Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Abel Tasman National Park, New Zealand

Lana Kayak
The first thing we wanted to do, when we arrived on the South Island of New Zealand, was to hike or kayak in Abel Tasman National Park.  In fact, we did both.  But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. 
We had decided in Chile that New Zealand would be a good place to try travelling without booking ahead, as a test ground to see if it was practical, and also if we would feel comfortable with it. We had mixed results. In remote, or less popular regions, and in low season, it was quite practical, and it was really fun to be able to get in the car in the morning, look at each other, and ask “where should we go today?” Or, find that an area had more to explore, and stay an additional night if we felt like it. In more central, popular areas, and especially in high season (pretty much our entire time in New Zealand), it was hard to find last-minute vacancies, and our comfort level dropped, as we had the nagging concern that we’d be sleeping in the car as we got into areas where we started seeing more and more people.
Abel Tasman was a good example of high season, in a remote but popular area.  When we drove off the ferry into Picton, we had no mobile phone coverage, so we drove towards Nelson while checking for signal regularly, hoping we could call ahead to check for vacancies for that night.  We didn’t get a usable signal until we reached Nelson, mid-afternoon.  That’s when we discovered that everything in the Abel Tasman area was fully booked, and the next nearest option was Nelson itself.  After comparing options from a pair of guide books and a book of affiliated hotels we’d gotten during a previous hotel stay, we called one from the latter, verified there was one unit left, drove there, looked at it, and booked it.  Not a bad outcome, but rather than staying in a small community directly on the coast, a few minutes from Abel Tasman, we were 45 minutes drive away, in the suburbs of a medium city.
We never did end up sleeping in our car, but we did end up staying in places that were either above our budget (most common) or below our sketchy threshold (not as big an issue in New Zealand as it was in South America, but still quite possible), or simply out of our way.  The ability to book accommodation over the internet--using reviews as a guideline, without seeing the place with your own eyes--is a huge advantage to short-duration vacationers, who can book rooms across the world, months in advance.  That’s a great thing, but it gives a competitive advantage to those planners, and increases the challenge of finding a place with vacancies for vacationers who want to have a flexible itinerary, and for long-term travelers who simply don’t have the time and connectivity to research and book that far out, whether they want to or not.   That said, the experiment was a success; we know the risks and limitations of finding same-day accommodation, as well as having experienced the rewards when it is possible.  We are also more aware of some of our  booking limitations with mobile phone coverage, and internet access, as cell coverage is poor outside major cities, and wifi in New Zealand is neither free nor fast, which was a surprise coming from South America, where it was a reliable way to research and book our travel plans.
However, staying in Nelson didn’t prevent us from enjoying a full day excursion in Abel Tasman; we just got up a little earlier, and drove up the beautiful coast, and were soon sitting on a boat, being towed down the highway by a tractor.  The bay has a very shallow slope, and the waterline for low tide is a long way from the high tide mark—too far for a pier.  Instead, the water taxis board passengers inland, at their offices in Marahau, and are towed through town, out onto the beach, and then backed into the surf.  It works better than it sounds, and we were impressed with the skill of the tractor drivers.
The water taxi dropped us off at Torrent Bay and we hiked on the Abel Tasman track towards Bark Bay, where we’d have lunch, and later get into kayaks.  We booked our tour through Abel Tasman Kayaks. This particular tour was a self-guided morning walk, a barbecue lunch on the beach, and a guided kayak trip either further north up the coast or back down toward Marahau, depending on the winds. We didn’t realize it when we booked it, but when we drove up to the office in Marahau we realized this was the same kayak company that we booked our tour through years ago when we came to Abel Tasman in 2005. Glad to know they’re still in business—and that they’re still providing excellent tours of Abel Tasman.
The hike—or trek, as New Zealanders call it—was wonderful.  Around every corner was a beautiful view, whether a moss covered forest or a turquoise sea.
Or even a suspension bridge, crossing a river:
When we got to Bark Bay we found our guide for the day, Sam, setting out the kayaks and unpacking the supplies for lunch.  He had a cookstove and a big cooler and cooked up some lamb for wraps, with various salads to go alongside, as well as apple juice and tea or coffee. For dessert he brought along large slabs of chocolate cake with chocolate icing, which were messy but divine. After a quick swish of hands in the water to get the last of the chocolate icing off, we were refueled and ready for an afternoon of kayaking.
First Sam gave us a brief tutorial on how to steer and paddle the kayak, as well as instructions for being able to get yourself out of it if the kayak flipped over with you in it. After that he gave us a shove into the water and we were off.  The goal was to head back towards Anchorage Bay, which was just a bit closer to Marahau than where we set off for our hike, for a couple of hours of kayaking.
On our way back we paddled up an estuary back toward the suspension bridge we’d crossed on our hike, and also out to a tiny island off the coast only big enough to house a couple of fur seal families.
Kayaking in a tandem kayak is a good team building exercise, and an interesting way to get an idea of how your relationship is going. Much like tandem cycling, you have to have faith in each other, and work together to move forward. Unfortunately we both have the upper body strength of nine year olds, so unlike the tandem bike we fell behind quickly and stayed behind for the bulk of the tour.
That was immaterial, however, because we found our groove, and enjoyed the gorgeous scenery.  The day was hot but the water was cool and we just paddled along, chatting with our guide about the area and beer making (beer is expensive in New Zealand, but making it is much cheaper).
We ended our day with a large piece of chocolate cake (left over from lunch) on the beach, and a scenic water taxi ride back to Marahau. After another 45 minute drive back to Nelson, we were spent. Nothing like sun, exercise, scenery (and chocolate cake) to make you exhausted at the end of the day.