New Zealand: The Abel Tasman Coast Track

In Nelson I leave the van with the AA for a service, or the most expensive 2 hours of parking I have ever paid for. I wander around the city centre, pop into the Department of Conservation office to check if there is anything I need to do before I walk the Abel Tasman Coastal Track. There isn’t, so that’s good. I check the location of the freedom camping site I intend to stay at tonight, locate the library, and then start researching food options in the supermarket for five days on the trail. Pizza sauce comes in individual sachets, which means pasta is definitely on the menu. Cheese and cured meats predate refrigeration as ways of preserving food. I’ve read a particular type of Arnott’s crackers hold up well in a backpack. In the snack aisle I find Fruit Noodles, which appear to be dried fruit puree. A vegan substitute for beef jerky perhaps? Literally food for thought. I collect the van to find there are a few things wrong with it but nothing preventing me from driving away today. Problems for the future. I spend the evening in the van, continuing my search for the best backpacking food. I’m surprised I can sit in the van in the middle of the city with the side door open and nobody approaches. The other sites around Nelson come with comments advising of generally unfriendly locals, specifically towards freedom campers. I don’t think I’m visible from most angles so I consider this a sign, safe enough for the night.

I wake up early, knowing I have to be out by 9am. I make coffee in the back of the van while other people move out towards the cafes. In the middle of this carpark is Nelson Superloo, a place a man living out the back of a van can grab a hot shower for $2. More of this sort of thing please. I start ticking things off the to-do list. Acquiring a small plastic bottle for washing up liquid. Picking up a couple of dehydrated meals. The main player in New Zealand is Back Country Cuisine. I am reliably informed competitors do exist and the quality is generally better. I end up with a list of ideas for my remaining food shop rather than a list of items and this seems to work. On multi-day hikes gone by I’ve always gone for dehydrated meals for every dinner. In the UK I’m spoiled by the quality of Firepot. And I had a job which meant the price wasn’t really an issue. At $14 a dinner this isn’t affordable when you’re trying to avoid work. Macaroni elbows with a sachet of pizza sauce will break up the days. Laden with supplies I move on to Motueka to waste the rest of the day. I drive through hop fields, reminding myself to check when the harvest is. That would be a job I’d like to do to keep this little thing going a few months longer. 

Tension pushes my shoulders towards my ears. Nerves put a load in my stomach and run a spin cycle. Anticipation feels like excitement feels like anxiety. Tomorrow is the first big day. Day one of five on the trail. Starting the first Great Walk; the Abel Tasman Coastal Track. A place that could lay claim to the title of Where It All Started more than 5 years ago. A kayak trip, a day walk, a warm-up for the Tongariro Crossing. I’ve spent four months warming up for this on the North Island. Doing distances, carrying my pack, going up biggish things. This will be the longest so far. The hardest so far, but still at the easier end of the Great Walks. 60km across 5 days is well within my capabilities. If anything I should be looking to do as many detours and side-trips as possible to really push myself. I am taking my tent, I will be carrying food. This is going to be different. Literally new territory. I’m experimenting too. Nervous is probably the right feeling. I’m taking more drinks. I’m taking a solid block of cheese in a ziplock bag even though the internet says not to keep it in plastic. Sometimes you have to learn from your own experiences. There’s rain forecast as well, and if it lands on me I’ll be in additional discomfort. A little bit more struggle than I have been used to. 5 days on the trail with campsites booked means I can’t stop and wait for good weather. I have to keep moving. Being in a tent means limited shelter from the elements. I should stay dry, and once I’m in my sleeping bag I should stay warm. This is an opportunity to further embrace suffering. To deal with the consequences of Mother Nature’s everyday. How do I feel now? Closer to ready. I still have to complete the packing. I don’t want to forget something as vital as the pan. What do I need? Shelter, a bed, food, a method of cooking. Water. Is everything else a luxury? I suspect some of the food is a luxury too. I definitely don’t need a Snickers at the end of every day. Will I carry food back out with me? I’m not usually good at eating lunch, or anything generally throughout the day. I just get the walk done. This is another thing I’ll be working on this time; regular breaks.

