South Sea Sojourn

Deeper Exploration
By Natasha Nowakowski
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Sea kayaker at dusk

The gateway to the park is Marahau, a tiny outpost nestled in the valley floor. Before I arrived, I had expected, somewhat reluctantly, to find a place over-used and over-commercialized, and even, perhaps, a bit tawdry. It is nothing of the sort. Marahau is a comely coastal sanctuary—a little pocket of civilization in a stretch of undulating hills. It is a place where you find backpacker inns, like Old MacDonald's Farm, that double as ranches. Seasonal cowhands will tell you that, "everyday is a holiday," while they tend several breeds of llamas, wild and domestic pigs, bulls, sheep, goats, and colorful peacocks. There are no stores to speak of: only two kayak outfitters, a sprinkle of hostels, lodges and campgrounds, and one cafe (aptly named Park Cafe) at the entrance to the park.

One lesson I learned the hard way was if you plan on staying in Marahau longer than a day, buy your food ahead of time in the neighboring town of Moteuka. The only place that stocks food in Marahau is the office/store at Marahau Beach Camp and what they sell will barely fill your daily quota of necessary nutrition. Moteuka, a much larger and fully serviced town, is a 20- to 30-minute drive over a high mountain pass. Fortunately, there is a regular bus service shuttling visitors to and fro.

Paddling and hiking (called tramping there) are the two most popular modes for exploring this unique park. Commercial sea kayaking in New Zealand was introduced to these waters by Abel Tasman Kayaks, one of the two kayak outfitters located in Marahau (before then, most commercial operators stuck to lakes). Using the Southern Light, a double sea kayak model designed for one of Graeme Sisson's famous circumnavigations (he has completed circumnavigations around Australia, Japan, and Great Britain), Abel Tasman Kayaks began taking people on guided trips in 1986 to Fisherman's Island, an undisturbed isle situated a few kilometers offshore and blessed with a sweeping crescent beach on its southern side. Since then, the operation has expanded to freedom rentals, and three or four guided day and overnight trips exploring the archipelago of islands, estuaries and lagoons that make up the Abel Tasman shoreline.

My three-day kayaking trip took me to over 50 kilometers of exhilarating New Zealand coastline. Fortunately, we had alternatives other than our own strength for locomotion. When the wind funneled through the roadstead and blew in the right direction (depending which way we were heading), my guide, John, rigged an enormous canvas with our paddles and kayaks into a makeshift spinnaker. Although we consisted of two small singles and one elephantine double kayak, we managed to coordinate ourselves (with some test to our patience) for wake-producing scuds across the water. Given that strong winds are not uncommon, especially off the exposed headlands of Separation Point, Abel Head, and the so-called "Mad Mile" south of Pitt Head, having a make-shift spinnaker available is almost as valuable as a paddle for kayakers.

Our first night was spent at Bark Bay campsite, spread on the edge of a lagoon highlighted by a 20-foot waterfall cascading over three ledges. In the backdrop across the tiny cove was a wet, mangled forest where the Wairima streams, meaning "five streams" in Maori, empty out to give the lagoon its mossy green color. Beech trees cluttered the steep-walled sandpit of our campsite; and out in the distance, you could see the jagged blue lines of the Marlborough Sounds settled on the horizon. Compared to other places, Bark Bay is cozy and intimate with a little bit of everything. Someone once wrote of it, "Everything is in miniature here, the tidal flats, the waterfalls, the river themselves, the enclosing sandbar, the waves patterning the lagoon mouth ripple beds."

Two dozen campsites dot the beaches along the Abel Tasman waterway, allowing paddlers (or hikers) to trip out from Marahau or change locations frequently. Each camp has a designated fire grill to cook meals, and driftwood is found in abundance along the beaches. In addition, every campsite has a porto-john and a reliable source of water (water taken from the supply source intended for drinking should still be boiled). The Department of Conservation (DOC) maintains all campgrounds on a daily basis (including a scrub of the porto-johns) and enforces a strict policy of "what you bring in, you take out." Nothing gets left behind. Even relieving yourself in the woods is a no-no. As a result, the campgrounds are clean and a delight to use, a stark contrast to the sad state of many found in North America.

Those not wishing to spend the night on the ground or in a tent can stay in one of the nine huts sprinkled throughout the park. All huts are equipped with bunk beds, toilets and access to water supply. Pots and a few utensils are often available for cooking and, depending on the hut, cooking is done by gas stove, wood stove, or open fire. Huts operate on a first-come, first-served basis and there is a two-night limit.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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