Beaches, Boats & Stoats: Medlands Beach to Anchorage Bay, Abel Tasman National Park, New Zealand (11.6km)

The captain steadies the boat against the chop and lowers the retractable metal gangway. Bright sunlight slides along it as it extends, before it lands on the white sand with a small thud. We are the first two to scramble off, bouncing with the waves as we step out onto glorious Medlands Beach: the starting point for our day hike along the Abel Tasman Trail. The beach is empty, sub-tropical and breathtaking. It is a scene from which postcards could – and likely are – reprinted year after year.

But in the middle of all this I’m grumbling, and not just because the backpack is still damp from the washout hike in the Kahurangi the day before. I have discovered a fresh new walking horror that makes me yearn to have my worst ever blister back in its stead.

Sandfly bites. Up and down my calf, around my ankle and on the soles of my feet. Each step, I want to tear off my shoes and scratch them red raw. The beach makes it worse as grains of gritty sand find their way into my socks. At first the scratching brings relief, then the cycle begins again. I’m sure the unedited text of Dante’s Inferno has this included somewhere; the overlooked 6.5th circle of hell.

Some people would argue I’m being dramatic, and I am. But it is bloody annoying.

I hop off the beach, itching as I go, and enter a shady, coast hugging track that’s cooled sporadically by the fresh water rivers that intersect it from west to east. As well as being one of New Zealand’s ‘Nine Great Walks’, the Abel Tasman Trail also has comedic timing; the first enticing offshoot advertised is Sandfly Beach. I take it as a taunt to explore further and so we crash down on a steep muddy path through the trees. Besides, my wife has kindly applied some special and expensive Tiger Balm to my inflamed soles so the discomfort has abated for now.*

Like Medlands Beach before it, and all the beaches in this gorgeous corner of the world, Sandfly Beach leaves a chorus of fortunate visitors, muttering to no-one in particular, “God, it is so fucking beautiful here.”

It’s a haven for wildlife too. Two hilarious birds, the California Quail and orange-billed Oystercatcher give their best catwalk poses for the camera. The vast presence of these, and successful reintroduction of other species, seems to be largely down to the poison-box war being waged against pests like possum, stoats and rats.

On one of the several info boards along the trail is a veritable stoat battle-map, complete with red front lines and methods of defence. It reminds me of my favourite childhood Redwall books where valiant mice, squirrels and badgers defended their homes against the beasts. I don’t know if the Parks team are considering arming mice in their efforts against the stoats, but they seem to be trying everything else.

We stop at Torrent Bay for lunch, where a handful of lucky folk own holiday homes. These buildings existed here before the area was designated as a National Park. An absolute slice of heaven but I imagine, as I try to temper my jealousy, a massive pain to get supplies to. To answer me a chap exits his veranda, hops into a sea kayak on the beach and paddles out. He then whips out a fishing rod and proceeds to catch his supper. Fair enough.

The final section winds round towards Anchorage Bay for the boat pick up where we kick off our shoes and dive headlong into the waves.

It is easy to see why this is one of the Nine Great Walks. I can find no fault with it. Only that I wish I could stay here longer.

That, and the sandfly bites of course.

*N.B. Later that evening my wife revealed it had been Vaseline. The fact that I was duped by a placebo in no way lessens my tribulation.

 

Practicalities

– Not a very tough hike. Clearly marked track and only a few moderate hills. 5/10 difficulty.

– Its worth booking the Abel Tasman in advance (whether you’re planning to get a private water taxi, hop on a cruise boat or do a multi day hike). This is especially true in high season.

– We used the Wilson cruise tour company. They have multiple options as well as different times for pick ups and drop offs. They even did some seal spotting for us on the way back which was fantastic.

– If you want general info, including about different tour operators, check out the iSite in whichever town to Tasman you are nearest. The route we took is generally the most popular day hike option.

– From Torrent Bay there is an option to cut a large corner if the tide is out. Although this may be tempting, I would strongly recommend taking the longer (high tide) route. It was very rewarding. Just make sure you plan for the extra time.

– DOC huts are available for multi day hiking. Again, booking ahead is advised.

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There and Back Again: Flora Car Park – Cloustons Mine – Gordon’s Pyramid (1,489m) Circular, Kahurangi National Park, New Zealand (21.1km)

The plump weka bird is in two minds as it scurries around, circling our soaking boots like a cautious, begging dog. It wants to make sure it doesn’t miss any crumbs from my late afternoon pita bread. On the other hand, it doesn’t want to share and so pauses at intervals to charge off any other wekas in an aggressive flurry of chasing, hopping and flapping. Back and forward, round and round it goes. It’s hard to believe it’s this fat with so much activity; perhaps the spot really is worth scrapping for if its’ waistline is anything to go by. Like the penguin, the flightless weka is a natural comedian to observe as it doesn’t quite seem fit for purpose when walking around.

As the weka performs its bumbling ritual, the rain continues to thunder down on the wooden porch of the Arthur hiking hut that we’re sheltering under. Through the doorway of the basic room behind us, three German chaps are trying to light the stove without success. The firewood, like everything and everyone else, is sodden. Although we’re grateful to be out of the rain, our waterlogged boots soon inflict on us a teeth-chattering chill. As amusing as the weka’s antics are, we’re not getting any warmer and so decide to squelch the final hour back down to the Flora Car Park.

Several hours before we leave the very same car park, very much drier, striding out along forest tracks with the goal of reaching Clouston’s Mine for lunch. The route starts flat and the pace is quick; we fly past streams, bounce over fords and munch on salt and vinegar crisps like a couple possessed. About an hour in, this speed almost causes us to miss the steep fork for Clouston’s Mine which narrows and snakes up the valley side. It is less trodden and all the more beautiful for it. We navigate around lichen caked, luminous green landslides, whilst tiny grey warblers and robins peck for insects on the path ahead.

