Foreigners, nothing but foreigners, I was warned before setting off on the Milford Track. But my partner and I shared Department of Conservation huts for three nights with no one else but 40 Rotarians in one block booking. Totally organised, with meal plans and catering packs, they carried an army-load of sliced salami, grated cheese and coleslaw, which got divvied up again every morning. Come the day, the crowds didn’t seem half bad, the one-way track meaning you didn’t meet anyone again until about lunchtime or at the next hut that night. We tie our shoelaces carefully; our biggest worry is being overtaken if we have to stop to re-tie them.
Heavy rain every night followed by sunny days makes for perfect conditions. Recharged waterfalls splurge out from their mountain ramparts, and every so often I feel obliged to arch my neck right back to fully appreciate the grandeur of it all. After spending nights at the Clinton and Mintaro huts, and with the Mackinnon Pass under our belts, we arrive outside Quintin Hut in time for a hurried bite before foraying up the sidetrack to Sutherland Falls, which are fully pumping, thanks to overnight rain.
The first glimpses are through the trees along the 40-minute track. A sign at just over half a kilometre away tells you that you are now as close to the falls as they are high. Already the three-leap falls have started to soak us.
The last 100m up to the rim of the huge boulder-strewn pool at the waterfall’s base is like entering the domain of a dragon with icy breath, making you abandon all thoughts of the genteel tourist photos you’d remembered of this place. I try to take photos, but it proves impossible, as is even shouted conversation. The noise and wind generated by the waterfall is deafening. As I head back down the track, some hikers pass me on the rock staircase. “I hope this is worth it!” says one.
Two weeks later, we are on the Heaphy Track, our traverse coinciding with four Richmond couples staging a 40th birthday party for the duration of the trek. Slabs of beer are pulled out at Perry Saddle Hut on the first night and drinking games ensue, becoming increasingly noisy as the night progresses. Six elderly trampers from Timaru retreat to the bunkroom, feeling powerless. But the tables are turned when they deliberately rise at 4.00am to noisily drop billy lids and make general mayhem. “Ha, ha! Sweet revenge!” I swear I hear one mutter under her breath.
Luckily for them, they had only to put up with the partygoers for one night. We, however, were going the same direction. Every night got louder and later as the 40-something revellers followed us through, their ability to carry vast amounts of alcohol for every night somehow grudgingly commendable. “Richmond, what do you expect? Just no class,” sums up another tramper at the James Mackay Hut.
My first visit to the Abel Tasman National Park was back in 1978. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon played full bore on the car stereo as we took acid and negotiated the tortuously winding narrow road down to a lonely western corner of Awaroa Inlet. Barefoot, we trudged at low tide across the bush-fringed tidal estuary to get to the base of the sandspit where we stayed in my mate’s family bach, which nestled in regenerating manuka only a stone’s throw from the beach. The relentless tides took away that shelter sometime after, and what few acres remained were sold, but the Abel Tasman coastline captured me on that first trip, ensuring so many return visits that I have lost count of them.
We have done two great walks independently, so we now grab the opportunity for a guided walk along the 48km-long Coast Track of the Abel Tasman National Park. Wilsons Guided Walks claim eight generations of family association with the place. Even their senior track guide, John Glasgow, a former Mt Cook alpine guide, has family land overlooking Torrent Bay that the track crosses for 800m. Here, he readily diverts to pull out every wilding pine seedling he spots. “I must have missed these last time,” he says apologetically.
Further on, a young new DoC recruit with an obscenely huge ear extension and an official attitude, stops us to count our party and check that we comply with concession requirements. “Welcome to our family land, you cross it just up there,” says Glasgow politely to the lad by way of a goodbye. Old and new conventions try to merge along this iconic track.
As we hike around the opalescent waters of tidal lagoons and over granite headlands, the history Glasgow tells us feels personal. There’s brewer and widower Timothy Huffam, who emigrated from Somerset, England, with his four young sons and settled at Bark Bay in 1870. Their bachelor existence involved fishing, bush-felling and building small boats, which found a ready market with coastal settlers around both Golden and Tasman bays.
The family varied their fish and wild-pig diet with a “queer assortment” of boiled penguin, seagull eggs and morepork – even porpoise proved “not that bad, but not quite as good as pork”. One of the family’s sidelines was shipping kamahi bark in sacks to be used by Nelson tanneries – a pursuit that would later give this bay its name. Because they valued their clothes, the all-male family often worked naked. The masters of the steamers calling in there all knew to blow their whistle well before the bay to give the Huffams enough time to put their clothes on.
Wilsons operates two beachfront lodges on private enclaves within the park – at Torrent Bay and Awaroa. At Awaroa, Meadowbank recreates the character of what came before it – the grand residence of William and Adele Hadfield, who first built here in 1884. An ancient cabbage tree in the front garden is clearly carved with a heart enclosing the date 7/1/1916 and the initials ES and EH. Evered Hadfield was William and Adele’s youngest son, and Eillen Sears was his childhood sweetheart. Before they had a chance to marry, Evered drowned while rowing boxes of Christmas cherries for the Nelson market out to a passing steamer in rough weather. It took the family three days to find his washed-up body. He was just 22.
We wade across the Awaroa River to finish our tramp at Totaranui and get picked up by a boat that takes us back to Kaiteriteri. On the way, we stop to pick up trampers and day walkers as well as a 100-strong wedding party from a beach on idyllic Adele Island, its narrow sandspit extension at low tide the perfect place for the bride and groom, who are dropped off by water taxi separately from the guests.
Three great walks totalling about 200km, fairly much done end to end. Not exactly the world’s tallest peaks in seven continents in seven days, but I was knackered.