The Long, Rainy Abel Tasman Coastal Track

Note: The events in this post and the posts to follow happened before COVID-19 was declared a worldwide pandemic. I’m only getting around to writing them now, after the pandemic’s been in full swing. I look back on these times with an ambivalent mix of happiness and grief — for what was and what could have been. In these uncertain times, I hope the last few weeks of my travels bring others as much joy (and hilarity) as they brought me in the moment.

March 2: I’d heard a lot of hype about Abel Tasman National Park — out of New Zealand’s many Great Walks, this was one of the most popular. Classified as an “easy” track and boasting many stunning views of sunny beaches, it gives hikers lots of reward for not too much work. Or so I thought.

I had never before gone on a multi-day hike, but many of my co-woofers at Tasman Bay hostel highly recommended the 60km Abel Tasman Coastal Track. Though lots of tourists opt to catch a water taxi to one location along the track and simply hike for only a day, I wanted to do the full Monty — three nights, four days, camping in a tent.

My friend Lou was gracious enough to loan me her lightweight tent, sleeping bag and sleeping mat to set up at each campsite I’d pre-booked along the track. I also had to bring enough food, clothing and supplies for four days, which ended up being more kilograms than I wanted to weigh. I’ll just give you a list of the food I packed, since we know that’s the most important part:

  • 1.5 liters of water
  • 2 small loaves of nutrient-dense bread (from Rodrigo’s at the Nelson Market!)
  • 1 banana
  • 2 apples
  • 1 jar of Pic’s peanut butter
  • 1 block of Edam cheese
  • 4 small dried sausages
  • 6 muesli bars
  • 1 package of dates
  • 1 bag of trail mix
  • 1 freeze-dried chicken carbonara dinner

I chose not to bring a backpacker stove with me, so the freeze-dried meal was packed on the hopes I’d meet other campers who were willing to boil me some water. About half of the food listed was found in the free food bin at the hostel, which saved me some mad $$$.

All right, time for the journey to begin! I drove an hour to Marahau, a town at the the southern start of the Abel Tasman track. I left my Mazda in the car park, put on my backpack and embarked on day one of a hike that ended up being more than I’d bargained for.

At that point, I only saw two other people on the trail and ended up trekking with them for about half of the 4.5-hour hike to my campsite. They were a retired couple from South Dakota who had spent the last 20 years tramping (what Kiwis call hiking) in the US and around the world. They’d just come from the Rakiura Track a few days before, one of the gnarlier Great Walks.

Like many NZ hikes, the track weaves through tropical foliage but has an added bonus of lots of beaches. Abel Tasman is known as a sunny, temperate area, but I was a little worried at the forecast for rain in the next few days. I kept my fingers crossed.

I split up from the South Dakotans eventually, listening to podcasts as I passed other hikers. Luckily, the path wasn’t super full as shoulder season was approaching.

Around the 3.5 hour mark, I knew I was getting closer to Te Pukatea, the campsite I’d booked for the first night. New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) created a helpful app with a map and suggestions along the route. According to the map, I still had an hour to pass through Anchorage Bay (a common route) on to Te Pukatea, a smaller and more secluded site.

There are four huts along the track, including Anchorage. For a higher price, you can sleep on a mattress in a hut (basically a cabin) instead of having to carry your own tent and sleep out in the elements like I was. Passing through Anchorage and looking at the ominous clouds forming over me, I was a bit jealous of all the hutters. But this is part of the adventure!

The remaining 20 minutes to Te Pukatea were partly uphill and seemed to go on forever. Finally, the campground came into sight like a little oasis.

When I arrived at 1pm, I was the only person at the campsite (which has ten sites). I successfully set up Lou’s tent and wandered down the private beach for awhile, savoring the weather before it turned rainy.

Along the Tasman Track, people often warn of the weka bird — a feisty animal who is mostly harmless to humans but is merciless when it comes to stealing food. Wekas will get right up to you and grab food if you don’t guard it properly. Plus, there are a lot of them! I’ve had to intervene before when they tried to steal another camper’s food.

Wary of wekas, I ate some bread with banana and PB, my stomach happy to be fed and afternoon sleepiness setting in. After a long nap, I re-emerged, saying hello to a few other campers who’d set up their tent sites while I was asleep. The rain soon began and I hurried back into my tent, listening to the drip-drops of water on the tent fly as I journaled and read Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” — quite the tale to entertain myself while solo tramping.

I naturally fell asleep as it got dark, sleeping peacefully until fate intervened. In the pitch black tent, I woke up as I felt something on my foot. At first I thought it was a weka bird poking the tent from the outside, so I instinctively kicked at it. Then I felt something on the other side of my leg, outside of my sleeping bag. In my sleep-addled brain, I thought somehow a weka had gotten inside my tent!

I quickly flashed on my headlamp — where I saw a rodent head peering at me, sitting on top of my backpack. A big rodent head. It was a rat, and it was at least half a foot long. I frowned, opened the tent flap and thanked the universe that I wasn’t afraid of rats. But I definitely didn’t want this little buddy in my tent for the night.

