First tramp – Abel Tasman National Park

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First tramp – Abel Tasman National Park

West Coast to Nelson

Eric returned to Christchurch the following morning, making such good time along Highway 7 that he was able to pick up a flight that evening rather than hang around to the following day. For me the trip entered a new phase, thankfully dispensing with the constant rush of road and slowing down to a more challenging pace. The first thing I had to do was buy shoes that could handle bushwalking. Ultimately I made a poor purchase, opting for a pair of lightweight books that offered nothing by way of ankle support or grip of sole. Such features seemed to matter less than pleasing the shop girl I was dealing with.

Initially I had been intent on buying the sort of shoes I would be able to wear to work the following week, Doc Martens or the like but I let her talk me out of it in favour of the porous boots. Not that the beaches of Abel Tasman and the tracks of Nelson Lakes required the best of boot wear. In the future I would end up over compensating and buy ridiculously rigid, high priced, crampon-fitting Scarpa boots.

Before I could walk anywhere I had to negotiate the surprisingly windy bus trip between Westport and Nelson. Upon arrival in the coastal town I felt lucky to have kept my lunch. It was late enough in the day for my only thought upon arrival to be to secure accommodation. This I did at Dave’s Palace, the original home of a jam and conserve bottling giant that became an orphanage in 1925 until its conversion into the temporary abode of travel orphans.

Not surprisingly a fellow called Dave ran the place. Dave was familiar with Sydney, having lived there before taking up residence in Nelson. When I asked about the Abel Tasman Track he said that a hiker of my experience shouldn’t have any problems with completing the track. It was somewhat startling to discover that I had any experience at all and I was not reassured by the thought of posing as someone who knew what he was doing for the rest of the trip. In truth I knew nothing about overnight camping, having always been a rambling day walker. In retrospect I couldn’t have chosen a better tramp for my first. It could rain cats and dogs on the Abel Tasman and you still couldn’t get into any great difficulties. Being hemmed in by mountain range and ocean it was also near impossible to wander off the track. What could possibly go wrong?

Thankfully I got a better response when I asked about the Inland track, thinking to utilise it for some sort of round trip. He replied that the trampers who’d returned after completing it had not thought the trip to be worth it. At the time I wasn’t to know that this was probably more a reflection on the type of people attracted to the Coastal walk than useful commentary on the satisfactions to be gained on the more rugged inland option. It was enough however to convince me to stick to the one way trip with a bus back to Nelson from the track road end.

The first thing I had to do was get outfitted with gear. I had a pack that I’d borrowed from Jacinta. I had no idea how to pack it or the importance of correctly fitted straps. For personal protection from the elements I’d borrowed a wet weather jacket from my brother. It was an item he used for skiing, designed to keep out the cold and trap warmth. I would spend a week saturated in sweat due to the qualities of this jacket. And it turned out that though it may have absorbed a few snowflakes without becoming saturated it offered little protection from unrelenting rain. In addition my bag was full of jeans, cotton shirts and socks and other items of tramping sacrilege. At this point I was barely conscious of thermal clothing or polypropylene or backpack covers or dried food or lightweight tramping or walking sticks. I was oblivious to the fact that I was setting myself up to experience a whole world of pain

My first purchase after acquiring my woefully inadequate boots was a gas cooker. I had to ask Dave how it worked and he was able to provide me with the correct kind of gas canister. It’s an item that I carry to this day and has proved unfailingly reliable. At the same time I bought a Billy, Tupperware, matches, a torch and candles. From the supermarket I purchased half a pumpkin and a number of potatoes. I had decided I would overcome the difficulties of cooking them on the track by pre-softening them in the hostel kitchen and storing them in the Tupperware.

When I tried to use the hostel washing machine to deal with some of my rank clothing from two weeks on the road I discovered that Dave provided a paid laundry service and had to surrender my grotty threads to him. While in the kitchen I was approached by a friendly fellow tramper who said he’d heard there was an Austrian tramper in the hostel. “Oh no, I’m from Australia”, I said, thinking the conversation would continue before discovering that the German speaker was only interested in speaking to me if I was from his neck of the woods. And here I was thinking I was interesting for myself.

Abel Tasman National Park

Day 1 - Nelson to Anchorage Hut

The following morning I found myself on the bus out to the park. The trip passed through Richmond, Motueka, Riwaka and Marahau before finally depositing us at an unremarkable car park. There were a number of Trampers on the bus and as this didn’t gel with my concept of getting away from it all I took my time readying myself for the track. The walk to Anchorage Beach where the first hut lay was listed in the book as taking 4 hours. I noticed that the map listed a number of beaches along the way and I decided to visit as many of them as I could, given that there was no point in reaching the hut too early in the day. Unfortunately my pack was so loaded up with gear that I staggered under its weight, all of which seemed to be located on my shoulder blades and spine.

