The sun was up, the sky was blue and the gentlest sea breeze blew in over the estuary. It was a mild 20C and just about the perfect opening to a romantic stroll by the beach. Except that this particular stroll would go for the next three days and two nights, test our relationship and give us many glimpses of the spectacular coastline of the Abel Tasman National Park.
Ever since our first family visit to New Zealand two years ago, it’s been on my list to bring Jas for a trek on some, if not all, of its reknown “Great Walks”. It’s a great way to spend some real quality time together, and I also secretly hoped to get her hooked on the indescribable feeling of walking through miles of epic natural beauty.
J comes from a rather conservative family in which, until recently, adventure was more frowned than smiled upon. So,for her introduction to multi-day trekking, I picked a portion of the Abel Tasman Coastal Track. I hadn’t been on the track myself, but, at least on paper, the 35 or so km from Marahau to Awaroa seemed to be the ideal way to break her in to the experience gradually.
Of the 9 great walks, the Abel Tasman Coastal Track is arguably the least remote, occasionally passing by various lodges, small coastal holiday towns and even a luxury resort. In addition to the usual DOC campgrounds and huts, there are other alternative accommodation options, including a boat-based backpackers in Anchorage bay (which includes dinner, breakfast and hot showers), the resort I mentioned earlier and various other lodges and rental properties.
More importantly, the major bays along the way are accessible by water taxi, and for the most part, you are able to skip parts of your walk or even bail out early using this service, depending on availability. Of course, doing so was never part of the plan, but at least knowing this would give J some comfort that it wasn’t an all or nothing trip. I also booked us to stay at Aquapackers – the aforementioned boat-based backpacker hostel. This would mean warm showers, substantial, decent meals, at least for the first night and morning. This proved to be a good decision!
My parents had kindly agreed to babysit E for the duration of the trek, and met us in Nelson, the nearest town, the day before. That morning, the three of them accompanied us for the first 20 minutes or so of our trek, which started with a series of long wooden bridges that spanned the Marahau estuary, leading to a path into the trees. E was fascinated by the bridges and the thousands of crabs that were scampering around, their homes exposed by the receding tide.
A short distance in to the forest on the other side, and the send off party had to turn back. They had a boat to catch to the resort at Awaroa, where they would spend the next two nights and meet us on day three. After a somewhat emotional farewell, we parted ways, and J and I headed down the innocuous path to Anchorage Bay, full of anticipation of what lay in store ahead.
The first leg to Anchorage was essentially a very long, gradual climb for the first eleven kilometers, before descending sharply into the bay in the final two. The weather remained fair for the first couple of hours, affording us pleasant visits out to a couple of the beaches along the way.
The trail continued to climb gently, winding it’s way round and over the coastal headlands, turning inwards to cross over small creeks running down the hillside. While the walk itself was pleasant, I couldn’t help but notice that, relative to the other great walks I’d been on, it was somewhat lacklustre. Most of the time, there was a wall of vegetation on the seaward side of the trail and while breaks in the trees sometimes offered glimpses of the stunning coastal cliffs, blue waters and headlands, for the most part the scenery was restricted to the three feet either side of us.
The nice, if not slightly warm weather did not hold. Warning signs came in the form hikers coming in the opposite direction, fully decked out in rain gear, ran covers drawn and spirits clearly dampened. It started off as an initial on-off drizzle, light enough for us to brush off, but soon turned into an incessant downpour. Visibility dropped, and even the limited views we had through the trees were now turned to a foggy mist.
The rest of the day was quite a miserable trudge. Water was dripping off the brims of our hats, flowwing down the middle of the path and dripping down our necks. It was just generally turning the day into a cold and dull affair. Initially, we had been making the effort to take the side trips off the main track – in most cases, the only way to see the beautiful beaches and coastline along the way, but as the rain continued to fall, so did J’s enthusiasm, and she became quite the grumpy tramper, her only care remaining was to finish off the day’s walking and get out off the pouring rain.
I tried my best to cheer her up and distract her from the obviously horrible weather. It took almost two hours, and every trick in my book, but eventually, I managed to persuade her to at least visit Yellow Point lookout, which was a short 10 minute detour off the main track. There was a nice view out over the bay from the lookout, which probably would have looked even better under blue skies and fluffy white clouds. However, as it was the first bit of open scenery we had glimpsed in nearly two hours, it was pretty enough to lighten the mood, at least for a while.
