We woke up in Marahau holding our breath, just as we had before our whale watching and dolphin swimming trips – holding our breath for the sun. Would our long-awaited kayak trip, almost the peak activity planned for our trip around the northern areas of the South Island, get a green light and blue skies? Would the weather put it off? Or even if given the go-ahead, would we spend the day in the rain?
Such questions are vital when you’ve booked such activities in advance and, like us, don’t have an open-ended schedule, an endless amount of time to wait around until the sun comes back again. If a storm hadn’t allowed the whale-watching trip to proceed, we’d have been able to do nothing more than collect our 80% refund and move on, unlike some we’d spoken to who’d been waiting for a week in Kaikoura for good weather.
But – just like in Kaikoura – we had nothing to worry about. When we pulled back the curtains of our hostel dorm, sunlight flooded into the room. We hastened about, loading everything back into Elise’s car. Although we would be staying at the same hostel that night, we were changing rooms – from a twin share to a dorm room – so we essentially had to check out and in all over again that morning. Consequently, we were running a little late…although by late, I mean only too late in order to arrive early enough for Elise’s liking. In the car, Elise says, “I do not like delays.” Confused, I ask, “What’s delayed?” “We,” she says simply. Aah, I see. Despite the “delay,” however, we encountered no problems checking in at the head office of Abel Tasman Kayaks.
We had booked a place on the company’s “Seals and Remote Coasts” daytrip. From the moment I decided to kayak the Abel Tasman – another Kiwi rite of passage for backpackers – I’d been torn over which trip would be the best. Not only are there several kayak companies operating out of Marahau, but each of them offers their own variety of tour options – single day, two or three day, group or freedom rentals, even decisions based on which part of the park you are most interested in exploring. At first I’d been set on a three-day tour, the longest option any company seemed to offer. I wanted the full experience – the kayaking, the hiking, the camping, the sleeping under the Southern Cross…you get it. But as I looked more and more into it, I just couldn’t bring myself to part with the truly exorbitant amount of money the companies asked for. In the end, I followed Elise down the economical route and went daytrip-style.
At the office, there were various groups assembling for the day. Some were larger, ten or twenty people gathered around a row of kayaks on the ground; others seemed to have almost a 1:1, guide-to-customer ratio. A woman leads us to a picnic table with three guys sitting around it. One is our Kiwi guide, Darrell, or “Dazza” as he is affectionately known, whose long, sun-bleached blonde hair and sunscreen-covered white nose immediately stand out against his tanned skin, looking like nothing short of an Aussie beach bum surfer. He’s on the shorter side, but we’d later learn he has a personality to make up for it. He then introduced us to a Londoner named Joe, who was coming along for the ride, so to speak. As a guide-in-training, it was Joe’s last tour shadowing another guide before striking out on his own the following day. As if we’d bought a lotto scratchcard and won a free card, we’d be having a guide and a half for our group. And then there was Eric, the only other paying member in the group, a Dutchman with a voice like Andre the Giant from The Princess Bride and a girth of epic proportions. I grew only slightly concerned about the weight capacity vs. buoyancy of the kayaks.
We were given oversized yellow waterproof windbreakers to wear on the water taxi ride, a yellow life vest, and a choice between a red or yellow fleece vest. I didn’t want to break the trend of buttery goodness, so I went with the latter, piling on golden layer after golden layer. “That’s a fetching color on you,” one group’s guide says from the back of the boat. “Brings out the color of your eyes.” As everyone gives a little forced laugh, he sighs, “Yeah, I’ve been in this job for too long.”
Unlike some tours which consisted of all-day kayaking, our trip began with a water taxi ride from Marahau to Onetahuti Bay, from where we would then launch our kayaks and paddle around the surrounding bays and islands for a few hours before catching a taxi back from Bark Bay. While waiting for our kayaks to arrive on a different water taxi, Darrell leads us on a small hike through the woods to a freshwater pool and waterfall. It’s then that we become fully acquainted with just how experienced a guide we were lucky to have. Not only has he led kayak tours for over twenty years, but before then, he led walking and nature tours, giving him an incredible knowledge base of the area’s flora and fauna. It felt very similar to what it must be like hiking with a Boy Scout – we couldn’t walk two feet without Darrell pointing something out to us – leaves, trees, ferns, flowers, including foxglove and some of the world’s smallest orchids.
