Our 3-Day Kayak Adventure Around NZ’s Abel Tasman Park
New Zealanders use the term “adventure” loosely to market pretty much any activity under the sun. I was skeptical we’d experience a true adventure here, especially if it were safe enough to involve the kids, but then my lifelong friend Carolyn, who moved to the South Island two years ago, booked a three-day kayak trip for our two families along the coast of Abel Tasman National Park. I had never kayaked before (unless you count an hour in a hotel lagoon in Hawaii), but how hard could it be? I had visions of paddling on glassy blue water and sipping wine with old friends while our kids played on a beach. Besides, we’re all old pros at camping. We were game.
Three days at sea and camping in the forest together seemed like a reunion too perfect to be true. We arranged to meet them on the Sunday after New Year’s.
Day One: “I’ve made a bit of a boo-boo …”
We drive from Nelson an hour and a half north to the tiny town of Marahau, at the gateway to the national park, and arrive at Abel Tasman Kayaks before 9 a.m. The sky is gray and the forecast calls for wind and rain, but we’re optimistic. It’s like Hawaii, right? The weather always changes and never gets too cold.
Carolyn and her husband Doug drive up shortly after, and Kyle, Colin, Liam and even Colly start goofing around (Colly’s wariness of playing with boys quickly evaporates). I’ve known Carolyn since preschool and Doug since high school, so seeing them feels like reuniting with extended family. We meet our guide and busy ourselves with gear.
Our 25-year-old guide is named Chee and strikes us right away as friendly and competent, but a tad quiet. “Have you heard the forecast?” he asks. We shrug and look hopeful, as if to say, how bad could it be? He says something about “25 to 30 knots” which translates to about 30 mph. I also notice he looks a bit surprised but keeps his cool when he realizes that four of his eight clients appear under 5 feet tall and younger than 12.
Pretty soon a supervisor — a bronzed woman with muscled arms, an over-sized straw visor and a squawking walkie-talkie — comes to us with a big smile but a serious message. “So here’s the thing,” she says, “your children are much, much littler than we expected.” Carolyn reminds her that she informed the kayak company that the youngest are 8 and 9, and we got the go-ahead. “Yes, but …” the woman says, “ordinarily we would not take children this size out on the kayaks.”
Clearly there has been some confusion, but it’s not clear why or what we should do. Chee tells us later that they book family groups with teenagers but have never had kids this young go out, especially not for a multi-day trip. The woman just wants us to be clear about the risks and aware that Chee may determine that it’s not safe enough for us to be on the water, which we’d have to respect. Of course, we say. We figure that if worse comes to worst with the ocean conditions, then we’d stick to hiking and get a ride back with a water taxi.
With that sobering message and clouds gathering overhead, we proceed to pack all the gear we’ll need into dry bags and load the kayaks to go to the water taxi station. As I try to budge one of these kayaks, which I guess are 15 feet long and take four strong adults to lift when loaded with gear, I get an inkling of why it may be a problem to have a novice adult and child navigating it. Imagine a beginner cyclist and child on a tandem bike fully loaded with panniers, then put them on a rough coastal route with headwinds and tell them to bike for several hours straight for three days. The child realizes he or she doesn’t need to pedal if Mom or Dad is doing most of the work. Mom and Dad realize they’re in for quite a ride.
Chee makes his first call: No way we’re going on the water in these conditions. We’ll set up camp, hike and attempt to kayak tomorrow. Sounds good to us.
We squeeze into a water taxi with our kayaks stacked high and piles of gear at our feet. “First day on the job!” announces the skipper, and I’m not sure if he’s boasting or warning us. He zooms northward into the ocean and brings the coastline into view.
The Abel Tasman park (named after the mid-17th-century explorer who was the first European to site New Zealand) crowns the top of the South Island with lush green mountainsides that sprout tree ferns everywhere. Its coastline curves out and in around points and bays, protruding like gnarled knuckles on a fist, and several islands with seal colonies rise up in tree- and rock-covered humps.
