I was on my second visit to New Zealand. My memories of my first trip, twenty years previously, were hazy. I recall going for a walk on arrival, and coming across a dead sheep. It rained consistently. I felt cold all the time. I remember thinking it similar to my home country of England, but in the era of the sixties. Twee, quaint and a little boring.
Time moves on and my latest trip put New Zealand in a new light for me. I decided I was quite taken with the land of the long white cloud after all. It’s amazing how a little maturity can change your perspective.
My partner Teresa and I, had taken a road trip around the South Island and despite a little adverse weather, most of the time the sun shone down on us. We walked along deserted windswept beaches full of driftwood, spotting wild seals, penguins and dolphins. We saw extraordinary rock formations, glaciers and mountains. We stopped off at quirky little towns, where we feasted on the delicious pies that New Zealand is so well known for.
We had considered undertaking The Milford Track, apparently one of the most spectacular hikes in the world. After a little research we decided against it, primarily because permits and hut accommodation were very expensive and we were traveling on a budget, but also because the likelihood of rain was pretty high. We weren’t the hard-core hikers we liked to think we were when it came down to it! Having spent a few soggy nights under canvas already, neither of us were keen on camping in the rain for a while. We did drive along the Milford Sound Highway though, and it was beautiful, albeit wet and cold.
We settled for The Abel Tasman Coastal Trail in the north west of the island, which is known for its mild climate and sunny days. Hiking (or tramping, as they say in Kiwi land) the AT coastal track had been a travel dream for me for many years. Like the Milford Track, Abel Tasman is one of the seven great walks of New Zealand.
We stayed with our friend, Steve, in nearby Nelson for a couple of nights prior to setting off on the trail. The day before we were due to leave, we popped into a local supermarket to buy supplies. As we wandered around Pac n’ Save, basket overflowing, we couldn’t believe just how much food we would need to take with us for a four day hike. Cheese, eggs, tomatoes, coleslaw, hummus, carrots, apples, nuts, crackers, bread rolls, Nutella, tortilla wraps, chocolate chip cookies, granola bars and a party mix bag of candy all went into the basket! We certainly wouldn’t go hungry! But would we be able to carry it all, along with our camping gear, water and everything else?
We usually travel light, taking only a daypack each on long-term trips, so Steve kindly leant us a huge tramping bag. Into this, we placed our tent, tarp, sleeping bags, clothes and roll mats. The other bag, a thirty litre daypack contained food, water and everything else. We had previously completed The Inca Trail in Peru, but on that occasion hadn’t had to carry our own gear. This would be different. Fully packed, they were barely manageable. I wasn’t confident we would make it to the bus stop, let alone to the end of a 41.4 km trail!
Although we were lucky enough to borrow our camping gear, there are several outdoor shops in Nelson where it is possible to hire tents, sleeping bags and anything else you might need. Some of them even offer a complete trail package. http://www.rollos.co.nz Alternatively, Warehouse http://www.thewarehouse.co.nz is a great place to buy cheap camping equipment and is situated at 23 Vincent Street.
On the long awaited day, we set off at 7.15 am on the twenty minute walk to the main road, where the bus was picking us up to take us to the trailhead. The i-site centre in Nelson were extremely helpful and booked our transport to and from the trailheads. http://www.nelsonnz.com Another transport option is to return by water taxi, which in retrospect, we wish we had done. Apparently, the trip offers magnificent views of the coastline.
We thankfully made it to the bus stop with our over-laden packs and about an hour later we were dropped at Marahau, the tiny village where the trail starts. We were surprised to find a café there and decided to enjoy a cooked breakfast before hitting the trail. The café was cool, with hippie vibes and a view of the ocean. Our unexpected breakfasts went down a treat. http://www.parkcafe.co.nz
And then we were off! The path wound around stunning bays, which we glimpsed between gaps in the native trees. If it hadn’t been for the weight of the packs we were carrying, it would have been a walk in the park. The trail was undulating, but my body, not being used to the weight, was feeling pressure in the hip and knee areas after only an hour or so. I got more twinges on the first day than any of the following days, even though the hike became increasingly challenging as the days went on. I think that my body was simply adjusting to trail life.
We passed Tinline, Coquille, Appletree, Stillwell and Akerson Bays. Twelve and a half kilometres on, we descended and had a late lunch of cheese rolls on Anchorage Beach. We were just an uphill half an hour from our final destination for the day, Te Pukatea Bay, where we would be pitching our tent for the night.
Te Pukatea was a great choice of campground and looking back, was my favorite. From the tent, we looked out over the golden sands and rocky headlands of the small bay. There were some cool rocks on either side of the beach, and the water was incredibly clear.
It’s a good idea to book campsites a few weeks in advance if possible, especially if you are planning on undertaking the trail in the high season from October to April. At http://www.doc.govt.nz you can book either hut or camping accommodation and it also has heaps of useful information about all of the great hikes of New Zealand.
