Travel tales

Abel Tasman National Park by sea kayak

Abel Tasman National Park by sea kayak
At the northern tip of the South Island, Abel Tasman is the smallest of New Zealand’s National Parks. It may not be big but it’s perfectly formed, with golden sandy beaches and a bright blue sea fringed by a dense forest full of bird life. You can explore the National Park by land on the Abel Tasman Coastal Path, a 32-mile walking track that follows the coastline and is one of New Zealand’s ‘Great Walks’. But one of the best ways to see it is from out on the water, on a sea kayaking trip.

Now I’m not a complete kayaking novice, having once spent three days canoeing down the Ord River near Kununurra in north Western Australia. Though that was a river and we got a helping hand from the current, whereas this was the sea, and my only previous sea kayaking experience involved getting shouted at by a despairing guide as we floundered around, incapable of going in a straight line. But my fellow kayakers were an experienced bunch and the idea of a leisurely guided tour was rejected in favour of the more adventurous self-guided trip, where we could make up our own route.

Rock formations in Abel Tasman National Park

Rock formations on the beach

We gathered in the kayak hire office in Marahau early in the morning for a safety briefing and to pick up our kayaks, life jackets and kit. A hour and a half later having had to practice capsizing and learn how to escape if we got stuck upside down, I was starting to wonder if this was a good idea. And that’s before the instructor mentioned the ‘Mad Mile’ – a rough patch of sea where a combination of rocks, currents and a lack of shelter make it the most dangerous stretch. With the wind direction today not in our favour, we were warned only to tackle it if the weather looked better and we were sure we could get by safely.

Abel Tasman National Park by sea kayak

My fetching spray deck and driftwood sculpture on the beach

As we walked down to the shore the wind suddenly hit us. The weather might have looked beautifully sunny but it had a bit of a kick, and the waves were picking up. We loaded up, strapped in and were pushed out into the water – and almost immediately broke the kayaking rules. We’d been told to face the waves head on not sideways, but as the wind pushed us around and the waves started slamming into the side of the kayak, we turned around and started wobbling ominously. We dug the paddles in to change direction and with a bit of help from one of the instructors directing the tail of our kayak we managed to make it out of the surf. I was already exhausted, and this was only the first five minutes.

Abel Tasman National Park by sea kayak

Preparing to tackle the Mad Mile

But after about 20 minutes paddling we began to get into a rhythm. As we rounded the corner into the next bay the wind died down and we could relax, taking photos and enjoying the views. The coastline is dotted with golden bays, some big with campsites, some tiny and empty but for the seagulls. The good thing about the self-guided trip was that we could stop whenever we spotted a interesting looking rock formation or a deserted cove. We found the perfect patch of empty beach and ate lunch on the sand. But after being out of the water for a while it started to get cold – the Caribbean colour of the beaches wasn’t matched by the temperatures – so we headed off again. It was time for the Mad Mile.

Abel Tasman National Park by sea kayak

Abel Tasman National Park by sea kayak

After its fearsome reputation had preceded it, the reality was thankfully a bit more tame. The winds had died down by now so we could pick our way slowly between its jagged rocks, using up the last of my strength to navigate through safely. As we pulled up onto the sand of our final stop at Anchorage and got out onto the beach, I was almost wishing we were carrying on along the coast on one of the longer trips. That was until I tried to pull the kayak up the beach and my sore muscles started crying out for a bath and a cold beer, and the approaching water taxi couldn’t have been a more welcome site.

The details

We rented our kayaks from Abel Tasman Freedom Kayaks in Marahau. It costs $65 NZD (about £33) to hire a two-seater kayak for the day, plus $33 NZD each for the water taxi back if you only want (or have the energy to) kayak one way. If you’re not a confident kayaker you can also take a guided tour, from $130 NZD for a half-day (including water taxi one way) or there are longer trips lasting from one to five days.

