The gift of nature: A 3-day hike through Abel Tasman

Kelsey and I trialled our backpacks, one carrying food, one carrying mainly camping gear, and gave each other a questioning look.

This would be our first multi-day hike for the both of us, and we were doing it completely on our own in one of the most iconically beautiful parts of New Zealand: Abel Tasman National Park.

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Don and Wendy, my boyfriend’s Dad and stepmom, and possibly the two nicest Kiwis I’ve met, had given us a portable stove as a bon voyage gift the night before. The prospect of having warm food for our 3 days in the bush had already lightened our spirits.

Let me tell you, if you’re planning on doing a multi-day hike for the first time, warm food after a full day of hiking makes all the difference in staying positive, it was just what we needed.

I went off to bed with an excited nervousness in my stomach, the feeling I get before I’m about to experience something a tad extraordinary, and tried my best to fall asleep for next day’s journey.

Day 1

We rose before the sun came up the next morning in Nelson. I said goodbye to my sleepy boyfriend whom I wouldn’t see for the next 2 weeks, and gave Don and Wendy a big hug, thanking them for their hospitality.

We quickly packed up the car, and before we knew it, we were on the road driving out of town towards the winding road to Abel Tasman.

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We both had a touch of trepidation and an enthusiastic excitement as we drove just over an hour, making our way past Motueka and Riwaka to get to Marahau – the starting point of the Abel Tasman National Park – catching our 10:30am water taxi just in time.

We had a fairly strenuous hiking schedule ahead of us, a fact that I was glad for as it allowed us to see the majority of the Abel Tasman coastline, and the varying parts of the beautiful park.

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This wasn’t going to be a leisurely stroll through the bush, but an athletic galavant to the end.

We made our way in the bumpy water taxi deep into the park, stopping at multiple bays along the way that we would eventually end up hiking through on our way back.

It took us about two hours to get to our starting point, Totaranui, in which we awkwardly hopped off the boat with our backpacks on and gleefully made our way to shore.

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Our first goal that first day was to hike all the way to Onetahuti Bay, passing through the Awaroa Inlet that is tide dependent, and hiking in total 14.2 km in 5.5 hours (here’s a map to give you a reference).

I had never hiked in a “backpacking” backpack previously, with all of my camping gear and food in tow, and we realized the extent of the word ‘tiring’ after the first massive hill we climbed from Onetahuti to Goat Bay.

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Completely out of breath at the top and swigging down water like a pirate with rum, we had a split second of doubt about what exactly we had done in tackling such a massive hike, with two more days to go.

The self pity only lasted for a moment before we looked around us and realized just how drop dead beautiful of a place we were visiting, and how lucky we were to be camping in its surrounds for two nights.

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We slowly became in sync with the changing tides of Abel Tasman and the repetitive cycle of the track.

Hiking up a steep hill in the lush forest, only to come down a steep hill with a view in front of you, and find an attractive bay to walk along for awhile on flat ground, before repeating it all over again.

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Once we had hiked for just over 2 hours, we came across Awaroa estuary and the tidal crossing. Awaroa is the only spot in the trail that doesn’t have an alternative route for high tide, so we had to time it correctly to cross it at low tide and not get stranded on one side or the other.

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Doing my research previously, I knew that low tide that day would be around 3pm, and that we could cross it in the window of either 1.5 hours before that time or 2 hours after. Arriving at the inlet just after 2:30, we timed it perfectly for the relatively short walk across the beach.

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At this point we took off our shoes as the sand was so dense with sea water, and there were still shallow ponds of water we had to walk through during low tide. There were also hundreds of little sand crabs that kept popping up and scurrying over the damp sand, so we had to watch our feet so as not to step on them.

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Stopping briefly in Awaroa for a lunch break, we soon put our backpacks on again, already having acquired a few blisters here and there, and continued on the track to Onetahuti Bay.

It was another 2.5 hours ahead of us, and this part of the track seemed to go much slower, probably due to the fact that there weren’t any little bays in between to take a small rest.

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When we stumbled out of the bush, having finally found the long stretch and golden sand of Onetahuti Bay, I was close to chucking off my backpack and running fully clothed into the ocean to find release from the hot weather.

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But just as soon as that thought passed my mind, that’s when I spotted….Jelly Fish!! They were everywhere.

Many were dead, dried up on the beach, but there were still plenty floating all along the shore. We found out later that these particular jelly fish are actually harmless, but after living in Australia for a year, I wasn’t going anywhere near these ones.

Apparently there had been a big storm recently and a ton of jelly fish had washed up into Abel Tasman, they were everywhere we went. From the water taxi, to the bays and beaches, to our kayaking tour at the end of or time in the park, you couldn’t escape them.

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Avoiding the water, we eventually made our way to the campsite on the other side of the bay, set up camp, made a dinner of sausage and baked beans, and completely crashed before sundown, we were that tired from the day.

Day 2

Even though we fell asleep so early the previous night, we woke up with incredibly sore muscles from a fitful sleep and the whole not being used to carrying big backpacks for hours and hours of hiking.

Regardless, after a small breakfast of fruit and oatmeal, we packed up and hit the trail once more – today would be just as much of a test and we had a lot of ground to cover.

