We’re in the vacation area that is the northwest corner of the south island of New Zealand, and summer is over. Kids in their school uniforms walk along the sidewalk or push scooters. Grapes and ripening, apples are ready to be picked, and days are shortening. Family holidays are over, and the “gray migration” has begun. That’s us—the gray ones.
We notice these things as we drive to a beach where we’ll board a catamaran that will take us up the coast to Tonga Quarry Bay. We are ready with our hiking gear, camelbacks, sunscreen, bug juice, hats and sunglasses.
The Wilson’s—that’s the tour company—boat promptly boards at 9:30 AM. After several stops to off load other walkers and some people headed to a remote lodge, we arrive at Tonga Quarry Bay to walk along the coastal track of Abel Tasman National Park.
There are almost no roads into the park. This is fairly common in New Zealand, and services in national parks are supplied by enterprising companies who provide things such as the water taxis, day rental kayaks, or bigger boats with toilets and food we find here in Abel Tasman. We chose the latter.
Once on the beach with a few other couples and one single young woman, we make our way to the well-marked trailhead. Steep switchbacks take us up to a ridge a bit further inland. There is plenty of shade and a hard packed dry trail. Vegetation is cut back making it easy to navigate. In many places you can even push a stroller. That’s if you want to drag it up the steep inclines. Getting lost is impossible.
We take our time and let people pass us. There are a lot of people on the trail even on a Monday in what is the equivalent of early September in the northern hemisphere. This section of the track is a two hour walk and we have four hours before our boat will be back to pick us up. There are plenty of loaded down young folk backpacking the entire trail. Even though this is New Zealand’s smallest national park, it’s the most popular because it’s considered the easiest trekking in the entire country.
We are joined along the way by a young woman from San Francisco. She is alone. Her husband is kayaking. After several stops to chat with people and take pictures we reach Bark Bay. The tide is out and some people are strolling along the tidal basins. The sand is firm and the shallow pools warm.
We stop at a picnic table and eat the lunch we have brought. A roving park ranger, the only park employee we have seen, is cleaning a shelter hut next to us. Standing on a table to reach under the eaves, he drops the hose he is using and asks Dave if he can hand it back up to him. This starts a conversation, and he tells us that in high season 600 to 700 hikers travel along this coastal track every day. As we look out at the beautiful beach and turquoise bay with paddle boarders, kayakers, swimmers, and sun bathers visible through the palms and ferns, it is easy to understand the popularity.
After lunch I wade along the beach as Dave explores. We pick up shells and stones (Dave thinks he has found a piece of gold-bearing quartz.) and relax until it is time for our pickup. As our boat arrives we are feeling the results of our day. We’re sun weary and ready to think about food and, yes, a cold beer.
After a good night’s rest, we set off again. Today we are going kayaking.
We drive to the same spot as yesterday and meet our guide, Amelia. After a lot of safety and equipment lessons, we get ourselves into our “watertight” two-person kayak and shove off into the clear water. I’m in the front. It’s my job to set the pace and look for rocks we might hit. Dave, in the back is steering us using foot pedals to move the rudder. There is only one other couple, a pair of youngsters from Austria. Like a mother duck with her hatch, Amelia keeps her small clutch close. She’s from the far northern tip of the north island and has been here in Tasman only five weeks. She moved to the area for the job of kayak guide and is already versed in the nature, geology, and Maori myths about the Park.
From the rear I hear the familiar directives of previous canoe and kayak trips. “Use your shoulders! Toe to hip, paddle toe to hip! Don’t lean when you paddle! Sit up straight!” I know the drill. Occasionally I look over my shoulder sure my “captain” is not paddling and leaving me to do all the work, but somehow I never catch him.
We make it past the sight of an old Maori Pa (fortified village) and paddle on to a seal colony. Along the way we see dolphins jumping and further out in deeper water whales spouting and breaching. Finally, we make it to Split Apple Rock where we rest and take photos. It is still relatively high tide and swimmers are crawling along the base of the rock to explore.
There is nothing like being at water level to get an appreciation of how special this part of New Zealand is: clear blue water, sandy beaches, no sharks or sting rays, and safe passages through interesting rock formations.
We turn around for the paddle back to our beach. The trip seems shorter than it did going out. We line up pointed at the beach and accelerate to ramming speed to drive the kayak as far onto the sand as possible. Getting out of our cockpits is still a tenuous affair.
After disembarking with a wet pair of pants (so much for watertight), we make our way to the supermarket, our little cottage, a shower, and laundry. This time we celebrated our upper body workout with lemonade and a lovely luncheon at Jesters Café.