It had chewed a few holes in the tent netting, probably smelling the food in my backpack that I hadn’t wanted to leave out in the rain. I spent a good ten minutes chasing it back and forth around the tent until finally got the hint and scuttled out of the tent flap. Without tape to repair the bigger holes, I slapped a big first-aid bandage over the netting and went back to sleep, only feeling slightly unnerved.

The next morning it was still raining. Luckily, no water managed to get into the tent (the same doesn’t apply to vermin, though). I packed up my stuff, ate an apple and embarked on what would end up being a 7-hour journey to Onetahuti Bay. Here goes nothing!

As I mentioned, Abel Tasman National Park is known for its splendid sunny weather, so I’d caught it on a rare off-day. As I walked through the rain my pack felt heavier, my legs were still tired from the day before, and my shoulders started to ache from the pack’s straps. I reminded myself: this is the sort of adventure I asked for! After an hour I’d passed back through Anchorage and branched onto the main trail north toward Torrent Bay.

I tried to go the “low tide” route to Torrent Bay, which would save me over an hour of walking time. But when I got down to cross the sandbar, it was still pretty wet and I decided to backtrack 20 minutes to take the long route. Nearly two hours in and I hadn’t even made it onto the main path!

Determined to improve my spirits, I ate a muesli bar and listened to a podcast on meditation, which helped significantly. I passed a lot of beautiful (albeit soggy) nature along the way.

I also realized that my jacket was totally not waterproof — how had I not known this before? So as the rain picked up, I only got soggier. I was thankful it wasn’t colder out.

After about 5 hours I’d almost made it to Bark Bay, another popular campsite and hut. My campsite, Onetahuti, was the next campsite along the trail — I figured it would be at most another hour to Onetahuti, right?

Wrong. I looked at the trail sign at Bark Bay and my heart fell. 1 hour 50 minutes to Onetahuti. My legs complained, but I sucked it up and sat to eat a quick lunch before embarking once more.

I ran into some people who told me it’s a shame I couldn’t see Bark Bay on a sunny day since it was so much more gorgeous. Lol thanks! They forewarned me that on the way to Onetahuti I had to walk up a steep incline for awhile. How considerate of them.

Finally, finally, I reached lovely Onetahuti. The rain had cleared for a couple hours as I set up my tent and looked out at the water, appreciating the way my legs felt when they weren’t walking.

A British couple named Simon and Katie had set up at the tent site next to mine. They’d hiked from Anchorage that day and were also a bit dismayed with the rain. I told them my rat tale and they shared their backpacker stove with me, heating up some water so that I could make my surprisingly tasty freeze-dried carbonara.

After dinner the rain began again, so we retreated back to our respective tents and I settled in once more to read. As dusk set in, I fell into another slumber… until fate once again intervened.

In the middle of the night I felt something skitter across my neck. In denial, I rustled around in my sleeping bag but couldn’t get the thought out of my head — what if something was in my tent AGAIN? I finally turned on my headlamp and saw a tiny mouse face peering back at me in alarm. I took a deep breath. Seriously?!!?!?!?!

And so I spent the next ten minutes thrashing about the tent as the rain poured down outside. Unlike the rat, this mouse did not understand the concept of escaping through the open tent flap. I grabbed my shoe to try to scoop it up or stun it into submission, but it evaded all my attempts.

Finally, it skittered underneath my sleeping mat and I froze. I peeled back the mat to make sure he was still under there. It was now or never. At my wit’s end, I had to do what I never thought I’d do: I slammed my knee down on the mat. Several times. I am a monster.

I peeled back the mat once more and saw a lifeless mouse body and some other messy stuff that I’m glad I didn’t capture on camera. I grabbed some tissues, delicately gathered the remains and threw them out into the storm, figuring some weka could use an extra meal. After sanitizing the affected areas I took a few minutes to just sit and breathe. I think he’d crawled through one of the smaller holes in the netting left by the rat — so I put another bandage over those holes, too. Perhaps they wanted my nutrient-dense bread. Perhaps I just attract rodents. I didn’t sleep much that night.

In the morning, the rain had cleared to reveal a glorious sunrise! The mouse corpse was gone. Maybe it had never happened at all. I joined Simon and Katie to eat a quick breakfast before packing up and agreeing to hike with them to Totaranui, my campsite for the third night.

Simon and Katie were great tramping buds — they were in NZ for at least a couple months, maybe more if the coronavirus spread further. It was already affecting China, South Korea and Italy, along with myriad other countries. But we were in Abel Tasman, seemingly far away from the grip of the virus.

The trek to Totaranui was only 4-5 hours, so we had plenty of time to meander. After a couple hours we had to cross Awaroa Bay, which can only be crossed for two hours on either side of low tide (which changes every day, meaning you have to pay attention to the tide tables). If you don’t make it within that timeframe, you’re out of luck.