The morning is cold in the van. The blanket I thought about packing away last week is damp around my face. Honestly, it’s condensation not drool. I’m reluctant to get up but things need to be done. Breakfast, a shower, the final “don’t forget anything important” checks. Then I’m down the road into Marahau, leaving the van in a near empty car park for 5 days. The longest I’ve left it anywhere unattended. I hope my home is still there when I return. The walk begins bright and blue. A string of banana yellow kayaks out in the bay. The additional weight in my pack pushes into my knees. I am relieved by the lack of climb. The mostly flat trail makes for a significantly easier first day. I complete the abandonment of my old “never go back” philosophy by walking down to Apple Tree Bay. This is where we kayaked to those 5 years ago. My family and Jason spent the night in tents under the pine trees. Not much has changed. Kayaks are pulled up on the golden caster sugar sand. The picnic bench we ate on is still there. A few more names and dates are carved in to the surface. Unremembered. There are fewer people the further I get from Marahau. The greater the distance between me and the road end sees an increase in cloud cover. A blind drawn across the sky, blocking the heat from the sun, draining the colour from the sea. The light sucked out of paradise. At least tonight will be warmer. The trail peels away from the coast, into the 17 different shades of green. Some I now know the names of; rimu, black beech, kawakawa. Across the hills the bright green of new growth on honeysuckle stands out from the older, darker growth. I come down again to Observation Beach, sticking to my plan of going further, doing more. I eat my only fresh produce, two mandarins. I struggle back up the track. Not much further, then I can take the weight off. The final push is a short stretch along the sand at Anchorage. 

I roam into the campsite, there are a few other tents here. Families sitting around fire pits already. My tent goes up. I make a cup of tea. Hydration, as we know is the key to success. Around my pitch wekas stalk me or maybe each other. At least four inquisitive neighbours chase one another off. Two pukeko stride about the grass. Camping brings me a little bit closer to nature. I live at ground level. I’m separated from the great outdoors by two unreasonably thin sheets of fabric. I catch one of the wekas stealing the instant hot chocolate wrapper I’d stuffed today’s rubbish in. I clap at the bird, chasing it into the bush where I lose sight of it. The bush around the camp I notice is full of scraps of stolen trash. At least I haven’t lost something important. While I make sure the rest of my belongings are secure, the chances of staying dry drop to zero. The rain isn’t due for another two days but here we are. I don’t know why I still bother checking the forecast. My tent is up, everything is inside, the drops of water pinging off my jacket don’t matter. I make dinner in the camp kitchen, surprised at how good the macaroni with pizza sauce is. While I’m eating the camp warden, Jan comes over to check me in. “You must be Chris,” she’s not wrong. We talk a bit about my intentions, she tells me I’m going to have a great time.

The dawn chorus was launched by wekas competing to see who could burst a lung first. This was replaced by the hauntingly beautiful song of the koramiko. The melodious ringing of tiny bells. No surprise we’ve called them bellbirds. With the rain still pitter-pattering down on the tent I go nowhere. I just listen. Am I having a spiritual experience? I don’t know. I think I need one because the rain hasn’t stopped. As the birds slow their song, I watch the water pool on the outer-fly, waiting for big drops to run into smaller drops. The weight of the water dropping off the side of the tent. I pack away as much as I can before I leave the tent. My theory is right now I’m dry and so is everything else. The second I open that door, things stop being dry. I put on my hiking clothes from yesterday. I make the committed decision to put both my waterproof jacket and waterproof trousers on now.

I prepare breakfast in the camp shelter, eat some muesli, drink a powdered cappuccino. I left my Aeropress behind for once. Too bulky, too much faff. After the first sip of hot brown liquid I endure the pang of regret. Nothing I can do now. Jan appears at a white board to update the weather. “I hope you’ve got good news for me,” I half-ask. “Only if you like the rain,” she replies. I look at the sleeping bag and pad hanging up already. Somebody woke up in a puddle. Jan tells me about wind forecast for tonight. “How good is your tent?” she asks. From experience, I know my tent does not like the wind. Jan goes on to tell me about a more sheltered spot at Bark Bay I can pitch up in before she moves on to other visitors. I get chatting to the other man in the shelter, the owner of the puddle. I find myself preaching the merits of embracing the rain, the suffering. Once you accept you are going to get wet, you go and get wet. I know these things are true, but do I believe them? I don’t have a choice. I pack away the tent, moving everything under the shelter. I fill up my water containers. The bite valve on my hydration bladder decides to impersonate a water fountain and water sprays in all directions. I was hoping to at least get on the track before I got wet. I somehow stem the flow, deciding everything will be ok. I pull my pack on, setting off into the rain.

