Planning for a multi-day hike was a bit like planning a week on Weight-Watchers. Food was carefully portioned for each day allotting for carbohydrates and protein intake as well as expiration dates and number of days an item could be safely eaten without refrigeration. Bread and cheese would be eaten the first days, and the lighter instant meals would be saved for days four and five. We would have one bag of dry cereal for breakfasts and two bags of nuts for snacks. A 70% dark chocolate candy bar and bag of yellow M&Ms would be portioned over 4 nights for dessert. Tea, coffee and water would be our only beverage. All of this would be prepared with two forks, two spoons, one knife, one pot, one pan, two cans of gas, one portable stovetop, cleaning supplies, and a single cup French-press (for people like me who find coffee necessary in order to move in the morning). For five days, I would carry my food and my kitchen on my back – Weight Watchers with a touch of good old fashioned Anorexia.
Felipe and I planed for a five-day trek through Abel Tasman National Park on the northwest tip of the South Island. Able Tasman, New Zealand’s smallest National Park, is the textbook vision of summer. The rocky coast gnarls its way between endless secluded arcs of golden sand gently tapped by the turquoise water of Tasman Bay. The weather forecast for this sun-soaked coast was for rain five out of the five days. Although it was ominously familiar (see The Flood), we hoped against hope that Mother Nature would show us some mercy and she did… for a time. With all of our food and clothes crammed tight into overflowing backpacks, we set out from the Marahau car park onto the Able Tasman Coast Track clean, dry and optimistic… all things we would lack four days later.
We followed a boardwalk through the estuary to Tinline Bay, entering the park in an excited frenzy. Rounding the corner to Coquille Bay, we got our first glimpse at Abel Tasman’s famed beaches that draw over two hundred and fifty trampers each day in the dead of summer. In the middle of May (late Autumn), the number drops below fifty and most are on day trips, ferried to Anchorage Bay by water taxi to wind there way back to Marahau.
All creeks and rivers were bridged and the path remained quite level, so I assumed this trek would be a breeze. Yet, after just two hours, my bag dug a notch into my protruding collarbone and lay heavy on my sweaty back. Ski poll clad grandmas, and rugby moms in track suites, freed of the ball-and-chain of a backpack, began shuffling past.
Night one was spent in Anchorage Hut playing cards in Spanish by candlelight with Alberto and Maria of Spain. The hard rain of the night, followed by surprising early-morning rays, had my face in a permanent cockeyed squint when I woke the following morning. With some time to spare before our low-tide crossing of Torrent Bay, we scrounged for sunglasses and meandered around the Anchorage area, taking various sidetracks to pinpoint the peculiarities of each beach. Our walk under the glare of the morning sun left us hot and sweaty, and the cold, late-autumn ocean was luring us in. Intending to answer its call on an impulse, we thoughtlessly ran into the shocking, milky green water. Instantly, my skin went into distress mode, and a group of tourists cruised by, pointing at the bodies in the water. It was certainly freezing, but it felt good to be in the water and not just it’s passive observer.
At about two hours before low tide, or around one o’clock in the afternoon, we crossed the lazy water of the estuary through Torrent Bay. Barefoot, we sunk our toes in the squishy pluff while all around us curious birds tiptoed after their prey like detectives on a hunch. On the far side of the bay, lay a small hamlet of modest summer homes accessible by boat and connected in part by a sandy “road.” At the far end of the road we found a park and a picnic table with the perfect amount of precariousness to rest the weight of our packs.
The ways that forests can change in New Zealand from prickle to palm to pine in a matter of minutes will continue to confound me. Heading up the steep hill from Torrent Bay, we climbed from fern-filled coastal shrub into a thick forest of Christmas trees. Soon, two gaping valleys curved our path, with the larger linked by a forty-seven meter suspension bridge that swayed like a swing over Falls River.
We reentered the coast through the sprawling Bark’s Bay and stopped for potable water and a quick rest at its massive, empty campsite. Continuing onward, we waded through the bay on the low tide route, which, in hindsight, was a poor choice at high tide. The final pass through the salty-brown water left us with wet undies and chafed legs.