The day had started off overcast, but by the time we reached Te Pukatea, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. That night, we had the most amazing view of the galaxy we had ever experienced, and fell asleep to the gentle sound of the waves lapping at the shore.
As we packed the tent away, the sun came up in spectacular style over the Tasman Sea. We left Te Pukatea at 8.00 am and were planning to cross the Torrent Bay Estuary. When we arrived, not only were we too early for low tide, but it wasn’t very obvious as to where to cross. We therefore decided to take the high tide trail, which was a little hilly, but manageable.
Again, we had glimpses of enticing beaches below. The vegetation was lush and we passed rocky waterfalls and small streams. Birds sang and sometimes followed us along the trail. The weather was fine and life was good.
I was a little stiff, but the packs were already feeling lighter. We knew we would be able to obtain filtered water at the next two campsites, so drunk fairly freely.
At Falls River, we crossed the first of two swing bridges. Below us was Sandfly Bay, which we decided not to visit for obvious reasons! We had only just recovered from our assault from these pesky creatures when camping near Milford Sound. We knew we would probably encounter them somewhere on the trail, but thought that a visit to Sandfly Bay would be asking for trouble!
We met a German girl who was tackling the trail in half the time we were. I thought that rushing through it at such a pace would diminish the enjoyment factor. We stopped frequently, either at a beach or at a clearing with a view, had a snack and a drink and took our surroundings in.
We made it to Bark Bay by lunchtime. When we had pitched up, we had lunch and spent the afternoon on the beach. When it became chilly, we retired to the tent, and read by torchlight.
Again we left at 8.00 am, taking a high tide track, rather than crossing at Bark Bay Estuary. We didn’t want to hang around another couple of hours for low tide and this one only took us fifteen minutes longer to walk around the bay. Prior to starting the trail, it is vital to check the tide times so you don’t get stuck for hours waiting to cross any of the bays, possibly not making it to your campsite by nightfall.
We reached the second swing bridge – always a challenge for Teresa, who isn’t keen on heights! Between Tonga Quarry and Onetahuti Bay, the trail looked down upon the most sublime turquoise water I had ever seen. On the beach, we came across a dead albatross. Its wings were spread as though in flight. It wasn’t until then, that I realised how huge they were.
We sat on the beach (not too close to the dead albatross!) for a break. Walking along the sand carrying a heavy pack was quite exhausting! Not the same as a barefoot stroll.
The trail then headed onwards and upwards, over to the Awaroa Inlet. It was the toughest climb yet. As the trail levelled out, we saw a sign for Awaroa Eco Lodge offering delicious open sandwiches and all sorts of tantalising fayre, and were tempted enough to go off trail and seek out the remote lodge. After a half hour detour, we arrived, only to discover that they were not serving food! We disappointedly settled for a coffee and a coke, and headed back to re-join the trail. http://www.peppers.co.nz/awaroa
Eventually we hit Awaroa inlet, and continued walking until we arrived at our next campsite at around 2.30 pm. We put the tent up and tucked into cheese and tomato tortilla wraps and chocolate cookies. We were in a nice sunny spot and spent a relaxing afternoon recovering from our fourteen kilometre walk (including detour) and fighting off sandflies, which had finally found us.
Awaroa Inlet was the one place that didn’t have a high tide track, so we had to wait for the tide to withdraw in order to cross. At about midday, we walked across the stretch of sand to the water and prepared ourselves by taking off our hiking boots and socks. We waded in knee deep, the tiny shells hidden in the sand, sharp against our feet, We made it to the other side in twenty minutes or so, and then trudged through a mud-like substance into which we could feel ourselves sinking if we lingered a second too long.
The trail continued through the bush and was fairly level, coming out at Waiharakeke Bay, where we walked along yet another perfect sandy beach. The final beach we hit was the lengthy Goat Bay, where we passed some interesting rocks and native sea birds.
The last leg was over the hill to Totaranni, our final destination. As is often the case, the last part was the toughest. Due to erosion, a lower track had been closed off and we were forced to take a more elevated route. A series of seemingly never-ending steep steps took us to the summit and finally down again into Totaranni Bay.
We had made it! We had one more night in the tent before being picked up by the bus the following morning. A family of wekas came to visit us. They are extremely inquisitive birds and checked out our belongings thoroughly!
The beauty of the trail certainly lived up to expectations. The Abel Tasman Trail isn’t the most challenging of multi-day hikes, but that it is precisely what makes it such so enjoyable. There is plenty of time to soak up your surroundings and enjoy the incredible beaches. It has since become one of my most memorable travel memories. And it didn’t rain.
Sue King is a travel writer who backpacks, housesits and volunteers her way around the world. She has traveled or lived in over forty countries. Her favorite to date are Mexico and India.