast and lunch).

After a cuppa and some bikkies we all went our separate ways, taking time to explore this area. Some of us waded up the lagoon to see what was further upstream, others sat and stared out at the wonderful scenery, and I went on a mission to capture a great photo of the cheeky weka (a native flightless bird) that was hanging out with us at the campground. Having been immersed in the peace of this slice of paradise, it was a shock to suddenly hear voices approaching. Looking up from my camera I noticed a number of kayakers coming into the lagoon. Our guide gathered us up and we were on our way again as this lovely little spot started to fill with people. Once again, I was grateful to our guide, making sure we could enjoy these serene areas with very few people. This is where having someone with insider knowledge of the park comes in handy!

Exploring more of the coastline, we meandered our way up to Tasman Bay campground. Nestled under some trees, this was to be our camping spot for the night. We were the first to arrive, so had the prime pick of tent sites, with unobstructed views looking straight out over the beach and the ocean! The bay itself had a long stretch of beach, perfect for exploring or just finding a quiet place to read or contemplate life. There was no time for that yet, though.  

We packed away a hearty lunch before heading out in our kayaks again, this time we were looking for stingrays and our guide was taking us to a secret spot he had found when exploring the coastline with his friends. Paddling along parallel to the beach, our eyes were peeled for stingrays; I managed to spot one but quickly lost it as we slid by. We continued to explore, getting close to sea birds and filling our drink bottles with fresh water from a small waterfall, spilling into the sea – delicious. Our guide led us through a labyrinth of rocks that for the untrained eye would just look like more coastline, popping out into a small lagoon. The water was aqua and clear, we quietly paddled and explored and just enjoyed this place with not another person around. We followed a stingray as it darted away from the shadow our kayaks made on the sand below the water, and tried to squeeze our way up a small ravine, unsuccessful due to how shallow the water became, but an adventure none the less. It was hard to leave this inspiring place, but I intend to return; provided I can find it again. 

Tonga Island Marine Reserve

We returned to our campsite and had some free time. Again, I decided to explore the shoreline. Snorkelling gear in hand I wandered down to the beach and launched myself into the water, much cooler and deeper than that at Anchorage, it was a bit of a shock to the system, but I adapted quickly. This swim was very different to the previous day's, with the Tasman Bay being part of the Tonga Island marine reserve that’s been in existence for over 20 years. Just seeing the abundance and size of the starfish, kina (sea urchin), scallops and paua (abalone) warmed my heart, but also teased my taste buds – I love seafood. 

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Our tents pitched in prime real estate with views of Tonga Island

The Tonga Island Marine Reserve extends one nautical mile (1852m/6076ft) offshore from the mainland coast and covers an area of 1835 hectares (4534 acres). Marine biologists have noticed a significant increase in population and size of many of the marine species protected in this area, which is helping to repopulate our fish stocks for both commercial and recreational fishing.

I made my way back to the beach, changed into some dry clothes and met up with the rest of the group to crack into a cold beer and some snacks. How did we have cold beer you may ask, with no power or refrigeration around? Well, our clever guide, thinking ahead, placed the beer into a dry bag and submerged it into a nearby creek (tied to a log to stop it floating away). This meant that by the time we returned from our afternoon activities, the beer would be nice and chilled – brilliant!

After dinner we had a little chat about the following day. Our guide informed us that the weather wasn’t going to be conducive to a comfortable paddle, with big swells and wind working against us. He offered up the alternative of hiking a part of the Abel Tasman trail from Tasman Bay to Awaroa Bay where we would catch our boat transfer back to Marahau. This sounded like a great option and much better than just sitting around and waiting for a boat to pick us up. Following our briefing some of us wandered down to a cave at the end of the beach to see the glow-worms; this little cave was tight on space but offered an opportunity to see the glow-worms up nice and close.  

Day three - the sun can't shine all the time!

Waking up on the last day of our trip in Abel Tasman was bittersweet. The gentle tapping of rain on the tent spelled out the change in weather. Today worked a little differently, we packed everything up as per the previous day and loaded up our kayaks. But instead of climbing in to paddle we hit the beach and started our hike. This offered up a great change of scenery, from sculpted bridges, retrospective viewpoints looking back along the beach we just walked, native bush and our first taste of the outside world since starting out, with a beautiful lodge and a backcountry airstrip.  

