The Wilsons could rightly claim Abel Tasman as their own, but choose to share the land with Catherine Smith.
There's a lot of weight resting on a little old apostrophe. The Wilson family's tourism business in the Abel Tasman is called Wilsons Abel Tasman — no apostrophe. While the family has been involved in the area since the 1850s, director Darryl Wilson, corrects me; "We can't claim ownership of the Abel Tasman National Park."
Technically correct. But in spirit I'm not so sure. The Wilsons were the first to be granted a guide concession in the park by the Department of Conservation in 1982, after dad John Wilson had been running passenger services from the family bach in Torrent Bay since 1977. Generations earlier, the family had farmed around Awaroa. The grand old homestead there, Meadowbank, was built in 1884 by great-grandparents of John's wife, Lynette.
Husbanding this land and preserving it for five generations evolved into a business that now includes boats, lodges and guided walking and kayaking adventures. There might be a slew of awards for sustainability, innovation and business quality, but the heart of this place is the love that Darryl and his team of guides, cooks, skippers and lodge workers have for the park.
This autumn I had the chance for a full three-day walk in the park before the lodges were closed for the winter. Late April is considered the shoulder season but to me the cooler days and lack of crowds make this a far more beautiful time to be there than high summer. The water is glassy (summers can sometimes be breezy), the daytime skies cloudless, the tracks nicely un-dusty after brief overnight rain.
Friendly deals for locals and on GrabOne meant that I was joining an interesting bunch of fellow hikers. Most had signed up for the unguided walks, but were happy to hike alongside me and long-time guide Lucy Hodgson to glean the real insider gen.
We were doing the north to south trip on our three days, taking the launch up to Totaranui, then walking back out to the Marahau Valley, the official entrance to the park. Wiser sorts (or those not on a work schedule) should opt for the five-day package, as that adds a second day at each lodge to kayak, make smaller day trips or even just hang out doing nothing.
Doing nothing turned out to be harder than it seemed. Before coming here, Lucy had guided tours on the Hollyford and Milford tracks, and tells me Abel Tasman is not like the others with their rigorous climbs and schedules to keep to. Here, her job largely seems to be encouraging us to slow down and take in the details.
Before it became a national park in 1941, the area was working farms and sawmilling (neither terribly successful) so remnants of bullock tracks survive as nice easy paths. The rocky bush bits are comfortable walking too — we encountered a dad and pre-schooler happily negotiating the track — so there is no hurry.
The itinerary is comfortably arranged so the first day has an easy start. The trip from Kaiteriteri Beach gave us time to get close to Fisherman and Adele Islands to admire the basking seals. It's a two and a bit hour walk through bush — mature beech and rata is beautifully different for these North Island eyes — to the tidal inlet to the Meadowbank Homestead at Awaroa. The old house has been rebuilt, the bedrooms are all en suite, the setting right on the water.
Here Lynette has compiled photos into a video history and book, coloured by some juicy ancestor scandals, during the walk Lucy told us about the area's pioneering days. Darryl's brother, Craig, is chef for the lodges, so the food is fresh and interesting. It's the little things that count: most popular is the buffet to assemble your packed lunch, with jars of giant lollies alongside the healthy stuff.
Day two is more testing — 16km, a few smallish hills — but doing it in seven hours allows time to pause. Lucy points out extraordinary plant finds — including one of the first plants to transition from sea to land. David Bellamy got pretty excited about it, a genetic line going back millions of years. Teensy orchids — some no bigger than my fingernail — were as thrilling to me as the grand vistas of bush, sea and islands.
Torrent Bay Lodge has more comfort and breathtaking views before another five-hour hike, finishing on the boardwalks along one of the largest tidal estuaries. A person runs out of superlatives - and quickly bores Instagram followers — with rave after rave about the golden beaches, varied bushscape and good times.
Personally, if I were the Wilsons, I'd be adding back in that apostrophe and claiming it for myself.
Getting there: Air New Zealand has daily flights from Auckland to Nelson.
Details: Wilsons Abel Tasman bookings are now open for the summer season.
The writer travelled courtesy of Wilsons Abel Tasman.