Saturday, 1 October 2011

The Great Abel Tasman Hike - Part 1

Click for the first two days' photos.
My travelling around New Zealand has finally started and in big style, too. To begin, I spent a whole week tramping in the Abel Tasman National Park with Dominik and two Japanese friends. It was simply awesome. We could have been a bit luckier with the weather (cloudy beaches are a bit depressing), but in the end everything worked out well and we had a really good time. Not only was it my first serious tramping in NZ, but it was also the longest I've ever done.

Abel Tasman has two faces, the coastal and the inland one. Although they're in the same park, they couldn't be more different and offer such different experiences. This post will be all about the first part of our trip.

Click for pictures from days 3 and 4.
Coast Track - the Great Easy Walk
The popular Coast Track, one of NZ's eight Great Walks, is, no pun intended, a walk in the park. It's not as much about hiking as about a hassle-free way to enjoy the coastline scenery and the beaches. As a Great Walk, it's basically a big business: there are heaps of commercial trips, kayak rentals, swimming with seals, expensive water taxis that take you to any part of the track, and if you want to stay longer than one day, they make you pay dearly for compulsory hut/campsite accommodation. It's also imperative to book in advance (during the summer it's all booked out for three months and the walk seems more like the busiest avenue in New York city).
The track itself is an easy gravel path with bridges, railings, toilets, drinking water and shelters at regular intervals, with a number of beach walks and moderately steep climbs.
In other words, the Coast Track isn't a challenging walk (leave hiking boots at home), but a piece of stunningly beautiful coastline with plenty of beaches, crystalline water and an appealing diversity of vegetation (e.g. palms, ferns, but even ordinary grass). The track's biggest challenges are probably the few low-tide crossings (you have to time them right and you must take off your shoes to get through ankle deep water). Although I enjoyed the coast track, it didn't feel like a real hike due to its commercial nature and the omnipresent warning signs that made me feel as if being constantly watched.

Inland Track - that's what I call serious hiking
The Inland track is a totally different story. It's fucking hardcore, that's what it is. It's almost as long as the Coast track (about 50 km), but instead of easy strolling through beaches, low hillocks with near to zero elevation and facilities at every corner, it goes up the inner-park's mountains, starting at sea level and reaching nearly 1100 metres at its highest point.
Regardless of where you start, be ready for several kilometres of seriously steep and technical climbing before you reach at least 600 metres and the path gets more even. Once you're through that, you'll be crossing mountain ridges with constant ups and downs alternated by few easy and relaxing sections. Rocks and roots sticking out of the ground will test you at every step, you'll have to cross over creeks with slippery rocks, high drops where the ground's been eroded, swampy bits and only occasionally some nice and easy flat sections. If you fancy a challenging hike, this is it. You'll be rewarded by a couple of days amidst astonishingly beautiful forest, a variety of vegetation (from ferns and palms to tall ancient trees completely covered with moss) and a couple of lookouts offering even more stunning views of the coast than the coastal track itself. You'll most probably be on your own, too, since the Inland Track is far less popular than the Coast one.

Ok, that was the general presentation of Abel Tasman, now let's get to our own experience.

Our walk(s)
What most people do is walk along the coast and then grab a water taxi back; what we did was walk along the coast and then loop back the inland way, totalling a seven-day hike. The funny thing is that we just wanted to save money, and ended up having a lot more fun and a much bigger sense of achievement than the the average tourist.

