ABEL TASMAN COASTAL TRACK
A Coastal Trickery
Our Track Story
It looks easy on the brochure … a medium length coastal walkway and a mild climate without mountain passes. For most trampers on this journey, the track would include hot sunshine, swimming and sightseeing while walking through the forest of the Abel Tasman National Park. However, if you cast your eye over my brief it is a different proposition; the main goal is to collect data for the new Great Hikes App so as to be ready to launch before Christmas.
Thus, being short on time, I would walk the track in winter, skip huts where I could, take every side track and with limited off-season road and water taxi services I would walk the length of the track twice. This is my unconventional style of adventure on the country’s most popular Great Walk.
I start my trip near Takaka in Golden Bay. Many visitors never see the northern section of the Abel Tasman because their kayak trip typically ends at Tōtaranui and for hikers, it’s the last beach north for pickups by most water taxis. I reach the northern gateway of Wainui on a fresh and clear morning ready to climb the highest part of the track. The carpark is empty, I put on my day pack and pass under the ornately carved entranceway to begin climbing above the inlet. I’m enjoying the cool air as I puff away following the snaking track into gullies and slivering around spurs. While it’s no mountain pass it is great to eventually drop down through the forest to reach the Whariwharangi Hut.
The appearance of this structure is more like a cute old cottage than that of a backcountry hut and it’s one of the most fascinating I have visited. The 1896 stockman’s homestead, while a little gloomy inside, would be a memorable overnight stay for any visitor. There are several small rooms with rough-sawn wall linings and rusting farming implements outside, it’s as if the drover has just stepped out to herd some cattle leaving his home vacant for weary walkers. I do not hang up my boots here but continue along mapping my way as I go.
The track weaves in and out of bays, the largest being DOC’s most popular campsite of Tōtaranui. This is a vast site, with large grass lawns dotted with trees for shelter, on the edge of a mile long beach of golden sands. It is easy to see why kiwis flock here in summer – it’s one of the most quintessential holiday parks in the country. I head on a little further before I backtrack. On returning, I take an excursion to Separation Point so named by French explorer Dumont D’Urville because of how the headland divides Golden and Tasman Bays. The ridgeline track is perilously close to the cliff edge before I reach a small lookout over the point. The sound of birdlife here is deafening. The raucous sound is from a colony gannets far below.
From my perch up on the cliff I can see several sitting on their nests. My camera snaps a series of photos of the colony which is majestic, noisy and yet eerily still. I see a rough track down the bank so I scramble carefully to get a closer look. As the track flattens out I raise my head and realise I have been fooled. These birds are in fact full-sized decoy gannets with a loudspeaker – got me! Appropriately I have been gulled. Later I read how this site is one of the many Project Janszoon efforts aiming to bring in wildlife and restore the park. Feeling a little tricked I lay on a rock and watch real fur seals also basking on rocks in the weak warmth of winter’s sunshine. My eyes look north at the near-endless arc of Farewell Point with wildlife both natural and artificial surrounding me.
The next day I swap my day bag for a tramping pack and I drive around to Mārahau - the southern gateway of the Abel Tasman Coast Track. Passing through another carved entrance I cross a boardwalk over an estuary and enter the park from the opposite end I was at yesterday. The track starts by meandering along the forested shoreline and it doesn’t take long before I reach the first campsite. Here I take a GPS waypoint, note the range of facilities and photograph the shelter and grassed lawns. This is one of eight campsites that I will record today. The track continues to follow the coastline and through the leafy canopy offers glimpses of the sandy bays and next headland. It’s a big day of walking with a full pack.
To visit each campsite I drop off the main track for 100 vertical metres down to the shore and it soon starts taking a toll on my blistering feet. Each campsite is unique, each with a sandy retreat and each an idyllic spot to set up camp, whether one’s plodding or paddling. Soon I reach an exposed ridgeline that looks out to where I have come from and also to where I am going … The Anchorage.