The first beach was no more than one and a half kilometres from the start and I found myself diverting onto its shores with a sense of startled relief, shucking painfully out of the constricting straps. What I needed to do, I decided was to offload some of the weight in the pack, and this I did by immediately eating my way through an orange and a Mars Bar. And that is how the rest of the day preceded, a series of scenic bays, Appletree, Stillwell, Akersten, Cyathea, at which I would rest and contemplate the exhaustin task of hauling my onerous load. I couldn’t understand how such an activity could be considered fun.

Six hours passed before I finally reached Anchorage Beach, just as the afternoon boat dropped off a load of passengers. I dawdled into the hut behind them and collapsed onto the bunk mattress. Two women from Nelson looked at me as if I was a cot case, one of them asking if the walk from the boat to the hut had been a bit tough for me.

Here were some fellow trampers whose respect I would never have.

The hut and nearby campsite were so congested that I may as well have been on the stony beaches of Auckland, sunbathing on the thin strip between the tepid harbour and the sidewalk. The map for the Park suggested there were a couple of walks to nearby beaches. I chose the walk to Te Pukatea Bay over that to Watering Cove. To this day I haven’t been to Watering Cove and nor have I explored the campsite at Akersten Bay. Strangely I do recall going to see the Astrolobe Plaque at Observation beach, more than likely being greatly relieved to ditch the backpack for the side trip. Te Pukatea Bay was only a 15-minute walk from Anchorage Hut but this small distance was enough to encounter a deserted beach.

I longed for a swim and so made my way to the far right hand corner and circled around some jagged outcrops of rock to reach a setting away from prying eyes. I now felt comfortable enough to swim naked, even though somewhat wary of the swirling currents. Upon leaving the salty bracken of the water I reached on the beach feeling the warming touch of a filtered sun.

I had hoped to visit the other beach but through a combination of tiredness, laziness and indifference I passed on the option. Back at the hut food preparations were well advanced so I thought I would mimic my colleagues. You must remember that I’d never done this before and therefore had no sense of a personal style that I wished to use.

There was no way to hide my embarrassment as having to bring out my huge chunks of potato and pumpkin.

The time and effort that went into cooking these in a modest billy underneath a gasping flame is something I'll never forget. And it was impossible to cook the vegetables thoroughly without there being considerable pulping of their surfaces. My initial thought was that I’d be able to add flavour to these bland chunks by cooking up a sauce but as I had only the one cooking utensil there was no way to prepare this simultaneously. I think I ended up sitting the vegetable in a bowl while I cooked up the sauce. By the time this was ready the vegetable had lost all heat. Mm, mm, half cooked potato and pumpkin in chicken gravy, it doesn’t get any better than this. I’m not sure that I could force myself to eat all that I’d prepared – I’d just have to save it for another day.

Feeling listless and exhausted I gladly crawled onto the second tier of bunks and sought comfort in a warm sleeping bag and tinny radio. Even this didn’t last however as the disdaining women complained that they felt like they were back in Nelson and asked me to turn of the radio.

Day 2 - Anchorage Hut to Awaroa Lodge

Rain. Even without opening my eyes the constant thump on the roof indicated that constant showers would be a feature of the day.

And so it proved. Because of the rain I had to wear my brother’s jacket but as the day was balmy rather than cold I found myself sweating profusely. Low cloud hung off coast obscuring the views, meaning the only thing to do was to keep walking. A long line of trampers threaded along the track like migrating dinosaurs. Bark Bay Hut was reached by lunchtime and as there was nothing else to do it seemed like a good idea to keep walking. Nor was the walk particularly satisfying, frequently cutting inland and avoiding the beaches. Streams were in overflow, wetlands were saturated and water constantly dripped from the forest canopy.

At the first hint of moisture my boots revealed themselves to be porous and the skin on my feet slowly stewed. With the soaking rain my backpack revealed itself to have little resistance to seepage meaning that every light, dry item slowly transformed into something soaked and leaden.  Each passing hour saw the pack weight rise to back breaking levels. The walking after Bark Bay Hut became harder and reaching Awaroa Hut involved a tedious walk next to widespread swamp and stagnant pools of water. Finally I rounded the final bend and after a last beach walk reached the hut setting. I wanted to get inside, lie down and shut my eyes against the cold, wet and dull ache of fatigue.

I opened the door and peered into the murky dank of the hut.

