By JOHN WILDE
I’m not sure what Abel Tasman would have thought about having a national park named after him. The fact that four of his crew were killed and eaten by Maori, at Whariwharangi Bay, might tend to put you off a bit. Certainly something that I personally would prefer to forget about, or at least not put my name to.
However, as New Zealand’s smallest national park, it is a stunning place. It combines ranges of low hills, rocky outcrops, spectacular beaches, blue sea and vivid green rain forest, often to the water’s edge. Though Marahau, at the southern end of the park, can resemble some sort of outdoor theme park, due to the number of kayakers, bushwalkers, aqua-taxis, you name it, it seems to be happening there, much of the park retains an atmosphere of well-trodden splendour.
Now if you are looking for a story of strength and derring-do, you can stop reading right here. The Abel Tasman National Park is about as sheltered, used and administrated as you can get. From Marahau in the south to Separation point in the north, is only about 30km in a straight line. However if you add all the islands, estuaries and bays, you could probably double this, so a return trip from south to north could total 120km if you are into exploring and that is certainly what we did.
In fact, my wife and I had come to New Zealand to catch up with old friends and do some ‘tramping’. After a four day circuit of Nelson Lakes National Park we thought we would give our legs a rest and check out some paddling.
A quick search on the net soon revealed Abel Tasman Kayaks Freedom Rentals who were happy to give a discount to an Australian sea kayak instructor and provide a very solid fibre-glass double, a Sea Bear, and all the gear including waterproof maps, hand pumps, flares, comfortable buoyancy aids, spray jackets, reasonable paddles and a spare, for a five day hire.
Though the ‘Sea Bear’ is not a sporty boat, it must be close to a metre wide, it is a real pack-horse. You could load a carton of beer into it without even taking it out of the box! [Australian kayak designers take note]. Really the design is ideal for its use, often with novices, in such a sheltered location, though the seats are huge and I would recommend a Thermarest or foam padding, to make them more comfortable.
So with a safety briefing from a cheerful Kiwi guide, Hiho, we loaded the boat onto a trailer towed by a tractor, jumped up beside and were given a lift along the road, down the beach and into the sea, our loaded boat then lifted straight into the water. They know how to do things in style, these Kiwis!
During summer season (1 October to 31 March) it is necessary to book all your intended campsites with the Department of Conservation (DOC) and at time of writing this cost $12.20 per person per night.
The campsites all have good toilets (some even flushing), fresh water, tables and several are only accessible from the water, others getting regular use by walkers. In total, there are twenty campsites to choose from, as well as a number of huts, though in high season it can get busy. Totaranui Beach campsite caters for up to 2,000 campers over Christmas and New Year. We visited in mid November and there were 3-4 people on all the smaller campsites. Although you must nominate your camping places for each night, there is leeway for kayakers if rough conditions make your intended destination difficult or dangerous to get to.
Normally rental kayaks are not allowed to go beyond Abel Head, but Freedom Kayaks allowed us to go as far as Separation Point, though beaches in the north of the park tend to be quite steep and there are often small, dumping waves which might require a good brace if you get caught.
So for five days we lazed, explored, paddled gently, walked, read, skinny-dipped and enjoyed the beauties of the park. Over that time we were entertained by a big pod of dolphins, who seemed to be competing with each other for which one could leap highest from the water, sleepy seals sunbaking on weather-sculptured rocks, many nesting sea birds and vast numbers of other New Zealand fauna and flora. As a family destination, or for a pleasant cruise with good friends or a partner, it would be a hard place to beat. And as for Mabel, we didn’t actually meet her, but I’m sure she is there somewhere.