It was hard to see the impact of the weather; with both bays sheltered the water was calm. However, after climbing aboard our boat transfer, it quickly became apparent that kayaking would have been a less-than-fun option. We bay hopped to the last stop on the Abel Tasman track, with a pickup at Totoranui Beach. This was an exciting experience, our skipper tackling large waves to pick up drenched hikers at the end of their walk. Eventually, after navigating the waves and assisting new passengers aboard, we were on our way back to where we started.

This boat trip really spelled out for me how busy the Abel Tasman National Park is and how important it is to be aware of the weather, tides, swell etc. There were a lot of people battling the waves, paddling along and looking uncomfortable. There were quite a few transfer boats operating as well, dipping in and out of bays, picking up hikers and day-trippers alike. What really stood out for me was, with all the hustle and bustle and people I saw on the way back, our guide had managed to make our trip feel like there were very few people in the park, with numerous stops and missions where it was just us. For me that was a highlight, and shows that it really is possible to have a peaceful experience in a busy park – if you are in the know!

The end of an adventure

Once we arrived back in Marahau, we were greeted by a tractor that hauled us onto a trailer and towed us back to base, an experience in itself and providing great amusement for all. 

All in all this was a wonderful first encounter with the Abel Tasman National Park, experiencing the park in all weather types. I will definitely be back with some friends in tow, ready to explore some more.

Abel Tasman National Park didn’t disappoint, and if you are travelling to New Zealand it really should be on your bucket list of places to visit. 

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Less than ideal paddling conditions meant we could explore part of the Abel Tasman track

My Top Tips for Exploring Abel Tasman National Park

Hiking the trail is the cheapest option for exploring Abel Tasman National Park, however, it doesn’t offer access to many of the beaches and bays that can be accessed via kayak. So, if your main reason for visiting Abel Tasman is the water, beaches and marine life, I highly recommend exploring by kayak.

If you can afford it, go guided. It was great to have someone who knew the quiet spots, and how to avoid the crowds in one of our busiest national parks.

You can only hire double kayaks to go into the park – single kayaks are prohibited for safety reasons. As such, if you are a solo traveller you will either have to go guided, find a buddy to share a kayak with you, or hike the Abel Tasman track instead.

Really listen to the paddling instructions given before you head off. Kayaking may seem easy but there are a few tips to make life easier for you. Paddling faster doesn’t necessarily mean you will travel faster, and you will tire much quicker. It is better to take long, deliberate strokes with a good pull on the water. You will move faster and more efficiently, using less energy.

Don’t expect or plan to be paddling all the time, it’s important to take time to explore the area, watch the wildlife and just enjoy being in such a beautiful place.

Plan ahead! If you are paddling without a guide, make sure to look ahead at the weather and tides. I saw plenty of unhappy-looking people struggling because they hadn’t prepared themselves properly. 

Talk to the rangers stationed at the campgrounds, they are a wealth of knowledge about the area, and might even share their insider tips with you!

Take earplugs for sleeping. Sometimes it can get a bit noisy and tents do little to stop the sound of snoring neighbours.  

If you need more of a workout, pack your trainers and head off for a run down the beaches or along the trail.

Take plenty of batteries for your cameras, and/or a solar charger. I always take spare batteries with me, but I wasn’t prepared for how much I would use my phone for photos and quickly ran out of power. I will be investing in a charging bank for the future. And, put your phone into airplane mode; there is no cell phone reception in the park so don’t waste your battery trying to connect. Enjoy the digital disconnection!

Take more mental pictures, just stop and look around. It’s easy in a beautiful environment to get stuck behind the lens and miss out on the simple peace and beauty of a place. So don’t forget to just sit back and absorb where you are.

As an avid hiker, the one thing that really won me over to kayaking was that I didn’t have to carry all my gear (the only limitation is space). This meant I could bring my photography extras with me, like spare lenses and tripods. For others it might be bringing a heavier but more comfortable sleeping mat or sleeping bag etc. Or, an extra bottle of wine (or two…).

 

This adventure was part of our Kiwi Classic trip during days 8-10. Check our trip schedules and availability on our availability page. To work out which trip suits you best, check out Which Trip is Right For Me.

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