Today we went to Abel Tasman National Park with no plan in particular. For perspective, imagine a couple of foreigners going to, oh, say Yosemite or maybe The Everglades with no plan in particular. Innocents abroad, indeed. We put on our hiking boots, tossed our heavy winter coats in the trunk, and took a scenic drive to Marahau. In the summer months, visitors sometimes spend three to five days hiking the entire Abel Tasman track through the park, but there are lots of options for a shorter visit. You can hike, rent a kayak, take a boat tour, or arrange any combination of those things. Since it was noon by the time we got to the park, and we wanted to see as much as we could, we decided on a 13km trail and arranged to be picked up by boat for the return to Marahau.
It was a beautiful, sunny day. We left our heavy coats in the trunk, and opted for lighter fleece jackets. The trail from Marahau to Anchorage starts and ends on a flat, sandy beach. We’d envisioned a long, leisurely walk by the water, with occasional scrambles over headlands. If we’d looked at the map, we might have noticed that virtually none of the trail was by the beach. It was a winding, steep path from one headland to another, through a dense forest of fern trees, fern palms, ferns, more ferns, still more ferns, and some beautifully vibrant Scotch Broom flowers that made Melissa’s nose drip and tickle all day.
The frequent bird calls were so musical and unusual that it felt more like a soundtrack from the Rainforest Café than real life. The vegetation at Abel Tasman is unique and bizarre: palms grow next to fir trees, giant ferns and rampant undergrowth create a tangled, jungly environment unlike anything either of us have ever seen.
The Abel Tasman track is a broad, well-manicured trail, with frequent signs and scenic overlooks. It’s built to handle the hordes of hikers who flock here in summer, making this the most popular national park in New Zealand. On this winter Sunday, however, we passed only a few other hikers, and mostly had the walk to ourselves.
We noticed little plastic numbers hidden in the ferns, and realized they were kilometer markers. We did some quick math, and realized that we’d never bothered to calculate how long the hike should take. We did some more quick math, and decided that we had precisely enough time to get to our boat, but only if we never stopped to do things like ogle the view, take pictures, or tie our shoelaces. About an hour into the hike, sweaty from the steep climbs, we pulled off our jackets, shoved them in our packs, and let the sunshine and the cool, ocean breeze dry us off.
We charged along for another hour or so, admiring the occasional overlook down to a secluded crescent of sandy beach and the fantastic water. Even as overcast obscured the sun, the water ranged from blue to turquoise to jade green. We watched a group of beginning kayakers paddling past offshore rocks and nearby islands. That’s when we felt the mist, so cool and refreshing against our faces. Beneath all those ferns, we hadn’t noticed the dark clouds creeping up on us. Within minutes, the mist turned to rain. We were still climbing, so we didn’t put our jackets back on right away. “Better to be damp than hot,” we decided. Then the rain got heavier and the air got cooler – this wasn’t a minor squall, this was a significant weather front.
We put our fleece back on over our wet clothes and kept on tramping. We didn’t really discuss it, but we both started to worry that the weather would slow us down and we wouldn’t make the boat. We ate a couple of granola bars on the move, and talked about warm things, things like fireplaces and double-shot lattes. Even if the weather had been clear, this was both the steepest and least scenic part of the trail, so we put our cameras into our packs and increased our pace.
Then, as if the trail wanted to apologize for the weather and the rapid downgrade that turned our legs to jello, it dumped us on to an impossibly colorful stretch of beach with perfectly clear, turquoise water, sand so coarse and yellow that it looked like cornmeal, and blackened driftwood poking out here and there for emphasis. We pulled the cameras back out, and for the first time in a couple of hours, we simply enjoyed the scenery.
The rain was coming down hard. We made up a lot of time in that last stretch of the trail, and so we arrived at the beach more than half an hour before the boat. We wanted to dry off a bit, so we walked to a backpackers’ hut nearby. It was only then, under the hut’s awning, that we realized we were chilled to the bone. We dried ourselves off a little, dug our wool hats and scarves out of our packs, and struggled in vain to pull stretchy polypropylene gloves on to our damp, numb hands.
The bay was rough and choppy by the time the small motorboat showed up at the shore. The skipper warned us to expect a bumpy ride back to Marahau, but he handled the waves well and we had a blast. At the end of the trip, he drove the boat right up on to a trailer, which in turn was hauled by a tractor, and suddenly, still in our lifejackets, we were riding through Sunday afternoon traffic on the streets of Marahau.
When we got to the car, we turned the heat up all the way and let it blow at us until our skin, at least, felt warm. Six hours later, our bones are still cold.
It was a beautiful walk through Abel Tasman, but over our fourth or fifth cup of tea, we decided that we really should have known better. It’s the middle of winter here. Weather changes. We should have had extra layers with us, and we should have asked about the terrain and how long the hike would take before we arranged our pick-up. We were never in danger of anything more than discomfort and inconvenience if we’d missed our boat, but we’ll plan better tomorrow.
And for now, we’ll just keep passing Steve’s laptop back and forth because it’s warm.