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Abel Tasman National Park by sea kayak – On the Luce travel blog

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22 Comments

  • Reply
    Arianwen
    July 13, 2012 at 11:37 am

    I love kayaking. The best one was in Thailand when I was staying on Koh Muk and we visited the Emerald Cave in a kayak. You have to paddle through pitch black caves and at one point we got washed up on an underground beach! It was pretty scary!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      July 16, 2012 at 10:39 am

      That sounds amazing – if a bit terrifying – kind of like a combination of kayaking and caving! Had never heard of Emerald Cave but it looks amazing.

  • Reply
    celastrina
    July 13, 2012 at 10:19 pm

    Sounds like you’ve had a great experience!! I’ve done this trip before too, in the summer – it was lovely! We kayaked the first three days and walked the last day – that was the most tiring part!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      July 16, 2012 at 10:40 am

      We were there in spring so it was a bit cold but still beautiful. I would love to go back sometime and do some of the walk and the longer kayak trip.

  • Reply
    Erik Smith (@eriksmithdotcom)
    July 15, 2012 at 5:03 am

    I did a hike here, not the kayaking. I had one day, but I knew I could have stayed another week and not even scratched the surface of this park.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      July 16, 2012 at 10:41 am

      I only had one day too – definitely not enough! One of my friends did the hike and the photos looked great, it’s a stunning place.

  • Reply
    Madhu
    July 15, 2012 at 4:06 pm

    Sounds like fun. The park looks amazing!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      July 16, 2012 at 10:42 am

      Thanks Madhu,it was hard work but worth it for the views!

  • Reply
    Astrid | Pohutukawa PhotoGraphic
    July 15, 2012 at 11:46 pm

    I did the 5 day trip (self-guided as well) with my brother & 2 cousins nearly 10 years ago. It’s an amazing place to explore, isn’t it?
    I still remember how beautiful it was, and how sore I was at the end of each day – sore arms, sore back, and sore butt: the seats in those kayaks aren’t comfortable 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      July 16, 2012 at 10:44 am

      Yes I definitely discovered a few muscles that I didn’t know I had – I was so stiff after one day so can only imagine how I’d have felt after five days! It is a beautiful place though so worth the pain to see it!

  • Reply
    redpoola
    July 16, 2012 at 1:39 am

    tasman bay.. so relaxing

  • Reply
    f-stop mama
    July 16, 2012 at 3:38 am

    Looks like a lot of fun and what a different perspective the view offshore provides.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      July 16, 2012 at 10:45 am

      I’ve got a little compact waterproof camera that’s so useful for shots like that – though I was a bit paranoid about dropping it in the sea!

  • Reply
    Rachael
    July 16, 2012 at 7:02 pm

    How exciting, and what a wonderful way to see the area. Love the sunny shots, buoying me up on yet another cold, wet day.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      July 16, 2012 at 7:37 pm

      Tell me about it, I can’t believe how awful the summer has been here this year. I’m having to relive my New Zealand trip to remind me what it was like to see the sun!

  • Reply
    loveantoinette
    July 31, 2012 at 5:53 pm

    Aahh it’s always more adventurous when you go off on your own as opposed to a guide! Im a little disappointed I totally missed out on Abel Tasman when I went to NZ! It was more of a “week- long layover” from Australia before I headed back home. I did meet a lot of people coming from Antartica just finishing up their work down there for the summer, and I couldn’t stop asking them all about it.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      August 1, 2012 at 11:27 am

      There’s so much to see in New Zealand it’s hard to choose if you’ve only got a short time – all the more reason for another visit though!

  • Reply
    Tanya Antosik
    April 1, 2014 at 12:30 pm

    Kayaking in Abel Tasman is one of my fondest memories of my trip to NZ. Such a beautiful area. Did you go to any of the wineries nearby?

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 1, 2014 at 8:16 pm

      It’s such a great place! We didn’t make it to any wineries in that area but did a few in Marlborough and the Hawkes Bay area, love a good NZ wine!

  • Reply
    Stephen Alvarado
    April 4, 2015 at 7:39 pm

    I loved this part of NZ! Many people come here and do the coastal walk since its one of the Great Walks, but really the best way to see this park is by kayak.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      April 5, 2015 at 7:29 pm

      It’s a beautiful area, and really interesting to explore by kayak too – I didn’t get chance to do much walking there but would like to see it from a different perspective one day.

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