But luck we had. We timed our crossing almost exactly at low tide, around 11am, and spent about 30 minutes carefully walking across a sandy, watery plain. At some point we all had to take off our shoes to walk through the small streams until we reached the other side.

After successfully braving the Awaroa low tide, we continued on toward Goat Bay, where we stopped to have a snack before the last half hour to Totaranui.

And then we reached Totaranui — a large campground that serves as a main northern point of access to the Abel Tasman track. I had originally planned to camp at Totaranui that night and spend my fourth day hiking the northern Wainui loop before catching a water taxi back to Marahau car park. But Simon and Katie had booked a water taxi to Marahau for 3:15pm that day. Facing the prospect of increasingly cold winds and a chance of another restless night of mouse trap in my tent, I opted to cut my hike short and get a water taxi back to Marahau with them.

But not so fast! Due to some rare easterly winds, no water taxis were able to get in or out of Totaranui, rendering dozens of people effectively stuck at the campground until buses could pick us up in a few hours. They said this literally happens maybe once or twice a year. Just our luck, eh?

So we waited a few hours for the bus to come around 5pm. I didn’t technically have a reservation for the water taxi in the first place, so I hoped I could hitch an impromptu ride with the rest of the crew. Though I hate to say it, I was mentally and physically drained from this hike.

At long last, the bus showed up! And they had one extra seat left… right next to the driver. VIP status. I was pretty happy to evade another night of camping, even if it meant missing out on more scenery. Once we got back to Marahau, Katie, Simon and I grabbed a burger from Hooked on Marahau, a restaurant so cozy I wanted to cry out of relief.

We all agreed we’d like to meet up again soon to conquer another hike, but maybe just a one-nighter. Simon and Katie had booked a hostel in nearby Takaka, and I was determined to find a cheap campground in the area so I could sleep in the back of my car, like the good ole days in Coromandel.

My brain must have been fuzzy from the past few days’ events, because there was almost no chance I would find an open campground in the area at nearly 10pm. Looking back, my decision making was questionable, yes. But sometimes this is just what happens.

As it got later and later, I ended up driving back through Motueka to Nelson, where I saw rows of No Vacancy signs. I could have called a friend at Tasman Bay, but it was getting so late that I decided to pull in to the first Vacancy sign I found, which belonged to a sketchy hostel right behind the Rattle Inn (the hilariously bad Americana bar from my last post).

I pressed a buzzer and a big steel door opened. I walked up a rickety ramp to the front entrance, trying to ignore the unexpectedly skeevy vibes this place gave off. Should I have stayed at Totaranui? The owner, a stout Russian dude, answered the door and asked me for $20 NZ. Cheapest hostel I’d seen so far. He showed me to a dorm room and I crawled into a top bunk, thankful that I’d found somewhere to stay for the night. Someone was snoring unbelievably loudly below me. I somehow fell asleep to the sounds of terrible karaoke emitting from the Rattle Inn until 4am.

And then the morning came! At 7am I was up and out of that place, somewhat confused and amazed as to how my camping trip had ended so absurdly.

Not yet ready to see real humans, I drove to none other than my beloved Tahunanui Beach to journal about the past few days, in all my unshowered, restless glory.

Feeling a bit more human, I went back to Tasman Bay Backpackers, where I updated everyone on my adventures in Abel Tasman. I especially felt terrible that Lou’s tent was partially eaten by a rat, so I picked up some tape from the Kathmandu store and repaired it later that day. Lou and I got boozy shakes at Burger Culture downtown, sharing feelings of exhaustion. I was glad to be back in Nelson for a bit.

I decided to stay at Tasman Bay another night before heading down the South Island’s West Coast. I wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye to my old hostel yet — it’s just too difficult to leave these beautiful people.

In the morning I ran down the path along the nearby Maitai River, my first official run since spraining my ankle hiking in early February. I ran slowly, cautiously, and ended up going three miles without any problems! Call me accomplished.

Afterward I walked to Atomic Coffee, a wonderful brew bar that serves *bottomless coffee* — a total rarity in NZ. They even gave me a little info card on the day’s Ethiopia blend.

I met Lou at East St, my favorite vegan eatery in Nelson, and she drew henna on my arm. I also took a bathroom selfie. Hehehe.

That night we had another small BBQ, so I picked up wine, kale and sweet potatoes. What more do we need? Lou also created a gorgeous plate of fruit that she’ll be happy I featured on the blog.

And then my ACTUAL last morning in Nelson arrived. Lou and I walked, once more, to the Saturday morning Nelson Market. We got vegan pies from the cute man at Rainbow Kitchen and Dutch coffee and apple fritters. A perfect send-off.

And so closes my month-long journey in the Tasman Bay area — hostels, hikes, beaches, vermin, the whole lot. As a bonus: I’m still keen to do more multi-day hiking and camping, even if COVID-19 travel restrictions mean I can only hike in the US for awhile.

But anyway! Next stop: a tiny town called Reefton, where I learn about New Zealand’s West Coast hospitality and sort of end up hosting a horse race. Stay tuned, folks!

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