Rika Milne shares the Abel Tasman Coast Track with a fascinating array of other walkers - and still enjoys moments of solitude.
Will you walk with such a rucksack?" asked an elderly European man. Eyeing my modest-sized pack, I explained that, yes, I would carry it from Marahau to Totaranui.
"And where will you sleep?" he asked in a thick European accent. "Under canvas," I replied, indicating a small tent strapped to the side of my pack. He laughed a hearty laugh, suggesting he thought I was quite mad.
For a moment he and his fellow travellers disappeared behind their cameras. Not wishing to become a tourist attraction, I shouldered my load and ambled off along the Abel Tasman Coast Track.
As I took my first steps across the Marahau Estuary boardwalk, it felt like walking on to a vast stage. A deliciously warm breeze blew across the land from the sea.
It was early December and sunny. With blue sky above, sparkling ocean to my right and expansive green valley to my left, I had the familiar feeling of smallness among the grandeur of New Zealand's wild open space.
Between Marahau and Anchorage Bay I enjoyed views of yellow beaches snaking northwards between blue sea and green forest. I also encountered a steady stream of day walkers, among them many tired foreigners, heading south and home for the evening. "How far to go?" they asked wearily.
The sun was low in the sky but I walked on. A smiley young woman in the Nelson Information Centre had tipped me off.
"The huts will be wall to wall with overseas tourists," she said.
Preferring to be alone, I chose to avoid the crowded Anchorage Hut. A good decision, I thought, as I enjoyed the late afternoon sun and admired the clear emerald water of Torrent Bay Estuary.
The Torrent Bay campsite was more luxurious than I expected, with running water and flush toilets. And, much to my surprise, I had the site almost to myself.
Walking early the next morning I saw no one for almost two hours. At Bark Bay I was amused to watch a large group of tourists standing on the beach pretending to paddle.
Before them, like a warrior, stood a bronzed kayak instructor wielding his paddle like a spear.
While the estuary crossing at Bark Bay does have an inland option, at Onetahuti and Awaroa the coastal track crosses tidal estuaries with no inland alternatives. This means you should consult tidal charts before setting out.
At Onetahuti, where the sand is almost tangerine in colour, you can cross the estuary three hours either side of low tide. At Awaroa, crossing is recommended only one hour before and two hours after low water.
I raced the tide to reach Awaroa Estuary half an hour outside the recommended time for crossing. Dwarfed by the estuary's hugeness I felt like an ant on the wide, yellow, silty expanse.
With no time for hesitation I quickly chose a place to cross. Tentatively, I waded into the water. With each step I expected to be up to my waist or neck.
On the opposite shore, an American family paced up and down like cats before a moat at the zoo. As I reached the other side (with only my shorts wet) the mother of the tribe anxiously called to me.
It took a while to register what she was asking. "Is the water cold?" she impatiently repeated for the fourth time.
I looked at her blankly. Mentally I checked each of my concerns about crossing the estuary: swiftness of current, depth of water ... did she say cold? Must be from Alaska.
"No the water is quite warm," I said.
The family continued to pace up and down the shoreline. A few minutes later I heard shrieks of laughter, as they unclothed and piggy-backed one another across.
One of just three parties of New Zealanders I met was a young family. Mum and dad walked for three days with full packs and two kids in a sturdy pushchair.
They had walked the track for the first time in the 1980s, "before children". Though enjoying the coastal track once more, this time "with children", they admitted being disappointed at the number of buildings and development on private land that borders the park, especially around Awaroa.
The intermingling of private land with national park may contribute to my feeling that people are very much part of the Abel Tasman landscape.
Perhaps this is what makes the Abel Tasman Coast Track unlike other walks I have completed in New Zealand national parks.
I have seldom witnessed a New Zealand walk being enjoyed by such volume and variety of people — kayakers, walkers, nature lovers, strollers, campers and trampers are part of the fabric.
During some moments I felt crowded, like at Totaranui Beach, where I watched five aqua-taxis load and unload dozens of day walkers. But despite the apparent number of visitors, even in December, I still enjoyed times of solitude.
In one such moment between Awaroa inlet and Waiharakeke beach, I sat alone, admiring stands of massive beech forest whose wide trunks soared skyward among the lush green canopy.
On my final night I camped at the Waiharakeke campsite just metres from the beach. I soaked up the last of the sun's warmth and felt the satisfying ache of a good day's walk in my legs. As I lay in my sleeping bag that night I marvelled at the scenery of the past two days.
Despite having seen stunning photographs of Abel Tasman National Park in brochures, the beauty of its turquoise waters, golden beaches and limestone coastlines exceeded all expectation.
I know now why foreign tourists have made this a must-do activity.
And I am left wondering whether New Zealanders should do the same.
Details: The Abel Tasman Coast Walk is 51km long and takes three to five days. It is a good idea to check tide tables as some estuaries are only passable near low tide. The track can be walked north to south or south to north. Access points are at Marahau (67 km from Nelson), Totaranui, Wainui and Awaroa.
Getting there: A regular bus service departs Nelson and Motueka for Kaiteriteri, Marahau, Totaranui and Wainui, and ferry services are also available from each of these points. Several companies provide water-born transport along the coastal track, including Aquataxi. Kayaks can be hired from Marahau.
Accommodation: Totaranui Campground has fireplaces, toilets, cold showers and laundry facilities but no power.
Abel Tasman National Park has four DoC huts and 21 DoC campsites. Huts have heating, toilets, bunks, mattresses and a water supply but no cooking facilities. You must buy passes before starting the walk.
Other activities: Kayak trips can be organised through Abel Tasman Kayaks.