Back on the beach, our kayaks finally arrived and though I couldn’t wait to get started, we had a few things to take care of – first of which was mastering the art of the spray skirt. I’d kayaked a few times before, but nothing serious – here it seemed I had begun to tread on more holy ground. I was handed a spraydeck to put on – a kind of waterproof skirt – which I did by pulling it on and hoisting the overall straps over my shoulders. You then sit down in the kayak itself and awkwardly wrestle with the contraption, trying to hook the outer elasticized hem of the skirt – the string is called a Rand – over a rim that runs around your cockpit, the idea of this obviously being to trap any water from coming into the actual kayak. I’m fighting a losing battle when Joe comes over and offers to help. “If there’s a hell and I’m going there, it will involve these,” he says, and I laugh in agreement.
We practice what to do in the event of a capsize, sitting in our kayak with our hands in the air. On Darrell’s count of three, we then close our eyes and finger our way around the rim of the kayak until we find and pull the strap of our spraydeck, allowing us to swim out to the surface. We look a bit like fish out of water, like rowers on a rowing machine in the gym, not in their element. Darrell also tells us to paddle in time with our kayak partner. “It’s more efficient and it just looks cooler,” which I can imagine, rather than looking like some unproductive windmill with flailing arms everywhere.
But with emergency plans in place, spraydecks secured, sunscreen applied, it soon was time and there couldn’t have been a better day for it. “It’s an oil painting sky,” Darrell says, also remarking that it’s unusual for there to be calm seas on a warm day. The kind of heat we were kayaking in normally meant more wind. Against a sky that seemed almost too perfect, like the backdrop in a theater or photography studio, Joe talks about a new cloud scientists have just named, “astro” being all that I catch at the time, but one I look up later: Altocumulus Undulatus Asperatus. Yikes. Say that one five times fast. These two guys seem like a fount of endless facts, as if they’ve spent their lives as sponges, absorbing everything there is to know about the natural world. I find it fascinating and never know what they’ll say next.
We weave in and out along the coast, always keeping in mind the tide, popping in and out of places with names like Mosquito Bay or Sandfly Bay. Names that didn’t sound like too promising of a destination, but Darrell quickly explains the namesake, “Sandfly Jack fell in love with a schoolteacher, she moved away, and no one ever saw him again.” Fact or fiction, it’s up to you. In our first lagoon, we pass another group, one much larger than ours with over twenty kayakers and only a couple guides. “Hey mates” are exchanged as we float past. “How’s it going?” one guide asks. “Just another day in paradise,” Darrell replies. “It’s a tough life, but someone’s gotta live it.” Selfless guys, eh? We paddled away from the coast towards Tonga Island, where, according to brochures, we should have supposedly been able to view a seal colony. But – just like in Kaikoura – there was still no “colony” to be found, only a few seals sunbathing here or there. These seals were beginning to feel just as elusive as the penguins were on my trip around the southern half of the South Island.
I’d been disappointed at first to discover that we’d be using two-seater kayaks. I’d liked the idea of paddling on my own, like the great Paul Theroux himself, around the coast, but I soon became more than grateful for the extra pair of strong arms behind me. When deciding who would pair up with who, Darrell suggested “splitting up the testosterone,” so I went with Joe and Elise with Eric. Joe gave me a choice between front or back, but afraid of a freak brain lapse and pointing the rudder in the wrong direction at just the wrong time, I sat up front as navigator, which I found to be slightly less intimidating of a job description than One-In-Charge-Of-Rudder.
Although the lagoons and bays obviously presented no challenge and much of the sea seemed calm, the currents were tricky and strong, as were some sections where the bays fed back into the sea. The choppy waves seemed to have capsize written all over them. “Love the waves,” Joe tells me. Not the kind of explicit instruction I was looking for at the time, but it worked. On a whole, Joe and I worked well as a team. “Nice work, Navigator,” or “Good job, Cap’n,” he’d say, and I’d swell with pride just a little. Later in the morning, Joe asked me how my arms were doing. “Oh, they’re fine,” I lied, already feeling my upper arms burning. “Wow, you must be pretty fit, most people are already dying by this point,” he says. When I answer, “Ha, yeah, I can imagine,” there’s more reality than imagination going on.