The trail continued in much the same way. Pouring rain, a gentle constant climb and and endless wall of trees on either side. Our brains dulled, our conversation turned to complaining about the weather, and we tuned out almost completely from our surroundings – so much so that the track signage marking the turnoff to Anchorage Bay took us by surprise. The sense of relief at the sight of the simple yellow and green signboard was almost tangible in the atmosphere, and as if on cue, the rain that had been showering upon us for the last three hours cleared.
A few minutes down towards Anchorage, and we were rewarded with stunning views into Anchorage Bay and over the side of the headlands. In the distance, we could see our roof for the evening, the Aquapackers boat, gently bobbing up and down in the deep blue waters.
The descent into Anchorage Bay essentially reversed all the elevation we had gained over the last 10 or so km of hiking, in about 1.5km, and apart from frequent stops for photographs now that we had our cameras out again, we made short and sharp work of it, and before long, we were strolling out over the beach. Relieved and happy, we made our way round the length of the beach to the point nearest the boat.
At this stage, I promptly realised I had no idea how to get to the boat. There was no mobile phone reception, and we had left all the instructions recorded in our emails, which of course we had no access to. At a loss for what to do, I stood on the beach and waved my walking poles at the boat in big arcs. Thankfully it worked, and I didn’t have to spend long looking like an out of place traffic warden. After just a couple of minutes, a tiny figure emerged from the back of the boat and proceeded to drive the little inflatable dinghy to the beach. A two minute boat ride, and we were soon aboard our accommodation for the evening.
There were already around 8 people on board, who were in the midst of an intense card game of some sort. We were warmly welcomed aboard, but after a long wet day, our immediate thoughts went to the fluffy towels and the awaiting warm showers. As much as I enjoy the raw, rough experience of being out in the wilderness, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t glad that we’d opted for the backpackers over the DOC hut.
Getting out of bed the next morning was a challenge. It had been at least 30 years since I had last been rocked to sleep, and I would sincerely suggest sleeping on a boat in a calm seaside bay as a potential insomnia cure. After loading up on copious quantities of cereal and toast, we packed up and boarded the dinghy back for shore.
The second day’s walk from Anchorage to Bark Bay began with a stroll back along the beach. It was quite a sight to see the kayakers heading out to sea, and I made a mental note that we should definitely come back and do this trip by kayak. That would certainly eliminate the problem of being in the trees all day, although nasty weather would still be significantly less enjoyable.
After leaving the beach, the trail climbed sharply back up into the hills, and once again, was lined with foiliage on either side, limiting the views. This time, however, the sun was up and the sky was blue. As a result, J was in much better spirits and we spent the morning just strolling along and having a good chat.
We had the option of either waiting for the tide to recede and crossing directly over Torrent Bay estuary, or taking the inland route that was 1.5h longer. As it would have been a 1.5h wait for low tide anyway, neither option had a significant time impact. Given this, we opted for the latter, as this would also allow us a visit to the Cleopatra’s pool side trip, and would also likely keep our feet dry.
The trail crossed over the headland and gradually descended down into Torrent Bay, where it proceeded to follow track the edge of the water. The deep blue-green waters gradually gave way to the brownish hues of the sand beneath as the water slowly retreated to the sea, and we were treated to the spectacle of a couple attempting the low-tide crossing just a tad too early. The water coursing through some of the little streams draining the estuary was still waist deep, and so after around ten minutes of prodding around and retracing their steps, the gentleman, who was a fair bit taller, decided to just sacrifice his shorts and wade through while carrying his pack overhead.
Leaving his stuff on the other side, he then made two more trips across the stream to carry his partner’s pack, and then help her across. Looks like chivalry isn’t all dead!
Cleopatra’s pool was a short ten minute detour off the main track. As it followed the river upstream, this little walk was quite scenic in itself, and we reckon it’s worth the extra effort. The pool itself is a plunge pool for an interesting natural water slide that flows through a large groove in a massive rock. If you don’t mind dealing with wet clothes, you can actually ride it down for some slippery fun.