I only catch glimpses, however, because I’m gripping the speedboat’s side as it cuts through waves, rising up and slamming down with a force that sprays water over the sides and compresses every disc in my spine. About a half hour later, the boat finally slows and pulls into Onetahuti Beach, where the kids hop out and begin exploring caves and tidal pools. We set up camp quickly to pitch the four two-person tents before rain hits, and Chee makes a roof over the picnic table by suspending a large tarp with ropes and two upright paddles.
Then it’s time for a hike along a couple of miles of the Abel Tasman Coast Track, and Chee, who’s of Maori descent, describes natural history and Maori legends along the way. The kids tramp along, genuinely impressed by the aquamarine color of the water and rope-like black vines that hang and tangle around the shafts of giant ferns called mamaku.
We stop at a beach along the way where a fat seal scratches himself, indifferent to his visitors, and the kids explore more caves carved by waves. No one minds that we’re on the land rather than kayaking at sea.
The wind is gusting and rain starts to sprinkle by the time we get back to camp. We’re all hungry and eager to help Chee cook dinner, but first he asks us to gather around for an announcement.
“I’ve made a bit of a boo-boo,” he says. It seems he didn’t notice that the cooking gas was not packed, so we’ll be having dinner a bit late. But he has a plan: radio the water taxi to catch a ride to another camp about 15K (9 to 10 miles) down the coast, where a canister of gas is stored in case of such emergency. The water taxi, done for the day, will not return him to our camp, but no worries, he says — he’ll run back on the trail (in Keen sandals, his only shoes).
Morgan, who hasn’t run in a couple of days, eagerly volunteers to go with him. It’s about 5:30 when they depart, and we estimate they should be back before 7:30. We huddle over the picnic table with little to do but play cards and eat snacks. Carolyn and I, ever so slightly tense about the weather and the unexpected turn of events, decide it’s time for wine. Doug sticks to beer, and soon “remember when” stories from the mid-1980s start to flow too.
Two hours, one bottle of wine, one bag of corn chips and a couple of cans of beer later, we’re looking at our watches and speculating about where Morgan and Chee might be. The rain goes from steady drizzle to sideways-blown downpour, and we grip the upright paddles that hold up the tarp each time a gust hits. Damp clothing and towels we hung on a tree branch to dry are fully soaked, as are most of the supplies piled on the ground.
I’m amazed that the four kids, fully bundled, don’t seem to mind the circumstances much — they’re happy enough sitting around, talking and eating — so I take inspiration from them and act like everything’s fine. Carolyn and I let off nervous laughter as we swap stories about the crazy things our parents did when we were growing up together. I try not to dwell on the distinct possibility that Morgan and Chee discovered the gas isn’t there and are stuck struggling to come up with a Plan B (or would that be Plan C?), or that one of them fell while running back on the slick trail. And what if they fell while clutching gas canisters? Ka-boom!
Finally, around 7:45, Chee and Morgan burst out of the forest panting and drenched, as wild-eyed and triumphant as hunters returning with fresh kill. I guessed right: There was no gas canister waiting for them; they somehow borrowed a couple of small ones from somewhere else, but those lacked the attachment valves they needed, so they had to borrow the other parts from who-knows-where. (None of this ever made any sense to me.) Late hitting the trail, they ran the hilly 15K as fast as they could.
Morgan is high on adrenaline and endorphins, and Chee casually admits it’s the farthest he has ever run. This calls for a drink! We open another while the rain starts coming down in sheets. Chee fires up the stove burners and whips up some chicken and vegetables over rice. We don’t have much appetite after all the snacking and drinking, but the hot food tastes good and we eat quickly so we can get the kids and ourselves into sleeping bags and pass out as soon as possible.
Day Two: “Turn back!”
I wake to the sound of birds, not rain, and peak out at sunshine. Everything around me is damp and fresh, but I’m dehydrated and heavy headed. I grope around for clothes to run in, force my feet into wet shoes and sneak out of the tent around 6, before Morgan and the kids wake up. I run for over an hour along the Coast Track while the sun rises. I’m dazzled by the water’s color, the varied shades of green in the forest and the waterfall that gushes over moss-covered rocks at the turn-around point.