Taking a last look at Onetahuti Bay, we disappeared into the foliage and once again began the cycle of steep ascent, steep decsent, beautiful bay, rest, repeat.

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We passed the Tonga Quarry shortly after leaving Onetahuti, where blocks of granite still lay from the old quarrying days, and continued on to Bark Bay, arriving after 2 hours on the trail.

After having a quick bite to eat, we made our way from Bark Bay to Torrent Bay, and this is where the fun began with the swing bridges – maybe not so fun for Kelsey who is terrified of them, but I was loving it.

We first came across a small one over a river, and shortly thereafter discovered the large swing bridge over Falls River. I took my time seeing how much they could swing, and even jumped up and down in the middle, I was having a bit too much fun.

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Kelsey just looked at me like I was crazy, released a nervous laugh, and refused to enter on to the swing bridge until I was off of it.

Once we survived intact on the other side, Kelsey breathed a bit easier and we continued on our way. At this point, I noticed a change in the surroundings.

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Whereas when we started our hike at the desert-like Totaranui, by the time we were at Bark Bay everything seemed wetter, more lush and green. I’m assuming this has to do with the rivers around the area, but in any case, it was a nice change with the hot weather that kept us sweating profusely throughout the day.

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Torrent Bay is where a lot of Kiwis have holiday homes, so it came off as much more resort centered. It’s the spot where people will come for a week to have a touch of luxury in “remote” nature.

We also started seeing a good many more backpackers at this point, being so close to the start of Abel Tasman, and a popular drop off point for tourists and locals alike.

It was only a short jot from Torrent Bay to Anchorage Bay, our camping spot for the night. We clocked in about 5 hours on the trail that day and roughly 14.8 km.

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Anchorage was, in a word, wonderful. It was much larger than the Onetahuti campsite and there were more backpackers of the same age. There were small hiking trails around the bay, and the beach itself was stunning.

We arrived in Anchorage by mid afternoon, so we had plenty of time to explore. Kelsey decided to rest, while I took on a small day hike for promising views and a much appreciated relief from my big backpack.

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We met up later for a warm meal and to watch the cloudy sunset on the beach. Again, we fell asleep early, just after sunset, and relaxed into the pride we felt for having come this far already without too much of a problem besides the increasing amount of blisters.

As we drifted off to sleep, I had the dual thoughts of one more day to go until I was back to civilization, and a sad reluctance to leave such a sacred and special place in New Zealand.

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Day 3

We woke up gradually with the noises of the campsite, only having had a slightly better sleep than the night before, and packed up our bags once again.

There was an excitement in the air between us. Not only were we finishing our hike today, but we were finishing the last leg of the trail doing something a bit different – kayaking!

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We only had a 30 minute hike from Anchorage Bay to get us to Watering Cove, which would be where we met our kayaking tour.

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Perhaps we were a bit too confidant in our hiking abilities and the fact that it was such a short hike, but this seemingly small hike almost killed us.

It was the steepest trail we had come across yet, and I could feel my calves screaming at me with each step I took.

Luckily, as I said, it was only an half an hour, but by the time we arrived at Watering Cove, early for our tour, I was about ready to take a nice little nap in the searing hot sunshine.

Booking the tour with Abel Tasman Kayaks before we left Wellington a week ago, it was nice to think that we didn’t have to worry about the rest of the trail, our backpacks were being dropped off in a water taxi, and our guide would take care of the rest.

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Before long, Kelsey and I were jumping into our double kayak and pushing off into the cove. We kayaked for just over 2 hours, and realized once again how much of an upper body workout kayaking can be – especially when you’re going against the current.

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It was an especially hard and choppy journey out to Adele Island, but the hard work paid off by seeing a multitude of fur seals up close, jumping around and sliding off rocks.

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After circling the island, we slowly made our way back towards Marahau. With the wind in our favor, our guide told us that were were going to try kayak sailing. There were 4 kayaks, and we all clumped together to create a makeshift raft. Our guide pulled out her trusty sail in her backpack, and we cruised towards shore, holding our kayaks close to eachother so we wouldn’t capsize.

Once we were nearing shore, the wind died down almost completely, and we were forced to kayak back to shore after a nice rest, but kayak sailing was truly an unique experience while it lasted.

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We hit the beach and dragged out kayaks to the waiting trailer, hopped in the car, and made our way back to the little town center of Marahau.

We were still reeling as we jumped in the car on our way back to Nelson on what a journey we had been on. How many goals we had accomplished in the last few days, how many kilometers we had walked, and how many stories we had left to tell.

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Abel Tasman, is a gem tucked into the northwest top of the South Island, and I couldn’t have been happier with the 3 days I spent there exploring the hidden wonders of the park.

Just when you think you’ve seen all there is to see, New Zealand has a way of surprising you.

Here’s a little video I made about my time in the park:

Have you been to a National Park in New Zealand? What’s the best hike you’ve ever been on?

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Mimi McFadden
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Mimi McFadden

Travel Writer/Blogger at The Atlas Heart
Mimi founded The Atlas Heart to create a community of travelers inspired to see the world. The Atlas Heart is a space where you'll find anecdotes on slow travel, craft beer, outdoor adventures, and all the eccentric bits in between that this world has to offer.
Mimi McFadden
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