The never-ending adventures of a travel writer in Vietnam, Cambodia, New Zealand and throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Tramping in New Zealand's Abel Tasman

New Zealand is a country renowned for its natural beauty. Fortunately New Zealanders (or kiwis, as they call themselves), have learned to capitalize on this and develop a thriving ecotourism industry that both protects the environment and benefits local communities. Nearly 30% of the land in New Zealand is managed by the department of conservation, which also maintains a highly developed nation-wide system of hiking trails, otherwise known as “tracks.” While these tracks are a big draw for international tourism, they are largely enjoyed by New Zealanders themselves, who have a healthy appetite for outdoor activities in their beautiful country.

Tracks often have both camping sites and huts (cabins). The quality of these facilities run the gamut, ranging from humble clearings to pitch a tent, to cozy bungalows with basic utilities. “Great Walks” (which include 8 trails and 1 navigable river) in the country’s top national parks often have huts with hot showers, flushing toilets, electricity, mattresses, and cooking areas.

I had limited time on my first trip to New Zealand, and with so many tracks to choose from, it was difficult to select where to go hiking (or “tramping” as the activity is called in New Zealand). One stood out from all the others, however. The Abel Tasman National Park is located on the northern coast of New Zealand’s south island. It’s classified as one of the country’s Great Walks, testifying to its renowned natural beauty, ease of hiking, well-manicured trails and convenient camping facilities. The coastal track is relatively easy and can be hiked by almost anyone, contributing to its popularity. The inner tracks are more challenging, though still accessible to most hikers.

The city of Nelson is the major jump-off point for Abel Tasman. On the surface, it may seem that this quiet town exists solely to put backpackers up for the night on their way to
all the surrounding tracks, which also include Leslie-Karamea, D’Urville Valley and the famous Heaphy Track. The town has numerous hostels and outdoor supply stores such as Tasman Bay Backpackers and Alp Sports. However, Nelson is also a major cultural center for the South island’s Northern coast, offering important events such as the Nelson Arts Festival, Winter Music Festival, Taste Nelson Festival, and the Suter International Film Festival.

The trail actually begins in the village of nearby Marahau and ends at a car park in Wainui Bay in the north. It takes 3-5 days to hike the entire track, but single-day hikes are easily arranged for any section of the track due to the availability of numerous water taxi services. The track can be hiked any time of the year, but summer months between December and February are most popular. I hiked the trail in October and found the weather was spectacular and I met relatively few people on the trail (about one couple per hour). As New Zealanders are generally very friends and generous people, I was happy for the times I did have company on the trail.

Most literature indicates that a “Great Walks Pass” is required for Abel Tasman, but this point is misleading to the uninitiated. The pass is only required if you are sleeping at a hut or campsite, and is meant to distinguish between other common passes that can be used on all tracks other than the Great Walks. If you are just doing a day hike, then you don’t need to purchase a pass. If however, you are sleeping at one of the 4 huts or 21 campsites, purchase of the pass and advanced booking is required. Booking season begins July 1, each year.

The first thing I noticed when I stepped into the park’s forests was not the sights, but rather the sounds. The lively songs of the native birds were entirely alien to me. Kakas (forest parrots), Parakeets, Wekas (flightless birds), Pukeko, Tui and Bellbirds can be seen along the estuaries and in the forest park. I followed squawking Oystercatchers for great lengths on the beaches, and though they complain, they never seem to fly away. Shags (cormorants) and gannets can be seen from the shore as they dive for fish. With few other animals, New Zealand is a bird-watcher’s paradise.

The forest is in the park is dominated by four species and two subspecies of Beech, and also contains Rimu (red pine), Supplejack vines with red berries, Miro (their seeds are a favorite food of the New Zealand Pigeon), Rata and Matai trees. New Zealand forests are famous for their ferns, and the Silver Tree Fern or “Ponga” (the national symbol) and the Crown Fern are also prominent here.

The inland track has numerous strange limestone formations. There are also, unsurprisingly, numerous cave systems with glow worms, cave weta, and bats (New Zealand’s only native mammals other than what lives in the sea). At least one cave in the park is decorated with ancient Mauri carvings. There are also vast sinkholes such as Harwoods Hole, which is the deepest in the southern hemisphere.

The park is an excellent place to catch a glimpse of New Zealand’s marine life. Tonga Island Marine Reserve (adjacent to the park), is accessible by any of the numerous water taxis services, and is home to a colony of Sea Lions. Fur Seals, dolphins and little Blue Penguins can be seen from shore (I saw several of each), although the best way to spot them is from a kayak.

The only nuisance I experienced in the park were the sandflies, which seemed much like black flies at home. Fortunately repellant keeps them away. Non-native possums are known to browse through garbage, so keep food and rubbish packed up at night. The track runs mostly along the water, which means you’ll get the glare of reflected sunlight off the ocean. Add to that the typically thin ozone layer over New Zealand, and you should realize that sunscreen is vital. I received some of the worst sunburns of my life in New Zealand because I forgot to wear it.

Overall, Abel Tasman offered me a very pleasant walk with spectacular views of subtropical forests and golden sandy beaches. No traveler should leave New Zealand without hiking at least one track, and if you only have time for one, I believe it should be Abel Tasman. Not only will you experience one of New Zealand’s most pristine ecosystems for yourself, but you also support the local communities by using their services around the park and encourage their effort to protect treasures like this for future generations.

For More Info

Huts are $25 ($10 off season) and campsites $10 ($7 off season). Book online through the DOC at, or through the Great Walks Helpdesk Nelson (phone: 546-8210; email: or in person at some visitor centers.

Nelson accommodations include Tasman Bay Backpackers (phone: 548-7950;; 10 Weka St.) and Nelson Central YHA (phone: 545-9988;; 59 Rutherford St.).

The official Abel Tasman Coastal Track Brochure, park map and tidal chart (Abel Tasman has the largest tidal differences in the country) available at the DOC website and Nelson Visitor’s Center will provide you with all the information you need to hike the track. If you are hiking other tracks around the country, you may wish to also purchase Lonely Planet’s “Tramping in New Zealand,” 2006 edition.

Abel Tasman Coachlines (phone: 548-2485; leaves from Nelson and goes to both ends of the track. Abel Tasman Water Taxi (phone: 528-7497; is among several companies that can pick you up and drop you off at any section of the track.

Updated Note: Peter Jackson's 'The Hobbit' Filmed in the Nelson & Abel Tasman Area in late 2011. For more information on travel in New Zealand, please visit Tourism New Zealand.

1 comment:

Stephen Kingston said...

Is this information still up-to-day?

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