Not long after the turnoff to the pool, the trail brought us to Torrent Bay village. It was quite strange to wander through the quiet little cluster of mostly unoccupied holiday homes nestled in the middle of nowhere. If not for the steady stream of hikers passing through the main street, it could just as well have been a ghost town right out of the Walking Dead. By now, the tide was well and truly out, and many other hikers were steadily making their way across the dry estuary bed. We stopped for a quick lunch and a stroll on the beach, and then it was back on the trail towards Bark Bay.
From Torrent bay, the trail turned inland and climbed steeply for a fair distance into the forest. As it zig-zagged up the hillside, gaps in the trees offered glimpses of the quiet holiday village. The following 5 or so kilometres were by far the dullest – we were too far from the coast to get any sea views and for the most part, all we could see were the trees either side of the path.
The only change in scenery we got came in the form of the massive suspension bridge spanning Falls River. Quite impressive really, except that J suffers from rather extreme acrophobia, and so, for the entire length of the bridge I was the recipient of an earful of complaints and the odd death threat, and with her shaking away, the swaying bridge made taking a decent photo near impossible. Against all odds, we reached the other side of the bridge still somewhat married.
The rest of the walk to Bark Bay was somewhat uneventful. We made a couple of short detours to lookouts, but by this time it was starting to drizzle, and visibility wasn’t all that great. We also made a short stop at Medlands beach, which was just round the corner from Bark Bay. It was a nice beach, don’t get me wrong, but after seeing close to 10 pretty nice beaches over the previous day and a bit, it was all beginning to become much of a muchness.
The rain began to pour with a vengeance just as we arrived at the hut – almost perfect timing! We kicked off our boots, hung up our poles and went in to check out the accommodation for the evening.
Bark Bay Hut has two main sleeping areas. Each area has two decks which can each sleep around 7 people, making for a total hut capacity of around 28. It was a full house that evening, with several groups, including a large one of around 12 people from a cross country skiing club in New Mexico, and a group of four Germans who had spent the entire 6 hours that day in the pouring rain (they had walked from Awaroa and were headed in the opposite direction to us).
We found ourselves a little corner on one of the tables for dinner. It was then that we discovered that the gas canister we had bought didn’t fit our stove top, essentially rendering both as useful as flippers in a marathon. Thankfully, I did have a backup, my trusty esbit solid fuel stove, but as I set that up, an NZ couple, were sharp enough to notice our conundrum. They kindly lent us their snazzy burner setup, which incidentally fit our canister, to boil water for our meal, and that certainly saved us a heap of time.
It rained all night, and so I had a really good sleep, and apparently added more than my fair contribution to the chorus of snoring going on. This was evidenced by J’s grumpy demeanour the next morning as we struggled out of our delightfully cosy sleeping bags and headed back into the common area to get brekky ready.
Due to our stay in the backpackers on the first night, we didn’t have to carry much in terms of food, and so I had taken the liberty to bring actual fresh mushrooms, spinach and vaccum sealed sausages, which did attract a small amount of envy in a room where the menu was generally freeze dried meals and museli bars. As the dawn broke, the rain eased and we were treated a glowing sunrise, its amber rays glistening off the shimmering wet surfaces left by the many hours of rain during the night.
Our final day’s walk had the best weather by far. The sun was up in all its glory for the entire day, and the sky was, for the most part, just a clean blue canvas overhead. We left Bark Bay at around 9am, a vast improvement from the day before. There were nice views and a small waterfall just out of the hut, but after that, it was essentially an inland trek for around 4 kilometers.
The trek through the bush was pleasant, weaving through light forest and lush green ferns. Without any scenic distractions, we made good time and good conversation, and in just over 1.5 hrs, we rounded at the edge of the headlands just above Onetahuti beach and were treated to some nice views.
Onetahuti beach itself was pretty, and had it been empty it would have been quite an uplifting experience strolling along the sand. However, by the time we arrived, it was chock full of tourists who had just arrived by boat, and it could just as well have been any other crowded city beach just half an hour from home. All in all though, the weather was still beautiful, and the anticipation of a proper lunch, hot showers and a bed were more than enough to keep the mood positive.
At the other end of the beach, the path went up a length of boardwalk and headed back towards the hills. Over the next bit of headland was our destination, the Awaroa Lodge where my parents and E had been holed up for the last two nights.
