It is unclear to me why the Abel Tasman coastline, on the northern edge of New Zealand’s South Island, is called that when the 18th century Dutch explorer didn’t actually see it. But whatever its name, the clear green water and shining golden sand of this beautiful coastline is well worth a visit.
Most visitors walk the Abel Tasman National Park coastline, and a few choose to paddle it in a sea kayak – quite a few in fact. But to me the best option to see the area is to sail along this historic coastline. This is a perfect day tripper experience without a backpack, a hiking boot or a blister in sight.
On a still morning in early summer the light at Marahau is crisp and blue. The sea is like glass as it creeps in over golden yellow sand flats. The bush-covered hills of the national park rise up behind this little seaside village, sheltering it from the cool sou-westerly wind drifting off the snowy mountains in the nearby Kahurangi National Park. It’s a great day to go sailing.
As soon as the tide is high enough to carry us out of the bay we cruise off slowly under motor, our boat clearing the maze of channels and sand banks in a matter of minutes. The skipper has obviously spent time on these waters, as he steers with one hand while watching the depth of the water, delivering a safety briefing in record time and launching into a five minute run-down of the historic area we are sailing into.
This area was always popular with local Maori, long before the Europeans came through in their little white sailing ships. Evidence of middens and fertile, ancient kumara gardens sit well between stories of local chiefs and visiting waka (canoes). During their exploratory voyages both Abel Janzoon Tasman and James Cook managed to miss this stretch of coastline completely, but French lieutenant Dumont D’Urville more than made up for this with his extensive visit in 1827, leaving the coastline renamed with a distinct French flavour – Adele Island, Coquille Bay, Astrolabe Roadstead, Isle de Pecheur (now Fisherman’s Island) and Anse du Torrents (now Torrent Bay). Other names such as Watering Cove and Observation Beach also tell of his activities while in the area.
The sea along the Abel Tasman coast is a particularly nice shade of translucent green. If there’s been no rain for a while the visibility of the water is intensely clear. We look over the side to see huge chunks of granite metres below the surface, which have fallen from the land over preceding millennia. Tiny blue penguins paddle beside us and rocket-powered gannets dive from the sky to disappear into the water without a splash. Their breakfast obviously moves fast. Further up the coast there are fur seals around Tonga Island and some days whales or dolphins cruise through these coastal waters.
But today we are headed for Te Pukatea Bay, just beneath Pitt Head, where the boat drifts ashore to drop us, almost dry-footed, on the sand for lunch. Pukatea is a horseshoe-shaped bay, ringed by green bush and steep hills, which looks out to the eastern side of Tasman Bay far in the distance.
Lunch is a casual affair – bare feet, toes digging into the sand as we sit above the high tide mark. Everything is provided, including bubbles and some nice local wines, as we kick back and enjoy the warmth of the sun. Just a short walk over the hill behind us is the Anchorage – a favourite weekend spot for local yachties – and further around, Torrent Bay. Although this area is national park there are still pockets of private land in many of the bays and Torrent Bay is one that has a number of cottages and holiday homes. It’s a busy place in summer considering there isn’t a road for miles. Everyone comes in by boat.
But lunch and a quiet siesta later we’re ready to man the decks and haul on the sheets for a fast downwind ride back along the coast. There really is no better thing to do on a yacht plying this sunny coastline than to sit on deck, spinnaker sheet in hand, tweaking it from time to time as we fly downwind, following the huge red sail back down to Marahau.
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