The first European to set his sights on the New Zealand coastlines was Abel Tasman, who reached New Zealand on December 18th, 1642, though he did not set foot on land. The local tribe at the time, Ngāti Tumatakokiri, were eventually replaced by Ngāti Rārua, Te Ātiawa and Ngāti Tama in the region by the 1820s. They are still helping protect the area today.
In 1855, Europeans began to settle in the area permanently, clearing forests for pasture, logging to build ships, and digging for granite. The national park was created in 1942 and is New Zealand’s smallest national park at 22,530 hectares (nearly 87 square miles). Today, it is world-famous for its golden sandy beaches, granite rock outcrops along the shore, and its Great Walk: the 60 km Abel Tasman Coast Track.
The Coast Track is one of New Zealand’s “Great Walks”, ten different premier tracks throughout the country that are known as some of the country’s best overnight camping trips. They are easily followed, well-established and maintained, and can even be used by day hikers wishing to complete a small section of the trail. For overnight trampers, however, campsites and huts (bunkhouses) along the way can book up weeks or even months in advance.
We chose the Abel Tasman Great Walk partially because of its availability on such short notice, but also because it would be unlike anything either of us had done before. Dense green forests followed by white sandy beaches and turquoise water would prove otherworldly to us in comparison to the high alpine tundra of Denali. We booked three nights along the track and completed more than 32 miles in 72 hours.
Hiking the Coast Track
Let’s try something a little different this time.
When narrating my time abroad, chronology is effective, but can quickly become repetitive and boring with all of the “next”s and “then”s and the “finally we ended up here”s. Instead, I feel that emotions can tell the story of our entire backpacking trip in a much more interesting way. So here we are: an honest account of emotions I experienced while hiking the Abel Tasman Coast Track.
As we set off on our first backpacking trip in months, I immediately began to question if I could make it through the next few days. I had fairly new shoes and a new backpack weighed down with food, water, clothes, and camping gear, so analyzing and over-analyzing every kink, pinch, or tug quickly became routine.
It quickly became apparent that this was not going to be the slog through flat forest I thought it might. We very slowly gained elevation, enough to have beautiful views of the turquoise blue waters and white sandy beaches below. Everything was framed by lush green forest and plants that stretched from the floor to the canopy. And it all just kept going.
Upon reaching our first campsite, we threw down our packs, tore off our shoes and splashed into the bright cove that was just steps away from where our tent would be. The cool water felt miraculous, and the power of a dehydrated dinner after a day of hiking is not to be underestimated. A game of Yahtzee in the sand helps, too.
Our first morning began with a steep, STEEP climb out of our campsite back to the Great Walk track. Again, I was filled with self-doubt. But it was only the beginning of a long day, and I was determined to make the most of this trip. I stepped on, trying not to let my mind linger on how many kilometers lie ahead.
We reached our first tidal crossing at Anchorage over an hour early. When crossing an inlet or estuary, it is best to cross between an hour and a half before and two hours after low tide. We sat to wait it out and a pair of Australian hikers joined us, though we noticed two hikers in the tidal crossing already. Using the binoculars, we saw them holding their packs over their heads as they waded through waist-deep water. Water that in an hour’s time would be less than knee deep. Suffice to say, we waited.
The weka is a flightless, chicken-like bird that is often a source of amusement (or annoyance) at camp. They have enormous feet, so you can hear them tromping through the nearby brush, and they are bold around humans until you make a move towards them, when they will frantically spin out as they scurry away. Weka hang around camps to try to snatch any unguarded food. On our last night while making dinner, a camper nearby pointed behind us and shouted, “He’s got something of yours!”
Sure enough, a weka was stumbling away with some form of an aluminum pouch, and John bolted after it, skidding into the brush and scaring the weka so it dropped the pouch at the edge of the forest. Turns out, it was a half-eaten pack of mashed potatoes that had been stolen from a different tramper earlier in the evening. He was ecstatic to have his dinner back, and we all joked that the weka had been returning to him.
There are only so many times you can trudge to the top of a long and arduous hill, proclaim, “We made it!”, and find out that really, that wasn’t even close to the top, before getting discouraged. It can be easy to slip into mindsets where I make myself believe that I should be able to hike farther, I should be able to hike faster, that my best isn’t good enough. It can be easy to feel that in the scope of hikers who take months to finish long-distance trails, this trail isn’t much of an accomplishment at all.
But when I think back to how I felt on that first day, when I think of how sore my feet and hips are, how much I have pushed myself in such a short period of time, and how much I have seen, I feel like I have done something worth writing about.
Happiness & Gratitude
It’s the small things that make this story memorable. The way pure white sand was covered by clear blue water, with ten different shades of green trees spilling over the cliffs above. Commiserating with other hikers along the way. Setting up camp when it’s not raining. Spending 20 minutes trying to capture the perfect photo of the waves on the shore, or of an oystercatcher standing in the sand. Eating lunch with a beautiful view. Having good conversations and a flurry of new ideas on the trail. Counting the number of different plant species I saw, even though I didn’t know what they were. Crossing a swinging wood bridge with the stream bed far below. Meeting a kiwi (New Zealander) who told me that Minnesota is on his bucket list (now that was a highlight!).
These are the memories that I will take home with me from Abel Tasmen National Park, from my first New Zealand Great Walk. I’ll remember the challenging moments, too, if only to learn from them and remind myself what I am capable of accomplishing.
Cheers until next time!