Heading inland from Bark’s Bay up into the stands of Manuka, we felt far away from any body of water. An hour later, we wound or way into Tonga Quarry, the site of an old quarrying operation responsible the limestone of the looming staircase at Christ Church Cathedral in Nelson. This peaceful, private beach facing Tonga Island was meant to be our stop for the night. Unfortunately, an early morning tidal crossing forced us thirty minutes further to the large, swampy Onetakutu Bay Campsite.
The aging, weathered Doite tent was set just before an early sunset and we scrambled around with our headlamp and flashlight to prepare dinner. As we munched on our skimpy sandwiches, a squad of vigilant sand flies feasted on us. For sure, they had the better meal. After dinner, we lay out looking at the starry dome of the southern hemisphere. I was lost in the sky until brought back down to earth with the realization that a possum was sniffing my face. The night before we had contended with small rats at Anchorage Hut. They were cute. I was okay with them. This evenings possums, with their greedy eyes and daredevil tactics, were a different story. Later on, the possums staged a battle royal and between the cold heavy rain that came at two and the all-night possum wars, I did not sleep well.
When it’s raining and you’re in a damp tent, waking up is never the preferred option. However, neither is waiting for a clearing and waking up six hours after low tide (aka high tide). We started the day late with a touch of sunshine… but yet another dose of wet undies.
We stopped at Awaroa Hut to prepare a lunch of instant mashed potatoes, which wouldn’t have been so disappointing had we not spent the previous two hours in search of a signposted café at a boutique lodge that had long ago closed. We ate the mushy white mess (no butter or milk), and peered through the window as a couple sloshed along the low tide path through Awaroa Inlet. This was to be our afternoon activity, but the clouds soon turned ash grey. A hard rain rattled the wooden roof as we sat in Awaroa Hut contemplating the largest tidal crossing of the trip. We could cross the inlet and be stuck on the other side all night in a tent in the storm, but that seemed unnecessarily cruel. We agreed to stay in the hut and make up the 5.5 km to Totaranui Campground the following morning.
An old fire heater warmed up the dark hut as we sat under the candlelight savoring our third night’s portion of M&Ms one by one. Our food supply had dwindled, and we were struggling to put together items for the following days lunch (“do you think a can of tuna would go good with couscous?”). We read through the Hut’s guestbook, and below the guestbook, a collection of materials, “rescued from old Hatfield House” had been put in a binder and left for perusal. Skimming through the rescued pages, we spent a good hour laughing about ladies toiletries in the 1950’s.
By morning, the sleepy inlet on the other side of the window had transformed into an impassable lake. Three nights of hard rain and continued storms had flooded our path. We knew by staying on the far side of the pass that this week’s screwy low tide would have us either waiting until afternoon or crossing by boat. A middle-aged British couple had arranged for a water taxi to come at 11:00 to ferry them across. It became clear that the water taxi we would all need to catch would not be taking us across the park but away from it.
We waddled away from the Hut to catch the boat at 10:30 down the previous day’s path, which was now a variable river. Felipe, with the damp tent in one hand and his soaked shoes in the other, was repeating a word in Spanish to describe our tempestuous relationship with the weather Gods. Later, I looked up the word and translated it to English: capricious. Yet again, we had been trumped by nature’s sudden unpredictability.
The water taxi would stop operating after our trip due to high seas. In fact, a prim Frenchman spent the whole trip vomiting off the side of the boat. The journey back was rough, but the high seas and the excitement of our “rescue” made it hard to be upset by yet another defeat. We were able to skirt past the seal colony on Tonga Island and scoop into bays only accessible by water as we jerked our way through the surf towards the park entrance at Marahau. At each passing bay, we recounted our trek from a new vantage point and at one hour by boat, felt we had accomplished a respectable journey.
$2.00 bought us showers on shore where my toes and fingers went numb to the touch of hot water after a morning barefoot in the late-autumn storm. We washed off four days of mud, grit, and sweat and stepped back out into the pouring rain, clean but damp.
It’s been two weeks since we left Abel Tasman, and unseasonably stormy skies have circled us around the country. All the while, the rain-drenched West Coast we called home has experienced unimaginable swaths of sunshine. I can’t explain it. I don’t want to try. My south island adventure has turned into pictures borrowed from pamphlets and experiences recounted from a guidebook… I am a second-hand tourist. With the clouds fencing in the sun, I drive on through the fog as the traveler gives way to the dreamer.