Sea Kayaking Abel Tasman

Trip Start Jun 30, 2010
Trip End Jun 01, 2011

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Flag of New Zealand  , Nelson,
Tuesday, March 1, 2011

We had a flat calm and sunny ferry crossing from North Island to South and our transfer to Nelson was easy and smooth too. Nelson's a lovely city and we had fun exploring it and getting prepared for our next adventure or misadventure....

Possums, Custard and Misadventure
Kayaking the Abel Tasman coastline was something Phil had wanted to do since he'd visited NZ fifteen years ago, so we were really excited about our next adventure. The forecast looked good, everything was booked, we were stocked up on food and drink, clothes and camping kit packed. We jumped onto the 'water bus’ outside our Nelson YHA hostel and headed off to the Abel Tasman National Park and the small coastal town of Marahau.

With freedom rentals you decide your itinerary and it’s cheaper than a guided trip, which sounds ideal, but unless you know the coastline and paddle times it is difficult to plan. For some weird reason Freedom Rentals, the company, wouldn’t give us the paddle times after asking directly and were just really slippery about it, so we just took a punt on where to camp (the National Park requires that you book your pitches in advance and have the print-off to prove it – ours was checked) and we booked a ‘park start’ which meant a lift north into the park and a paddle back.

On arrival at the Freedom Rental yard we were briefed by instructor Adrian, a brusque fellow who’d clearly been doing this a good few years and had seen and heard everything when it came to tourists and kayaks on this coastline. We’d kayaked before and on some pretty rough seas (and were really fit having recently done a 26-day trek and a 9-day trek) and we both wanted our own vessel, but on hearing this Adrian loudly exhaled, grilled us on the capsize drill, cutting us short when we failed to give a perfect answer and poured negativity over the idea. So we ended up in a double that was built like a tank, feeling a little annoyed. We went through the safety drills, were advised on how to pack and were given the weather forecast with a nonchalant ‘Wednesday’s going to turn to custard. Mmmmm. After a forty-minute wait we boarded the trailored Aqua-Taxi at the yard entrance, amused to be towed down the road onboard a speedboat. Down the slip and floated off the trailer, we were soon racing north up the coast. The skipper pointed out the bays we’d booked camping pitches and was openly pleased with our choice to stay at Te Pukatea Bay saying ‘that’s one of the most perfect bays around’. As we sped north salt spray hit the kayaks stacked at the stern and made a rainbow. It was a calm, sunny day and our crappy experience in the yard was soon behind us.

Our start point, Onetahuti, was a beautiful curving golden sand beach backed by woodland and a sheltered camp ground. We joined the handful of trekkers, campers and kayakers having lunch, watched a paradise duck waddling around the picnic tables and some French-Canadian’s having kayak lessons and a lot of fun. As it was well past midday we got going, paddling gently down the coastline sussing out the scale of our map. We passed Tonga Island, long sweeps of golden sand and lush green woodland, reefs and sculpted granite outcrops, then Mosquito Bay with its small island and the long curve of Bark Bay. Either we were paddling seriously fast or the distances on the map were tiny! By the time we arrived at Medlands beach, 1 hours after setting off, our disbelief had turned to incredulity and then annoyance. We were expecting a good afternoon paddle - the length one of the girls in the Freedom Rentals office said it 'might' take her - not a 1 hour jaunt. Had we known we’d have taken in an offshore seal colony, or two! Thankfully Medlands Beach was so gorgeous that we soon adjusted our mindsets from adventure to holiday mode. We pitched the tent under a tree just back from the beach, cooked up some food, swam and lazed. The beach emptied of day-trippers at 4pm when they were whisked off by boat, leaving just a few overnight campers, including Chris and Lauren a nice chatty couple

That night an unlucky possum ventured into our tent porch for a sniff around, ignorant that it was perfectly silhouetted by a bright moon. At the same time I was having a really grisly nightmare in which a homicidal creature was hacking Phil to pieces. So, when Phil woke me whispering, ‘hey Nick there’s an animal in the tent’ I went crazy. I instinctively threw myself at the possum and roared at the top of my lungs just like a lion in the hope that I’d shock it into stopping this fictional attack on my loved one. The poor thing bolted, its paws hardly hitting the ground, and Phil, who a second before had been peacefully watching this big ball of fluff from the comfort of his sleeping bag, practically had a heart attack! It was hysterical.

