Ready, willing and Abel

PADDLE POWER: Kayaking at sunrise.
PADDLE POWER: Kayaking at sunrise.

After a night at the delightfully named Ashley Troubadour Motel in Motueka, on the north coast of New Zealand's South Island, I plan a one-day sea kayak trip along the coast of Abel Tasman National Park.

This is the country's smallest national park, yet it's also one of the most accessible, and popular.

The Abel Tasman Coastal Track, a 51-kilometre trail that sashays from beach to beach, sees more human feet than any of New Zealand's other so-called Great Walks.

It's a miserable day, the grey sky leaking rain, and I am thinking there might be a good chance the trip will be abandoned and I can spend the day sightseeing in my hire car, but there on the beach at Kaiteriteri is my guide, Pania, verbally cuffing me into action with contagious good spirits.

There are nine of us including Pania, and from the beach we wade out to a speedboat that takes us from the southern end of the national park to Bark Bay, which lies about midway along its coastline.

My kayak buddy is Annie, who I take to instantly, but then you cannot fail to like a person who is dressed exactly as you are in a lifejacket over a damp, flaring neoprene paddling skirt - a look that resembles a Victorian corset, with a similar comfort level. I ask if she comes from Canada, because when there's an element of doubt, it's better to mistake an American for a Canadian than the other way round.

"No, but I wish I did," she tells me with endearing candour. She is from Minneapolis, Minnesota, and she cocks an eyebrow and tells me I'd better not make any jokes that involve the word "mini". "See that?" she says, bunching her arm, "that's mostly muscle," and indeed, Annie is a woman cast from a Junoesque mould. She's in her early 20s, at the tail end of a year in New Zealand, and soon to return home to study to become a midwife. "I'll steer," she says, and there is no argument.

We paddle around nuggety headlands where the sea sloshes and sucks at granite shelves, past gannets arrowing into the water, past seals and beaches stained with iron ore, which gives them an enticing golden colour. There's majesty in this place, and the cockpit of a sea kayak is the way to see it.

Despite the weather, I regret that it isn't longer than a day trip. What could be finer than surfing onto a beach in the afternoon, putting up a tent, breaking out the wine, flinging a few sausages on the fuel stove and sharing a few salty tales with your fellow kayakers?

Sea kayaking is voyaging for sybarites. A kayak will get you places where nothing else but a helicopter can, with a payload hikers can't even consider, like fold-up chairs, an espresso coffee maker and bottles of sauvignon blanc. You can even take a pillow, and camping with a pillow is the acme of outdoor deluxe.

Of course, in Abel Tasman National Park you won't be alone. This is the most popular sea kayak spot in all of New Zealand, and since the number of potential campsites is limited on these wild shores - and you might be sharing them with hikers as well - things can get a little tight.

In the afternoon we raft our five kayaks together, hoist a nylon sheet and sail from Adele Island across the broad mouth of Sandy Bay. At the southern end of the bay we paddle around in some caves by Split Apple Rock, which is truly wondrous, a granite sphere perhaps five metres high that has been cleaved straight through the middle.

To me it looks more like a walnut than an apple but it's one of those iconic bits of geology that has been used to sell all kinds of messages. Pania tells us a complicated Maori story about the rock, which involves a princess, a king and a warrior, but Annie keeps paddling me round and around the rocky islet on which it sits and so I only hear the story in snatches.

There are mugs of hot chocolate waiting for us back at the beach at Kaiteriteri and as we say our farewells, Annie gives me a peck on the cheek and for a while I feel quite faint.

For a soggy day, it had turned out fine.

The writer travelled at his own expense.


GETTING THERE Fly to Wellington and then to Nelson (40min); see Air New Zealand operates several flights daily from Wellington to Nelson.

TOURING THERE From Nelson the best option for exploring the region is by hire car. Kaiteriteri Kayaks ( is one of several operators that offer sea kayak tours of Abel Tasman National Park. Options range from a half-day trip to overnight camping expeditions.