I take the high tide track, still staying the course. This route is longer and allows for side trips up to Cleopatra’s Pool and Cascade Falls. When the weather was going to be fine I had thoughts of swimming at Cleopatra’s Pool. Even in the rain, the natural rook pools look idyllic but when I step on the boulders to cross the river my hope is that I don’t fall in. I don’t stop for long. The rain is more tolerable when I’m moving. I stop and debate with myself at the turn off for Cascade Falls. Will I? Won’t I? I might never come back. I have the time. I heave myself up the side of the stream gully. I tramp along a ridge line. I’m starting to wonder if maybe I’ve walked passed when the roar of water intensifies. A white torrent plunges over moss covered rocks. On my way up a bird I don’t recognise flies into my path. Not the fantail I expected but my first South Island Robin. When I join back with the main track I’m passed by a stream of runners. There’s an event on today, evidently. I get frustrated stepping out of the way to let them pass, this is just slowing me down. I stop again in Torrent Bay. I thought I might lunch here but there’s nowhere to shelter from the rain so I press on. I snack, eating the Fruit Noodles which is a remarkably average experience. They’re however the only one of my 5 a day I’m likely to get. The runners finally clear. From here the journey is a slog, up and down over headlands. I pass a family, it’s taken me almost 2km to pass all of them they’re so spread out. At first I didn’t realise they were together. It’s only when they pass me coming back from another view point that they’re all together. “Is it worth it?” one of the girls ask. I realise I no longer know how to answer this question. “It wasn’t for me?” I suggest. I leave them to decide what to do. I arrive at Bark Bay where I finally eat my lunch. A delicious, unreasonably satisfying stick of chorizo. Why have I only got one for each day? A chunk of Edam. Four pepper flavoured crackers that have held up surprisingly well in a backpack.

A mob of sparrows fly around the shelter. I suspect they’re waiting for me to leave so they can pick up my crumbs. A pair of ducks waddle in. They take no notice of me. Out of the wind, out of the rain, they tuck themselves in for a little nap. I stare at the tide charts. I think I’ve fucked up. The low tide I wanted for the estuary crossing at Awaroa is tomorrow morning. I’m not going to be crossing until the day after. I could get there in time to cross tomorrow but then I’ll have nowhere to go on the other side. I’ll have a short day tomorrow followed by a long wait. The afternoon will be hard. During a break in the rain I tack up hill into the bush and find the clearing Jan mentioned. The tent goes up. Not a single part of the tent isn’t soaked through. I mop up the inside with my tea towel which becomes saturated. I’ve still got two more nights after this. Being miserable about the miserable situation doesn’t get the tent dryer any faster. At least I got the tent up in the dry. A chance to air out. Maybe some of the moisture will disperse. I try to remain positive  I begin to wonder if the Big Agnes Copper Spur is actually a bad tent. When the first one snapped in Patagonia, maybe I should have gone for an MSR. Then again I didn’t bring anything with me to deal with a wet tent. I’ve got no spare towel, no bin liners. Packing wet and dry together was definitely a mistake. There’s a chance things improve on Monday. Only super soaker Sunday to get through first. I lay out my sleeping pad, my sleeping bag. At least I will be dry again tonight.

I sit at the picnic table to make dinner. The first of the Back Country Cuisine dinners; Nasi Goreng. Despite my obvious affection for chorizo, I have tried to be vegetarian where possible. As I’m munching through this brown rice with a mild asian sauce I wonder if this is another mistake. Last night’s pasta was more appetising than this. While I eat a single weka emerges from the bush. The copper and black feathers make the bird almost invisible. The rustling of branches indicate its position. The weka investigates the tent, moves around the table. I lose sight of it for a second, then a little head pops up on the other side of the table. Despite being flightless the ground dweller has a decent leap. Then the weka is on the table. How mischievous! As I’m taking photos of the inquiring bird, the inquiry turns to crime. A flash and a grab and my sponge is gone. I’m up, off the table running after the weka which promptly disappears in the bush. I actually need that sponge. How am I going to wash up now? Totally disrespectful. While I’m fishing around the bush, looking for the tell-tale piles of trash mistaken for food I realise I’ve left everything else on the table completely exposed for another raid. I cut my loses. I drop down to the hut to wash up at the sink. Stu, one of the Hut Gang invites me in to dry out. I appreciate the offer but firstly going inside would be cheating, and secondly there’s no point. I’d only have to leave and get wet again.

