Abel Tasman: A joy for birds and tourists

By Kate Roff

Abel Tasman's locals are the first to say that the national treasure is for the birds, finds Kate Roff.

Boats in Abel Tasman Bay. Photo / Supplied
Boats in Abel Tasman Bay. Photo / Supplied

When we first met Harry Taylor, he was on the phone to a local wildlife vet.

"We're releasing a penguin from here tomorrow!" he tells us with glee as he hangs up.

Harry and his wife, Faith, own Astrolabe retreat - luxury accommodation at the base of the Abel Tasman National Park.

With million-dollar views of the stunning Sandy Bay and space for only two couples at a time in their tastefully designed home, you could be forgiven for thinking this is an exclusive playground for the rich and famous.

But Harry and Faith remain reassuringly down to earth. They are heavily involved in the local wildlife conservation efforts - specifically, penguins.

"We have boxes for them set up on our property," explains Harry.

Having moved to the area from Nelson, the Taylors have joined a growing number of locals who are working hard to get the region back to its natural state. Birdlife is an important part of that, Harry emphasises.

"In the 12 years we've been coming out here the birdlife has increased 10-fold," he says.

The penguin we are privileged enough to see released is called "Chipy", and it was just a fledgling last year.

So, in the mid-morning, we trek down the shell-lined path from Harry's house to the beach to set this little one loose.

Mana Statton, the wildlife vet who accompanies us, has been teaching Chipy to swim (they have a joy for birds and tourists to be able to swim for at least three hours continuously before being released).

Mana can barely conceal her delight when she finds one of the penguins they have previously released has returned to moult in one of Harry's boxes.

"That one is Pixie - it's a great sign that she's come back," she exclaims, "this is a real bonus."

That the penguins feel safe enough to make this their home is no surprise to visitors like myself - who wouldn't love the peaceful gardens and private beach?

"Places like Harry's are a godsend for releasing penguins," Mana says, explaining that the privacy and lack of boat traffic means the birds are much safer than the alternative launching sites.

Harry's neighbour, Peter Holyoake, has a long (and rather famous) family history in the area, and explains to us why projects like these are so important to Abel Tasman.

He, like Harry, sets traps for possums, rats and stoats, which have put a dent in the native birdlife, although he says it's the dogs that really decimated the local population.

"There used to be hundreds of weka in the area ..." he laments.

But both he and the Taylors are hopeful for the future of the region. The invasive pine trees are being culled from the park, Harry has noticed the possum population disappearing and Peter's wife runs the Abel Tasman Birdsong Project - successfully releasing native robins into the area.

"If we can keep the stoats and stuff down, then we can do great things - such as re-introduce kiwis and the like," Peter says.

And it certainly is a place worth protecting. The national park is an accessible paradise, boasting one of New Zealand's only granite coastlines.

With water taxis jetting up and down the pristine beaches, it's easy to do day trips, as well as the three- to five-day hikes of the whole park.

Golden-sand shorelines, natural waterfall slides and well-marked trails make this part of the world an excellent escape - no wonder the penguins choose to call it home.

CHECKLIST

Where to stay: Astrolabe is a haven for penguins and visitors alike. Harry and Faith Taylor are generous hosts, lending binoculars for the views and sharing their wealth of local knowledge. Visit the website for prices.

Getting there: Having your own wheels and driving from Nelson or Picton is a good idea but, once you get to Abel Tasman, water taxis are the way to go. Aqua Taxi offers regular trips into the park with informative guides pointing out historic and natural landmarks along the way.

Where to dine: Holiday meals in the area can get out of hand financially, but The Beached Whale restaurant in Kaiteriteri offers generous helpings at reasonable prices. Its new summer menu will make it popular beach dining, so book early. Ph (03) 527 8114.

Kate Roff travelled with the assistance of Astrolabe Accommodation and Aqua Taxis.

- NZ Herald

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