Abel Tasman Coastal Walk

As I write this, we are sitting on the Interislander traversing the Cook Strait from Picton in the South Island to Wellington in the North Island.  Accordion tunes are gliding through the lounge area and we’re comfortably taking in the view of islands sprinkled along either side of the ship.  This is the biggest boat either of us have ever been on. Our camper van sits happily on the 5th deck with all of our belongings and a few cold beers in the fridge. We have officially been traveling for a month and just caught a glimpse of the Winter Olympics on the ship TV, having no previous knowledge that they are currently going on. Just two days ago, we entered back into civilization after a 3 day hike along the Abel Tasman coast. The Abel Tasman coastal walk is one of the numerous New Zealand “Great Walks”:  a 42 kilometer journey through lush coastal forests, tide-dependent estuaries, and gold sandy beaches.

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The first day wasn’t as spectacular as we had imagined. Sadly, my grandma passed away a few days earlier and I was having a hard time coming to terms with the fact that I couldn’t be there with my family.  Before we left, John and I resigned to the fact that we may be too far away to get back to the states in a hurry if something happened while traveling. We were in a remote town in New Zealand when we found out, hours from a major airport and days away from setting foot back home, even if we could find a flight.  The viewing was happening the same day as the start of our hike and we were lucky to find a wifi connection strong enough to FaceTime with my brother and the rest of the family while the viewing was going on. God bless FaceTime! It was great to see everyone and talk to my grandpa to tell him how sorry I was.  The next best thing to actually being there, although definitely not the same.

As if we were in a movie, the clouds opened up and it started pouring down rain while we sat sheltered in our van in front of the Motueka Public Library “visiting” with my family during this tough time. The forecast had been clear leading up to the trek and this storm seemed to come out of nowhere. How appropriate. All the multi-day great walks in New Zealand require pre-booking campsites or huts in advance. In the summer months, the sites for most treks book up months ahead of time.  We booked our campsites back in October and there was no way to change our reservations at the last minute.  The show must go on, rain or shine!

After an emotional morning, we reached the carpark in Marahau where the hike began.  The rain was still coming down.  We finished packing our backpacks, locked up the important possessions that would be left behind, and rain proofed ourselves and our packs.  We had 4.5 hours until we would reach our campsite for the night. The rain was supposed to taper off as the evening approached, so we were hopeful.  John made the impulse decision at the last minute to wear his Chaco sandals and leave his hiking shoes behind.  Given the current rainy situation and the expectation that we would be doing a bit of walking across sandy beaches, it didn’t seem like a ridiculous choice.

It was as if it was all meant to happen this way. It felt like I was on some sort of miserable, cold, wet, muddy pilgrimage to a distant land while mourning the loss of my grandma. The 4.5 hours were relatively quiet and full of contemplation and acceptance at some level.  John’s Chacos graced him with several massive blisters, so he spent the time trying to avoid large puddles due to the fact that he was now wearing wool socks with his sandals.  Amateur mistake! Back when we were sitting on our comfy couch in our tiny home in Boulder, we planned to do an extra 30 minute hike on our first day to get away from the crowds and spend time at a beautiful little beach called Te Pukatea.  It was a good idea, in theory, or at least in sunny weather.  After 4 hours in the rain, we were cursing our past selves. We stopped at the crowded Anchorage campsite beneath a cooking shelter to make our dehydrated chicken tikka masala backpacker meal before taking on the home stretch. Surprisingly delicious! And the rain was starting to slow down. Things were looking up! Or were they?  Of course as we took our final bites and ventured back out onto the path, the rain picked up again.  We definitely were thinking straight when we booked this campsite months ago because the beach at Te Pukatea was simply gorgeous.  Too bad it was raining so hard that we couldn’t enjoy it. We set up our tent and tried to keep all of our bedding and clothes as dry as possible.  After hanging our wet clothes up inside the tent and climbing inside our sleeping bags to warm up, we decided we went through enough for one day and went to sleep.  It was 7:30pm.

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The rain continued through the night and woke us up a few times because it was coming down so hard.  To our surprise, the rain had stopped and the sky was beginning to clear when we got up at 7am.  It took us a while to get moving because everything we had with us was soaking wet. We made some oatmeal and packed up our drenched belongings.  I took a deep breath and said out loud, “It’s a new day!” It had to be better than yesterday.

