Say Kiwi: Exploring Abel Tasman National Park

Abel Tasman National Park, Anchorage Bay, as viewed from the trail. Photo by Ali Van Houten
Anchorage Bay, as viewed from the trail. Photo by Ali Van Houten

“Say ‘kiwi,’” instructed a motherly woman as she snapped our picture. We laughed, obeying as we leaned on the entrance sign to Abel Tasman National Park. But even after the chuckle faded, the comment stuck with me. It seemed incongruous with what I’d been told, and experienced myself, of the Kiwis.

Nicknamed after their national bird, the people of New Zealand should be brimming with national pride. And yet, they are often reluctant to boast about their country — despite living amid what is easily some of the most beautiful terrain on the planet.

Abel Tasman National Park is one of those places. Catch it during good weather and emerald saltwater laps gently against golden shores, framed by a coastline of sunny rainforest. The cliché arises from the granite sand; flecks of feldspar give it a gold hue. The sun is hot, and the water just cold enough for pleasant swimming and boating.

Exploring Abel Tasman National Park

On our first morning, we stuffed the necessities — a tube of sunscreen, a lightweight mesh tent for bug protection, and food for a day and a half — into our rented ocean kayak, pleasantly surprised that the longer items wedged neatly into the bow and stern, leaving room for bulkier items in the middle hatch.

Shimmying into the neoprene spray skirts, we set out from Marahau, the small town at the southern end of the national park. The next afternoon, a water taxi would relive us of the boats in exchange for our large packs and heavier camping gear, which we’d need to hike back. For now, however, we were free to roam as we wished.

Eyeing an empty stretch of beach, we sidled up to Fisherman Island and pulled in for lunch. The beach was just big enough for the four of us to spread out with our pair of kayaks, and we were so transfixed on the distant peaks that we failed to notice how quickly the tide rolled in until it was threatening to make off with our boats. With little choice, we threw our lunch bags back in the boats and shoved off, having had our first encounter with the severe tides of the area. It’s an ephemerality that merely adds to the place’s mystique — what is a beach at ten o’clock may be nothing but saltwater by noon.

That night, we camped right on the sand at a boat-in beach with only one other group, gazing across the water at the setting sun and the island we’d been hurried off of. Sandbars rose and dove before our eyes as the tide shrank, then rolled back in. We luxuriated in our private beach, dipping into the water to cool down every so often, as if to remind ourselves this paradise was real.

The author's quiet camp at Observation Beach at Abel Tasman National Park. Photo by Ali Van Houten
The author’s quiet camp at Observation Beach. Photo by Ali Van Houten

The next morning, we embarked on our second day of paddling and encountered some difficult sections around rocky, exposed points. While the “Mad Mile” did not live up to its name, we ended up paddling Foul Point late in the day and paid for it. Intense winds and choppy seas made for arduous going, but eventually we made it to the tree-lined Onetahuti Beach and threw ourselves on the warm sand, exhausted.

A long, slender crescent much bigger than the previous beach, Onetahuti sits on the Abel Tasman Coastal Track and thus sees many more campers. It also has many more animals, as the area is part of a protected marine reserve. Fish and rays are common, as are glowworms — if you can find them.

That evening around dusk, a fortuitous curiosity led me into a cave at the end of the beach that had been uncovered by the outgoing tide. Upon extinguishing my headlamp, I was floored to discover that the light hadn’t scared the cave’s other occupants into extinguishing themselves: the damp cave ceiling above my head was lined with a constellation of tiny, glowing blue larvae.

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