Walk 11 - Abel Tasman Track 'Great Walk'


Our Christmas present was a day late. Our daughter, Robyn, flew into Christchurch to join us for a walking / kayaking exploration of the Abel Tasman Track, in the north of the South Island, between Christmas and New Year. Being one of the more popular Great Walks and reputed to have a benign climate, we expected fine weather and lots of sun-seeking New Zealanders in this peak holiday period. Neither would prove to be completely true. Nonetheless, the walking was a secondary activity to catching up with Robyn, whom we hadn't seen in almost six months and reliving the family adventures that we had had during her childhood.

Day 1: Wainui to Awaroa - the northern end

After a 5 hours drive up from Christchurch to Motueka, our base for the week, we decided to set out a day earlier than planned - the next day was forecast as the one fine day of the week! For various reasons we did the walk in the reverse sense to most, taking a bus to the northern trackhead at Wainui, 80 km north of Motueka. The interesting geological, historical and sociological commentary on the region by driver Colin made the trip pass quickly.

Start of the Abel Tasman Track

Wainui Inlet and Golden Bay

Northern coastline of Abel Tasman

The track from the hut followed the beach then climbed quickly up through the dense low forest, with its varied shades and textures of green to pass over a lower saddle and drop down to the eastern shoreline of the National Park.

Finally we arrived at the tidal Wainui inlet by late morning and the three of us set out on the Abel Tasman Track. The broad grassy track climbed steadily up through a shrubby vegetation dominated by the bright green whiteywood and dull green invasive gorse, with tree-fern lined gullies. As it climbed, views opened up over Golden Bay and the mountains of the Kahurangi National Park to the west.

Once over the 200m saddle (the highest point on this track), we descended gently through denser forest, often shaded by flowering manukas, until we reached Whariwharangi Hut, a beautifully restored old 19th century settlers hut in a clearing near the white sands of Whariwharangi Beach; a perfect place for a break.

Forest near Whariwharangi

Glimpses of beautiful sandy coves and clear green water appeared through gaps in the foliage and suddenly we emerged onto the magnificent sweeping curve of Ahatakapau Bay; a couple of yachts sheltered in the lee of the rocky headland at its southern end, a few trampers strolled by, but the bay still retained a superb feeling of isolation - a perfect spot for lunch.

Whariwharangi Hut

Looking back over Wharawharangi Bay

On the beach again

Ahatakapau Bay

Lunch in the shade at Ahatikapau

Abel Tasman coastscape

It was tempting to stay longer, but a tidal flat awaited us at the end of the day and we needed to be there within 2 hours of low tide to get across - we pushed on. From Ahatakapau, the track meandered up and over the headland, descending again to cross equally beautiful and secluded Anapai Bay, before climbing up through dense rain forest vegetation, where giant rata and other tall forest trees with epiphyte laden branches towered over the ferns, vines and shrubs below.

Last glimpse back over Ahatakapau

Anapai Beach

Rocks near Anapai

Forest north of Totaranui

Soon, views opened up to the south over the flats of Totaranui; a brief stroll across the open grass and we were at the Totaranui Beach Camp. This is a spot accessible by car and was our first encounter with large numbers of holiday-makers, attracted by the golden sands and gentle seas. Many walkers start or end their Abel Tasman experience here; in one way it is a pity as they miss out on the superb and isolated coastal and forest scenery in the north of the park, but in another it isn't, as that very sense of isolation would no doubt be lost.

Anapai Beach

Overlooking Totaranui tidal flats

Holidaymakers enjoying the golden sands of Totaranui

looking back over Totaranui Beach

From Totaranui, the track followed the coastline southward, crossing the lookout at Skinner Point, and wandering along Goat Bay. At the southern end of the beach, a small grove of rata, covered in brilliant red flowers, dominated the skyline above Ratakura Point. We zig-zagged up and over the point, following the narrow track along a steep shaded slope above the ocean, dropping back down on to the sand at Waiharakeke Bay.

Rata in full bloom

Another glorious Abel Tasman view

Crossing the Awaroa Inlet

From here, the track turned inland, first following the narrow golden sandy bed of a small fresh-water stream, as it babbled its way down to the sea under a roof of ferns and vines, then climbing up and over another saddle and descending to the edge of Awaroa Inlet. Crossing this broad shallow tidal inlet is at the discretion of the lunar cycle, but our arrival an hour after low tide, enabled us to press straight on, crunching our way over the shell beds of the sandy flat, before wading across the short deeper section and arriving at Awaroa Campsite on the southern shore.

Tidal flats at Awaroa

So what happened to all the water?