We decided to make a beeline for the lodge to have lunch there, as opposed to throwing together the remaining edibles in our packs for a makeshift meal. As such, we braced ourselves for the final climb out of Onetahuti bay, grateful that our packs were now a fair bit lighter than when we had first started out two days ago.
As the trail climbed out of the bay, it (once again) was much of the same tree-enclosed path, but the odd gap in the foilage offered nice views back out over the beach. We did not have to climb long before we heard a familiar voice chirping in the distance. We rounded the corner, and almost bumped smack into my Dad, who was carrying quite a few bags (mostly my mum’s utility handbags). I fumbled for the camera, and thankfully he was quick to catch on, walking on and pretending that nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
Seconds later, E rounded the corner, and it took him a full five or so seconds to realise what was going on. When he realised he was looking at J, the sparkliest grin we’d seen in days lit up his face, and he dashed to us full tilt to distribute the warm cuddles he’d been saving for the past two days.
The rest of the hike to the lodge was pretty much a long catch up session with my folks as we described the events of the past two days, the interesting people we’d met and the sights we’d seen. E was just generally having a blast, playing with our walking poles and running helter skelter all over the path. For a 2.5 year old he has pretty decent stamina, and if it turns out to be in his interest, I’m really looking forward to the day we can go for a nice long trail run together.
On arrival, we tucked in to lunch proper. My parents had kindly booked a family room at the lodge (At NZ$400/night that place would never have fit our budget), in part so we could have a comfy night, and also so we could spend a bit more time as a family together (the alternative was originally that J & I would spend another night in the nearby DOC hut). After the best steak sandwich I’d had in a long time, we headed back to the room, a cosy two storey chalet. Thankful for big fluffy towels and steaming hot showers, we kicked off our boots and settled in.
As we wound down for the day, J could now sit back and look forward to a bit of a break and a boat ride the following day. I, on the other hand, turned my attention to preparing for my run back out the next morning, retracing our steps over the last three days in the hope of making it back out for lunch. That of course, is another post in itself!
Tips and observations
- This is a very nice walk, but having done some of the other Great Walks like the Kepler Track, Routeburn Track, Heaphy Track and the Tongariro Northern Circuit, in my opinion, of the ones I’ve tried, this has the least spectacular scenery of them all. Most of the walk is in the trees, and to access the nice views requires taking the effort to make all the detours along the way, both to lookout points and to some of the beaches. If you take them all, this could add significantly to the time/distance on each day.
- That said, this also is the easiest of the Great Walks I’ve been on, both in terms of elevation gain (only around 800m positive over 36km, most of it quite gentle), and also in terms of accomodation options. As mentioned in my blog post above, there are not only DOC Huts and campgrounds, but also a hotel, some backpacker lodges and other holiday accommodation along the way. The cafe at the hotel is also open to walkers.
- Of all the walks, this has the best accessibility. The key bays are serviced by water taxis, which means you can effectively bail out or skip certain legs if you aren’t feeling up to it.
- There is chemically treated drinkable water at all the DOC Huts, denoted by a blue sign. If you take water from any other source, filtering / boiling etc is recommended as giardia is known to be present in the area.
- Unlike some of the other Great Walks, there are no cooking facilities provided at any of the DOC Huts. No stoves, no sink, no pots and pans and no washing equipment. Some of the other hikers seemed to have been misled by hut wardens on some of the other great walks, indicating that while there were no stoves there would be pots/pans etc. There aren’t.
- The views from the top of the headlands at Anchorage Bay and Yellow point lookout are worth the detour.
- Sandflies aren’t as huge a problem as they are in the West Coast / Fiordlands, but they are around – we noticed them at Bark Bay and Torrent Bay. Bring repellent.
- If you have very young kids and are considering doing this with a pram in tow, in our opinion, this is possible only for the leg from Marahau to Anchorage Bay. Note that there are some pretty steep hills, particularly the descent into Anchorage, but other than this, there aren’t really any major obstacles. You’d want a nice sturdy pram, preferably one with a handbrake and fat wheels with a large radius. The other legs that we walked (Anchorage to Bark Bay, Bark Bay to Awaroa) have some narrow, rocky sections that would be quite tricky and, in my opinion, dangerous with a pram.