In the morning there is more rain. I stay cocooned in my sleeping bag. Dreaming of melting myself down and rebuilding with wings. Even then I wouldn’t be able to escape the weather. I get up, push the wet tent into its bag. I move down to the hut for breakfast, taking shelter on the deck. I’m convinced each morning the instant cappuccino sachets will taste better. I’m colder, wetter. The taste fails to improve but the heat of brown liquid is a comfort. Various members of the Hut Gang ask me how my night was. I sense pity. I tell the truth, it was fine. I was warm and woke up dry. One man makes the bold claim his night was better.  He was probably right. I load up, encased in my waterproofs and move on. There are no sidetracks today. Only the trail to Awaroa. The family group pass me early, still together. Yet to be pulled apart like an accordion of pace. As I start to warm up, the aches in my muscles receding, I overtake them one by one by one. Then I’m at the front of the pack, pulling away. I reach Tonga Quarry to find more rain. I come out of the bush onto the sands of Onetahuti Bay. Exposed to the wind and the rain, I laugh into the elements like the madman I suspect I have become. In this moment, alone on this beautiful, desolate, weather swept beach I am having the best time. The rain won’t last forever. I will be dry again, and when I am it will feel better than it ever has before. Remaining positive while you’re out doing something you enjoy in miserable conditions is a lot easier than when you’re stuck doing something you hate somewhere that sucks. Knowing too that the end is always in sight. This discomfort is only temporary. The beach is a hard kilometre. Sinking into the damp sand. A water taxi pulls up, dropping two people off. Another one arrives, the man says to me “You haven’t seen a family group of around 10 have you?” “yeah, they’re at least 10 minutes behind me, quite spread out too.” He thanks me for this almost useless information. I wonder if they’re shipping out of the bad weather. At the other end of the beach I catch up with one of the new arrivals. She’s stopped to take a photograph. She has a sports bag at her feet. “I hope you’ve got some good weather in there”. She laughs, more pity. At the end of the beach I begin the final climb. 

By the time I reach Awaroa I realise I probably did get my booking right. I would have had to shift the entire trek a day forward. By now I’d missed today’s crossing window. I take up my place in the camp shelter. Spreading out where I can, drying out what I can. Lunch is a real reward. I really should have bought more chorizo. A couple of olives or sundried tomatoes would really set it off too. A proper little hiker’s cheese board. I wait for a break in the rain. It would turn out that I arrived during the break in the rain. I erect the tent in the shelter. I run it down to the flat ground and peg it out. My theory here being the longer the tent is  up for, the drier the inside should be. Regardless of what the weather is doing outside. This also gives my towel some time to dry out a little more. This seems to work. I keep my bedding out of the tent for as long as possible. Keeping it dry as long as I can. I still have one more night after this and the forecast doesn’t appear to have improved. Although ’showers’ and ‘rain developing’ both sound more promising than straight up ‘rain’. I remain in the camp shelter, protected from the worst of the weather. Thankful for the number of hot drinks I carried in. A cup of tea, a hot chocolate, a miso soup, a peppermint tea. I hope that tomorrow is dry. I have a long wait before I can start my biggest walk. I decide against changing into my dry clothes, they’ll only get wet and I’m not that cold yet. I’m going to have a brilliant time on the Heaphy Track. I’ll be carrying less weight and won’t have to deal with the tent. Even if it rains I know I can get to the hut and warm up. And likely stay warm in front of the fire. 

