The sun is sinking on our third day exploring the Abel Tasman Coast Track as we step off the main path and on to a spur trail snaking along the northern tip of the national park.
We've crossed paths with walkers who have raved about this detour, leading away from the track between Awaroa Lodge and Whariwharangi Bay, and diverting walkers to Separation Point. Those who take on the extra legwork are rewarded with a lookout over a lighthouse, perched on the end of a craggy peninsula.
The canopy of trees overhead opens as we climb over a small summit to a soundtrack of chirping cicadas. There's a sheer drop to the left of the trail, which curves around the cliff face before widening into a small clearing.
The last few hundred metres down to the rocks of Separation Point are both steep and slippery. While my brother Matt clambers down, I perch on a rock, trying to catch glimpses of a pod of seals lazing in the sun above the shoreline below.
From my vantage point I can also spy several gannets on the rocks near the foot of the lighthouse. I would have been fooled, had we not read about the birds while researching the track. Made of fibreglass, they've been planted by a conservation trust, in an attempt to attract a real colony of gannets.
I've embarked on the 60km Abel Tasman hike on the coast of New Zealand's South Island with Matt, our friend Guy and our cousin, who has escaped the London winter with me for a summer break in the homeland.
To Matt, a keen hiker and nature enthusiast, missing out on a picture-perfect view or a dip in an icy cold swimming hole would be a travesty. This makes him a great walking companion; no lookout point is omitted from our route and few beaches are passed by without the suggestion of a dip.
Meanwhile, only a few days after escaping my first London winter, the sight of any body of water that isn't the Thames river is an absolute treat.
The Abel Tasman Coast Track winds down the coastline of the Abel Tasman National Park, on the east coast of New Zealand's South Island. It's an area of lush native forest and wide, sandy beaches.
The hike is considered the easiest of New Zealand's Great Walks. It also offers options; walk the whole track or kayak between different beaches. We embarked upon the track late in February, near the end of the peak season. However, the track is open year-round. Kiwis visiting the park in the off season can look forward to less foot traffic. The calmer weather and cooler temperatures can also make walking more pleasant than it is in the summer heat.
From Mārahau to Anchorage Hut
Our starting point is Mārahau and our first day involves a leisurely three hours of walking. The thick cloud and incessant rain that welcomed us begins to lift as we head into the bush, and blue skies begin to peak through.
The first section of the Abel Tasman Coast Track takes walkers from Mārahau to Anchorage Hut, our DoC accommodation for the night. The track quickly becomes steep, with our climbing efforts reaping rewards in the form of views of vibrant blue waters and golden bays, fringed by native greenery.
We've been walking for just over three hours when the track winds down and out of the bush, taking us to the beachfront. With sweaty backs from the afternoon's muggy heat, we drop our bags at the hut and head back to the sea. The water is freezing, so I treat it as a plunge pool and scarper out after submerging myself.
Inside the common area of the hut there's a quiet kind of camaraderie, as groups of hikers boil water for dehydrated meals, pore over trail maps and shuffle well-loved decks of cards. Aided by Matt's headtorch (thankfully someone came prepared) we knock together some dinner and entertain ourselves with some cards.
Cleopatra rock pools, Bark Bay and Awaroa Hut
We're the last to depart from the hut the next morning, with all four of us somehow sleeping through a mass early-morning exodus. With yesterday's cloud cover gone, we stow away our rain jackets and pack covers at the bottom of our packs. Summer is back.
After an hour, we come across a turn off to the Cleopatra rock pools and the notion of a cool dip is too good to pass up. A short walk inland along a narrow trail leads us to a series of natural rock pools, tinted green by moss.
Water flows over a smooth rock face enclosing a body of water further upstream, into a central pool nestled in among sun-soaked boulders. A moss-lined chute leads from the upper level to the one below, with bubbly rapids propelling willing participants down a natural waterslide.
The four of us clamber out of sneakers and hiking boots and pull off our packs before dipping our feet into the icy water. We idle away an hour or so alternating between dips in the water and lazing on the smooth, sunny rocks. While I could have easily spent
half the day lounging around the water, the remaining five hours of walking time looms over us. So, damp feet are stuffed back into shoes, scroggin shared around and we journey back to the main trail.