The lunch spot at Clouston’s is perfect after hours of tramping through close forest. The mine entrance opens up to a small patch of grass which overlooks a cascading river that carves a view point down into the valley. The mine itself is unfortunately flooded and unstable. Standing by the entrance, the sound of dripping water in far off caverns echoes back. A cool breeze flows out of the darkness. Little seems to be known about the mine, other than the fact it was a failed gold venture. A good place to gorge on a sandwich regardless.

Buoyed by our success, we then decide to make the final ascent to Gordon’s Pyramid (1,489m) and are rewarded with the most spectacular views we’ve seen in New Zealand to date. The whole park sprawls out around us. Horseshoe Basin sits below, far to the north we can make out the sunlit beaches of Abel Tasman, and Mount Arthur’s craggy and shrouded peak soars up ahead of us. As we walk along the ridge, circling back to our start point, we notice an ominous swirling mass of clouds sailing towards us at an alarming pace.

Even as we are knocked about by wind, rain and cloud, it is impossible to ignore how awesome this place is. It’s like the Lake District on steroids.

We come now to Arthur’s hut with its failing stove lighters and squabbling weka birds. Even with our waterproofs, the sideways rain seems to have permeated everywhere. I suppose ‘On Sale’ Sport’s Direct gear from Peckham High Street is not cut out for New Zealand’s weather warnings.

Time for an upgrade.

Practicalities

– The Kahurangi National Park sits just next to the popular Abel Tasman Park, at the north west tip of New Zealand’s South Island.

– It is also one of New Zealand’s biggest parks so the above walk covers only a tiny fraction of its eastern portion.

– If, like us, you can’t do Abel Tasman when you were expecting to, then Kahurangi provides an excellent alternative. In many ways, I actually preferred it to Tasman. It feels more remote, less busy and just enormous!

– The iSite shop in Motueka has helpful walking guides available for $2.50.

– Flora Car Park is up a steep gravel track. Most cars should be fine, just take care.

– There are many more jumping off points, as well as multi day treks using the DOC huts (like Arthur’s hut mentioned above). Again, the iSite or DOC online are full of info.

Eating Mountains: Climbing Te Mata Peak, North Havelock, New Zealand (5.5km)

The Te Mata car park is bustling with activity, despite the early hour.

Around us, dog walkers wrestle their excitable new Christmas puppies onto leads. One particularly fluffy and tiny Maltese tries to scramble up my leg as I consult the trail map, squinting in the thinly clouded summer sun. The surprised noise I make is embarrassing for a grown man and not proportional to the animal’s size.

The dog walkers mix with lean regulars and chubby New Year resolution joggers. The latter are clad in bright, packet-fresh gear. I pinch my own stomach, kneading the effects of the cheap beer, salty snacks and general beach life of south east Asia. Losing my belt somewhere between Cambodia and the Philippines has had an alarming lack of impact. It is timely to be back in a country where you are never far away from a hike, bike or waterway.

We choose to follow the Rongokako trail which will take us in a circuit around the foothills, via a climb over Te Mata Peak and ridge, and so stomp off into the undergrowth in the direction of the first sky blue arrow that marks the route. The scenery is almost Wild West; sun-baked and crumbling paths wind through kindling dry grass and then narrow alongside craggy hilltops. All around are stunning views of rolling, parched-yellow hills. Nestled in the flat basin beneath Te Mata, sits the verdant-green wine producing valley of Hawkes Bay and our campsite.

Te Mata o Rongokako is the Maori name of the giant who, lying down dead, forms the ridge of this mountain. If you stand on the plain below, it bears the resemblance of an enormous sleeping man. The legend goes that Rongokaka and a beautiful princess from a tribe on the plains fell in love. But the princess, following advice from her kin who wanted to take revenge on Rongokaka’s tribe, was convinced that she should make Rongokaka perform near impossible tasks to prove his devotion. He met his match when he was asked to eat this mountain, finally choking on Te Mata Peak and expiring here.

New Zealand’s Maori place names are awash with wonderful etymology like this. As we reach the Peak and admire the view across the plains (or catch our breath), we overhear a grey-bearded chap explain that the Tuki Tuki River below is so called because of the sound the water makes hitting the rocks.

At the Peak, there sits a large, shining tiled mosaic that lays out the topography that can be seen all around. To the east, the Pacific Ocean. To the west, at the far reach of the map, sits the snow capped Mount Tongariro (aka Mount Doom) which we plan to tackle at the end of our trip and is supposedly one of the best day treks in the world.

On the descent, the sun breaks through and transforms the hills from yellow to singing gold. We navigate around overhanging flax seed bushes and arrive at the edge of the redwood forest. In comparison to the bare hills, the shaded wood pulsates with the buzzing of invisible insects and birds. Entering in to escape the midday sun, we hop over a stile into an aroma of damp-pine and almost fall over an impressive treehouse. A true feat of woodland engineering. I try to steal a photo, but a small blonde child emerges from the entrance. With arms crossed, she stares me down and so I skulk off without taking a snap, bested by the miniature war-chief.

Almost back at the car park, we pass one of the aforementioned runners who is bent over, heaving with perspiration. She waves away offers of assistance, her face masked by a brand new, fluorescent pink Nike cap. Another reminder to get in shape.

Spurred on, after our return to camp we spend the afternoon exploring Hawkes Bay on bikes. I should mention the cycle is more of a stuttering crawl around neighbouring vineyards.

I convince myself the first swill of chilled rosé on my tongue is semi-earned.

Baby steps.