The water had an extra sparkle, the mountains had extra height, the forests were just more lush. We were welcomed to the South Island with such breathtaking scenery but sadly not the friendliest welcome in terms of freedom camping. Spots were very few and far between and judging by the determined sardine packed feel of the available ones it wasn’t just us struggling to find legitimate spots. This resulted in long drives doing nothing other than enjoying the road and gawping at the scenery. But eventually we came to rest in Nelson.
Nelson knew the freedom camping problem and had decided to do something about it. We found an incredible place along the entire side of the harbour with a beautiful view, ok facilities and fast free wifi! The whole place felt like a community, albeit a slightly smelly, slightly high, slightly dusty version of one that would not feel completely out of place in a slum area of a developing country. But it did for us and for hundreds of others so it would seem. We even passed an older camping couple who had named their campervan “Adventure before dementia!” which had me chuckling.
Of course around 75% of the population of this place was German. New Zealand is full of Germans. So full in fact that I have a suspicion that if we decided to go to Germany it would be virtually devoid of young people because they are all here. I don’t know what it is about this place that attracts them all but even tour guides have mentioned it strange if a German is not present on a tour.
Peter and I explored Nelson, finding the most incredibly delicious strawberries I have ever tasted along the way, and found our way to the information centre where we proceeded to spend nearly three hours! After checking on the beached Whale situation (which had concluded therefore we were no longer needed to assist) we decided to aim for one of the many New Zealand “must do’s” which is Abel Tasman national park.
One of the best ways to see it is by Sea Kayak which was something we had not done whilst in New Zealand (and I had never done in my life). The problem was deciding on the company to go with. There are so many and making comparisons was incredibly difficult. However after a lot of discussion and half a tree of leaflets later (which we eventually put back to save the planet) we decided on a company (for which we had a discount) and booked for a couple of days time, excited at the prospect of what we would see and experience.
The morning of the kayaking required an early start and meant we arrived as the sun was just illuminating the stretches of beach, with the breeze spreading long white fingers of cloud scudding across the sea we were about to explore. We checked in and met up with our tour guide and fellow kayaking friends for the day. Firstly there was a delightful British couple who we quickly bonded with over discussions of British things such as tea and the weather. There was also a lovely guy with a gentle soul who actually used to work for the company and a determined girl from Auckland who was enjoying what her homeland had to offer on a staycation. Finally there was our intrepid and eccentric tour guide with a chilled out vibe, distractingly long hair, a passion for Norway and a background in Ocean sciences. We all got along almost instantly.
The way it works in Abel Tasman is that you get a water taxi to where you want to kayak from (your kayaks are handily already there) and you paddle from north to south, meeting up with a water taxi to take you the short distance back to the land. On land the same water taxi is towed by a tractor to bring you all the way in to the base of the company. And so after our very fast taxi ride we stumbled off the boat into the crystal clear waters, waded to the shore and gathered around our instructor to give us the basics of kayaking.
We eventually got in the kayaks (with me failing miserably to even get the skirt attached to the kayak) and soon we were ready for the off. Unfortunately so were about 50 other people. Kayaking out towards a big island there was not only us but about three or four other companies, all taking their guests out on a similar route. I wasn’t expecting complete solitude but it did seem a little too crowded for such a large stretch of coastline. Either way we paddled through the waves and made a “raft” within our group to make sure we could if we needed an emergency get together. This was rather fun as we all had to hold on to each others boats and could have seemingly sensible conversations whilst bobbing about on the water in a bright yellow mass of kayaks.
We circled the island on the look out for more of the incredible Fur Seals Pete and I had encountered on the north island and then aimed for our first lagoon. As the crow flies this lagoon was probably not that far away but it seemed like miles to someone who’s puny arms were already beginning to ache. I was incredibly thankful I had Peter at the back of the kayak in charge of steering and strength – he paddles like a viking!
After navigating some narrow channels between rocks and (most of us) avoiding the raised sand bars we landed for our lunch on the apprehensively titled “Mosquito Bay.” Thankfully they weren’t overly present whilst we ate our lunch. We also played boules on the sand and Peter and I took the opportunity for a snorkel in the beautiful waters to see what we could see. We watched in amazement as a Shag (a bird for all you prudish people) darted through the water catching silver glimmers within fish shoals and gulping them down before diving under and speeding around for more. It was truly mesmerising to watch. I also encountered something none of us could name. We named it “The Thing” and vowed to look it up once we got back to base. It was an arthropod of nearly ten centimetres in length, vaguely green in colour with a russet red streak down its back. It crawled around on the floor of the lagoon, never venturing far from its safety hole which it quickly popped down once it felt disturbed. It was a genuinely strange creature and due to the bright colours I wondered whether it might be toxic or a mimic of something less savoury at any rate. Watching him was completely worth carting all our snorkelling kit along in the kayaks. Eventually I found out that he was a Mantis Shrimp.
Our phenomenal lagoon lunch had come to an end with the tide calling us back out to the sea. We all padded back out to the waves and thankfully the wind had dropped significantly as we headed for lagoon number two (our guide was never satisfied with just one or even two but was aiming for three). Along the way we paddled and chatted with whichever boat inhabitants came up alongside us, learning about their stories and sharing our own. It felt a little like trying to fit a weeks worth of friendship into one day on the sea but everyone had lots of interesting things to say so we carried on chatting as we pulled into another lagoon, complete with clear still water, a glorious waterfall and swing bridge for the trampers.
On the final leg of the journey came the discussion with our guide about some of the other wildlife he spots on the trips. When he mentioned the very occasional “Orca day” I practically turned myself and our kayak an envious shade of bright green. I was not returning home until I’d seen an Orca (and a Wolf) and neither had made themselves apparent so far on our global travels.
In all the glorious landscapes and discussions (and the fact that our guides watch had stopped) we realised we were going to be late getting back to the rendezvous with the water taxi. Thankfully another of the kayaking groups (who had mercifully dispersed a little throughout the trip) had done the same and so we raced each other back to the beach (with our awesome group winning of course) and my arms crying for mercy with every determined stroke of the water.
As we bumped into the shore we couldn’t quite believe such an incredible, sun soaked day had already come to a close. Once we were back at base we looked over the route we had taken and all enjoyed a hot shower before realising how hungry the kayaking had made us. Our new friends, the other British couple were famished too so we decided to splurge on the local restaurant as we felt we had earned it. Several cuts of meat, glasses of wine and interesting, often hilarious conversation later we told them of the free campsite we were aiming for which didn’t seem too far away but had a few awkward turns in the journey to get to. They agreed to join us there and we both got separately lost en route but eventually made it in the twilight.
As we were driving there we watched as the sun made its slow descent behind the mountains, leaving behind a fiery trail of utter gorgeousness. That sunset will stick in my mind as one of the most beautiful things I have ever had the privilege of seeing (which wasn’t an animal). And yet there isn’t a single photo that we took of it. In some ways this saddens me greatly but it’s also a reminder to enjoy the moments as they come as well as the memories we can make from them. We had certainly done that with our new friends too. They had to be off early in the morning as they had ran out of milk for tea (we had switched to powdered milk some time ago but it isn’t the same) and ever since we have been eager to cross each others paths again but just missing each other by a day or two. However I was incredibly glad we bonded with them, laughed with them and experienced something so memorable and magical as a day out on the water with such a joyous bunch of people. No matter if we never see them again (as happens a lot when travelling), the point is that that shared time together was ours and I was very grateful of where it took us.