There were dozens of people inside, claiming every seating spot and bench space available. The bunkrooms were particularly grim, lightless, chilly and teeming with wet, discarded gear. Above a weak stove fire lays rows of dripping gear hung over a web of ropes. If I had found the previous night difficult to take in the half full, dry Anchorage Hut then I was really going to struggle here. It was exactly what I didn’t need and I couldn’t have felt any lower.

I found a spot to sit on a hard wooden seat and absorb the grim scene around me. Rugged farming couples regaled each other at one table, belching and farting as they slurped on tinnies. At the other table a brood of city trampers cast a critical eye as they sipped their flutes of wine. “These aren’t my kind of people”, sniffed one. That was the moment that decided me on my course of action. Getting up, I grabbed by sodden pack and hauled it out of the hut. Not too far away was the Awaroa Lodge which charged $15 per person for accommodation. I had a spare $15 in my wallet and it seemed like a good way to spend it.

To get to the lodge I had to drop down into the wetlands and slush along the streambed, getting wetter with every step. If they didn’t have any accommodation then I would have to return to the hut, quite possibly sleeping on the floor of an already packed hovel. It was an unhappy prospect but one I was prepared to risk in search of something better. I bumped into a fellow tramper who had come from the café and explained my ambition. He was going to take his chances at the hut. We talked amiably in the rain and I learnt that he was from Melbourne but had come to New Zealand to live with his family. I felt an affinity for this lone soul and then we walked away in opposite directions. By now the light was leeching out of the sodden day and only the presence of a vehicle track kept me to the path.

I reached the lodge and realized I couldn’t go in with my mud-coated boots. My only problem was I had no other footwear and was loathe to search my pack for dry clothing. I stuck my head in the front door and thankfully found the booking office. Now for the crucial question of whether they had any accommodation. The answer was yes, there were cabins just down the track from where I came. A look of gratitude must have crossed my face as he explained what was available, a made up bed, a kitchen and wait for this, a shower.

The legends were true and half an hour later I was showered, dry and warm.

I was able to string up my wet weather gear all over the cabin in order to allow it to dry overnight.  I could eat the rest of my potatoes and pumpkins, add some pasta to the mix and eat in restful peace. I cast my mind to the scene being played out in the hut and inwardly shuddered. This couldn’t get any better I thought, bathing in the electric light, snuggled under the warming blankets, listening to the rain on the tin roof. Sleep came peacefully, sinking in like heavy dew.

Day 3 - Awaroa Lodge to Whariwharangi Hut

The rain lingered in the morning but I was now equipped to face it. I returned to Awaroa Hut and re-joined the masses. Awaroa Inlet was a large tidal estuary that could only be crossed two hours before or after low tide. I found myself leading a group out into the water only to find it at waist height with a strong undertow driving us towards the sea. Good lord I thought, how much deeper is this going to get? At this point I wavered, stopped and began to turn back. At this moment the farmers from the hut were making their way across and when they hit the waist high water they kept going. Humiliatingly the water didn’t get any deeper and so I fell in behind, no longer the leader but now the follower.

The most perplexing part of the trip across the water was whether to wear shoes or to keep them dry. I decided I preferred dry boots and so went across in bare feet. Of course the kiwi farmers eschewed such wimpery and galoshed across in protected feet. I discovered that the water was numbingly cold and that there were razor sharp shells spread across the sand. Avoiding them wasn’t easy because they were constantly tumbling with the flow of the tide. I do recall, clear as a bell, being asked by some German/Swedish/Swiss girls about to enter the water from the other end whether is was safe to cross without shoes. I firstly answered that it was but then suggested that they put their shoes on. I was probably protecting myself from indemnity, lest they have an accident. As it was I think I escaped with a small nick.

Most people were only going as far as Totaranui Beach and getting the boat back to Marahau. I thought this was pretty slack and refused to countenance it as an option. How could you do only part of the track, I thought? It was a good decision because the most attractive beaches and best views are in the Northern section of the park. And Whariwharangi Hut was undoubtedly an accommodation highlight. There nonetheless would be a cost to extending the trip and I’ll come to that later.

The rain continued to tumble down closing off all access to views. After a short inland section the track disgorged onto the beach and allowed a long walk along the golden sand of Totaranui Beach. From here lies a network of tidal flats over which it is possible to hopscotch. The track again wound its way inland onto Anapai Bay. This is the least visited part of the track and for the first time it is possible to feel like you’re in a National Park. Its remoteness is enhanced by outcrops of rock with tight entrances that give access to secluded sections of beach. I was enchanted to find one of these and imagine the possibilities of camping in a secluded parcel of beachfront. Getting out though is reliant on a co-operative tide and the narrow entrance is perilously close to the water’s edge.

