Saturday, March 7, 2009

A Great Walk in Abel Tasman

New Zealand has a number of justly-famous trails, or "tracks" as they prefer to call them. The best of the best are known as "Great Walks," and the Abel Tasman Track is not only first or second on almost everyone's list, but also one of the easiest to access. With the tradeoff of automobile mobility in place of bicycling purity, we were able to add Abel Tasman to our destination list, and we indeed had a Great Walk.

Abel Tasman was the first European to see New Zealand, an explorer who chose to name this land for one of the provinces of his native Netherlands. He never actually saw the national park that now bears his name, as he landed a few miles to the west and six of his crew members had the misfortune to become part of dinner for local Maori warriors. That sort of greeting did not induce much further exploring nearby, so off he went to discover (and name, as you've no doubt already guessed) Tasmania 1200 miles to the west.
Back in NZ some local activists succeeded in convincing the government to create the national park and name it for Abel, and it was dedicated in 1942 on the 300th anniversary of his nearby visit.

The park stretches along the northern shore of the South Island, on Cook Strait. The main track follows the coast and is served by numerous competing water taxi services, allowing trampers to start and end their walks at a half-dozen different locations along the track. We stayed at a backpackers (hostel) a mere 100 meters from the start of the track, but walked maybe twice that to the AquaTaxi
where we hopped on one of their boats for a tractor pull. Yes, you load up inland and that tractor travels a few hundred meters down to the shore and then backs into the water.
Since we launched at low tide, we had a bit of a ride across the tide flats, but then it was off for a quick visit to "Split Apple Rock" seen behind the boat, then an hour down the coast to Onetahuti Beach.

Getting off the boat involved taking off shoes and socks and rolling up the pant legs, for there is no dock here. As you can see, quite a group of kayakers were in final preparation for the start of their own adventure that day.

The beaches of Abel Tasman are known as "golden sand" beaches for the weathered granite that makes up the somewhat course gold-toned sand. It wasn't long before we were kids again, collecting shells for another few "catch and release" shell photos.

There are lots of beaches in Abel Tasman, but most are fairly short, and the headlands in between are usually a good climb up. We ended up doing 16 miles on day 1 and climbed and descended perhaps 1500' over the course of the day. Long stretches however were relatively flat, carved into the stone by the wonderful trail-builders of the Department of Conservation (aka DOC), sometimes deep in the forest and sometimes coming out to views down to the water or to the next beach.

This area is not anywhere near as wet as Fiordlands, but there were still a number of rivers to be crossed. Two that were further from civilization than our starting point can only be crossed by wading, and only within an hour or two of low tide. We were able to cross all the rivers we encountered with our shoes on thanks to bridges like these two.
Another small stream had this nice moss garden growing next to the trail, while other rivers opened out like the next one to tidal stretches.

Many folks who hike Abel Tasman stay in nearby towns and take the water taxi out to do the track in stages. You can see a number of them at the 3 pm rush hour on one of the beaches all the boat taxis stop at. Many others camp or stay at DOC-operated huts, like the one Louise is checking out at Bark Bay.
It had a nice common room, but the fine print in the dorm room said that the maximum number of sleepers on each shelf was 7. There were two bunk rooms, so that's 28 people in quite a small space.
We had a better idea. After a bit more walking we came to Anchorage Beach and waved at a boat offshore called Aquapackers. It's a floating backpackers, with three private rooms -- ours had two twin beds and an outside window that brought in sea breezes and the music of the shore birds -- plus two bunk rooms that were as "cozy" as the DOC hut. But just try jumping off the roof of a DOC hut, as these folks did from the Aquapackers as we approached on the small launch that picked us up from the beach.

For less than US$100 we had this steak dinner and a continental breakfast, plus that gently rocking bedroom that proved quite comfortable indeed. From the boat we enjoyed looking back at the beach a little before sunset, and out to the west shortly after.

Next day was an easier 11-mile walk back out. This map showing the last 8 or 9 of those miles gives you an idea of how the coast is broken up by small beaches and bays, and how the trail runs along the sides of the steep hillsides. The views back to Anchorage Bay were quite stunning. We also looked across to Adele and Fisherman Islands,

and stopped for lunch at Apple Tree Bay where a few of the birds got close enough for their portraits.

Hiking along we heard the buzz of bees from time to time, and each time it happened we saw blackened tree trunks like this manuka tree trunk.
A benign fungus grows on trees in parts of New Zealand making the trunks look fire-damaged, but in fact the trees are quite healthy and the fungus creates a sugar that the honey bees love. At long last Marahau Beach hove into sight, and we hiked out over several bridges across those extensive tide flats and back to the backpackers. None too soon, as rain moved in a half hour after we returned, a good thing since we had not brought our rain gear on this two-day hike in order to keep the weight down in our packs.

Speaking of rain, we had our fifth and final get together with our tandem friends Lin and Bernard en route to Abel Tasman, at a point where our routes crossed yet again. For the ninth or tenth time on their soggy tour, they had arrived soaking wet. That did not dampen their interest in Maruia Hot Springs, however, so we drove them 14 km from our hotel and checked out one of New Zealand's most Japanese hot springs. In fact, so Japanese that they even have separate clothing-optional indoor hot springs, one for men and one for women, plus a Japanese restaurant
where we had excellent tempura and seared rare tuna on soba noodles. Next morning they finally had gorgeous weather for their ride over Lewis Pass, and we drove a short ways ahead to get an action photo
of them on their tandem. We've exchanged contact info, and perhaps Manchester England will be on the itinerary for some future tandem adventure.

Our current adventure in New Zealand is winding down, with only 8 more nights to go, 3 in Wellington and 5 in Auckland. There won't be much to write about except, hopefully, that we figured out once again how to disassemble the bike into 100 parts and make them all fit in those two small suitcases. Instead, our next blog will say something about our slow boat to China as we make our way back to Seattle the long way.

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