On Friday morning, December 11, we embarked on what would be a 46 kilometer (28.58 miles) hike up New Zealand’s most popular Great Walk, Abel Tasman Coast Track.
For those who aren’t familiar, NZ’s Department of Conservation (DOC) has established 9 hiking tracks that are designated as “Great Walks,” including Milford (which James completed in early November), Routeburn, Kepler, Whanganui, Tongariro, etc. Each one has limited numbers of people who can “tramp” (the Kiwi term for hike) the trail each day and how many people can stay in each hut, the spare lodgings built along the way. For more about the history of the Great Walks, check out more on the DOC website.
The DOC owns nearly 1,000 huts through the country ranging in facilities from bivy (emergency shelter) to serviced huts with resident wardens. Some require previous bookings and payment while others operate on a first-come-first-served basis and honor pay system. In addition, the nicest have been built in the last decade, but many are quite old.
If you are trying to picture what a DOC hut on the Abel Tasman Coast Track is like, imagine accommodation quality somewhere between a really nice tent and a super-cheap and spare motel. We stayed one night each in three different huts along the route, starting in Anchorage, then Bark Bay, then Awaroa.
(To be clear, we did not complete the entire track, which actually ends at Wainui Bay, an additional 2 days and 15.5 kilometers further.)
This was our first multi-day hike as a family, and leading up to it I felt both excitement and trepidation.
I felt excited because James and I had visited Abel Tasman, at the north end of the South Island, on our visit to NZ back in 2004. I remembered the beaches and the jewel-toned jungles and how all of our pictures looked like faux backdrops because the scenery was so beautiful.
I was also anticipating the time together as a family, away from all the daily distractions like screens and shopping and even preparing and cleaning up from meals.
The trepidation had two main causes: how the kids would do and worries about my own fitness level.
I knew that I could easily walk the trail, no problem, without a pack. But this was my first time hiking with a real hiking pack on my back (not just a backpack or hydration pack).
James really did bear most of the weight (his starting pack was 22kg) but my pack was also quite full, and my long history of shoulder problems had me worried about four days of hiking.
As for the kids, they have done some moderate to challenging day hikes with us in NZ (see here, here, here, and here), but they had no experience staying in huts. Huts, unlike other lodgings where we’ve stayed, have large shared bunk rooms. In the best of times, Calvin and Charlotte can be challenging to parent and care for… how would they do in a bunkhouse with 8 or so other people (strangers!)?
Would we all live to tell the tale at the other end of the trail?
On Friday, 11 December at about noon we set out from the tiny town of Marahau, the southern base of the Abel Tasman Coastal Track.
The trail started out over an estuary, many of which dot the coastline along the Cook Strait. Just a few minutes into the hike, we stopped for James to help me adjust my hiking pack straps, which were already starting to bother my shoulders.
I think we were ten minutes into the walk when Cal started asking for water and a snack! That was the first of many times we had to figure out how to break the time up into smaller chunks. For example, “we are going to walk for another 15 minutes and then we can take a short rest and have some water.”
The first day’s hike was 11.1 kilometers, and the track, while not completely flat, was fairly level. Overall elevation gain was about 250 meters (as it was most every day).
Other than an ill-fated attempt at picnicking on a sand beach with high gusts of wind (sting!!), the hours went pretty smoothly.
The scenery, while pretty, was fairly consistent, with little variation. A few kilometers from the hut, Calvin announced that he desperately needed a toilet, but there wasn’t one available between us and the hut.
That was highly motivational for him and the girls were troopers, really picking up the pace to make it to Anchorage Hut in time.
As we hurried along the trail, clouds rolled in. At the hut we claimed our bunks–we had to split into two groups as we were among the last to arrive that night–and ate a simple dinner. Then, in spite of the dropping temperatures and the misty drizzle, Cal, Char, and Evelyn happily played in the sand until we called them in to prepare for bed.
The NZ sunset is just before 9pm in mid-December. Because the huts lack electricity and internal plumbing (with the exception of not-safe-to-drink water in Anchorage Hut), most trampers make an early night of it. Some people brought cards or books, but for the most part people were in bed by 8:30 or 9 most nights.