While Joe was a good kayak partner, Darrell was everything a good guide should be. Informative and instructive, of course, but with a personality you’re not quick to forget. He was full of stories and forgivably tacky jokes. “What’s a pirate’s favorite letter?” he asks. Having a brother with a remarkably similar sense of humor, I’m familiar with the joke. “Come on, Dazza, we all know the answer to that one.” He keeps pestering me to answer, until finally I relent. “Arrrrgh,” I say, with the same level of embarrassment you often feel in middle school around your parents. “No, it’s the seeeeeea.” I can only laugh. In a quiet lagoon, Elise has me take her picture, carefully handing her camera over to me when our kayaks near each other. Photo taken, I pretend to throw it back with a smiling “Catch!” “With jokes like that you’d make a good guide,” Darrell says. Elise doesn’t look so pleased.
From the kayak, Joe pointed out significant features of the landscape as we paddled past. “Golden beaches, turquoise waters” seems to be the refrain of websites and guidebooks describing the area, but Joe tells me more, going on about the thick cover of trees that hides much of the coast – Rimu, Kanuka, Manuka, and the pesky pine not native to the soil of the area. Darrell catches pieces of our conversation, joining in with more details on the park itself. At 22,530 hectares – about 55,000 acres – Abel Tasman National Park is the smallest of New Zealand’s fourteen national parks. It was founded in 1942, the 300-year anniversary of the arrival of Abel Tasman himself to Golden Bay in 1642, by a woman named Pérrine Moncrieff.
Mrs. Moncrieff, originally from Britain, immigrated across the world in 1921 with her husband and two sons. She became very active in the world of conservation in New Zealand, with the NZ History Online website describing her as “this country’s foremost female conservationist for nearly fifty years.” Not only did she write the first field guide to New Zealand birds – which itself ran to five editions – but she also gave lectures, wrote papers, and along the way, bought land along the shores of the Tasman Bay. This land would then become part of the Abel Tasman National Park she fought so hard to found, earnest in her desire to protect it from the timber industry. As I read later of Pérrine and her work in New Zealand, I am more and more amazed at the amount of people that go into shaping a country. People whose time in the limelight has ended, merely names now with brief biographies and encyclopedia entries, but whose work was crucial in their time. It’s funny once you start digging around in a country’s history, the people that seem to come crawling out of the woodwork, as the saying goes. Where have they gone? Why have we forgotten them?
At midday, we pull our kayaks onto a beach across from Tonga Island and explore the rocks and caves while Darrell and Joe prepare lunch. There’s chicken sandwiches, hummus and veggie wraps, apple juice, and a delicious peanut-butter-crumble-sort-of-creation for dessert. We sit around on logs or on the sand after we finish, letting our arms rest. Darrell gets up and draws maps in the sand of New Zealand and its collision of geological plates, in answer to a question Eric had asked. “You know, Darrell’s written a book as well,” Joe offers up. “What was it called again, Daz?” A Dollar and a Meat Sandwich, we’re told, named after all he had when he set out to hitchhike to the West Coast years ago. It took him three days but he made it. The book itself is an autobiography of sorts, “the kind of thing you write for your kids to read one day,” Darrell says. He self-published it, only a thousand copies or so, but said he sold ten at one time once after telling a tour group about it. After lunch, he washes the dishes in a stream running behind the beach near the woods and soon, we’re in the water again, off to Bark Bay to be picked up by our water taxi.
Back on the boat at the end of the day – proud at having made it through the day without a capsize – we pull into a shallow bay filled with tractors waiting for the taxis to return like a flock of mothers gathered at the bus stop. Each of the tractors is hooked to a trailer, onto which the boats are loaded and then transported back to the kayak companies’ offices in town for storage each night. As we unload and gather our things together, another guide asks Darrell what we were able to see during the day. He tells him about Mosquito Bay, Tonga Island, and the lagoons we’d paddled around. “There’s heaps of bays to explore if you have some adventure time to kill,” he says, throwing our life vests in a pile.
Adventure time to kill. I couldn’t think of a better way to describe not only the day, but my very life itself.