Around lunchtime, we leave the shelter of the bush for another wide, sandy stretch of beach - Bark Bay. Here, we break for food, before embarking on the next stretch of the track, which leads up the coast to Onetahuti Bay, before cutting inland to Awaroa hut.
As the result of fairly slack timekeeping, we spend a good half-hour walking in the dark at the end of our day; Matt leading the way with his head torch while the rest of us stumble behind with pocket torches and phone flashlights.
At the campsite we take turns in the shower and unpack our bags before dinner - a spread of dehydrated meals. We wait impatiently for boiling water to revive mushroom risotto, ramen and chicken curry, before we clamber into our sleeping bags, ready for a good eight hours.
From Awaroa to Whariwharangi hut
Day three takes us from Awaroa to Whariwharangi Bay, where our final DoC hut awaits us. The route is shorter than the previous day but Matt, who's on the maps, has told us to expect hill upon hill.
We spend the morning drinking coffee and playing cards with our new friend, a French tourist, while we wait for midday to roll around, when the tide in the Awaroa inlet will sink low enough for us to make our way across.
Shortly after 12, shoes are swapped
for jandals, which are soon taken off and attached to our packs as we find the sticky, wet, sand sucks them in. Despite the wait, we're still knee-deep in water for much of the way across and need a minute to dry off before we carry on.
The next stretch of the track closely follows the coastline, hopping from one beach to another with the track ascending and descending steeply in between the golden, sandy bays. We pause at Tōtaranui then march on, determined to make it to Whariwharangi Bay with a bit of daylight under our belts so we can enjoy the spot.
We're close to our destination when we come across the turn-off to Separation Point. An hour later, we were back on track, still marvelling over scenes of seals lazily flipping around in the clear blue water below.
We arrive at Whariwharangi Bay late in the afternoon and discover a historic hut, worlds apart from the DoC huts we've stayed in up until now. The hut was originally a farmhouse, built in the late 1800s and restored in 1980 for tramping accommodation.
Dinner and a swim is followed by the ceremonial opening of a bottle of red, which has been lugged in Guy's pack for the past three days. With just three short hours of walking in the morning back to Tōtaranui, where our water taxi ferries us back to Mārahau, it seems like a reasonable time to enjoy a vino or two.
The next morning we find the clear skies have been replaced with a shroud of mist. The weather provokes a squabble over which way we would walk (I argue an hour-long scenic detour wouldn't pay off with the low visibility) and eventually we split up. Matt takes the longer route while the rest of us would head back the way we came. Disagreements aside, we're all back at the ferry pick-up point in good time, each happy with our route decision and ready to rest our legs.
We've left enough time before our flight from Nelson for a pitstop in Motueka, for a much needed beer. Toad Hall provides just that - with tasting paddles of locally made brews, burgers, even a poke bowl (you can take the girl out of Auckland ...).
Waiting for our meals, we compare tan lines and admire photos of vivid sunsets and fat, lolling seals. We also begrudgingly admire Matt's shots from earlier this morning, which do, in fact, capture some stunning scenes. Detour or no detour, we agree, the Abel Tasman track really is one of the greats.
Top tips for taking on the Abel Tasman Coast Track
• Bookings are required to stay at the DoC huts on all of the Great Walks.
• Spots in huts and campsites are easier to nab during the colder months. But you still need to book in advance.
• Under Covid alert level 1, Abel Tasman Coast Track huts are operating as usual but visitors need to take self-responsibility. Hikers must carry personal supplies including for handwashing and usual cleaning practices.
• Those heading out on to tracks should remember to stay safe by planning beforehand, letting someone know their plans, checking the weather and track conditions.
• Check the tides! The Abel Tasman Coastal trail has two low-tide crossings. Checking tide timetables will help you to plan a walking schedule and optimise your time on and off the trail.
• Book the water taxis you need to get to your starting point or back from your finishing point, ahead of time.
• In winter especially, ensure you have enough warm and waterproof clothing and extra food in case of delays. You can find a section on what to take on the Department of Conservation website.
For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newzealand.com/dosomethingnew