As for the facilities, there are flush toilets (as opposed to long-drop toilets elsewhere along the trail), but there’s no hot water or shower houses. Funnily enough, I don’t think the kids minded the absence of baths and showers…
The other major consideration hiking from hut to hut is that you must carry all the food you’ll need (though not all water because each hut has potable water supply to refill bottles!). And you must also carry all trash out with you. So each day our packs got a bit lighter as we ate food, but all waste had to go back into our packs for disposal outside of the park. There is nothing available for purchase along the trail.
Overnight at Anchorage Hut I awoke to rain on the roof: soothing when one is in bed, less so when you know the day ahead is an all-day hike.
As the world outside lightened even as the drizzle continued, I heard Calvin talking loudly outside on the porch, so I joined everyone and we had breakfast in the common room: apple crumble muesli and a One Square Meal bar (OSM).
Then it was off for a full day of hiking!
A short way into the hike the sun broke through the clouds and we enjoyed a short side jaunt (1 km) up to Cleopatra’s Pool, a series of rocky waterfalls just begging to be clambered over. Of course the kids were all over that, though Cal did end up with a soaking wet foot.
We made our way back to the main trail and continued northward, following the coast. This day’s hike had a wider range of ecosystems, including some interestingly dry and desert-like hilltops that contrasted beautifully with the verdant jungles of the rainsoaked coastline.
Speaking of rain, just after lunch the clouds let loose, and at first we celebrated the lightness of the rain. Then it really started to come down.
Calvin, bringing up the rear with me, picked up two ferns from the trail and pretended they were animal companions: Wing (a NZ falcon) and Saggy (a horse/unicorn). He also explained to me that the rain was just like a shower, “except we can’t turn it off.”
One awesome experience in the rain was crossing a long swinging bridge. The water below was exotic blue-green, and the rainsoaked jungle all around us made me feel like we were on a movie set.
Close to our hut for the night, we passed a family well outfitted in expensive-looking rain gear. One of the men asked Cal if he was having a good time on the hike. Calvin replied, “Yes.” As soon as the group was past, Cal said to me conspiratorially, “I said ‘yes’ but really I’m not but I didn’t want to make him upset…”
At long last, we reached the Bark Bay Hut, distinctly more aged than the Anchorage Hut, which had been built in 2013. Many of the same trampers we had seen the night before were there, having traversed the same path we had. It was there that we saw the only other multi-day hiking family with small kids (an Australian mom and dad and their 9 year old son).
I think I picked up on a mix of reactions from the 20-something trampers who seemed to feel a mild concoction of admiration and irritation over the presence of little kids in and around the hut.
I do have to say that James and I did the best we could to help our kids respectfully navigate the shared spaces of the huts, but it wasn’t perfect. For example, a hut foul occurred on the second morning, when Charlotte thought it would be okay to play an alphabet game with Evelyn at about 6am. In full voice. In her bunk.
James moved pretty fast to eject them and send them to the common room.
And on the last night, Calvin’s head cold or allergies made him super-snurgley and congested, which made for some louder-than-normal sleeping.
Otherwise, though, I am pretty proud of how the kids behaved in the huts and in relation to the other trampers on the trail.
The third full day of hiking, from Bark Bay to Awaroa, was our longest trek at 13.7 kms. It is also the day on which we had the most trouble getting Calvin to walk. The trail north from the hut started out almost immediately with a significant climb, and Calvin started dragging his feet.
It’s hard not to feel discouraged when, such a short way into a long day of walking, one of the kids is already whining (or “whinging,” as the Kiwi moms say…).
The trail also included sections of beach/sand-walking, which is physically more tiring and also encourages little people to flirt with the waves.
We stopped for lunch at the Tonga Island Quarry Park, but some selfish trampers snatched the lone picnic table before we put our things on it, so we ended up sitting on various surfaces (this couple then turned up in the same hut as us that evening AND in a grocery store later the next day… awwwwkward).
A highlight of the long walk was a beautifully built bridge and boardwalk all-tide crossing. The scenery was just breathtaking out over the blue water.
Coming around corners several times, Evelyn said, “I’m pretty sure I saw this on a postcard…”
The final stretch of the hike found us again urging Calvin (and Char, at points) onward. It did feel like the last 2 kilometers, almost entirely on sand beach, felt like a hundred miles, particularly when a few sandflies decided it was meal time.