It was a relief to finally drop our packs and set up camp for the night on a flat grassy area. After setting up we wandered down to the distant beach, past the strange landscape of boats lying high and dry on the tide-drained bed of the inlet - reminding me of pictures I had seen of abandoned boats in the poor dead Aral Sea. Robyn was the only one of us brave enough to swim in the cold sea water, stingrays notwithstanding, and assured us that it was very refreshing. The fair Nello and I were content to lie on the beach and to have a good camp dinner and almost-comfortable sleep.

Day 2: Awaroa to Onetahuti

It was an early morning rise; a quick pack up of condensation-wet tents and we were back on the road soon after 7am. The walk guide indicated that we needed to be at Onetahuti by 9am to be able to cross the creek at the northern end of the beach and we had a boat to catch at 11am.

Looking over Awaroa Bay and Inlet

It seemed even stranger crossing the freshly crab-holed tidal flats in the morning; the stranded boats were still there, but the tide had come in overnight and rearranged their positions before leaving again. Soon, however, we were heading away from the inlet and meandering up a long gradual climb, through a range of vegetation types, ferny gullies, tall timbered slopes and crests dominated by lower shrubs such as manuka. Time seemed to be going fast, so we increased our pace; eventually, the sight of Tonga Bay and the sandy strip of Onetahuti greeted our eyes. We reached the beach at 8.40am, hoping that the river crossing wouldn't be too difficult; anticlimactically, it was shin deep and a few metres across - I suspect that the Park officials are very conservative in setting the time limits for tidal crossings.

We continued barefoot up the golden sands of Onetahuti to the campground on the southern end, marked by a row of sea-kayaks on the beach. This is a popular spot to kayak to and camp, and soon we would be doing likewise, as our plan involved catching a water taxi back to base, then returning up the coast by kayak to Onetahuti and completing the walk from there. But for the moment, there were more important things, set up the tents to dry out and cook ourselves some breakfast at last. This left a bit if time to relax on the beach and watch the kayakers prepare and set off on thier respective ways. Soon the water taxi arrived and we were speeding southward along the magnificent Abel Tasman Coastline, dreaming of a more sedate trip back up in a few days time.


Crystal clear pool and waterfall at the
back of the campground

The golden sands of Onetahuti Beach

Barefoot stroll up Onetahuti

Not long after we got back, the promised rain arrived - it would be an anxious day or two wondering whether conditions would be suitable for the maritime phase of our exploration of Abel Tasman. Far to the west in Bass Strait, a storm was busy knocking half of the fleet out of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race and it was heading our way.

Waiting in the rain

For the next 2 days it poured, as New Zealand headed towards its wettest December in 60 years. Our mid-trip break at the backpackers in Motueka proved a wise move, but the ongoing rain turned it into a longer break than planned. So what does one do in such conditions; put on wet weather gear and go for a walk in the mountains, of course! We drove up to the Mount Arthur plateau and did a short tramp in to Flora Hut to show Robyn a different landscape to that of Abel Tasman.

The rivers and streams were running at full volume and water poured off the moss-covered slopes of the beech forest (and our rain jackets) as we strolled down the track to quaint Flora Hut, which provided us with a sheltered spot for lunch. It was a quintessential New Zealand tramping experience, but not one to be prolonged, so we headed back to the car and down to Motueka.


Flora Hut

Water cascading off the hillside

Wet, wet, wet!

Beech forest of Mount Arthur

Heading back home in the fog

As evening approached, the rain slowly lessened and the sun broke through in the western sky to illuminate a magnificent full rainbow over Motueka. Surely this bode well for our kayaking trip the next day.

Good omen?


Day 3: The southern end by kayak

The rainbow had been a good omen; we awoke to a fine morning and a quick telephone call to Kaiteriteri Kayaks confirmed that our trip was on. We picked up our kayaks and gear at Kaiteriteri Beach and, after a briefing from the guides, set off in a flotilla with other kayakers keen to get out on the water after two days of frustation.

We headed north up towards the Abel Tasman Coast. During the first few kilometres, we were accompanied by guides who assessed abilities and provided tuition on the essential kayaking skills that we would need when we later headed off on our own. They then shepherded our kayak flotilla across the open waters of Marahau Bay. Two thirds of the way across, a solitary blue fairy penguin swam past us, followed by the first wind-disturbed ripples on the surface of the calm waters as the afternoon sea-breeze announced its presence. We pushed on to Apple Tree Bay, where after a good lunch, the flotilla bade farewell to our guides and went their individual ways.

Getting ready at Kaiteriteri Beach

Split Apple Rock

Robyn crossing Marahau Bay

Passing Fisherman's Island

Coming in for a beach landing

The fair Nello, Robyn and I stayed close to the coastline, partly to explore the rock gardens and sea caves that line this stretch of coast and partly to stay in the lee of the ever-strengthening north-easterly sea-breeze. After several kilometres, we pulled into the beautiful, secluded beach at Watering Cove for a break and to soak up some sunshine.