It’s all business back at camp as we pack everything up and load the boats. Chee gives us a quick lesson in kayaking essentials: how to paddle, how to put the rudder down and use the foot pedals to work it, how to attach the spray skirt to form a tight lid between our waists and the boat’s opening, and — most important — how to detach the skirt if we capsize so we can swim free. We should remember to face waves head on, not sideways, and if a wave hits the kayak parallel instead of perpendicular, then lean into it.
I hop in a kayak with Kyle, and Morgan sets off with Colly. All the grownups sit in the back of the two-person boats so we can work the pedals that control the rudder. (Chee is in a one-person kayak, darting between us and showing us the way.)
We all get the hang of it pretty quickly. Kyle looks so cute sitting in front of me, his body dwarfed by a big floppy hat and life vest, his little hands clutching a big paddle that barely skims the water. It doesn’t take him long to figure out the kayak will keep going whether he paddles or not.
Twenty minutes into it, I realize that this is a workout — I’m putting muscle into every stroke — but we keep at it and get into a rhythm until arriving at a beach about an hour and a half later called Bark Bay. We’re all relieved to have that first leg behind us, so we enjoy a feast of a picnic and try not to worry as the wind picks up.
Chee gathers us around for another announcement, map in hand. We’ll need to get around a couple of windy points to reach our campsite at a beach called Anchorage. The wind itself isn’t a problem as much as its direction. A pressure system has cooked up an atypical swath of south-westerlies, which means wind will hit us head on and blow us away from the coast. Stay near the coast, he warns us — but watch out for rocky reefs. Suddenly the lunch in my stomach doesn’t feel so good.
We say goodbye to Bark Bay and paddle through a lagoon that in just a couple of hours will be completely empty because of the dramatic ebb and flow of the tides. Morgan and I switch kids, so now I have Colly seated in front of me.
Having her as a partner makes my job easier, since she paddles more than Kyle and her heavier weight balances the boat better. (Later — belatedly — we realize we need to store heavy gear at Kyle’s feet so his boat is properly balanced.) Out we go, heading south to get around the next point, when slam! the wind hits our face with a blast that makes us feel as though we’re paddling upriver.
“Colly, I’m gonna need you,” I tell her, and she gamely starts paddling as hard as she can. The waves pick up, too, so we’re bouncing up and down as much as gliding forward. The swerving up-down rocking motion reminds me of the time I rode a mechanical bucking bull at the county fair. I focus on a point in the distance and muscle forward as best I can, trying to use the rudder to keep our nose pointed into waves, which are looking big enough to body surf. I don’t want to lose my concentration by looking around, but I’m concerned that our group has spread out. I shout at Colly so she can hear me over the wind, “Honey, please look back and tell me where your dad is.”
“He’s way far back!”
I look over my shoulder and catch site of both Morgan and Kyle paddling rapidly while their kayak’s nose points upward and starts to spin like a weather vane. A wave hits them on the side and tilts them to a 45-degree angle. But I can’t keep watching because I’m feeling our kayak turn beneath us, too. I step on the rudder’s right pedal and paddle only with my left to get it back around clockwise, facing the direction we need to go in. “Colly, paddle right!” I yell, meaning left, but my right foot is on the pedal so I have my directions mixed up. She starts to paddle on the right side and I scream, “No, other side!” She doesn’t know what to do and pretty soon I’m yelling at her to lean right, lean into the waves, and just when I wonder what else could go wrong, my hat blows off and the strap strangles my neck.
“Turn back!” I hear someone call over the wind. Morgan can’t turn his boat around and neither can I; we’re pointed back toward the bay where we had lunch. “Morgan, paddle!” Chee suddenly calls out, raising his voice to a commanding tone we haven’t heard yet, and we realize that a good-sized wave is cresting over the back of Morgan’s boat. He paddles ahead just enough so the wave doesn’t break over his body.