From Mutton Cove the map offers the option of climbing a winding track over a forested knoll to Whariwharangi Hut or venturing out to Separation Point, an alleged site of an established seal colony. Having been enchanted by the seal colony at Westport I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see more and so braved the pelting rain to thread my way along the jagged peninsula. The end of the point holds a small lookout and I edged my way past this to the cliff face so that I could view the rocks below.

I peered into the misty precipice but could see no sign of movement.

Patience, I thought, I just need to wait for my eyes to adjust I will so be seeing a world of seals. So I continued to wait, as the rain continued to fall onto my head and the waves covered over the denuded rocks. Yep, I finally decided, there’s fuck all down there. The so-called favourite haunt of migrating fur seals obviously was no longer hot. Maybe a cooler set of rocks had opened up down the road. Male juvenile seals were supposed to migrate here from the south to spend autumn and winter here. Maybe they were running late this year, who knows. I felt pretty stupid standing there while others who knew better warmed themselves in the hut.

I hauled up my weighty pack and began the dispiriting trip across the tough section of the hill. The track wound back and forth in hairpin formation and with a moisture-laden fog having settled in I began to feel disconcertingly disorientated. When I finally stumbled across the track junction I was perplexed. I was certain that the hut was to my left but the map insisted I needed to turn right I decided to follow the map, reasoning I at least wouldn’t have to blame myself if it all ended disastrously. As it was the track continue to bend back and forth before finally flattening out onto the curvature of Whariwharangi Bay. 15 minutes later I stepped inside one of the most appreciated huts of my life thinking I might just get the hang of the tramping business after all.

Whariwharangi Hut is a rarity,  a former homestead, its two story structure provides a sense of privacy and comfort that is conspicuously absent in the general muck in design of most huts. The farmers had arrived hours earlier and were ensconced upstairs. I flopped onto the bunk bed of a downstairs room and spread out my gear to rest. There were no other arrivals, allowing us to enjoy a fine evening of relaxed conversation. The rain continued unabated throughout the night, the saturated earth no longer able to absorb the relentless downpours.

Day 4 - Whariwharangi Hut to Nelson

Early the next morning I had some decisions to make. The bus was scheduled to arrive at Wainui Inlet at 10.30am and at Totaranui at 11.15. Getting to Wainui Inlet involved another tidal crossing dependent on it being 2 hours within low tide. There was no chart in the hut to go off and the crossing at Awaroa Bay hadn’t left me with much confidence. I decided my boots didn’t need a final drenching and decided I would utilise the extra time that back tracking to Totaranui allowed. From a tramping point of view I don’t regret the decision, as the cliff tops offered tantalising glimpses of Farewell Spit at the very edge of the island. It was a long isthmus of land that seemed to stretch on forever. The tramp itself was considerably slowed by tree fall across the track, one in particular requiring a difficult clamber over the top of a huge trunk.

Upon reaching Totaranui I breathlessly reported my finding to the DOCS officer who had his own news. Those of us waiting for the bus had been abandoned to look after themselves as the road had been closed by rock fall. We were given a lift on the back of his Ute to the spot where road workers were no clearing the debris. We were allowed to walk across to the other side, though to what purpose I know not as the bus was long gone. The DOC worker commandeered the kombi van of a couple of tourists and insisted that they give me a lift. I would take whatever was offered, even a forced ride.

The kombi van had no extra seats, being completely clear and this meant that I had to sit on the floor and attempt to gain some traction using my arms and legs. It wasn’t easy. The road between Totaranui and Takaka was horrendously convoluted, hugging fiercely to curving arcs around the steep mountain topography. The tourists were Dutch, and not particularly happy about my presence.

They seemed keen to offload me at the nearest possible point and seemed particularly aggrieved when I said I wanted to go to Nelson rather than Motueka.

As a result there was no result to slow down on the tortuous bends as we motored through the Takaka Hill scenic reserve. I found myself sliding from side to the side over the hard floor ridges in the kombi van, my stomach muscles aching in the effort of acquiring some traction. With every swerve I felt like I was going to throw up, the nausea was continually building. At one point they wanted to stop and talk in the view form Harwood lookout and I remember crawling out of the van, thankful for the respite. If you think I exaggerate the nastiness of the route between Takaka and Motueka I suggest you have a look at the map and count the tightly packed bends that make up the road.

The section between Motueka and Nelson came as blessed relief, relatively straight and quick and I was soon gathering myself together to inject the necessary gratitude into brief statement to my resentful hosts. Again I made the walk to Dave’s Palace, complained briefly about the wet weather and returned to town, thankful to walk without the dead weight of a pack. Nelson is known as a reasonably Bohemian town, by New Zealand standards, anyway. I wanted to believe the myth and so headed to Suter Art Gallery to watch a film.

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