South Sea Sojourn

Exploring New Zealand's Abel Tasman National Park
By Natasha Nowakowski
  |  Gorp.com
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Photo of granite outcrop on a beach at Abel Tasman National Park

A thin gray film blanketed the October sky, blotting out the morning sun that shone so brightly a few hours past, and the steel-blue waters of Tasman Bay heaved and spilled onto the foredeck of my neon yellow 16-foot sea kayak. Staring back at me a few short feet away were a pair of big, round, brown eyes, which belonged to a full-grown bull seal perched on the rocky shore of Tonga Island.

Seals, fortunately, are not particularly aggressive creatures, and the ones lolling on the boulders in front of me did not seem too perturbed by the presence of my group in three sea kayaks. As we slowly paddled around Tonga Island, a rock-fringed marine sanctuary that seals have chosen for their colonies, we discovered hundreds of these aquatic marsupials clustered on the granite strand. The younger and more curious seals approached our kayaks and sniffed for our scent. We were delighted, but their mothers grew agitated and sounded bleating warnings in our direction. Hiding in large cracks were endangered Little Blue Penguins, a once populous seabird before stoats, a white-furred weasel, drastically reduced their numbers.

We sighted the seals on the second day of our three-day sea kayaking expedition along the fabled coastline of Abel Tasman National Park, where 350 years earlier, Dutch explorer Abel Tasman became the first pakeha, or white man, to sight New Zealand (he never made it to shore). Situated on the top of the South Island, Abel Tasman, at roughly 19,000 hectares is the smallest of New Zealand's many national parks (most of New Zealand's national parks exceed 75,000 hectares). However, for what it lacks in size, it makes up for in versatility of landscape and seascape. The park's coastline is a mesh of golden beaches, retreating estuaries, jutting reefs, looming headlands, and emerald green lagoons. Its most remarkable features are the sentrious cliffwalls separating land from sea, the honeycombed rock-stacks standing isolated offshore as monuments to the forces of nature, and a rockscape of cratered and gouged granite twisted and contorted into weird and wonderful shapes by the ceaseless spanking of the surf.

Beyond the cliffs is the canopied hillside striated by unbridled streams perennially searching for the sea. Monopolizing the treeline are flowered Manuka and Kanuka interspersed with gorse, a yellow noxious weed introduced by the original European settlers. Farther inland is a sodden jungle crowded by soaring stands of mountain cedar, large knobby southern rata, and moss and lichen.

Animal life is not limited to seals and penguins. There are Pied Shags and kamikaze-diving Gannets; fearless, inquisitive, chicken-sized Wekas; strange looking orange-billed and black-feathered Oyster Catchers and bob-tailed Pukekos, whose flight has been described as, "staggering among the branches as if intoxicated." These notables are accompanied by another 30 winged species.

The park achieved official status on December 19, 1942, exactly 300 years to the day of Abel Tasman's historic landing in what is now Golden Bay. However, Tasman's discovery was tarnished with tragedy when a skirmish with native Maoris left four of Tasman's men dead. Dubbing the cove "Murderer's Bay," the Dutch quickly weighed anchor and departed. New Zealand remained obscure from western civilization for another 130 years until the French explorer, Dumont d'Urville, charted its coastline and established friendly relationships with the Maoris. True to the pattern of history, white settlements soon followed d'Urville's discovery. Shipbuilders, farmers, and loggers attempted to establish permanent homesteads in the park with negligible success. The regenerating forest and the endlessly shifting sands have long erased any trace of human settlement.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 23 Mar 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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