New Zealand’s north coast is all about simple, invigorating pleasures.
The northern coast of the South Island is the New Zealand that New Zealanders keep for themselves. While Germans accents are thick on the walking trails of the South Island, Americans ooze over Rotorua and the tour boat captains on Milford Sound speak passable Japanese, most of the tourists between Collingwood and Picton are New Zealanders.
This bird watchers’ tour of Farewell Spit, for example, which flings a careless arm from the northern corner of the South Island into the Tasman Sea. Apart from we three foreigners – two Aussies and a slightly bewildered, bespectacled Brit – the seats of the Bedford were filled with New Zealanders out for a boisterous lark, cracking trans-Tasman rugby jokes at our expense, stomping across the sand in coats that the wind puffed into balloons and leaping down the dunes. Collingwood itself feels like a town at the end of the world – slow and easy, time on its hands. Even by New Zealand standards, it is otherworldly. The Dutch couple who ran the guesthouse where I stayed had found the energy to wallpaper the inside of the wardrobe in my bedroom.
Gateway to the north coast is Nelson, a city frisked by a constant sea breeze and set on the broad curve of its bay with the Tasman Mountains on the far side. Even at the heart of the city, with the bells of the cathedral chiming in the background, you don’t have to listen hard to hear the call of the wild.That call comes most stridently from Abel Tasman National Park, which lies 60 kilometres north-west of Nelson. One of the small joys of the road that lopes west along the coast toward the park is Nature Smoke, in the blink-and-you-miss-it town of Mapua.
Further west, beyond the town of Motueka, the highway passes close to the beach at Kaiteriteri where a side road splits to Marahau, the southern entrance to Abel Tasman National Park. The smallest national park in the country, this is a jewel, its coastline gnawed into a succession of small beaches separated by granite outcrops and set against a rugged hinterland of forests, gorges and waterfalls. The three-day hike along the length of the park via the Coastal Track is among New Zealand’s classic walks, although far too popular for its own good during the peak summer months. At this time of the year, most hikers will find that pitching a tent is a better option than the Department of Conservation huts, which are often full to the roof beams.
The walk is also available in a truncated version. The launches of Abel Tasman National Park Enterprises make a daily cruise along the length of the park and back to their base at Kaiteriteri. Hikers can leave the launch on the outward journey, hike a decent-size stretch of the track and collect the boat on its return voyage.
To the east of Nelson, the town of Picton is the base for the Marlborough Sounds, the labyrinth of waterways formed when the sea invaded a series of river valleys at the end of the last Ice Age. Separated by forested knuckles of land that rise almost vertically from the sea, the Sounds are a wild, exhilarating place, edged with tiny beaches and speckled with islands that are home to gannets and tuatara lizards, leftovers from the days of the dinosaurs.
Roads barely penetrate the Sounds. The only practical way to explore the finger-like waterways and its 1,500 kilometres of shoreline is from the water. From the towns of Picton and Havelock, on Queen Charlotte and Pelorus Sounds respectively, the mail boats operated by Beachcomber Cruises also double as passenger cruises on their daily runs delivering mail and supplies to the sheep stations scattered around the Sounds.
Another way to explore the sounds is by sea kayak. Based in Picton, the Marlborough Sounds Adventure Company offers guided sea kayak trips from one to four days. The two-person fibreglass kayaks are beamy and stable with big hatches fore and aft for easy access to gear, and spray jackets and skirts are provided. Experienced kayakers can hire their own boat complete with maps and push off for a do-it-yourself nautical adventure. The Sounds are well provided with campsites, and there are guesthouses at several locations, and water taxis available from Picton if the weather turns sour.
New Zealand’s north coast is all about simple, invigorating pleasures. Wind in your hair, the tang of salt on your face, sparkling sea views – and if you can manage a heart-felt rendition of Waltzing Matilda around the campfire, you’ll fit in just fine.