We were really thankful to arrive at the ancient but cozy Awaroa Hut, perched on the edge of Awaroa Inlet.
The kids asked to put their swimsuits on and go “swimming,” but the cold, cold water temps and brisk wind meant that it was an abbreviated water-session. A real beach day, much longed for, would have to wait until tomorrow.
We woke early on our last morning, around 5:30am. It was starting to get light and the birds were singing.
Our final day of hiking started with a low-tide crossing of an estuary that could only be traversed between 90 minutes before low-tide and 2 hours after low-tide. Full low-tide that day was at 5:56am, so we wanted to make sure to leave in time to squelch our way across the dark, sucky sands, mini-rivers, and crackling sea shells before the tide rolled back in from the sea.
Everyone pounded down a now-tiresome OSM bar, brushed their teeth, and put on their packs and flipflops (or jandals, as Kiwis call them… I refuse). Before the sun was even above the headland to the east, we were shivering our way across the estuary mouth. A few clusters of trampers were ahead of us and a couple followed below, all of us in a loose caravan of walkers heading north toward Totaranui Beach.
On our way across, we spotted crabs, clams, feathers, mussels, snails, conchs, and millions of shells. The water was shockingly cold although the chill morning air held the promise of warmer hours ahead.
It took us about 20 minutes to reach the opposite side, by which time the sun was glowing and my fingers were warming back up. We took a few minutes to sit on rocks and clean our feet, put on “new” (though previously used) hiking socks and boots, and repack our things before heading north.
Our shortest hike at just 7.2 kilometers, the morning was spent walking through beautiful rainforest and past some of the most picturesque sights of the entire walk. The remote sand beaches arcing along the coastline just begged to be photographed.
Most of these beaches and bays are only accessible via sea kayak or by the Abel Tasman trail, although several water taxi companies offer transport to and from a few of the larger bays.
We paused for a short break on Goat Bay beach which was so lovely and remote. And an ideal spot to take some photos…
The last leg was more challenging than the maps showed because a relatively recent slip necessitated a reroute of the trail, extending the distance and requiring much more uphill hiking. We finally made it the last few hundred meters to the flat, scenic Totaranui Bay campground area.
Not before Calvin fell and scraped his knee enough to draw blood, which then required a long and reassuring conversation about blood clotting and white blood cells and how skin heals itself. Because you know, even in paradise, kids have a lot of questions that urgently require answers.
We had done it! Just about 4 days and 46 kilometers with Evelyn (11.5), Charlotte (almost 9), and Calvin (5).
To celebrate the conclusion of our epic family hike, the kids had a much-deserved and much-anticipated play on the beach in Totaranui. I stayed with them while James caught the water taxi back to Marahau and our car. He then drove up and around (over 11 kilometers of narrow gravel road, no less!) to Totaranui to pick us all up for the next phase of our family adventure.
Highlights from our time in Abel Tasman:
-Successfully hiking in to our first hut (practically running the final half hour because Calvin urgently needed a toilet…)
-Hearing Cal’s relentless cheer in greeting every. single. person. we passed on the trail with “HELLO!”
-Seeing kereru (NZ wood pigeons) eating berries just above us
-Nutella spread for snack
-Quiet time together as a family
-Discovering that Calvin could and would be silent for 5 minutes at a time while hiking holding my hand.
-The kids playing happily in the sand by the beach at Anchorage Hut
-Cleopatra’s Pool (second day, between Anchorage and Bark Bay)
-Seeing how grownup, strong, and helpful Evelyn is
-Watching all three kids, in their own ways, succeed, encourage, learn, and grow through the challenge of a multi-day hike (and all that togethertime).
-A large sandfly bit me through my pants twice, on my lower back. Still itching.
-Wind gusts whipping up golden sand and stinging it into our faces when we tried to eat a picnic on the beach in Coquille Bay.
-Having to threaten Calvin and Charlotte at various points with losing sweets and/or other desirable goods to motivate them to continue hiking. Desserts (and tempers, I’m sorry to say) were lost.
-Inconveniencing other trampers the last night when Calvin was snoring/congested in the wee small hours of the morning.