melanie ball

Walking New Zealand's Abel Tasman Coast by Melanie Ball Published in Courier Mail, June 10, 2012 

In the style stakes, there is no contest between hikers and pied oystercatchers in Abel Tasman National Park, on South Island New Zealand’s north coast. For while the former splash through low-tide shallows in dull hues and outrageous stripes, the latter epitomise panache in black and white as they pick molluscs from wet sand with lipstick-red beaks. And the rare variable oystercatchers are even more chic in basic black.

An inelegant wade across Awaroa Inlet concludes my exercise on day one of the Wilson family’s 4-night guided hike on the Abel Tasman Coast Track, one of New Zealand’s eight designated “Great Walks.” It’s a day which begins with a mini-bus ride from Nelson and a boat trip north along the park’s shore to Totaranui, dropping day walkers and sun-bathers in bays along the way. 

From Totaranui our guide, Dave, leads seven Australians and a Brit 7km south on foot: along granite cliffs and beaches lapped by cyan sea; up a stream the colour of pale ale (as Dave describes it); through stands of manuka and beech trees whose leaves dot the track like confetti; past a thousand year-old northern rata, an arboreal giant with dreadlock epiphytes. Independent hikers can book into four park huts and 19 camping areas along the track but our destination is very different. 

Meadowbank Homestead is a 1990s reconstruction of the two-storey home which Wilson family ancestor William Hadfield built on Awaroa Inlet’s shore in 1884. The lounge contains old family photographs, the original piano and a pile of 78s. There’s an open fire for toasting toes in winter (we are experiencing unusual heat), reference books, and a basket of board games. My luggage (transferred by boat) awaits me in an en-suite room off the rear garden. 

Wilsons Abel Tasman offer 3- and 5-day Walking Breaks. Both cover about 40km of the Coast Track (one leg short of the full 54.4km) but the longer trip allows a whole day at both lodges to put your feet up or explore further. 

We kick off our Awaroa layover kayaking up the inlet on blue-green water which the tide will drain as if pulling a plug; and white-faced herons, pied stilts and sacred kingfishers show themselves, and eagle rays flap shadow-like beneath our paddles, before we are done. That evening’s pink-and-orange sunset finds us back on Meadowbank’s verandah eating local mussels and drinking New Zealand wine.

It’s 18.7km from here to Torrent Bay Lodge and somewhere along that roller-coaster day-three walk over saddles and down into greenstone-smoothe bays, the temperature peaks at 30oC. So mid afternoon I plunge, fully clothed, into core-cooling Halfway Pool. This four-person stream-fed waterhole is right beside the walking track but halfway between where and where? Dave doesn’t know.

There are several optional activities on our Torrent Bay “rest” day. After breakfast, one of our lodge hosts leads a rapid march (9.8km return in 3 hours) up to boulder-strewn Falls River, to feed Ella the eel left over pork. And after lunch – chickpea salad with orange, almonds and other secret ingredients – we walk to Cleopatra’s Pool, to bathe not in milk but in water so cold I don’t feel the skin scrape off my elbow as I shoot down a natural slide into the wash.

Our fifth and last day will again take us from bays to cliff tops, with some slopes so gentle we only realise we’ve been climbing when sun-kissed water appears way below. And the walk will return us to the “civilised” world of mobile phone reception. But that’s tomorrow.

On my final evening on the Abel Tasman Coast Track, I stroll solo along Torrent Bay’s sandy shore, leaving human footprints beside those of oystercatchers.

Melanie Ball was a guest of Wilsons Abel Tasman.

NEED TO KNOW: Abel Tasman National Park boasts the most sunshine of any part of New Zealand and well prepared walkers can hike year round. The peak season is October to late April.  The park is a 1.5 hour drive from Nelson. Independent hikers can ride Wilsons Abel Tasman boats to drop-off points.  Department of Conservation park huts (mattresses, filtered water, heating and cooling) and camp sites must be pre-booked. Information and bookings Wilsons Abel Tasman Walking Breaks run year round. The 5-day guided walk includes Nelson transfers, four nights’ lodge accommodation, boat trip, guiding, and all meals.  Alcoholic beverages are extra.  

Information at; book with Australian representative Outdoor Travel on 1800 331582.

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