Anything that comes under the term of ‘Great Walks’ has a certain level of expectation to meet. We’d been here before with the town of Paradise in Otago you see, where a distinct lack of talking snakes and naked locals had left us quite underwhelmed and dismayed at the false advertising. But in the midst of the hundreds, if not thousands, of walking trails and tramping tracks to take in New Zealand, there are nine in particular that stand out and offer something more. These are the ‘Great Walks’; deemed the finest and therefore most popular hikes, they promise access to some of the country’s most spectacular landscapes in exchange for plenty of hard work and a love of long drop loos. We’d been part timers at best on the walks that we’d come across so far; we’d made plans for the Milford track only to find it was closed and had flirted with the Routeburn but didn’t go the whole way, while a campsite at the start of the Kepler track was as far as we got there. Our lack of tent and sleeping bags somewhat hampered our overnight options and as such, we’d been firmly in the category of ‘day trippers’. The Abel Tasman changed all that.
On our previous visit to New Zealand in 2008 we’d read about a mythical land at the top of the south island that promised sun stretched beaches and perfect blue waters, but for some inexplicable reason had never made the trip up there. Four years on we found ourselves within touching distance of the Abel Tasman, with time on our hands and a sunny outlook for the week ahead. So a plan was formulated. While stocking up on cereal bars and cold spaghetti bolognaise rather than take cooking gear bore all the hallmarks of amateurs, purchasing a $25 tent to sleep in bore all the hallmarks of idiots. Initially concerned that the label advised us not to use it in wind or rain, its more boastful claim that it was however ‘SUITABLE FOR FESTIVALS!’ merely confirmed that only someone heavily intoxicated would even consider actually sleeping inside it. Nonetheless, we were ready to go.
We took off from the northern end at Wainui, where the track climbed steeply inland offering just fleeting glimpses of the sea before arriving at Mutton Cove, our stop for the first night. As we watched the sun drop over the distant crooked finger of Farewell Spit, seal pups eyeing us warily from the surf were our only companions. Sounds idyllic eh? Well it was to be honest, but then we tried to sleep. Our two man tent was of Lilliputian proportions – it was a struggle for one man to get inside, let alone one man, one woman and two backpacks. So with the ground below as our mattress – for we had no roll mats or padding, that’d be too sensible – three of the longest nights followed. Fitful sleep was regularly broken with the kind of pitch black arguments that only camping can bring, and we eagerly raised our bent limbs and condensation soaked heads each day at the slightest hint of first light. Early starts meant full days however, and with so much to see that suited us just fine.
Punctuated by hidden inlets and concealed bays, the coastline here is a smugglers wet dream. Tiny beaches and coves tuck themselves around each bend, before quickly disappearing into the tangled cover of forested hillsides climbing steadily up and away. The track stretches for 55km and within that distance the scenery never stays consistent enough to become predictable. We found ourselves teetering across rivers on fallen tree trunks, groping the walls of glow worm rich caves at Onetahuti and even wandered down a sandy high street of the impossibly well placed Torrent Bay village. The route is littered with a multitude of smaller side tracks leading off to waterfalls, lagoons and look outs; while longer tramping trails head off with purpose to an alternative inland track. Several tidal crossings are to be negotiated along the way too, where miniature armies of walkers patiently gather on each bank before marching toward each through the retreating water, boots slung over shoulders. There’s a simple, almost primitive, splendour to a few days on such a track, where all there is the path ahead of you and a pack on your back. We swam at deserted beaches and watched the days begin and end in isolation.
We’d timed it well though. A sunny week in spring meant the best of both worlds; summer skies with winter crowds. Numbers did increase as we got further south however and reached water taxi territory, where day walkers are dropped off in their hordes to walk either the remainder or onto another pick up point. Understandably so, the busiest section was that between Bark Bay and Anchorage, a stretch so sickeningly picturesque that walking without tripping over your jaw is a struggle. Below us kayakers drifted past, exploring offshore seal colonies before dropping in at tranquil beaches only accessible by boat. Kayaking the Abel Tasman is one of those ‘must do’ activities in New Zealand; as is gazing down and cursing them in envy whilst wheezing under the weight of a 15 kilo bag from the track above them.
Following our final nights stop at Tu Pukatea Beach we took on the final 12km, coming across some stunning views of the coastline first explored by Europeans. Having seen the rather well credited Mr Tasman turn up in 1642 and have a dust up with the local Maori before turning on his clogs and fleeing; it was actually a chap named d’Urville who unbelievably for a Frenchman decided not to surrender, but did in fact anchor his ship Astrolabe and stay put in 1827 – this was the beginning of westernised settlement here. The enterprising explorer described the area upon arrival as ‘a majestic scene’, before promptly tearing into the native forest and logging it bare. Left largely inaccessible except by sea, the area was farmed and quarried for much of the next century until 1942 when it was officially sectioned off as a national park and allowed to recover to its current state. Good job too.
Journeying back to the start by water taxi, we slumped exhausted and watched the stunning coastline we’d traversed slip past, giving us an opportunity to reflect on what had been an unforgettable few days. We’d seen some quite astonishing scenery, marvelled at Mother Nature at her finest and despite living in a slightly oversized handkerchief and eating gone off bolognaise, we’d made it out alive.
All in all, it had been a bloody great walk.