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And so it was.  We journeyed across estuaries at low tide and past cute little beach villages on a mellow path for 3 hours until we reached our new home at Bark Bay. Our spirits were lifted as the sun got brighter and brighter and shined on the beach, giving us views of gold and turquoise rather than gray and more gray.  Now this is what I’m talking about!  This is what we envisioned all along.  We built our oceanfront villa (aka set up camp) and hung our sopping wet stuff in the sun to dry.  Just in time for lunch!  We spent the rest of the day swimming in the chilly, yet refreshing ocean, sunbathing on the beach, and watching 2 large stingrays with a 3 foot wingspan (or fin span?) graze along the shore.  We were further rewarded with a stunning sunset and dry sleeping bags before waking up early the next morning to a fabulous sunrise.

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Our last day was our longest hiking day. We had a 6 hour walk from Bark Bay to Totaranui where we would catch a ferry back to our van. We were up early for two reasons. The first is that the latest ferry back to Marahau was at 2:15.  The second reason was that we needed to pass over two estuaries, both of which can only be passed 1-3 hours on either side of low tide.  We felt like we were the only two people in the entire National Park because we didn’t see anyone else for the first 3 hours of our walk. We climbed up a steep hill and down through a saddle, feeling as if we had left the coast and were trekking through the New Zealand jungle.  After a bit of time, we began to catch glimpses of the clear sea below through the trees. We descended to a lovely campsite, overlooking an island called the Tonga Marine Reserve. We proceeded to cross a white sandy beach called Onetahuti Bay, through the forest once again, and then arrived at our last low tide crossing at Awaroa Bay.  After making it across the vast estuary, we finished the last leg of our trip by walking across more beautiful beaches to reach Goat Bay.

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The entire track was really easy thus far, at least compared to the backpacking we are used to in Colorado.  Apparently the usual path to Totaranui was washed out by a tree slide and the area would not be stable for another 6 years. As a result, a new path was created, consisting of 7 or more switchbacks up an extremely steep hill. These final 30 minutes were by far the most challenging portion of our adventure.  A bit short of breath, we start encouraging each other with phrases like “almost there!” and “one final push!”. The view at the top of the hill was well worth the sweat!  We cruised on down the hill and collapsed on the beach in Totaranui to wait for our ferry. We took a celebratory swim in the ocean and polished off the rest of our food before boarding the Abel Tasman Sea Shuttle for Marahau.  Wait, Marahau? Not Kaiteriteri? “We don’t have a reservation for you, ma’am, and we don’t go to Marahau this time of the day,” says the skipper on the shuttle.  Oh jeez, but we’ve been walking for 3 days!  And we ate all our food!  What to do, what to do… Ah yes, of course I printed out the email confirmation I received from Abel Tasman Sea Shuttles months ago. The email clearly stated that we would be going to Marahau at 2:15.  The skipper and captain were completely confused, but allowed us to stay aboard and said they would sort us out when we got back to Kaiteriteri.

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The ferry ride was lovely and we even stopped to see a few baby seals playing on the rocks along the coast. We pulled into port at Kaiteriteri and headed straight for the shuttle office to figure out how we were going to get back to Marahau.  The only thing going through our minds was, “This better not take too long, we have to make it to Fat Tui before they close!”  Fat Tui is a little food truck near the carpark in Marahau, which we had heard about while planning the hike.  Luckily, it didn’t take too long to get everything figured out and an employee drove us the 20 minutes to our van.

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On the way to our campervan, we spotted Fat Tui and saw an open sign!  Score! We quickly threw our packs in the van and drove over to Fat Tui and ordered two burgers, fries, and some sugar donuts.  Ecstasy! I can still taste the burger. Meat in New Zealand is really fresh and tasty and these burgers were delectable.  They were topped with salad (including carrots) and some sort of pickled relish.  John’s burger was topped with bacon, pineapple, and a fried egg.  We decided the only reason we ever backpack is to be able to gorge on burgers and fries afterwards.  John tried to convince me we should delay our plans to head to Picton the next day to catch the interisland ferry so that we could eat at Fat Tui just one more time. If our tickets weren’t already booked, I must admit I would have been easily convinced.

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