Say Kiwi: Exploring Abel Tasman National Park

Say "kiwi!" The author in Abel Tasman National Park. Photo by Ali Van Houten
Say “kiwi!” Photo by Ali Van Houten

Early the following morning, we were awoken by a bizarre whooshing sound that seemed to emanate from directly above the opaque orange roof of the tent. Bleary-eyed, we exited to find a number of awkward, colorful birds heaving themselves back and forth overhead. The comically stocky birds seemed almost too large to support themselves in the air; upon launching they’d flap intensely, struggling to sustain their flight, and create a bizarrely loud sound in the process.

We later learned that these wood pigeons are not alone in New Zealand’s extensive catalog of flightless birds and insects. They evolved into such lumbering creatures in the absence of natural predators, much like the penguins who also inhabit Abel Tasman (although we sadly did not see any there).

With no chance of returning to sleep amid the cacophony of straining wings, we set about making breakfast and breaking down camp. We reorganized the backpacks that been left for us on the beach the previous afternoon and set out on the second half of our journey, during which we would trek back to Marahau along the Abel Tasman Coastal Track, one of the Department of Conservation’s “Great Walks.”

A well-earned rest after paddling Foul Point. Photo by Ali Van Houten
A well-earned rest after paddling Foul Point. Photo by Ali Van Houten

While we’d paddled directly across numerous bays in our kayaks, pedestrians are forced to stray inland to get around the myriad inlets of water. In certain places, there exists the option for a low-tide crossing over the sand. At high tide, however, you’ll inevitably be taking a much longer way around, crossing suspension bridges in the humid rainforest and climbing high ridges with sweeping views of the coastline below.

Taking the long route is for the best in Abel Tasman. Traveling on land put us in close contact with the rich flora and fauna of the park (certainly closer with it than the park’s namesake, a Dutch explorer who never actually stepped foot there). Although we’d seen fur seals and other marine life out on the water, the thick fern forests hid all manner of birds. We learned to identify them by sound as they called to us, from the squeaky tom tit to the mellifluous bell bird.

We’d been granted an extraordinary weather window, even for a notoriously sunny part of the South Island, but it’s obvious that the area frequently receives deluges of rain. We tramped for many miles through lush vegetation, alternately chatting and ruminating on our surroundings as we rounded every kink of the hard-packed mud trail. We camped at Anchorage that night and sat up by the fire after it grew dark, perhaps to ward off the sandflies with the smoke, but really we were relishing what was soon to be but a memory.

The author on one of many suspension bridges. Photo by Ali Van Houten
The author on one of many suspension bridges. Photo by Ali Van Houten

As quickly as the blink of a camera shutter, we found ourselves back where we had started the next afternoon, just as a smattering of drops began speckling the rain cover on my pack. As I yanked off my boots and stripped my muddy socks, I began to think about the national character born out of such a magnificent country. Perhaps the Kiwis’ reticence to brag is not a lack of pride in their home. Rather, it is a sense of protection. After all, I thought, examining a fresh blister on my pinkie toe, if everyone knew about this place, there wouldn’t be enough space for all of us.

If You Go

Rent kayaks from any one of the many rental companies in Marahau for the first leg of a multi-day trip so you can return at your own pace. General information can be found at http://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/places-to-go/nelson-tasman/places/abel-tasman-national-park

Author bio: An arts and travel writer, Ali Van Houten loves stories that celebrate the adventure and creativity of the human spirit — both physically and intellectually. Her particular areas of interest include outdoor escapades, like backpacking and horseback riding, and music (everything from electronic to bluegrass). She earned a bachelor’s degree in English with a specialization in Modern Literature and Critical Theory, as well as a minor from the Professional Editing track of the extremely selective Professional Writing program at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is also fortunate enough to have studied in the distinguished School of English at Trinity College, Dublin in Ireland. The San Francisco Bay Area is her home, but she loves to travel. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her exploring on foot, be it in the wilderness with a thirty-pound pack or in an urban environment, cup of coffee in hand.

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