I struggle with the damp afternoon. I don’t want to get in the tent because I’ll carry the wet in. Then I’ll only have to get out again to use the bathroom, to cook dinner. I don’t want to put my dry clothes on because they’ll get wet. I find myself thinking more of the Patagonia trip. The refugios of Torres Del Paine trump the DoC sites. They have not showers and often somewhere to buy beer. I can’t see this happening in New Zealand where treating the potentially undrinkable water is left to the tramper’s discretion. Also, the weather was nice if I deliberately overlook the tent wrecking wind. Really though I’m thankful of the small luxuries, the camp shelter might not be warm and doesn’t have a beer fridge but I’m out of the wind and the rain. Having the place to myself, I put on the post-punk classic and album of the year 2012, Attack on Memory by Cloud Nothings and bop around. Killing time. Keeping warm, shaking the damp out of my layers. Moving myself into a better mood. I play my favourite wet weather game. “Is that blue sky or just a less boring shade of grey?” The warden, EJ, comes to check I haven’t drowned. She also delivers more bad news, the endless rain might make the estuary crossing in the morning impossible.

On the fourth day the rain stopped. I wake up to the comparative silence of weka screams. No pitter patter of water on canvas. I climb out of the tent without packing anything away first. The sky above is blue. I try to stay realistic, the forecast is for showers. As if there can be any rain left in the sky. No boots on. No waterproofs on. No bag on. I move with so much freedom to the toilet. I return to the tent and begin packing things away. As I pull my sleeping bag up I notice a funny colour at the bottom end of the tent. The colour of the outer fly but inside. A hole. How is this possible? The hole doesn’t look like a stress rip. There was almost no wind last night. How can the tent be broken? I pack everything else away and move it out of the tent. I can’t afford to throw another tent in the bin, despite this being my initial reaction. I investigate closer. The hole is a sequence of holes, some not quite holes. Punctures, or pecks. I had no evidence to back up my latest theory but that bloody weka is at risk of termination. I go down to the hut to see if anyone has any tape. Cam of the Hut Gang kindly lends me his physio tape, waterproof and flexible it sounds like a better substitute than duct tape. I put a strip on the inside and on the outside. I move the tent to the grass patch outside the hut where the sun is leaving traces of warmth on every surface. I get the same question; “how was your night?” My night was pretty good. The trouble started this morning. Ej informs me that if the weka think they can get food they’ll certainly have a go at pecking their way in. I realise I’d left my rubbish in the bottom of my backpack, which I’d stuffed in the bottom of the tent. I remained without any evidence of a suspect, but the story I was telling myself made sense. In the end I was relieved to blame anything but the tent itself, not that I’d be particularly surprised if it were to fall apart on me.

I have a few hours to wait until low tide so I hang out the tent, my towel, my waterproofs, the cover for my backpack. Everything is cold to touch damp, including my backpack and sleeping bag. A warm dry day will be a kindness. EJ returns to apologise for fear mongering last night. She claims if I were to leave now the estuary won’t reach above my knees. The tide is still on the way out so the water levels are continuing to drop. I take everything off the washing line. I leave my boots off. I start out in flip flops across the sharp empty shells on the near bank. In the deepest, fastest bed of the river one of my flip flops is pulled apart. The toggle comes through the sole. My toes the only thing keeping the flapping plastic from being dragged out to sea. I change my course, moving quickly towards the nearest sand bar. I take my flip flops off. In one stream the soft, silky sand spreads beauty my feet. In another, grey mud squelches up between my toes. I make it across, wet only up to my knees. I rinse my feet and flip flops in the nearest stream. I put sunscreen on, lace up my boots and march to Totaranui. 