Coastal rock formations

Emerging from a sea cave

At Watering Cove

The serenity and calm waters here belied what lay ahead, for around the next headland we would lose our protection and enter the "mad mile", a 2 km stretch of water reknowned for heavy seas when the outgoing tidal current ran into a strong seabreeze. Guess what - the tide was going out and the north-easterly winds were now reaching 30-40 km per hour.

We set out to sea, staying in the lee for as long as possible. Soon a kayak with two saturated people in it came back the other way - they had abandoned their attempt at the "mad mile", because of the rough seas and not being able to make progress into the strong head wind. We decided that we should at least have a look at it.

Rock Gardens
Rounding Te Karetu Point, we were in it; the wind whipped spray into our faces as the metre swell and angled wind waves combined to create a surging, rolling platform for our kayaks; today the mad mile was very mad indeed. Another group of kayaks were a few hundred metres ahead - with a rush of "if they can, we can" adrenalin, we pushed on into the washing machine ahead.

There are no photos of this section; it demanded full-on concentration, keep up the stroke rhythm, watch out for rocks, crash through the smaller choppy waves, rudder right to ride straight up the face of the occasional big 1.5m swell and crash down the other side, paddle, paddle, paddle. For almost two hours we pushed on, at times only the assurance of the GPS that we were making progress kept us going. Images from brochures of kayaks gliding along crystal clear clear flat waters kept passing through my head, as well as a distinct impression that we should not be here.

The group ahead pulled out at Te Puketea Bay, but our adrenalin was high and, despite aching arms, we kept up our rhythm to finally clear Pitt Head and the worst of the conditions. The seas gradually became calmer as we crossed Torrent Bay and beached our kayaks at Boundary Beach, drenched, exhausted, exhilarated; we had taken on the mad mile at its worst and beaten it and only one other kayak had followed us through. Not bad for virtual novices!

Recovering after taking on the "mad mile"

Pinnacle Island, a fur seal haul out

The remainder of our trip for the day seemed anticlimactic - at any other time we would have considered the seas quite rough, but they seemed positively smooth as we pushed our way out of Torrent Bay, up the coast past Pinnacle Island, where fur seals basked nonchalantly on the rocks and around into the calm waters of Bark Bay, our destination. Hauling the kayaks up past the high tide mark, we unloaded, changed and set up camp. It was good to be in dry clothes once again.

Gear drying out at Bark Bay campsite

Bark Bay

A hot camp dinner, glass of red, and game of cards out in the bush like we used to do on family camping holidays - it was a good place and a good way to see out the last day of 2004.

Just after 1 am in the morning, the first raindrops pattered on the fly of the tent; it would be 12 hours before the last one fell - Happy new year!

Aaah New Zealand - perfect one day, pouring the next!!

Day 4 - Wet, wet, wet

You can only lie in a tent for so long when it is raining - digestive physiology has a way of making you get up and face the elements. The sight of wet and bedraggled campers wandering about a saturated campground or huddled under the cooking shelter is indeed forlorn, but there we all were, eating our breakfast porridge with the rain dripping through the canopy. Late morning and no change to the weather meant decision time - No-one wanted to spend another night in the rain and do the final day and a half's walk back to the southern end of the track in the rain with sodden camping gear in our packs. However, the north end walk, which finished at Onetahuti, and the south end kayak trip to Bark Bay still remained to be connected, but how? The thought of putting back on our drenched kayaking gear and heading off into the rain did not appeal, so we opted to walk the 5 km from Bark Bay to Onetahuti and complete our circuit. This meant breaking camp in the rain and putting everything in plastic bags in readiness for a ride back with the boat picking up our kayaks from Onetahuti.

Cascading Huffam Stream

Near Bark Bay

Tannin-stained inlet

Water pouring off the hinterland

Raindrops falling on an emerald sea

The walk was singularly morose - we had barely set out in full wet weather gear when the rain finally stopped and by the time we reached Onetahuti the sun was shining. What fickle weather - tricking us into choosing the wrong option! Despite passing through beautiful forest with water cascading off the Abel Tasman hinterland down every channel that could hold it, we allowed the disappointment of a goal unachieved to gnaw at our spirits.

The arrival of a water taxi at Onetahuti at the same time as us allowed for an outburst of folly. We jumped onto the boat and sped back to Bark Bay, where Robyn and I quickly changed into wet shirts and bathers, leapt into the kayaks and headed off out sea again, leaving Nello to complete packing up and ponder on the madness of her loved ones - we would complete the planned kayaking leg after all! As we left the bay and passed aptly named Foul Point and headed for Tonga Bay, the sky clouded over and the heavens opened up with a steady cold rain splashing large drops on a leaden sea. Soaking wet and alone on the water, we couldn't have been happier! - even the fur seals lazing on the rocks lining the dark emerald water seemed to cheer us on; we were fulfilling a goal.

