Sunday, June 3, 2018

Chalk and Cheese: the two sides of walking in Abel Tasman National Park

From Renwick I drove to Nelson, but decided I wasn't ready for time in a big town, so kept driving, finishing up in Motueka for a few nights. I had a little look around at the nearby beaches, but mostly just chilled till my next big tramp.

This time I took on one of New Zealand's "Great Walks": The Abel Tasman Coastal Track, but decided to turn it into a loop walk by also walking the Inland Track.

The Abel Tasman National Park gets a huge amount of visitors, especially in the warmer summer months, and is well serviced with campsites, huts, private lodges, water taxis, shuttle services, sea kayak hire, and scenic flights. All of the above (with the exception of many private lodges which close over winter) are available year round so it is a hive of activity with people walking some or all of the coastal track and using the various transport options for accessing the Park.

The Coastal Track follows the coastline from Marahau in the south, to Wainui in the north, though a section in the very north is currently impassable due to landslips following Cyclone Gita in January. This was a large tropical depression which hit New Zealand with extreme winds and high rainfall, and caused a huge amount of damage to roads, bridges, beaches, waterways and other infrastructure, all over the South Island.

Walking the Coastal Track necessitates crossing Awaroa Inlet at low tide, because there is no high tide track around it. With the short days of May there was only one low tide time during daylight hours, being in the mid to late afternoon. The hut I would be staying in overnight is situated on the southern side of the inlet so the direction of my loop tramp was determined by the tide times. I would be doing a clockwise loop starting from Marahau: up the Inland Track, and back via the Coastal Track.

Preparation is everything, particularly when you are so reliant on tidal movements, so I deliberately scheduled my tramp to coincide with the most convenient day for crossing the inlet at a time that would suit my walking times. This meant I delayed setting off on the walk for a few days. The whole week was forecast to be sunny, with no rain, so it was looking sweet...

I set off early on Sunday morning from Marahau, heading north for almost an hour along the Coastal Track to Tinline Bay, where the Inland Track heads up the hill. What was a 2 metre wide path immediately reduced to a narrow goat track, and as the track climbs higher the views get better and the track gets more technical.

I stopped at Holyoake Shelter for lunch, where I meet two trampers returning down the hill dressed as cowboys, complete with hats and toy guns, who tell me the track further on gets even more technical. Soon I find out what they mean: clambering up over tree roots, walking through mud, wind thrown trees to clamber around, over or through, in reality your bog standard typical backcountry tramping track. This surprised me, given the track is in such close proximity to the immaculately maintained Great Walk, but it wasn't outside my ability and I found myself at Castle Rocks Hut bang on the time DOC suggests the track takes.

Castle Rocks is an 8 bunk hut with some nice views down to the coast from the rocky crags nearby, but the chimney doesn't draw well, so it was a very smoky, though warm, night in the hut, shared with an American tramper named Nick who turned up a few hours after me.

The next morning I awoke to frost and continued the ascent, the track quality remaining of the same calibre as the first day, until Moa Park shelter. I detoured to Porters Rocks for another view down to the coast, looking down to Bark Bay I think.

A short walk uphill from Moa Park the ridge top was gained and for the next hour or so the walking was fairly easy along the tree covered tops, before the track began to descend again. There were a few steep sections, and a lot more wind thrown trees, which slowed me down a little, but it still only took me 6 hours to get to Awapoto Hut, including lunch and detours.

Awapoto Hut is on top of a hill, with spectacular views down to Awaroa Bay. The toilet is also conveniently sited for enjoying the vista whilst enthroned. Closing the door, I don't think so!

I am joined at the hut by a group of young people on a 40 day Christian leadership course run by a local American chap named Norm. This week's topic for the students is core values, and aside from the god angle, I can fully concur with the subject matter Norm was helping them explore.

Day 3, and it's a pretty steep descent at times to Pidgeon Saddle, where a road goes to the coast at Totaranui. I cross the road and keep to the track heading north, which soon opens up into farmland, and views down to Wainui Bay. I run into a walker heading in the opposite direction, and we recognise each other from The St James Walkway 2 weeks ago. Small world.

Just before Gibbs Hill the track splits. Since the coastal route via Mutton Cove is currently closed, I had decided not to continue to the northernmost hut at Whariwharangi as it would entail retracing my route back to this spot the next day. Instead I turn east and descend the steep mountain bike track to Totaranui Bay and a well deserved lunch by the beach.

From now on, I follow the Coastal Track, which is wide, well benched, and pretty solid underfoot. There are beach sections to walk, but mostly it sidles above the coastal cliffs, and climbs over saddles to avoid the numerous headlands. It is super easy walking and a complete contrast to the quite technical track of the last few days. The forest is mostly regrowth, as the area was heavily logged for timber and paper production prior to becoming a National Park.

I arrive at the northern end of Awaroa Bay about 20 minutes before full low tide, so it's an easy walk across the muddy inlet to the Hut. I take off my boots so I can get my feet wet in the shallow river crossing, where the water is icy cold and incredibly refreshing.

The hut isn't full, and I spend a pleasant evening meeting people from all over the world. But first I take advantage of the low tide to venture over to Awaroa Beach, which is famous for being purchased for the National Park through a crowd funding campaign.

My next morning I sleep in, and am last to leave the hut at 10:30 am for the leisurely stroll to Bark Bay, where I take the high tide route around the inlet in order to see some waterfalls and wetlands. I still have lots of time to venture out over the mudflats to the beach to check out the local wildlife.

Day 5 it's overcast, a bit of a change from the previous sunny days. I'm again last to leave, but that doesn't stop me taking numerous diversions along the way. At Torrent Bay a rescue helicopter is retrieving a local woman who dislocated her hip. Ouch!!

The tide is still high after lunch, so I have no choice but to take the high water track, which adds at least an extra hour to the walk to Anchorage Bay. But there are two excellent side trips off the high water route that are not to be missed. First is Cascade Falls, a mere 20 minutes each way, and well worth the effort.

The second diversion is to Cleopatra's Pool, which is only 5-10 minutes on a level track off the main route. A party of students have just left, so I take the opportunity of a very short, but invigorating, skinny-dip. After all, I haven't had a shower for quite a few days....

Soon I am at Anchorage Hut, which ends up full for the night, but with one of the bunk rooms closed for maintenance, doesn't seem overcrowded. It is my last night and I feel a bit sad to finish tomorrow.

My final day I head off to Pitt Head and Te Pukatea Beach, before returning to the hut for my backpack and the final walk back to Marahau. I visit a few beaches enroute, but soon the carpark and estuary are in sight and I am back in civilisation again.

Although the coastal scenery was beautiful, walking the Coastal Track was not a particularly pleasant experience. The maintaining of the track to a Great Walk standard means that it is quite solid ground underfoot, and since there are few obstacles a fit person can get up quite some speed. This means it is quite jolting on the joints, and not as comfortable as softer terrain. I also found the intrusion of the numerous watercraft and air traffic detracted from the experience, and can't even imagine how much worse it must be in summer!! Wilderness experience it certainly wasn't, particularly as each Bay also houses numerous private residences that pre-date the annexation as a National Park. The work they are doing in the Park on predator reduction is very promising, however, and it was great to see and hear so much birdlife after the dearth of the same on the last two tramps I have done.

Would I recommend this Walk? Yes, but just be prepared for the many contrasts.

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