I join the beach at Goat Bay, finally getting that glimpse of Abel Tasman as Paradise. Yellow sand, green sea, blue sky. Big fat hot sun! I stop for lunch above the sand at Totaranui. The naughty little chorizo sticks being a consistent highlight of every day. I chat with The Older Trio of the Hut Gang, walking with them for a little while. People are curious about my story and I like to think I’ve started to get quite good at telling it. I couldn’t have planned my arrival in New Zealand any better. I lose my temporary friends on the first hill, pulling away with the fitness levels of a man who has the freedom to hike 10km a day. The next beach I come to is Mutton Cove. Utterly ridiculous. So much beautiful beach with nobody on it. Only footprints of people who’ve come before, going the other way. I push to Separation Point, extra distance on an already big day. When I arrive I see gannets nesting down by the lighthouse. Something is wrong. None of the birds are moving. Fake plastic gannets are nesting. There’s even a megaphone, playing out the best of gannet. A decoy, an attempt to lure in the real thing. To me, it looks like a harrowing glimpse of a possible future of wildlife spotting, like going to Crystal Palace to see the Dinosaurs. Only, we actually know what the animals look like before we immortalise them in plastic. I finally arrive at Whariwharangi. The final camp. Today I did not get wet. The forecast showers didn’t land on me. I pitch a dry tent for the first time since the first night. I have a cup of tea. I attempt to assert my dominance over the local weka. I chase them, I throw a nearly broken flip flop at one. This is my territory now. You are not welcome. Some of the Hut Gang head down to the  nearby beach. I hear the screaming of warm bodies in cold water. I’m still getting set up, it’s already getting dark, getting cold. I want to swim and I don’t want to swim. The eternal battle between immediate and future comfort. Immediate is still winning. I pour boiling water into my Radix Nutrition Indian Style Chickpea Curry. I’ll admit this one doesn’t look appetising at first; sloppy, creamy yellow mush. Once I get the food into my mouth I am reminded it doesn’t matter what food looks like. What matter is it is delicious. Saucy with the warm spice of actual flavour. We have a winner. Satisfied with saving the best until last I crawl into my dry, damaged tent.

I sleep badly for the first time. The sweat that formed on my body yesterday stayed there. I feel like I’ve been rolled in soft butter, still damp and also sticky. I should have gone for that swim. I sit up as I hear the tapping of a beak on my pan, spooking the intruder. I lie back down again, but not for long. Today needs an early start. If I want to be on my 12:15 water taxi back to Marahau I’ve got to complete the 11km crossing of Gibbs Hill first. I sit up again to find a weka investigating my bootlaces. My movement scares the bird out of the porch. So much for asserting my dominance. Aside from the damage to the tent, which I can’t definitively prove was a weka, I’ve got away without losing anything which can’t easily be replaced. They could have gone off with a spoon. I left my glasses on the table at one point. I suspect the sponge was unfortunate in appearing somewhat bread-like. I got up to find blue skies again. I ate my muesli, came as close to enjoying the instant cappuccino as I’m ever likely to. I don’t fill my hydration bladder. Ditching the weight. I’ve only got to get up and over one hill and I know there’s clean water at the other end. I wave off The Older Trio of the Hut Gang as they set off back the way we came. I tell Cam and Stu I’ll see them on the beach, we’re supposed to be on the same boat out. Then I’m on the Abel Tasman Coastal Track for the final time.

 The climb up Gibbs Hill is steady to begin. A gentle, winding ascent. Towards the top the trail becomes near vertical, becoming so much harder but absolutely worth it. From the top there are views behind of Wainui Bay, ahead of Totaranui. All around me, one of my new favourite things; regenerating forest. The descent down the other side is steep and slippery. I’m glad to find myself in the flat open fields at the bottom until I remember I haven’t put any sunscreen on. I walk down the tree lined avenue into Totaranui. I smell like a vintage cheese. I change into my swimming trunks. I drop my bag on the sand, I strip off my top layers. Those across the bay will have seen the bright flash of my never exposed to the sun chest. The beacon of Abel Tasman has been lit. I tried into the waves, diving into the salty, refreshing, green sea. The cold sinks to my bones. I do not stay in the water for long. The midday sun on the beach is warm, I dry quickly. Cam and Stu arrive. We stand in the shallows anywhere between ankle and knee deep as the waves wash over, letting the salt water do good things to our tender soles. The water taxi arrives, we get on board. The coast doesn’t disappear but passes rather quickly. Stu jokes about how we took five days to get out there and we’ll be back in an hour. What was the point? A good question. I invite myself along to Cam and Stu’s recovery lunch at Hooked in Marahau. I order whatever the biggest size of beer available is alongside a burger. I don’t know if it’s just the first real meal I’ve had in 5 days or if it really is that good but the burger places immediately into the Top 5 Burgers of All Time. Cam and Stu head off to Nelson for a night in a presidential suite. I don’t think I’m jealous, just tired. I roll the van back up to Old Macdonald’s Farm where I hang everything out. I take a hot shower. I sit, take stock. I now have 5 days until I have to load up again for my second helping of New Zealand’s Great Walks; The Heaphy Track.

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