The track immediately turns, drops down through the scrub to a beach and along to the large and modern Anchorage Hut. On entering the dining room it is hard not to stare for a time out the largest of glass panels with views of moored yachts. I eat dinner with the daylight’s fading glow and a cooling lounge. The few of us that reach the hut each take a turn to start the fire with damp wood and in failure turn in early to the each of our own dorms – a winter’s blessing on this popular summer track.
The next day starts cold and clear, the slippery deck ice is the first obstacle to negotiate on leaving the hut. I soon warm up as I climb out of the bay and overlook the mudflats at dead low tide. Most hikers pick a low tide to cross the shallows of Torrent Bay Inlet taking only minutes, however, I am here to map the entire track so walk the extra 3km taking an hour more around the edge of the estuary. One of the highlights of going the long way is a visit to Cleopatra’s Pool. The slot in the rock is a bit like a river spa bath. It’s winter – I didn’t get in. On leaving the waterhole I wonder whether Cleopatra would approve of this forested rock bath compared to the open, dark waters of the Nile.
As I reach Torrent Bay I pass a community of holiday homes, some of which look more like a collection of forest lodges than simple coastal shelters. It would be an incredible place to drop anchor from the city and retreat to one's isolated home overlooking the bay. Leaving the bay I head inland for a time before I pass Medlands Beach and up an estuary to Bark Bay Hut. While the hut is adequate, if I was carrying a tent I would camp. The sites are on the sandspit and I can only imagine the summer outlook from my vestibule, to cool off in the sea and sit on the beach while enjoying the thirst-quenching lemon juice squeezed from the two campsite trees.
My time at the hut is sufficient to collect some data before taking lunch on the run to reach the next bay. It seems that bays just get more beautiful as I walk. If camping on the sandspit at Bark Bay is appealing then the turquoise sun-drenched waters and broad arc of Onetahuti Bay that overlooks Tonga Island Marine Reserve is perfection. I arrive at the beach campsite with a forest backdrop just as a German woman has just set up camp. Her tent door opens to gently breaking waves and her couple of nights here would be camping bliss. Saying Auf Wiedersehen I continue the walk along the golden sands which leads back into the forest.
After passing over a low saddle the trail meanders down to Awaroa Inlet. It’s been a big day exploring and mapping but it is not over yet. The sun starts to set and as I reach the hut, it looks like I will have more company tonight based on numerous boots stacked outside. I open the door and a couple of families welcome me, the hut is toasty and the evening is filled with lively chatter of today’s adventures.
Morning breaks and my hut companions are up early and about to start the largest of the track’s tidal crossings. That is, all except me. Sitting in the hut I watch them follow the markers set into the estuary for a 1km stretch; there is no alternative high tide track option here. Their shapes soon shrink to become stickmen in the orange dawn light. Some members pause for minutes trying to find a shallower channel or less shelly way on their exposed feet while others trod quickly, directly and deeply across.
Some time passes before the last of the group reach the opposite bank that leads to Tōtaranui that I mapped only days before. I need not cross though as I have booked a mid-morning water taxi pickup at nearby Awaroa Beach. I make my way to the pickup. It’s a scenic white sand bay that was recently famed by the crowdfunding ‘Givealittle’ campaign; it gained huge public interest and is now publically secured for perpetuity. It’s an incredible spot now available to all. Well done New Zealand!
I arrive early at the pickup point, keen to get back to civilisation. Looking across the waters I reflect on the last few days of great walking. It’s a Great Walk like no other. As its name suggests it is a coastal experience and has plenty of overnighting opportunities. What other track can boast 18 campsites and four huts scattered along a corrugated coastline? The track offers plenty of options of how to experience it too, with vehicle access to a few trail sections, water taxi access along many bays and of course the ability to mix in kayaking as part of the journey.
The ability to walk the track all year is a real bonus compared to some that I have been trying to walk that are currently hazardous due to avalanche conditions. Just as the Otago Central Rail Trail is suitable for families of cyclists, the Abel Tasman is suitable for a wide range of walking abilities as my hut-mates proved. Despite walking the length of the track twice which meant twice the number of blisters, I had an enjoyable time and if I return in summer I will leave my down jacket at home and bathe like royalty in Cleopatra’s Pool.