Kiwis are known for their hospitality so we inadvertently tested the theory by hitchhiking, couchsurfing, and asking Wilsons outfitters to host us on their three-day kayak/hike trip through Abel Tasman National Park. This leg of our New Zealand journey was all a leap of faith, but that’s what keeps it interesting…
Hitchhiking is accepted as a common, safe, even sane thing to do in New Zealand, so we thought we’d give it a go. I thought the family friends we were staying with in Marlborough would balk at this idea, but Joanne said “I have just the spot to hitch a ride.” She dropped us off at a gas station outside of Bleinheim, we made a cardboard sign for “NELSON,” and stuck out a thumb. A guy pulls over and says, “I’m not headed to Nelson but hop in! I know an even better hitching spot up the road.” He dropped us off at a highway intersection just outside of town and said, “Try here and if it doesn’t work out by sunset, I’m #15 down this road. My wife and I would be happy to host you guys for the night.” He was so sweet, we almost wanted to stay ride-less, but within 20 minutes we got a lift and were on our way to Nelson with another kind Kiwi!
We arrived in Nelson, the oldest city in the South Island, and our base camp before and after our Abel Tasman kayak/hiking adventure (they invited us to be their guest. Woohoo!). Continuing to test Kiwi hospitality, we asked our hitchhike-driver to drop us off at our courchsurf. Couchsurfing.com, is a site that pairs travelers with locals for homestays; it’s entirely free and built on the faith in fellow human beings, a love of travel and cultural exchange. Our Nelson host Neil seemed said he could happily only host us the first night and show us around but was out of town for our return. Fair enough. He invited us in with open arms then after chatting for just ten minutes he said, “You guys seem cool. You can use the house while I’m away, just leave the keys under the mat when you go.” We gushed thank-yous in a state of shock. “Not at all,” he replied in his Kiwi accent. “Now let’s go show my town!”
Nelson is known for its arts scene, hosting dozens of cultural events throughout the year, including the Heritage Festival that was on that day. Neil took us to South Street, the historic heart of town with its original 19th-century cottages, and where musical performances, food tastings, and an antique car show were taking place. Neil (pictured above) told us about his passion for old cars, bikes, and road trips and that he was about to take a motorcycle journey across the USA, starting in Los Angeles–my hometown! When he told me this, we insisted he stay with my mom. Here’s the short version of a long and lovely story: We couchsurfed with Neil in Nelson, Neil couchsurfed with my mom in LA, then just last month, my mom visited New Zealand and couchsurfed with Neil!
We said our farewells and huge thanks to Neil the next morning as the Wilson’s team came to pick us up for our Wilsons Abel Tasman excursion. In 1672 Abel Tasman was the first European explorer to set eyes on New Zealand but no westerners inhabited the region until 1840, when the Brits sent a settlement fleet with brave pioneers, like the Wilsons’ great-great-great grandparents. Eight generations later, the family continues the tradition of Abel Tasman exploration by leading hiking and kayaking trips through the national park, making overnight stops at the their historic homes (the only beach lodging allowed within the park).
All Wilsons trips start with a boat ride along the incredible Abel Tasman coastline, through its turquoise waters and granite headlands, and from there you can hike, kayak, run, and/or bike for the day or up to five days. We signed up for the “Three-day Kayak and Walk Break” which goes from hiking the northern beaches and forests to a two-day kayak through the southern islands and coves, totaling 32 kilometers of self-powered exploration.
The forests were a lush combination of beech, rata, tree ferns, and the occasional red polka-dot mushroom. The trees would open up to breathtaking vistas of the beaches below, where we spotted everything from seals to cormorants to sting rays.
Just before dusk we arrived in Awaroa Inlet and Meadowbank, the historic family home and Wilsons lodge. If you like the outdoors, but you enjoy a little pampering to reward your hard work…this is your spot, with hot showers, gourmet cooking, lovely bedrooms, and a cozy living room. We relaxed by the fireplace and listened to the fascinating stories of family’s early days in the wild frontier. Let’s just say it involved nineteen children, female farmers, an Olympic rower, a murder, and a lot of perseverance.
The next morning the weather was looking a little ominous but the headlands were beautiful nonetheless. We started our 4km scenic walk over the Tonga Saddle to Onetahuti, where our guide Whitey settled us into our kayaks for our adventure at sea.
We were kayaking in a rain-storm of epic proportions, but with our wet suits on and muscles in full gear, we kept warm and had plenty of scenery to keep us distracted. We kayaked along the rocky coast and up river inlets for more nature sightings, including the endemic Blue Duck! It looked like an average duck to us, but judging by the excitement in Whitey’s voice, a sighting like this is a very rare (so rare in fact, it was the first sighting the park service had heard of in years!). Blue ducks are said to ride the rapids like a pro paddler, swirling around rocks, popping out of white water, and fishing along the way, which explains our kayak guide’s complete admiration.
We had lunch at Bark Bay then paddled on to Tonga Island where the New Zealand fur seals breed. The seals spend their first few months around Tonga honing their swimming and hunting skills. We watched them take quick dips then scamper up the rocks to catch their breath, flop about and nap. Our guide said, sometimes the curious pups even hop on the bow of the kayaks. We would have waited all day to give a seal a ride, but sunset and a hot meal at Torrent Bay Lodge were calling us to shore.
With good food and a great night sleep under our belt, we were ready to take on the final 12km-stretch of kayaking. We celebrated the journey at Split Apple rock, one last gorgeous cove before the port at Kaiteriteri. Even though the weather didn’t always cooperate, the golden beaches, dramatic cliffs, exotic wild-life, and turquoise waters shined through in full color.