Kayaking and Walking in New Zealand’s Abel Tasman National Park

Kayaking and walking in New Zealand's Abel Tasman National Park on the South Island

“Sweet as…” says Bruce, one of our easy going Kiwi kayaking guides who is leading us along the coastline of Abel Tasman National Park, New Zealand’s smallest national park on the north of the South Island. It is a paddler’s nirvana.  What finer way could there be to explore a pristine coastline of granite headlands and tiny coves of golden sand backed by voluptuous hills cloaked in emerald green.

It is a cloudless autumn day and we are suspended on an aquamarine bubble between land and sky. Eight yellow double sea kayaks glide over a sea so translucent that a casual observer might think for a split second that no water was there at all.

Wilsons Abel Tasman National Park

exploring-pristine-inlets-are-part-of-the-pleasure-of-kayaking-Abel-Tasman-Natoinal-Park-by-Susan-Gough-Henly

Exploring pristine inlets are part of the pleasure of kayaking Abel Tasman National Park

The best part is that this kayak trip is a vacation, not boot camp. You don’t need to possess abs of steel or eat freeze-dried curried cardboard to join in.

Instead, Wilsons Abel Tasman National Park offers that most civilised of adventures: exquisite scenery and exhilarating physical excursion alongside delectable food and wine, not to mention a comfy bed to rest your weary body at the end of the day.

You don’t even have to know how to kayak before you start.  Still doubtful? You can walk instead, or do a combination of both, which is what appealed to our family of five with two strapping teenagers and a 12 year old: a three-day trip with 1½ days each of kayaking and walking.

Paddling and great stories

Day one: our guides, Bruce and Lauren, give us the lowdown on paddling and safety. We do a big burst across a wide bay and, as a reward, Bruce gets us to raft up together while he weaves the first of his many stories.

“The park’s namesake, Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, sailed up the coastline in 1642 looking for the Great Southern Continent but never landed because of altercations with the Maori.”

“It was French explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville who opened up the region to European settlement,” Bruce tells us.

walking-across-the-Aworoa-Estuary-at-low-tide-by-Susan-Gough-Henly

Walking across the Aworoa Estuary at low tide

In 1827 d’Urville did such a good mapping job that his charts were still being used well over a hundred years later. By then French expatriate, Perrine Moncrief, had become passionate about protecting the area.

Bruce explains, “It was the middle of World War II and she invited the Dutch Royal Family to open the park on the 300th anniversary of Abel Tasman’s visit.  This embarrassed the New Zealand government into actually having to create it!”

We paddle along what d’Urville called the Astrolobe Roadstead, a protected passage between the mainland and Adele Island. After meandering past sandy inlets dotted with kayaks and sailing boats we stop at Watering Cove for our picnic lunch and a swim.

Our group of Australians, Americans, Brits, and Scandinavians is rather typical of the Wilson’s clientele.  Word is definitely out that this tip of the South Island is reliably sunny and balmy. Thankfully, the only way you can access it is by boat, kayak or on foot.   While most visitors have to be content with camping, the Wilsons host guests in their comfortable beach house and 1884 Meadowbank homestead.

Torrent Bay Beach House

At dusk, Thai fish cakes and New Zealand sauvignon blanc go down nicely on the beach house deck perched above the rippling sands at Torrent Bay. Since we arrived, the water has completely disappeared as though someone let out the plug. Fishing boats are askew all the way up the picturesque estuary, lined with beach shacks.

After a hearty cooked breakfast, we are in the kayaks early before the water evaporates again. Majestic white gannets nose dive for fish as we paddle into a river estuary at Mosquito Bay amidst tall tree ferns.

Kayaking with Seals, Walking amongst the ferns

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Kayaks in front of Torrent Bay beach house

Next stop is Tonga Island to commune with fur seals relaxing on the rocks, their offspring slipping into the turquoise waters to marvel at the strange elongated neon creatures that we are.

Leaving the kayaks at Onetahuti Beach, we amble along the sand before climbing over a headland, dense with kawa kawa trees, rimu pine, and silver ferns, to view the sweeping beach at the Awaroa estuary. The next day, we’ll wade across that estuary and walk along the spectacular coastline to the ferry pick-up point but for now we have some serious relaxing to do.

Meadowbank Homestead

After a hot shower and a hearty dinner of roast lamb and crème brulee, we learn about the Wilson family’s colorful history. William Hadfield (great grandfather of Lynette who founded Wilson’s Abel Tasman with her husband John) ran sheep and cattle here. His teenage bride Adele bore him nine offspring before she forsook the isolation to run a boarding house in Nelson where she had two more children with a boarder before he (the boarder) murdered her. The whole party gasps at the drama of it all in a bucolic corner of New Zealand.

Each of the rooms at Meadowbank, decorated with family photographs, christening gowns and needlework, is named after a Hadfield descendant.  We stayed in Darcy’s room. He won New Zealand’s first Olympic medal, a bronze for single scull at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics and had been known to row from Awaroa to Nelson to attend a dance, a distance four times longer than our kayak trip.

I imagine him, rowing home under a fingernail moon, with the seals swimming alongside and the quiet beauty of Abel Tasman all around. Sweet as, indeed.

 Your say

This adventure is the perfect way to enjoy some of New Zealand’s spectacular scenery as well as getting to know the easy-going locals. Do you have any tips for other New Zealand adventures?

kayakers-from-all-over-the-world-join-Wilson's-Abel-Tasman-kayak-trip-by-Susan-Gough-Henly

Visitors from all over the world join Wilson’s Abel Tasman kayaking and walking trip

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Wilsons Abel Tasman National Park

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Sue Gough Henly

Sue Gough Henly is award-winning travel writer and photographer whose bi-line has appeared in The New York Times, Travel & Leisure, The Guardian, The Toronto Star and all the major Australian publications. Her travel blog, Genuine Journeys, is full of insider tips on the best places for authentic experiences and luxury splurges. She is also the author of Australia’s Best Places travel app. When she doesn’t have sand between her toes or a pack on her back, she writes about food, wine and culture.
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2 comments to Kayaking and Walking in New Zealand’s Abel Tasman National Park

  • Tom Rands  says:

    I want to go there tomorrow. Wow. Love this idea.

    • Sue Gough Henly  says:

      It is a wonderful part of the world. And what’s also terrific is that it is in a sun belt of New Zealand so you are almost always guaranteed good weather.

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