A walking tour of Abel Tasman National Park is best done on a full stomach finds Naomi Arnold

"After the first night, you'll realise this trip is actually about the food," our guide says, as we stop for our first snack at Waiharakeke Beach.

We soon discover she's right: for the next five days on the guided Wilsons Abel Tasman walk, there is a distinct absence of hunger. There's breakfast, second breakfast, morning tea, brown-bagged lunches, afternoon tea, nibbles, wine, and dinner, the choice of which is our main topic of conversation: the salmon or lamb? The cheesecake or profiteroles?

I might once have rolled my eyes at eating profiteroles in the bush, but I was obviously an idiot.

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As a Nelsonian, with the Abel Tasman National Park just an hour away, I've explored the place in most ways: walking, running, bushbashing, snorkelling, sea kayaking, sailing and boating. I've gone solo or with family and friends, strolled the coast and struggled over the Inland Track, in thrashing rain and wilting sun; in crowds at the peak of New Year and in the deserted dead of winter; stayed in DoC huts, tents, and friends' baches, enjoying good times and the odd medical emergency. But I've never appreciated the park more than on a five-day guided trip with Wilsons.

Frankly, you'd be a fool not to. The smooth, wide, packed trails make hardcore trampers laugh, but sprawled in front of the gas fire in warm socks, with the latest paper and a local beer, rain misting the windows, I can't find anything wrong with enjoying the scenery at a leisurely pace, profiteroles or no.

Our walk starts at the startlingly-golden Totaranui Beach. My tripmates are nearly all retired or semi-retired New Zealanders: milkmen and teachers, bankers and farmers, from Papamoa, Ashburton, Cambridge, Tauranga, Tasman and Auckland — bucket-listers out to enjoy their country once all the summer tourists have cleared off. Most have hiked several of our other Great Walks, but for some, this was their first experience.

We arrived the day after Cyclone Cook has crashed through the region, scouring it clean, and as we walk along the coast, the blue sea, soft little wavelets, glassy rivers, and lush blonde sand are so progressively gorgeous that there comes a point, maybe at the sixth golden beach, at which you begin to feel a bit embarrassed about your luck to be born a New Zealander and to have this stretch of the world in your backyard.

Walking through Abel Tasman National Park.
Walking through Abel Tasman National Park.

Abel Tasman is a unique national park in New Zealand — the smallest and yet one of the busiest, with a few private landowners living within. It hasn't been genuine wilderness since settlers arrived and began farming - the Wilson ancestors among them. As such, it's long been devoid of virgin forest and plentiful birdsong. But since the park was gazetted in 1942, various bush and wildlife regeneration programmes have attacked weeds and pests, reduced wasps and are helping the birds come back.

As we walk, our guide Rewa Glasgow points out flowering rata, native orchids, native blue mushroom, one-cell thick filmy ferns, weka, bellbird, and tomtit. She tells us about the remnants of New Zealand's early settler years, as a source of prime raw materials: Waiharakeke Beach is an old flax-mill settlement and the track passes over a tramway that took the last of the tall white pine kahikatea out of the bush to be shipped to England cradling butter.

In fact, the guides bringing the forest around you alive with knowledge, wonder, and stories are one of the best things about this trip — other than the hot showers, the schlepped packs, and the friendly yet military-grade organisation. Some, like Rewa, have been with the company for years and have family history that stretches back almost as long as the Wilsons' century and a half, so are the best possible introduction to the park and its stories.

Before the settlers came, Māori lived there for at least 600 years. Just around Separation Point in Golden Bay is where Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri encountered Abel Janszoon Tasman in a bloody skirmish, and further around, on the western coast at the base of Farewell Spit, is where picnickers recently dug up a section of waka from the sand, estimated to have taken its last voyage in 1400AD.

Ngāti Tara were the first known iwi to live in the area, followed by Ngāti Apa, Ngāti Kuia, and Ngāi Tahu. There are still-visible kumara pits, as well as artefacts, middens, pits, terraces, and pā sites. Polished stone tools are regularly pulled from the sandbanks.

Meadowbank Homestead. Photo / Supplied
Meadowbank Homestead. Photo / Supplied

The Wilsons are descended from early settlers William and Adele Hadfield, who carved a near-subsistence farming living from the bush in Awaroa, with remnants of their time still visible today. Their story is remarkable, but it's something that's best experienced at the replica of their home, Meadowbank, surrounded by the same hills and the clock-like filling and draining of the Awaroa Inlet, which controlled nearly every aspect of their lives.

Today, Wilsons, the company, gets a rave review from everyone. At the lodges we also met backpacking New Yorkers, a solo grandmother in her 80s, and a Canadian-English family of four who had escaped their busy Hong Kong corporate lifestyle to spend three days walking the track with their 8 and 6-year-old daughters, who managed it fine.

All fall in love with their experience, each one unique — there is a dizzying array of customisable boat, walk, and sea-kayak options, and a three-day version of this walk as well. But if you can spare the time and the extra money, the five-day trip is the premier way to see the park. At least, that was my decided view from the couch, where I awaited my next feeding.

Between walking, we had an extra day at each of Wilsons' two lodges, the reincarnated settler villa Meadowbank Homestead on the shores of Awaroa Inlet, and the renovated family bach at Torrent Bay. So there's plenty of time for a stroll across the Awaroa estuary to the site of an old schoolhouse, or a wheeze up a hill, or a gentle sea kayak across the clear green estuary to Cleopatra's Pool, where a natural river rockslide is too tempting despite the chilly water.

Or you can simply sit, read, soak up the history, and watch the tide wash in and out as you ponder the deep questions of life: cheesecake or profiteroles?

Reclaiming the bush from pests

More than 100 hectares of native bush have been laid with self-resetting traps in Abel Tasman National Park as part of a joint venture to restore birdlife to Totaranui.

Able to be left for up to six months without needing to be reset, the traps are a time and money saving addition to the Department of Conservation's arsenal against pests.

DOC and Air New Zealand have teamed up for the project, one of several conservation programmes undertaken to improve biodiversity on New Zealand's Great Walks and Marine Reserves since their partnership began in 2012. Golden Bay's Manawhenua ki Mohua iwi collective are also a partner in the Totaranui project.

Of the $1.5m contributed annually by the airline, a portion has gone toward funding a network of DOC traps over 2659ha of the northern Abel Tasman National Park. Around 850 predator traps have been installed including the new Good Nature self-resetting traps, the first of which was set in the Totaranui headlands in early May.

The trap works by luring pests, mainly rats, with a scented bait. When the rat inserts its head into a tube to reach the bait, a ball bearing is released at high speed, crushing its skull and killing it instantly. It sounds gruesome, but the method is a humane way to kill pests and means DOC rangers can spend less time resetting traps.

Senior ranger for biodiversity Hans Stroffregen said it could be as many as six months before a Good Nature trap needed resetting, compared with monthly resets for current trap lines.

— Tess Nichol
CHECKLIST
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily from Auckland to Nelson.

Further details: See Wilsons Abel Tasman