Robyn and I pondered on the strangeness of the human spirit, that it can rejoice when you are saturated in the middle of a leaden sea and despair in the sunshine of a beautiful forest. How strong are the emotions associated with achievement and disappointment and how difficult it is to deal with them at times.

Kayaking the Tonga roadstead

Wet to the core, we arrived at Onetahuti, mission complete - the final gap in our Abel Tasman exploration linked by both land and sea. As we headed off on the kayak laden water taxi, via Bark Bay to pick up the fair (and dry) Nello, we were content. Even though the rain finally chased us out, we had explored all of the Abel Tasman coastline, part by land part by water, and importantly, we had done it as a family, sharing some intense experiences and emotions.

Footnote on dealing with the emotions of achievement and the perception of failure: I suspect that we will need to come back and walk the southern end of the Track. We had a goal to complete all of the 'Great Walks' and, unfinished, this would diminish that achievement.

........ to be continued........

The lure of Abel Tasman - Arch Point in the sunshine

Unfinished business ....... Day 5: Bark Bay to Marahau

Six weeks after being chased from Abel Tasman by the weather, we had a chance to complete the unfinished tramping part of our first visit to this small but beautiful National Park. We were in Punakaiki on the West Coast to do the Inland Pack Track, but heavy rains had raised river level, forcing us to delay this walk, despite the brilliant weather. Not wishing to waste the sunshine, we drove up to Motueka and walked the missing leg of the Abel Tasman; from Bark Bay to the track end at Marahau.

Clear blue skies and barely a breath of wind, so different from when we had last been here. After a trip up the coast by water taxi to Bark Bay, we commenced our 18km day-walk. The track led around the southern end of the bay before traversing a low forested saddle to cross Falls River via a long swingbridge. From here, the track wound its way through several low ridges and valleys under tall ferns, beeches and podocarps.

Falls River

View over Frenchman's Bay

Leaving Bark Bay

Descending the last ridge, we were greeted with a splendid view over Torrent Bay, the low tide exposing the sandy beach and broad muddy flats at its southern end. Torrent Bay is one of the larger parcel of privately owned land in the Park and we passed by a number of baches and coast houses before reaching the edge of the mudflats. The low tide enabled us to take a short cut and cross directly over the flats to their southern edge.

Overlooking Torrent Bay with mudflats in the rear

Ballon rock from Torrent Bay Beach

Beach houses at Torrent Bay

From here a short steep climb over a low ridge brought us out to the calm blue waters of The Anchorage, the smooth curve of its golden beach giving it a post-card ambience.

After lunch and a snooze on the sandy beach, we continued on. The track passed by a swamp at the southern end of the beach before climbing up a dry spur covered with a scattering of low shrubby plants, probably the most desolate landscape in the park, but one which provided glorious views back over The Anchorage and Torrent Bay to the north and out toward Adele Island and the Astrolabe Roadstead to the east.

It provided a new perspective looking down on this stretch of coastline that we had kayaked up with our daughter, Robyn, six weeks earlier.

Tall rimu rising above the
forest canopy

The pale golden sands and azure water of The Anchorage

Panorama of Torrent Bay and The Anchorage

Adele island and the Astrolabe Roadstead

Coastal forest

From here the track turned inland and commenced a meandering passage around a series of hills, keeping a level contour and wandering from drier Kanuka scrubby bush to cooler, damper forest dominated by large rimu, an interesting tour of some of Abel Tasman's many microhabitats. Soon we were back at the coast, and although the track stayed quite high above the shoreline in the lush forest, it gave many great views down on to the sandy beaches and rocky coastal sections that line the Park.

Reaching Appletree Bay, we dropped down on to the beach to check out our old kayaking lunchspot, before a steep climb back up to the track at its southern end, where a set of old garden hoses tied together served as a local climbing aid.

Astrolabe roadstead coastline

Stillwell Beach

Rounding Guilbert Point, the vegetation again became drier and scrubbier, as we commenced a steady descent down into Marahau Bay. This end of the Abel Tasman Track is not its most aesthetic, passing across a bracken and gorse infested hillside, alongside the ruggedly marine-scented backwaters of tidal area of Marahau before a series of wooden bridges brings you across the swamplands to the trackhead.

Coquille Bay and Fisherman's Island

Low tide at Marahau

The unfinished business that had hung over us since the end of December was now done. We had completed the Abel Tasman Track on foot and now the Milford remains the only tramping 'Great Walk' to be done. Our only regret was that Robyn could not be here to finish it with us. Still, we had walked the best part of the Abel Tasman together in the north and shared some pretty interesting moments kayaking along the coast of this southern section.

Robbo, this page is for you.