A classic line from Scooby-Doo comes to me and I shout it out loud: “Yikes, let’s get out of here!”
We all paddle away from the point and back toward Bark Bay, our job now easier with the wind on our backs but the ride still rollicking from all the waves. I finally catch up to Morgan and Kyle, who have caught their breath and are reassuring each other that everything’s fine, everything’s fine, good job, good job. I don’t know what to say to them or Carolyn and Doug, except for, “I think Bark Bay sounds like a great place to camp tonight!”
Chee agrees, “Yes, that’s what we’ll do.” We’re not getting around that point in these conditions.
Bark Bay is a beautiful, peaceful place to spend the afternoon and evening, even with the wind. It feels luxurious to set up camp in dry weather, to play by the beach and to eat burritos. The kids hole up in a tent and play Uno for two hours. We go to bed early, warned by Chee that we have to wake early to beat the wind and paddle extra long to make up for today’s shorter leg.
Plus, to make it home tomorrow, we have to get through the roughest stretch of coastline: the Mad Mile.
Day Three: “We’re making great time”
A British twentysomething camper near our group feels the need to chop wood at 5:30 a.m. and in so doing wakes us all up. My back, shoulders and arms ache, and my hands look puffy and sport blisters at the base of each thumb. Thankfully, Chee is up already and has coffee made for us. The kids get moving and help break down tents and pack dry bags, their experience and helpfulness seemingly doubled in a day.
We’re all spooked by the wind and eager to paddle past the point that got the better of us yesterday. But our departure is slightly delayed by low tide; we have to heave all the really heavy kayaks at least a hundred meters to where the water starts. Then we’re in and begin paddling at 8:50 a.m.
The sea has a sunnier personality today and welcomes us to and through the windy point, but I keep my guard up because the Mad Mile — the stretch we heard other campers comment on being so rough — looms ahead. Chee directs us toward an island on the way so we can admire the seals, but while the others ooh and ahh, I’m thinking seals, schmeals — I just want to keep moving forward.
The Mad Mile gets its reputation for risk from wind patterns, ocean currents and a lack of beaches at which to seek safe haven. But there’s nothing mad about it this morning. I keep expecting waves and wind, but I begin to feel cautiously optimistic that this mile is downright mild. It seems we got lucky for once and paddled through during an hour of optimal conditions. I let myself look around and absorb details of the sculpted rock formations protruding from the coast. The landscape’s beauty has so much depth and mystery, with so many crevices carved by the elements and colors that change with the light.
“We’re making great time,” Chee calls out — so much so that we need to pace ourselves or else we’ll get back too early. We stop for a snack and time to play on the beach, followed by lunch not long after. The home base of Marahau comes into view and we linger at lunch across the bay, surprised to be done sooner and easier than expected and not wanting the trip to end. The kids play an impromptu game of cricket with some other kids on the beach, and pretty soon the guys join in.
A couple of hours later at the kayak company’s base, after we’re finally done unloading and saying good-bye to Chee — our superb guide who now feels like a friend — we all head to a funky backpackers’ campground and hostel called The Barn for one last night together.
I feel more beat up and worn out than after any long-distance running race or camping trip I can recall. My hands ache if I try to form a fist, my calves and ankles feel on fire from the itch of some twenty sand fly bites, and my entire upper body feels stiff and out of whack. I watch the four kids amble along together and feel the comfortable, tired silence that Morgan, Doug, Carolyn and I share, and I look at the tip of the Abel Tasman coastline and marvel at how far we came.
Was it worth it? Definitely.
p.s. Morgan has additional landscape photos of Abel Tasman and I shot footage for a mini movie. We’ll try to post them in a few days when we have better online access. We’re headed to the West Coast for the coming week.
Tags: Abel Tasman Coast Track, Abel Tasman Kayaks, Abel Tasman National Park, Abel Tasman Water Taxi, blogsherpa, family travel, Marahau, Nelson, New Zealand, North Island, Pacific, parenting, RTW travel, Sarah_Lavender_Smith, The Barn Marahau, trail running