We woke around 7:30am to a strange birdsong of clicks and ‘boings’ and out of tune whistles. After tea on the beach and a chat with fellow campers to see if any unusual noises had roused them last night (!), we packed up and were on our way, hoping to explore Torrent Bay before the tide retreated too far. The sea was flat calm, the sky bright and blue, but on the horizon was an ominous bank of darkness. From Medlands we paddled south passing Sandfly Bay, Pinnacle Island, Falls River, Frenchman Bay, North Head, Boundary Bay and Glasgow Bay before heading into Torrent Bay, a beautiful cove and the mouth of three rivers. Oystercatchers were resting on a sandbar waiting for the tide to expose their breakfast. Two trekkers had taken off their boots and trousers and were tentatively wading across the bay, cutting off a good loop of the coast path. We paddled into the cove against the rip and then gently drifted back out gazing down through perfectly clear water to a sandy seabed littered with white bivalves, taking in the peace, quiet and beauty; a very happy moment.

The swell was picking up, which was really fun, and the sky was darkening so we Hawaii-five-o’d-it to our next campsite at Te Pukatea. Phil pondered might it’d be worth heading on to the next campground to the south of the reef-strewn Mad Mile in case this ‘custard’ might be really bad? Adrian would surely have advised us if that was going to be the case, so we decided to stay put. ‘Te Puk’ was gorgeous; a horseshoe of yellow sand backed by the NZ laurel that it’s named after. We pitched the tent and snorkeled in the rain through water thick with string-jellies. The afternoon was showery and blustery but the east-facing bay was relatively sheltered. We wandered over to Anchorage cutting inland through a tree-fern forest to see if the warden could tell us about ‘custard’. Apparently it meant a 6ft swell and 65mph winds. Hell! We then bumped into a cheery couple we’d met on the Round the Mountain trek, but this time they were p’d off. They’d been kayaking for a few days with a guide who’d judged them competent enough to be left to their own devices for the last day back to Marahau. Unfortunately the guide hadn’t checked the forecast and had basically left his clients to kayak the Mad Mile through a storm. Nice. We returned and had supper sheltering under a laurel and chatted with some trekkers who’d rolled into camp late with sore feet. We couldn’t believe it when they showed us a national park leaflet listing all the walk and paddle times. Wow, if we’d seen that info earlier we’d have planned a very different trip, i.e probably not a ‘park-start’ or we’d have paddled much further to the north. 

The whole night we were shaken by gales and deafened by torrential rain (once again our Voyager tent was fantastic), and no improvement the next morning . The visibility was right down due to the driving rain. The wind was wild. High waves and white crests rolled across the bay entrance and for as far as the eye could see. What swung it for me though was seeing an Aqua-Taxi battling through the swell, disappearing deep into the troughs and then struggling to climb the waves. We didn’t see any other craft out that morning, not one. We seriously didn’t want to cut our kayak adventure short but equally negotiating a mile of reef we didn’t know in those conditions would have been foolhardy. So we packed up, said ‘aurevoir’ to our kayak and headed over to Anchorage to radio Freedom Rentals. They weren’t sending any boats out that morning, so we waited a few hours and managed to squeeze onto another company’s speed-boat back to Marahau. The wind and swell had died down a lot in those hours and once we were past the Mad Mile it was absolutely mirror calm. Boy, were we kicking ourselves! And we had to pay extra for our kayak to be picked up. Ggggnnnhhh!

So, in summary we did just under six hours kayaking, making that the most expensive, disappointing and dissatisfying experience of our NZ trip. The whole process had really felt like a touristy 'bums-on-seats' experience when we were seeking something way more adventurous and physically demanding. On the plus side, the coastline was incredible, the national park campsites were great and we did get to chill out on some amazing beaches. And we learned what ‘custard’ really meant, to our cost.

Best wishes
Nickie & Phil

Day 1: Marahau - Onetahuti by Aqua-Taxi, Onetahuti - Medands Beach kayaking
Day 2: Medlands Beach - Te Pukatea kayaking :)
Day 3: Te Pukatea to Marahau speed-boat pick-up & extra $ for kayak rescue :(
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Iain on

Haha! Yeah, looks rubbish. Especially the view of the beach and sea from your tent.

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