Paddling amid rugged splendour

Special New Zealand feature

Susan Gough Henly takes a pleasurable paddle around Abel Tasman National Park.

Like in a dream of flying, where you are never quite sure what keeps you from falling, our yellow kayaks seem suspended by an unseen hand, floating between earth and sky. Time and place have crystallised into one of those perfect moments as we glide over a sea so translucent it seems there is no water there at all.

“Far out…” says Bruce, one of our laid-back Kiwi guides, who is leading us along Abel Tasman National Park on the north of New Zealand's South Island. Could there be any better way to explore this pristine coastline of sandy coves framed by yellow-lichen-covered granite boulders and backed by voluptuous emerald green hills?

The best part is that this kayak trip is a vacation, not boot camp. You don't need to possess buns of steel or eat freeze-dried curried cardboard to join in.

Instead, tour company Wilsons offers that most civilised of adventures: exquisite scenery and exhilarating physical excursion alongside delectable food and wine, not to mention a comfy bed to rest your weary body at the end of the day.

You don't even have to know how to kayak before you start. Still doubtful? You can walk instead, or do a combination of both, which is what appealed to our family of five with three strapping teenagers: a three-day trip with a day and a half each of kayaking and walking.

Day one: our guides, Bruce and Lauren Wilson, give us the lowdown on paddling techniques and safety drills. We do a big burst across the wide Marahau Bay and, as a reward, Bruce gets us to raft up together while he weaves the first of his many yarns, this one about the park's namesake Dutch explorer Abel Tasman who sailed up the coastline in 1642 looking for the Great Southern Continent. Surprisingly, he never once set foot on shore because the locals weren't too friendly.

It was French explorer Jules Dumont d'Urville who opened up the region to European settlement. In 1827 he did such a good job of charting the transit of Venus from Observation Beach near here that his maps were still being used well over a century later. By then New Zealand conservationist, Perrine Moncrieff, who had a beach house in Cyathea Cove, mounted a campaign to protect the area.

It was the middle of World War II but Moncrieff managed to embarrass the New Zealand government into creating Abel Tasman National Park when she invited the Dutch Royal Family to open it on the 300th anniversary of Abel Tasman's visit.

Our group of five Australians, four Americans, two English, two Scots, two Danes and a Swede is typical of the Wilson's clientele. Word is out that this northern tip of the South Island exists in a sunny parallel universe to the often-rainy rest of the South Island. Thankfully, the only way you can access the coastline is by boat, kayak or on foot. And, while most visitors have to be content with camping, the Wilsons host guests in their comfortable Torrent Bay beach house and Meadowbank homestead, a faithful reconstruction of the 1884 original.

Paddling along a protected passage of water between the mainland and Adele Island, we cruise serenely past sandy cove after sandy cove bobbing with kayaks and sailing boats. Bruce chooses the best one of all, Watering Cove, for our picnic lunch. Stripping off our kayaking paraphernalia we lazily swim in the aquamarine waters and doze on the golden sands. It's only when we are back in the kayaks that he warns us about “the mad mile” of choppy water between us and chocolate brownies at Torrent Bay Lodge. Heads down, arms pummelling, all the white noise of urban minutia disappears in the hypnotic rhythm of one paddle after another.

Our goal reached, endorphins surging, we beach the kayaks and the water begins to disappear in front of our eyes, as though someone let out the plug. Torrent Bay's five-metre tidal range is the largest in New Zealand. By the time we've showered and are relaxing on the deck over local sauvignon blanc and Thai fish cakes, we look out on fishing boats tilted askew on the rippling sands all the way up the picturesque estuary.

The next day dawns still and calm and, after a hearty cooked breakfast, we are in the kayaks early before the water evaporates again. Majestic white gannets nosedive for fish as we paddle into a river estuary at Mosquito Bay amidst towering tree ferns.

Next stop is Tonga Island to commune with fur seals relaxing on the rocks, their offspring slipping into the turquoise waters to pop up beside what must appear to be bizarre elongated yellow creatures.

Leaving the kayaks at Onetahuti Beach, we climb over a lush headland, dense with silver ferns, kawa kawa, rimu pine, and flowering ti-trees and Lauren offers fascinating insights into the local flora, such as how the inner bark of the pukatea tree has morphine-like qualities. At last we reach the ridgeline and gaze across the sweeping sands of the Awaroa or big river estuary.

At the Meadowbank Homestead, Craig Wilson, (who used to cook for the likes of Paul McCartney and Luciano Pavarotti) prepares us a terrific feast of tomato soup, roast lamb with garden vegetables, and creme brulee, all sourced from local ingredients. Indeed, the Wilson's were among the area's first farmers and Lauren shares tall-tales-but-true of the family's colourful history. William Hadfield (great grandfather of Lynette who founded Wilson's with her husband John) ran sheep and cattle here. His teenage bride Adele bore him nine offspring before she forsook the isolation and returned to Nelson to run a boarding house. As if that weren't remarkable enough she had two more children with a boarder before he (the boarder) murdered her. We all gasp at the drama of it all in a bucolic corner of New Zealand.

Each of the rooms at Meadowbank, decorated with needlework and historic black and white photographs, is named after a Hadfield descendant. Ours is in honour of Darcy who won New Zealand's first Olympic medal, a bronze for single scull at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics. Injured fighting in the trenches in World War I he also recovered in time to win the single scull at the Henley Royal Regatta. Darcy was more famous locally for rowing from Awaroa to Nelson to attend a dance, a distance four times longer than our entire kayak trip.

Looking out my window at the bay shimmering under a grapefruit moon, I imagine him rowing home, the ghosts of the Great War eddying behind his boat and the rugged splendour of Abel Tasman all around. Far out indeed.

The writer travelled courtesy of Wilsons Abel Tasman National Park.


Air New Zealand flies to Nelson


Wairepo House, a luxury country lodge, ten-minute drive from Motueka (where tour departs from); 643-526-6865;

Palms Motel, Nelson, (bus pick up and drop off), +64 3546 7770;


Three day/two night: Adult $1200, Child (8-14 years) $985


This series of articles has been sponsored by Tourism New Zealand.