After over 3 weeks suffering from ‘cabin fever’ in our van, we would finally get to stretch our legs! We had heard about NZ’s famous Great Walks and were longing to do one, but the uncooperative weather coupled with the logistics of having to pre-book everything, and the expense of staying in huts the further South you go (no camping facilities), had discouraged us from doing one so far.
Abel Tasman was our last opportunity, and at 15 dollars per person per night for camping, it was the most affordable option. Luckily, we had kept all our camping gear from trekking in South America, except for our sleeping mats which we would ingeniously replace with the leather matress covers supplied with our van (not very comfy though!).
After our first night at a free camp on the outskirts of Motueka, we woke up to the pitter-patter of heavy rain dropping onto the roof of the van. The mud situation at camp had worsened and Renaud helped out a solo girl traveller who had gotten stuck in it. We drove straight to the tourist info to book our trip, they do it all for you and get the best prices: day 1 kayaking, days 2 to 4 walking, with campsites booked for each night, and a water-taxi to get back on the last day. A very do-able, flat-ish, 50 km trek, plus add-ons. We would leave after-tomorrow to have time to buy food (shops closed on Sunday), and get better campsites (booked-up before). The weather was also supposed to be better, but there wasn’t that much of a difference in the end. We spent the rest of the day taking advantage of wifi and power points at the tourist info, before relunctanly returning to last night’s dismal campsite.
The next day, the weather was glorious. We got out of the muddy campsite as fast as we could and had breakfast by the beach on Rabbit Island, a very popular spot with the locals who were out enjoying the sunshine and time-off on this Easter weekend. We then headed to the Easter market where we wandered around for a few hours. We met a Romanian engineer who had fled communism to live in the US then South Africa (during Apartheid), and was now living in NZ selling innovative heat pumps. We had alot in common so chatted for a good half-hour. The rest of the afternoon was spent food shopping and preparing our gear for the trek. We checked into a beautiful grassy campsite (McDonalds farm) in Marahau, the departure point of our expedition.
The kayak rental place was just down the road from our camp. We got all the same gear, service and training as those who had paid double the price for a guided tour. The company dropped us off on the beach and we were off, like castaways. Kayaking in this area is usually quite memorable when its sunny, the blue of the water blending into green and gold as it laps the shore. But today, everything was grey and the water was a little rough, making the paddling quite strenuous.
After 4 hours on the water, we were completely drained! We stopped over on a few beaches and circled a few rock islands for viewing of cormorants and seals, en route to our first campsite: Anchorage Hut. Getting our gear out of the kayaks was easier than the game of tetris required to fit it all in that morning! Fortunately, it had all survived, unscathed by the water. We left the kayaks at the pick-up point on the beach, set up camp, repacked our bags for tomorrow and enjoyed a well-deserved sun-downer on the beach! Yes, for this trek, we were transporting a 2L carton of wine for our enjoyment, which may have had something to do with the lack of storage space in the kayaks! We went to bed right after dinner.
We headed out late the next morning, after all it was supposed to be a short day. So short that we decided to spice things up by adding a steep 6km detour to visit ‘Cleopatra’s Pool’ (a river actually, not really worth the effort with full packs on!).
Sure enough, this meant we had only done a third of our itinirary by lunchtime, and had to rush all afternoon to beat the early nightfall. Lunch was on a perfectly white sandy beach next to a village only accessible by boat.
We were entertained by the little birds, seagulls and a sighting of 2 graceful stingrays gliding effortlessly through the translucid water, in front of us.
Obviously the afternoon when we walked the most was super sunny and hot. We walked up and down, through tropical forest populated by NZ’s iconic fern trees and colourful birds, passing marshes, and reaching beach after beach, each new creek more beautiful than the last.
The trails were in excellent condition, easy to follow and often turned into boardwalks and bridges to facilitate crossings of mud patches and rivers.
We arrived at Tonga Quarry camp as the sun was fading, setting up camp right on the beach, in the sand! This camp was noticeably less crowded that last night’s one (there being no hut: no comfy beds and gourmet pizzas for ‘glampers’ here!), so we took advantage of our peaceful surroundings to lay in the sand and admire the spectacular night sky, resisting the urge to fall asleep right there!
There would be no lie-in for us this morning! We had to complete half of today’s route by 9:30 am to take a short-cut across a bay at low-tide. It was hard going, but our legs were still fresh from a good night’s sleep and wholesome breakfast. We made it in time, braving the icy water and sandflies as we walked across the estuary.
A crab took me (Steph) by surprise, hiding in a pretty shell I picked up for my ‘geological’ collection. We continued walking on the other side, aiming to get to our campsite early for a change. We walked passed a dozen more deserted postcard beaches, and the weather was perfect right until we decided to stop for lunch!
We sheltered ourselves from the rain at a picnic table under a tree, laughing at the silly Weka birds fighting eachother for this strategic territory.
We arrived at Mutton Cove campground in the early afternoon. It has a prime location in a shaded grassy area just in front of a long stretch of golden beach. We had a tent with a view!
After setting up camp, we sipped the last of our wine, watching 3 baby seals play tirelessly in the surf, as the sun set, putting on an amazing display of light and colour.
We shared the wine with our neighbours, a young Swedish-Brit couple, over lively conversation that lasted long into the night. We talked about the many interests we had in common: our long-term travelling, impressions of New Zealand, and politics (upcoming French elections!). We were interrupted by the intrusion of an agile mouse in their tent, which took half an hour to remove (again Renaud saved the day, with his bare hands!). We also shared our popcorn, in exchange for some oil to cook it. We were so happy to have at last had a meaningful conversation with other people. Travelling by campervan unfortunately isnt very conducive to meeting people: a different camp every night, arriving after dark due to the short days, and the cold, rain or sandflies keeping you cooped up inside the van until you leave the next morning!
I (Steph) decided to spend the morning chilling on the beach to top-up on sunshine and sea-air, while Renaud went out to explore the surrounding coastline, pack-free. He followed the trail leading to Seperation Point, a peninsula of shear cliffs dropping into the emerald blue sea.
We packed up camp after lunch, and set off. In 2 hours, we were back at Tataranui, which we had walked through on the way in, and where we would catch our water-taxi back to civilization.
Water-taxi, litteraly, thanks to being able to ride right up onto the beach to pick-us up, and then right onto a trailer at our destination, we were dropped off very close to the McDonalds camp, where we had left our van. We didn’t resist the temptation to stop for ‘NZ’s best burger’ (don’t know about ‘best’, but surely the most expensive!), on the way to the van, being tired, hungry and low on food!
Having figured out that it was too long a drive to catch the ferry to Wellington tonight, we headed for a paid campsite on the way to Picton, close to the beautiful Malborough Sounds region (like a warmer and more developed version of the Milford Sounds), for a much needed hot shower and night’s sleep on a proper matress!
And so ended our thoroughly enjoyable, van-free, Abel Tasman experience, which we would have to rate as our top New Zealand must-do!