Hiking New Zealand’s Abel Tasman Coastal Track

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Note:  I’m publishing this post as part of Blog4NZ, a grassroots effort from travel bloggers to promote my home of New Zealand and support ongoing tourism there after the Christchurch earthquake in February.  With damage limited just to Christchurch and a few surrounding areas, the low value of the Kiwi dollar and fewer visitors means there has literally never been a better time to explore the rest of the country than right now.  Make sure your next trip is to New Zealand – the country needs your help and you’ll have the time of your life in the process!

The Great Walks.  The name is a bit of a giveaway, really.

New Zealand’s Department of Conservation has designated eight hiking tracks (plus, strangely, a kayak trip) as worthy of the name. This means that not only is the scenery in each of these places spectacular, but the quality of the sleeping huts, camping areas and the tracks themselves are the best in the country.

The best of the best – at least as far as visitor numbers go – is the Abel Tasman Coastal Track, an easy to moderate 3-5 day walk through the beaches and forests in a national park at the top of the South Island.

I’ve honestly lost count of the number of times I’ve hiked this track but it must be at least half a dozen, probably more. For some reason it was a firm family favourite when I was growing up. I think that was my parent’s masochistic streak coming through — the idea of taking four kids on a multi-day walking holiday sounds about as appealing as slamming my arm in the door. Repeatedly.

Nonetheless, walk it we did, and even when I no longer had to tag along on family holidays I still kept going back to the Abel Tasman with mates time after time. There’s just something about the place.

The track meanders for a little over 50km (30 miles) between Marahau in the south and Wainui in the north. There’s a water taxi that runs between Marahau and Totaranui, stopping at several bays along the way. Many hikers opt for this slightly shorter version of the walk as a result, taking the taxi to the other end of the track and walking back to their cars over the course of a few days.

Bark Bay

I’ve usually chosen to stay at the campsite at Marahau the night before, grabbing any last minute supplies and enjoying a final cold beer, before hitting the trail early the following morning. Over the years I’ve walked the track in both directions and there’s no real advantage either way, with the uphill and downhill sections tending to balance each other out.  Since I prefer to finish the track by foot rather than ferry, though, I usually take the water taxi up to Totaranui and then head back.

Your fitness levels and preferred pace will probably determine where you’ll end up staying along the way. There’s no reason you have to finish it in three days, of course, or even five – you’re limited only by how much food you can carry, and the rules about not staying more than two nights in each place. As long as you keep moving you could happily spend a week or two here, although you might be getting sick of two-minute noodles by the end of it.

My favourite parts of the track are in the middle section, between Awaroa and Anchorage huts. There’s plenty of beach access and some gorgeous hiking through the forest, with enough hills to make you feel like you’ve deserved that swim in the ocean by the end of the day.

I always try to include a night in Bark Bay, which for some reason holds some of my best memories of the Abel Tasman. The hut is big and comfortable, there’s plenty of space to pitch a tent as well — hey, there’s even picnic tables outside to sit in the sun and enjoy your warm cask wine at. Unless you do what a mate and I did one year, of course, and take in a dinghy laden with steak and cold beer to spend New Years Eve there. We were pretty popular that night…

If you’d like to enjoy the stunning surroundings, but would prefer a decent meal and a comfortable mattress, there’s a couple of options. You can take the water taxi for part of the track’s length and walk back out again the same day, or sign up for one of the guided walks and luxury lodges instead. Personally that would feel a bit like cheating, but if you’ve got the money it’s good to know the option is available.

Me, though?  I’ll be the smelly one swapping tall stories with the other hikers in front of my tent. Getting out in the bush with a bit of sweat and dirt is a long standing Kiwi tradition, and it’s on the trail you’ll undoubtedly meet the most interesting people from all over the world.

Bark Bay at sunset

Bear in mind when people say the Abel Tasman Coastal Track is popular, they aren’t joking. Over 200,000 people a year hike it, which means accommodation is at a premium over the peak summer months. Book online well in advance if you can, though you should be able to find a campsite somewhere in all but the very busiest times.

There’s no fee to walk the track, but from the start of October until the end of March a bed in a hut costs $35.70 while a campsite will set you back $12.20 (NZD) per day.

Essential supplies are available before you start in Marahau and Totaranui, while anything else you need can be bought in Nelson or Motueka. Tents, sleeping bags, hiking boots and all the rest are readily available at pretty reasonable prices in the larger towns and cities — New Zealand is a nation of hikers, after all.

Don’t forget to pack plenty of sunscreen and insect repellent, more food than you think you could possibly need, and some way of sterilising water when necessary. A basic first-aid kit is valuable for the inevitable cuts and blisters. There’s a fairly comprehensive list of other requirements on the Department of Conversation site here.

All in all, the Abel Tasman Coastal Walk is simply a great way of getting back to the natural surroundings New Zealand is famous for, and raising a bit of a sweat in the process, while still having the chance to feel the sand between your toes and enjoy the sun on your back after a long day on the trail. If you’re in the South Island at all, especially during summer, this really just has to be one of your ‘must do’ activities.  Don’t miss it!

Photos courtesy of my brother SJ and his (much) better half Rebecca, who were in the Abel Tasman three months ago.  See, I told you my family had a thing for the place…

3 Responses to “Hiking New Zealand’s Abel Tasman Coastal Track

  • Okay, its my turn now in this family affair.

    I happened to be flying from Auckland to Christchurch recently, and the flight path passed right over the Abel Tasman National Park. It was a stunning day, the water clear and more blue than you ever thought possible, views were to die for and you could see Golden Bay, Farewell Spit and the top end of the South Island curving round towards the wilder West Coast coastline. Torrent Bay and Awaroa inlet were clearly visible from 30000 feet.

    I knew I was seeing something special when some passengers asked to photograph from the aircraft window to capture the awesome view and a rapidly developing sunset.

    Sometimes, the rare beauty of this land brings a lump to ones throat – it is easy to forget how priviledged we are to have this paradise on our back doorstep.

  • I’m french, I’m planning a journey in New Zeeland and I found your post very usefull. Thank you very much.

  • Looks excellent. I’m considering a NZ trip at some point soon, might have to break in my hiking shoes before hand.

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