Leaving Kaiteriteri we quickly head out in to the bay. Safety briefings done and maps distributed we head off up this beautiful coastline. Rain, shine, wind or waves, it's a fabulous ride with the water reflecting the ever-changing colours of the sky.
The idea of the map is a good one, as it happens, as the on-board commentary is strung with references to numbers on the map. First stop is the iconic Split Apple Rock, an Instagram moment that has been around for as long as anyone can remember. Like an apple, this huge round rock has almost split down the middle, and is a feature of most travellers' photo collections. We pass Marahau, where many of the outdoor tours leave from, and the walking entry to the park.
This coast has been home to Maori for centuries, and European exploration began when French sailor-explorer, Dumont D'Urville, first visited in the 1720s. We pass Adele and Fisherman's Islands as we motor through the passage between the islands and the shore. There are many small sheltered bays with glistening white sand, small waves and the uniform string of kayaks pulled up on the beach. Dense green, regenerating native forest drops to the water's edge and huge granite rocks line many of the bays.
We stop at Observation Beach to pick up more passengers. The water here is green following heavy rain last week, but it is usually deep and clear, an azure blue that lets sunlight filter through in long golden rays.
There are many ways to experience this coastline – if time or fitness are limited then a cruise is perfect. But you can walk or kayak all of it, or mix it up with sections by boat, kayak and on foot. There are several large national park huts and campgrounds (booking for these is essential) and several lodges along way. Two of these are for use by clients of one of the cruise operators, and Awaroa Lodge is a comfortable wilderness stay in Awaroa Bay. It's also the only cafe/restaurant along the length of the walk. This is a very beautiful place to stay a few days and retreat from the busy world.
Moving north from Observation Beach we pass iconic Pukatea beach, another social media icon, that is also a lunch stop for sailing cruises and kayak tours. But when they've all left for the day it's a quiet gentle place filled with birdsong and the slop of lapping waves. Sunrises are memorable. We stop at Torrent Bay to pick up and drop off walkers and people changing to the coffee cruise boat waiting on the beach. The sky is clear and blue with a light breeze pushing the waves up the beach. Yachts bob at anchor in the nearby Anchorage.
We cruise up past Sandfly Bay and Bark Bay, its protective reef hidden underwater and home to cheeky blue cod and slippery octopus. Right on the edge of the Tonga Island Marine Reserve, it's a great place to snorkel as there is an increasing number and variety of fish lurking in its rocky crevices. Medlands Bay and Tonga Quarry are also drop-off/pick-up points for people walking part of the track.
A highlight for many people is the seal colony at Tonga Island. These New Zealand Fur Seals have been living here for a long time now, ducking and diving around the submerged blocks of granite. Once endangered from over-hunting they are now prevalent along parts of the New Zealand coastline. Their playful swimming and curious nature make them great fun to watch, but if you get in the water don't get too close to them! Like any wild animal their manners aren't always the best.
It's a short stretch from Tonga Island to Awaroa Head and around in to the relative shelter of Awaroa Bay. The boats all stop here and, like other main stops along the way, you can choose to get off for a short time while the boat continues to Totaranui, or for a longer walk back to Tonga Quarry. You can be picked up on the return trip. A shady track leads through high kanuka and manuka trees to the lodge, where you can stop over for lunch or stay a few days.
And finally we head north one more time, this time to Totaranui beach. This is the end point of the cruise boat trips as after this the coastline breaks into open sea at Separation Point, often a wild and windy place, before heading round to Golden Bay. You can choose to walk to Separation Point from Totaranui if you have a day to spare. Totaranui also has a large camp-ground and is the first easy entry point by road from the Golden Bay end of the Abel Tasman National Park.
There are a number of ways to enjoy this fantastic coastal national park, and although it is one of the busier parks in New Zealand it is also one of the most accessible.
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(C) Sue Farley