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Unmarred beauty of New Zealand's Abel Tasman National Park

International Travel News,  Dec, 2004  by Carol Probst

My husband and I have, for many years, wanted to see the national parks of New Zealand, but none of the "affordable" packaged tours seemed to meet our needs. Ultimately deciding to rent a car and tour on our own, in March '04 we spent two weeks exploring the parks of New Zealand. This turned out to be our best travel adventure ever!
Abel Tasman National Park
One of our favorite discoveries was Abel Tasman National Park, located on the northern shore of New Zealand's South Island, approximately a 3-hour drive from the port of Picton, which is the point of arrival for inter-island ferries from the North Island.
The drive from Picton to the national park was very scenic, traffic was light and other drivers were courteous. Through a number of hairpin and "S" curves, the road climbed up mountains, wound through rocky gorges and crossed riverbeds.
Carol Probst Bethel Park, PA
It was not until reaching the town of Nelson that we first sighted Tasman Bay, which at low tide seemed to consist primarily of mudflats. Leaving Nelson, vineyards and orchards began to predominate until we entered the mountains of the park. Here was an amazing place where lush mountains met the bay, creating a wonderland of coves, inlets, estuaries and idyllic beaches.
No roads penetrate the park, although there are a number of hiking trails, the most famous of which is the 3-day Abel Tasman Coastal Track. However, my husband and I are in our late fifties and prefer to limit ourselves to hikes no longer than three to four hours. Fortunately, there are water taxis which run on a continual circuit along the coastline throughout the day, delivering passengers to different points along the shore. (No other motor craft are allowed in the park, although it is a popular place for canoe and kayak enthusiasts.)
Low-tide adventure
It was almost 4 p.m. when we checked into Abel Tasman Marahau Lodge (Marahau Beach, R.D. 2; Motueka; phone 0064-3-527-8250 or visit www.abeltasmanmarahaulodge., featuring spacious, clean clusters of cabins and located less than one-half mile from the beginning of the Coastal Track. The cost was NZ$130 (near US$87).
The friendly lodge manager signed us up for the water-taxi tour the next morning. In the meantime, she suggested that we access the nearby trail, follow it around the lagoon as far as we wished and return by striking out over the seabed, now exposed by the low tide. That sounded fun, so off we went.
At the beginning of the trail there were a number of other hikers present. After a few miles we decided to explore the ocean floor--a truly unique experience. The water level varies up to eight feet, and at low tide numerous caves and sea stacks can be investigated. A number of inhabited snail and clam shells as well as sand dollars awaited the return of the tide.
We decided to head back to our point of origin by cutting over the seabed, as we had been instructed. Nobody else was doing this, and after reaching the point of no return we figured out why: the firm, sandy ocean floor started to deteriorate into a soft quagmire and walking became much more difficult. I briefly considered the possibility of quicksand in the area.
As the light began to fade, we found ourselves trapped in an area of marsh grasses amidst indignant ducks. Finally, we saw some elevated ground. Unfortunately, it also had a wire-and-post arrangement with a sign saying "Private property, electrified fence." Hmmm. Was obtaining terra firma worth the risk of frying?
I tossed a stick at the fence, but the current must have been off as there were no sparks. We quickly stepped over the wire, ignoring the curious stares from several horses in the pasture. No matter! We could see the road beyond and were soon back at our lodge.
Dining out
Pulling ourselves together, we headed off to dinner at Hooked On Marahau (Marahau Beach Camp, Franklin Street; visit www.abel, one of only two dining establishments in the area. Our fish dinner, featuring a local catch called John Dorey, was probably our best meal in New Zealand. (Or maybe our appetites were just sharpened by the whole "lost in the marshes" experience). Our meal, for two, with wine cost approximately US$36.
After dinner we watched an enormous moon rising over the ocean just beyond the restaurant. The tide was coming in and moonlight was reflected in the water. Slivers of cloud made the moon appear as if it were striped.
A scenic hike
The next morning found us at the water-taxi tour office awaiting our 9:00 departure. At the office, everyone was loaded onto a motorboat resting on a trailer, which was pulled by a large tractor to the beach a block away. I'm sure we looked less than dignified, but it was an effective method of transporting the boat to the water for launching.
Our drop-off point was farther up the coastline at Torrent Bay, where we intended to hike the 4-kilometer trail back to the beach at Anchorage. (We had been advised that this section of the Coastal Track was a particularly scenic one, as it meandered through the rainforest and overlooked the bay.)
The water taxi was a little late arriving at Torrent Bay since the boat detoured to let us view some of the sights in the area, including the famous Split Apple Rock, often seen on advertisements for the park. This would still have given us plenty of time for our walk, except we had not counted on the sheer beauty of the trail. We kept pausing to admire the incredible flora, which ranged from tree-sized ferns to bright blue toadstools. Equally captivating were the vistas over the water, placid estuaries, unfamiliar waterfowl, etc.
Belatedly, we realized that we must pick up the pace in order to arrive at the appointed time and so had to hasten along the last fourth of the trail. We made it back with minutes to spare before our water taxi arrived.
It was with reluctance that we left Abel Tasman National Park. This fabulous destination was not on the itinerary of the packaged tours that we had perused, and in our minds it is a prime example of the merits of independent travel.
Carol Probst
Bethel Park, PA
COPYRIGHT 2004 Martin Publications, Inc.
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