It wasn’t our first rodeo; and compared to our recent Icelandic adventures it’d be more like a petting zoo than a rodeo, so Barb and I took the planning piece for this hike pretty lax (read: Barb did all the planning, and Marti just turned up). Abel Tasman had all the promises of an easy hike- few elevation changes, established campsites and purified drinking water, and even the promise of a boat taxi to carry our pack if the need arose. We had third for this adventure- my friend Jim was coming along for his first multi-day hike, and I was hopeful in getting another friend addicted to hiking.
Barb and I together are not the timeliest of people, so rolling out for a 4-hour hike at 3pm was par for the course. Unfortunately, the delayed start meant that the afternoon mist had settled into a steady rain, and in the first 20 minutes I learned that my new ‘rain jacket’ did little to repel rain. For the next 3 ½ hours we wove in and out of a Ferngully-like rainforest, and then along beaches whose appeal were tainted by the clouds and incessant raindrops. When we finally reached Ancourage Bay, we pouted, we poured water out of our shoes and wrung even more out of our socks, and I lamented over my first ever hiking-induced blister. Part of me was happy that a 20-cent plastic grocery bag had managed to keep my sleeping bad dry, but the other part was annoyed that my new ‘rain’ jacket had done little to resist water and everything else was damp, if not worse. We improvised and used emergency blankets to shield dry sleeping bags from wet sleeping mats and tents, I banished my wet gear outside the tent, and we all (grumpily) went to bed without much fanfare.
The next morning started out much better- sun was expected until at least midday, and it gave us the chance to try to dry out tents before we headed out to our second campsite, Onetahuti. My pack doubled as a drying rack, the outside adorned with wet socks, shirts, shorts, and the faulty jacket. Our second day’s hike sported pretty landscapes and was relatively uneventful- we were in the sun and grateful for it. Upon arrival, we set up camp quickly, just before the rain set in again. The thing with rain on a backpacking trip is that if you want to be dry, you have to be in your tent. If you’re with two other friends and you’re all carrying your own tents, you’re by yourself. Needless to say, the first two weren’t the most social of days. We did get a small break in the rain, complete with the awe-inspiring double rainbow, but were defeated once again by mother nature and retired to our solo shelters.
At some point, we realized Jim wasn’t having the best of times. The rain, the leaky tent, the lack of hanging out, and the weight of his pack all contributed to a very somber Jim. It made Barb and I reflect on why we love this hiking stuff. I realized that I love the solitude of it, the escape from the bustle of civilization and crowds of people. And I love that it forces you to take stock in what you really need- and that it’s not those trendy new boots, it’s not the cool mid-century modern dresser, or even a Wi-Fi connection. Having to carry everything on your back forces you to scrutinize the smallest of items, and really value that item. The challenge of doing this creates a comradery amongst backpackers; you’ve all endured the same thing to get here, and by god if you’re drinking a beer or having a steak- you’ve earned it. So much respect to you.
I also love the ‘camping logic’, which I’ll call by its real name- a lapse in all standards for food safety and cleanliness in the name of nature. The DoH would have a hay-day on my camping trips. The 5 second rule doesn’t exist unless you want to carry that dirty cashew for the next 3 days, just to throw it away at the end of the trip. You just eat it. After a particularly long tidal crossing, my toes (and only my toes, no one else’s) were covered in mud and sand. Barb’s suggestion? “Your feet are gross. Just go wash them in that cesspool over there.” (literal quote). What’s not to love?
Our third campsite unexpectedly broke both backpacking rules- as we descended into Totaranui, a shock of cars and campervans awaited us, neatly organized into Bays A through M, each with their own shower and flush toilets, and each at capacity for the holiday. The spillover into the designated backpacker camping field was obvious; ‘fellow backpackers’ blasted Jurassic5 from a speaker while lounging in lawn chairs and asked us if ‘it’d be okay if they put up their slackline’ just on the other side of our tents. Um. No. Did you carry that slackline, bro? GTFO.
What Totarunui lacked in solace, it made up for in cold showers and Christmas spirit. It was a delightful surprise. We gathered around, unexpectedly clean for day 3 of a backpacking trip, to covet others’ alcoholic beverages as we sung Jingle Bells and a weird, Kiwi version of the 12 days of Christmas.
The next day we were eager to escape the crowds, and departed relatively early for our 2-hour hike over to our fourth campsite, Mutton Cove. The trails resembled those of the rest of the hike- undulating and studded with spectacular views of beach and jungle. The only thing that kept us relatively on time, the whole trip, was the tide schedule. The trail traversed over several inland beaches that could only be crossed at low tide. Its amazing that anything could feel desolate given the backdrops, but the long walks across the low tidal areas gave you that feeling as you slopped through wet sand to reach the trail on the other side.
Mutton Cove was a dream. Small, quiet, and situated on a beautiful beach, it was what we’d been hoping for the whole time. We quickly learned who ran the place, and it wasn’t the campers or the camp warden. The weka is a small, flightless, chicken-like bird native to certain parts of New Zealand. Once an endangered species, they were reintroduced into specific parts of Abel Tasman and are thriving. With every step the weka took, it poked its head forward and did a little flip of the tail. Its slow, calculated gait gave it the resemblance of the Pink Panther, only in bird form. When motivated, it could pick up some decent speed running. The weka didn’t seem stealth, until you looked away. Its persistence earned it at least one piece of stolen food from everyone at the campsite, including a baggie of Barb’s snacks.
We set up camp at Mutton Cove and ventured to the tip of Abel Tasman Coastal Park- Separation Point. There, the cliffs come to a point and the terrain is gentle enough that you can hike down within 20 meters of the water. The real draw isn’t the scenery though, it’s the seal colony that has made its home there. Seals are so graceful in the water, and so unbelievably mal-equipped to deal with land, they can amaze you with elegance one second and melt you with awkward cuteness the next. The seals hopped along land, they dove into the water, and they swam and played together, twirling over and under each other as they sped through the waves. There was even a crying seal baby. I’m forever ruined for any future seal watching.
Mutton Cove was so fabulous, we extended our stay for another night to take a break and make it feel a bit more like a vacation. After another day of relaxing and reading on the beach, we were ready to return to civilization. We had another deadline- this time a water taxi back to our starting point. While Jim had warned of feeling laggard and needing extra time, he shocked us all by showing more hustle than we’d seen out of him all trip. He’d later admit, the prospects of a beer, a bed, and a shower were strong motivators. My hope to convert another friend into a hiker waned, but we arrived in plenty of time for our boat ride back to civilization.