Exploring the Abel Tasman National Park a couple of summers ago, I was delighted and dismayed. Delighted, because — well, we all know why, we've seen the photos. Kayaks apparently floating on air, the turquoise-tinged sea is so clear. Curious weka eyeing you from leafy green bush. A well-maintained track curving along a headland overlooking an untouched lagoon. White water tumbling down a natural rockslide.
When I did the Abel Tasman Kayaks three-day adventure with my daughter, I found that it was all true. We spent two days kayaking along the coast and staying in DoC camps, before walking back on the third day to the pick-up point from where we were returned to civilisation. It was all just gorgeous. The sea was that blue, the sand that golden, the bush that green and lush and full of birds.
Well tutored beforehand by the kayak people, we set off confidently from Mārahau across the first of many bays, and were relieved to discover it was more fun than work. The double kayak meant the effort was halved and there could be conversation, although it mainly amounted to pointing out the obvious — gannets, sea lions, pristine beaches, islets, empty bays — to each other, and saying "wow" a lot.
There was even more of the same when we reached our first campsite of the adventure, at Watering Cove. The beach was deep gold, with a skeleton tree traced across it in black sand by a little creek. There were sculpted rocks at each end, one of them so like an elephant's head that it was entirely unnecessary that someone had gone to the trouble of carving an ear and eye into it. The little campsite was marked only by a flattened area of sand, and a long drop tucked into the bush, so we felt smugly intrepid.
This was diluted somewhat by wandering along the nearby Abel Tasman Coastal Track past the next headland and quite soon arriving at Anchorage, where the campsite building was already busy, water taxis buzzed in and out, and trampers and campers were making the most of the beach. And this is where the dismay began. Both the sea, thanks to the remarkably efficient water taxi companies, and the track, which trails invitingly through some remarkable scenery, were full of people.
While on the one hand it was good to see others out enjoying what we were there for ourselves, it was also a bit disappointing that it was all so crowded — and, especially, that most of them, it seemed, were other nationalities. It was fun to eavesdrop on conversations in French, Spanish and especially German — "Ich bin Spiderman!" one small boy kept shrieking at his sister — but it felt such a shame that so few Kiwis had bothered to pop down to enjoy what these people had travelled halfway around the world for.
Back on the water the next day, we were on our own again, delighting in poking into little bays, spotting wildlife and impressing ourselves with our kayaking expertise. We were so efficient, in fact, that we reached our next camp, Onetahuti, before lunchtime. This meant we could take another walk, this time to Awaroa Bay, the beach famously bought by public subscription. Long, golden and edged by blue sea on one side and turquoise river on the other, it was a brilliant purchase.
We were not, of course, the only ones appreciating it; but we were braced for multinational company now. We certainly enjoyed the facilities, which included — what a treat! — a bar, a pizzeria and free Wi-Fi. Selling out completely on our ruggedness, we would even have hitched a water taxi ride back to our tents if we hadn't literally missed the boat by lingering too long over our Instagram boasts.
Never mind. The walk — bush, beach, bridge, boardwalk — was so lovely that we were happy to do it again. It also set us up for our third day when, Abel Tasman Kayaks having retrieved their boat, we heaved on our backpacks and headed back along the track towards Anchorage again.
Once more, we had plenty of foreigners accompanying us as we plodded along, past bays and lagoons, beaches and rivers, the glamorous sandspit of enviably isolated Torrents Bay. Even side-tracking to Cleopatra's Pools with their marvellously smooth rockslide didn't escape the crowds; and there was a bottleneck at the irresistible photo-op of the Falls River suspension bridge.
When the water taxi whisked us back to Mārahau, covering in minutes what we had paddled across so doggedly, we felt tired, happy and satisfied — but also just a bit regretful that, as Kiwis, we were in the minority among those who had been lapping up Abel Tasman's delights. You know what, though? Closed borders mean the overseas tourists are missing now. Take their place, while you can.
Abel Tasman Kayaks offers a range of guided and family trips, from half-day to five days. They also do kayak rentals for 1-5 days, with pick-ups and camping fees arranged.
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