Blisters the size of pennies, joints and muscles screaming, and the smell.... yes, we have just finished three days on the Abel Tasman Coastal Track. Although we were in the best shape of our lives two months ago, the Vermont winter seems to have set us back a bit, and we were doggin' it! But the good news is that the scenery was spectacular – one deserted golden beach after another – and the weather was gorgeous every day (apparently the forecasts here are often completely wrong). The camping was a big success, and we found time to swim and kayak and see dolphins, penguins and seals!
So, back to Thursday... We took the bus from Nelson to Marahau. We had the same bus driver, Frank, that we had on the earlier leg from Picton to Nelson. He was glad to see us again, let us on early to get the five person back seat, and even mentioned us in his commentary over the loud speakers.
Once in Marahau, we set up camp (first time with the tent) in a campground/hostel called The Barn. It was terrific – clean and well supplied, and full of interesting people. New Zealand continues to amaze us with the friendliness of the people. If we look lost for more than five seconds, perfect strangers help us on our way. As we walked into the campground, one couple told us there was a great spot right next to them, and as soon as we started to set up the tent, another family near us offered us Earl Grey tea and juice for the kids! Turned out they had relocated from England to Nelson, so we enjoyed hearing about their adventures (including Tony's stories of writing for BBC television), and it was fun for Beckie and Luke to have some other kids around. We had a view of the ocean from our tent, and woke each morning to tremendous birdsong. And there was a farm next door, so various animals wandered among the tents, including a rooster and a mother duck who let the kids feed her ducklings.
We spent the following morning kayaking along the coast from Stephen's Bay to Split Apple Rock and back. Our guide was a local named Calum and he was full of info about the local history, culture and wildlife, including introducing us to the Oyster Catcher (a large black beach bird with bright orange beak and eyes). Each pair claims a beach and raises their young for three years. Apparently it takes that long to teach the young how to find and break into the oysters. We also kayaked five feet away from a Little Blue Penguin – the smallest penguin the the world. Mid-morning, we pulled up on a deserted sand beach for a cup of mocha and a swim.
The next day we left for our tramp. The track starts right outside the Barn, which was convenient when we realized ten minutes into it that we had left our towel behind, and the kids insisted that Daddy go back to get it! Our first day was 13 kilometers from Marahau to Torrent Bay. The track was beautifully maintained, and had great signs at regular intervals estimating the the times to various way-points. Turned out we kept pace almost perfectly with the signs, which was reassuring for the parents, and good for the kids' morale! And we had our first experiences of the stunning coastline views, and tropical vegetation, dominated by enormous fern trees, which Rachael found particularly fascinating.
We had our first tidal crossing at Anchorage. This involved taking off our boots, and walking and wading across a wide expanse of exposed sand flats. Of course Luke immediately noticed a million crab holes in the wet sand that suddenly bustled with activity as we approached, and the crabs darted back into their holes.
We had planned this to be a relatively gentle first day, but (as mentioned above) it turned out to be a little more taxing than we had expected! Still, we had time for a nice lunch break on the beach, and several other breaks for general complaining about our pathetic level of fitness and the weight of our packs, and still arrived at the Torrent Bay camp site soon after 5 pm. We set up the tent right near the beach and some of us (Lucas) had the energy to go exploring after we got the tent set up and had dinner. He found a eel skeleton and an Oyster Catcher nest with three large brown speckled eggs in it. We all went to bed at 8pm. Jeremy seemed incapable of speech from about 7 o'clock onwards and mostly just moaned.
The second day we were attempting a 20 kilometer walk from Torrent Bay to Awaroa. And boy, were we looking forward to it after the joy of the day before! An early start (only two hours to pack up!) and a breakfast of instant oatmeal and Milo (Australian Ovaltine) sent us on our way. It should also be mentioned that this was Jeremy's first morning without his customary hot shower! He tried to wash under the cold tap, but it didn't go so well. Combined with his aches and blisters, he did not start the day in the best of moods.
There were three possible tidal crossings on this section of the track. The difference between high and low tide around here is 6 meters (18 feet), so timing is critical. If you arrive more than three hours before or after low tide, you need to take a longer inland route. This means some planning is needed. Fortunately Rachael is the queen of planning. She was fully armed with tide tables and maps, and knew the exact time we needed to reach each point along the way to ensure that we arrived at two of the crossings within 4 minutes of low tide. And she had calculated in advance that we'd miss the other one, so we took the inland route in that case, which included our first (very wobbly) suspension bridge over a river.
We stopped for a swim at a beautiful beach near Tonga Quarry. While we were sitting on the sand, we suddenly noticed a large catamaran full of passengers bearing down on us! This was our first encounter with the water shuttle. It ran right up onto the beach, lowered a gangplank, let people on and off, then within a couple of minutes took off again at high speed! Very entertaining. Refreshed by the swim, the kids found their second wind, and in no time we were nearing our destination. With about half an hour to go, a cafe with cold beer, soda and pizza appeared miraculously in the middle of nowhere. We were on the track from 9am until 6pm and we were all beyond moaning at the end!
Today, we woke up early (5am) to make a tidal crossing to get a water taxi from Awaroa back to Marahau. The taxi ride turned out to be pretty amazing. First, a dolphin named George swam within 10 feet of us on the beach as we were getting on the boat. Then we went into the Tonga Marine Reserve and watched Australian Fur Seals swimming and lolling around on the rocks. There were little babies too. Then, we found ourselves in a pod of about 20 bottle nose dolphins, including a mother and baby, that swam and jumped alongside the the boat for 10 minutes or so. They came so close we could have touched them.
Once we got back to Marahau, we were completely taken by surprise when the boat drove right up onto a waiting trailer with a tractor attached. Within seconds, the skipper had jumped out of the boat and onto the tractor and was pulling us out of the water and off down the street to the water taxi hub! From there we took the bus back to Nelson.
Right now we're at the the Nelson public library checking email and updating the blog. Tonight we're back at the Paradiso hostel getting ready for an early morning all-day bus ride to Fox Glacier and our next great adventure. Stay tuned...