Monday, March 26, 2012

Abel Tasman: Seals, Sand and Scenery (New Zealand)

Abel Tasman National Park is one of the most alluring and beautiful natural wonders in New Zealand. On the protected and more weather-friendly side of New Zealand’s South Island, the 54 kilometre three to five-day coastal track combines lush forests with sculpted granite cliffs and pristine bays and coves fringed by golden sands. Tiny rocky islands sit enticingly offshore supporting a rich variety of native marine and bird life.

While the national park is named for a mid-1600s Dutch sailor Abel Tasman who fled without landing after being spooked by the local Maori population, the French explorer D’Urville navigated and anchored in the area leaving his mark with exotic French names for some of the bays and landmarks.

Outside of a walk and the general stunning coastal scenery, two notable highlights are Split Apple Rock and Tonga Island. As if cut cleanly in half by a giant’s axe, a large granite boulder perches in aquamarine water just off the coastline. While legends abound, there appears no certain explanation as to the rock’s perfect dissection except that it happened a very long time ago.

Despite the inclement weather, on Tonga Island, New Zealand Fur Seals luxuriate and relax on the rocks while fur seal pups exuberantly swim and play in the rock pools that fringe the islands. Acutely aware of the sharp tidal differences of over five metres, mother fur seals feed at low tide making for a shorter dive to harvest the rich pickings of the sea floor. Dolphins are seen travelling in the bow wave of the boat while I spot a couple of shy blue penguins as they bob their tiny heads above the water. The captain points out that he never announces penguin sightings as by the time he has said pen, the bashful birds have dived away.

In one slightly strange phenomenon, the sands on the various beaches vary distinctly from a reddish colour and gritty feel to near white and powdery soft on the feet, caused by the angle of the beaches, the size of the granite sand grains and the bleaching effects of the sun.

The excellent services of Abel Tasman Sea Shuttle allow visitors with only a few hours or a day to experience a portion of the park without embarking on the full multi-day walk (click on the map below to enlarge). Chatting with returning passengers, one couple had spent a week camping, relaxing and taking short strolls at the northerly point of Totaranui while a group of three spoke enthusiastically after returning for a second year to walk a different section of the track. Yet another couple had enjoyed lunch and a short walk at Awaroa Lodge while two youngsters spoke of kayaking the shoreline near Coquille Bay.

By taking a later return shuttle, people can combine a scenic cruise with walking a leg of the coastal track, kayaking a section of the rocky coastline and/or lunching at the Awaroa Lodge. Others simply stay on board to enjoy the scenic cruise with a commentary describing the history of the park while visiting a number of forest-fringed golden beaches, the seal colony and unusual rock formations. For those without access to Kaiteriteri, a bus runs from Motueka while the first service of the day travels from the thriving artsy city of Nelson (50 minutes away via boat), returning with the last service of the day.

Sitting shallow in the water, the Abel Tasman Sea Shuttle water taxi vessels are purpose-built for the Abel Tasman National Park accounting for the high tidal variations, beach landings, space for bags and gear for campers and a small refreshing café where snacks, hot and cold drinks are available. Their cleverly designed ramps unfurl from the front of the vessel and allow easy access to and from the beach without a need to ever get wet feet, wet gear or to climb steps.

From the reddish-tinged sands of Kaiteriteri, the Abel Tasman Sea Shuttles stops at six different beaches and bays dropping hikers, kayakers and day-trippers off and picking others up. With parts of the walk involving stream or estuary crossings only passable around low tide, the vessel’s crew offer plenty of advice to ensure that walkers time their ventures with the tides.

Sometimes omitted from visitors' itineraries, the top of New Zealand's South Island is stunning highlighted by the magnificent coastline, beaches, wildlife and forests of Abel Tasman National Park. While it is easy to spend a week in this picture-postcard park, it is easy for those with limited time to get a taste of this scenic area, experiencing its secluded beauty by any combination of trekking the fine coastal path, paddling a kayak or soaking its panoramic vistas from the comfort of a water taxi.

Abel Tasman Sea Shuttle provided a complimentary journey to the author. As always, the content and opinions are mine and are not influenced by the provision of discounted or free services. In this case, I highly recommend Abel Tasman Sea Shuttles. This award-winning family business has a deserved fine reputation for their comfortable and innovative catamarans, competitive pricing, enthusiastic helpful crew and for their tremendous knowledge and passion for the Abel Tasman area.

Further details on the Abel Tasman Coastal Track are available here.
Map courtesy of Abel Tasman Sea Shuttle.


Dean said...

I've done a lot of hiking in New Zealand but haven't done the Abel Tasman Walk yet. It looks beautiful

Barbara Weibel said...

I REALLY wanted to visit this park when I was in New Zealand, but I ran out of time. Reading about your travels around NZ lately have made me want to come back!

Mark H said...

@barbara: Spend a bit of time in Abel Tasman - a special place, especially given that you can choose how far you walk.

Mark H said...

@dean: It is one of the nine Great Walks in NZ (along with Milford, Routeburn etc). Time ot get the boots out...

Heather on her travels said...

It looks like a wonderful way to access some wild and unspoilt scenery

Mark H said...

@heather: I love the idea of a national park and long walk that is able to be done in parts.

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