The Great Tasman Swim. Refreshing.
Cold waters of the Tasman Sea
The first day we walked from Marahau to Anchorage, the first big campsite. The night was windy, rainy and cold, definitely not one of my favourites, but we were rewarded by a nice morning and a bright sunny day, ideal for enjoying the coastline. In fact, I didn't start to really enjoy the coastline until then, and the absolute highlight of Day Two was Sandfly Bay. Despite its somewhat unappealing name, it's one of the most beautiful places (with hardly any sandflies, actually). A cosy little beach, a narrow channel giving into a large estuary and a sandy bank, all surrounded by rainforest. Although it's the end of a river, thanks to the salty/fresh water mixing effect it's the sea to be drawn inside the bay, not the other way around. Ideal for kayakers, but not so much for crazy Czechs who love to bathe in cold crystalline water (and the Tasman Sea, at this time of the year, is cold!) Anyway, after my enthusiastic plunge into the waves, which I loved, I naively stepped right inside the channel and the current started dragging me in like a log. I would have had to walk all the way around the bay, through the bush, which I really didn't fancy doing barefoot, but luckily I managed to grab onto a rock and get back ashore. The swim was indisputably the highlight of the day, but nothing in comparison with the next campsite - Onetahuti - where we washed in a pool of totally freezing, breath-stopping water coming down a waterfall. That was refreshing!

Tide-up and crappy weather
Don't blame me if it falls on our heads tonight...
The third day saw us a bit under pressure due to two low-tide crossings we had to catch in a short time. There are several spots on the Coast track where you have to cross with the low tide, otherwise you need to take a long inland detour. However, in Awaroa there's no such thing and if you miss your tide, you must wait for at least six hours, which wasn't our plan.
Tide crossings usually take about twenty minutes, and even though the water withdraws several hundred metres, you still have to take your boots off to cross a river (a cold river) and then, if you're under pressure like we were, must carry on barefoot through a field of thousands of crunchy shells and squishy mud-sand. Probably the most interesting part of the coast track.

Born to be wiiiild!!!
After Awaroa we could relax, since there wasn't anything else to press us, and we tried to enjoy ourselves despite the depressing weather (totally overcast). We had all the time in the world for marvellous beaches, taking photos, rock climbing and other silly things. The worst thing about bad weather is that once you arrive to the campsite, instead of enjoying the free time after hours of walking, you have nothing to do and are just killing time before going to sleep. Good thing I had something to read. By the way, have you ever tried to walk a kilometre across a sandy beach in hiking boots with 15 kilos on your back? Not nice.

Summer waves
We spent the third night in Totaranui, the coast track's main site. It was the biggest bloody campsite I've ever seen, and it was totally deserted (depressing, but better than in summer, I don't want to imagine what it's like then). There were only two other visitors with us, a young French-German couple who lit a fire and was good company for the evening.

Joined at Separation Point
The fourth day, relieved to leave Totaranui, we set course for the last section of the Coast track - up north to Separation Point and then to Whariwarangi. The weather hadn't improved, but we sort of got used to it at that point. As we kept heading north through the park, the vegetation kept changing from light rainforest full of huge ferns to a more bushy one, then some rainforest again, at some point we've seen some palms and to crown it all there were patches of some kind of oak trees covered with sweet smelling resin (bees get drank with it in summertime and fall on top of passers-by). The constant changes made the walk really interesting and the last day was particularly enjoyable. The walk had become more challenging, the landscape more interesting and the seal colony at Separation Point was the day's highlight. Every now and then one of the lazy buggers would plunge into the crystal clear water and show us a swim, before crawling up a rock again with those funny little limbs, finns, or whatever it is they have. Despite the cloudy weather, we could see the Farewell Spit, a long stretch of sand on the opposite side of Golden Bay.

When two become four. Five.
We finished Day Four at Whariwarangi, the last stop on the Coast track. There's a very nice hut, a former 1800's homestead now belonging to the DOC (Department of Conservation, all things nature in NZ go through them). Here we were joined by Yuka and Shohei, our Japanese friends from Blenheim and fellow vineyard workers. It was nice to see them again, especially Yuka, because she had coffee! We also met a German girl who was travelling by herself and was headed the same way for part of the route. I quite liked her, but guess what... yeah, the boyfriend.

Coffee in-the-can.
Either way, that was the end of our easy Coast walk and the start of real hardcore on the Inland track. More of that in the next post.

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