Walking Abel Tasman: A New Zealand Night to Remember
Travelling is a fantastic means of giving you a story to tell. And, now that I have a few of my own, I thought I'd write a piece every now and again to tell the tale of a particular travel highlight, which I hope will serve as inspiration for aspiring travellers looking to make some memories of their own. In this first story I recount one mind blowing night in New Zealand that happened while walking the Abel Tasman.
I remember a time when I was in New Zealand, in the middle of hiking one of the Great Walks on South Island, in the Abel Tasman National Park. I have tonnes of memories from this hike. However, one in particular stands out, fixed in my mind’s eye as if it happened yesterday.
I’ll begin by mentioning quickly that free-camping on the Abel Tasman (and pretty much everywhere else in New Zealand) is strictly forbidden.
Instead, all hikers have to book and sleep in expensive designated campsites or huts positioned at fixed points along the way. Marshals patrol the entire route all day every day, enforcing this rule and slapping anyone without a booking with a hefty fine.
Despite the risk, we (me and three awesome guys I was travelling with at the time) decided to chance it. Simply, the money we’d save by free-camping was worth it- we just had to avoid getting caught.
Now, I’m usually not one for rule-breaking. However, we were on a tight budget, the designated sites seemed ludicrously expensive and, more than anything else, there was something alluring about the potential to be caught that created an air of cloak and dagger mischief to the hike.
Hopefully provides some context to the tale that follows...
It is actually a small segment of the hike that I want to talk about, but the story really begins towards the end of our second day’s hiking, when we reached one of the numerous tidal crossings of the Abel Tasman.
It was early evening when we arrived and the tide was in, preventing us from walking the hundred metres or so to the other side, where we’d planned to sleep that night.
Despite the potential to be caught by the marshals it was an easy decision to sit and wait on the beach for the tide to recede, basking in the evening sun and soaking in the beauty of our surroundings.
The Abel Tasman National Park is an incredible place.
Situated at the Northern part of South Island it is nothing short of stunning: littered with mountains and native bush that meets crystal clear seas and famous golden sands. It wasn't the end of the world to wait for a couple of hours.
With little else to do we made a camp fire, cooked our evening meal and lay on the sand next to the clear, lapping waters, enjoying the blue skies and remaining warmth of the day.
But we'd pressed sticks into the sand at the water’s edge to track its outward progress and as the sun went down, it became clear the tide wouldn’t be low enough in time for us to cross in daylight.
Filled with a sense of adventure and in a prime position to be found by the marshals, we decided to make the crossing in the dark.
As the sun eventually disappeared we were greeted by a night sky the likes of which I’d never seen before.
Now, the night sky has always captured my imagination. It has an enchanting, hypnotic quality that draws my attention and keeps me transfixed. That night was something special.
The Milkyway hung in all its glory above us and stars came out in numbers that defied what I thought possible. Unspoiled by light pollution the sky was perfectly clear and every available space seemed filled by stars.
We lay down next to the fire and between upward gazes, by fire-light, I read aloud sections of the Lord of the Rings- the book that had fittingly accompanied us on our travels around New Zealand.
It was a cool moment.
However, after some time the tide seemed to have receded far enough and it was time to leave. We put out the fire, repacked out bags and stripped down to boxers for the crossing.
What happened next was even more incredible.
It felt pitch black without the fire so we donned our head torches before taking our first steps into the water. As we did so I remember two things becoming immediately apparent: first, the sea was really bloody cold; second, it was still a lot deeper than we’d hoped.
For want of a better phrase, we were going to be balls deep.
The general feeling was of excitement though. Our head torches shining in the darkness would attract attention- marshals were somewhere on the other side. Moreover we couldn't see far infront of us and had no idea of the water's depth.
If it got too deep in the middle, we'd be forced to turn back. The novelty and low-level danger all added to the atmosphere of excitement though.
This was when it got even better. For fear of falling and soaking our stuff we literally had to watch our step as we moved over the unsteady ground.
Amazingly, as we walked in the shallower water we noticed tiny bubbles being released with each step, which glowed with a preternatural quality of shining turquoise, blues, whites and greens.
Lit by the stars, the moon and our head torches, our feet somehow became shrouded in a form of phosphorescence- it was like a scene from Avatar. I was captivated by each step.
Managing to tear my eyes from my feet, I noticed yet another awe-inspiring thing to add to the list. As we’d walked further the headlands of the parallel bays and the gap between them had come into view in the distance, silhouetted by the moonlight.
As we looked, we saw that a huge storm was raging in the distance. Framed perfectly by the shadowy land masses on either side, we watched fierce, forked lightning bolts splitting the darkness.
Everywhere we looked was a light show of sorts: the luminous phosphorescence at our feet, the flashes of lightning away at sea and the stars of the night sky above us.
At that moment in time I felt extraordinarily privileged to be alive. It was as if mother-nature had decided to share a secret with us, demonstrating something so sublime I couldn’t really comprehend it.
It was one of those rare moments that are almost too perfect, which forces you into awareness of time and transiency. I was painfully aware that, like everything, it would soon come to an end and was determined to commit it to memory.
Everything about the experience was extraordinarily visceral and otherworldly- dreamlike and inconceivable. It was magic. I felt I’d stepped into an alternate reality.
There was so much to look at, so much to feel and take in that it pushed the limitations of what my brain could comprehend.
I think what made this experience so memorable is its uniqueness- it was so far away from home, so overwhelmingly juxtaposed to my everyday world.
I’ve tried to describe it numerous times since I returned from New Zealand and always failed to do it justice. I am almost certain that I will not experience anything quite like that again.
But that's okay. There-in lies the joy of travel.