Abel Tasman National Park was formed after local conservationist Perrine Moncrieff, from nearby Nelson, became concerned at the prospect of logging along the beautiful coast. She campaigned to have 15,000 hectares of crown land made into a national park. A petition presented to the New Zealand Government suggested Abel Tasman's name for the park, which was opened in 1942 on the 300th anniversary of his visit.
For at least 500 years Maori lived along the Abel Tasman coast, gathering food from the sea, estuaries and forests, and growing kumara (Maori sweet potato) on suitable sites. Most occupation was seasonal but some sites in Awaroa estuary were permanent. On 18 December 1642, explorer Abel Tasman anchored his two ships near Wainui in Mohua (Golden Bay), the first European to visit Aotearoa (the Maori name for New Zealand). He immediately lost four crew in a skirmish with the local Maori, the Ngati Tumatakokiri tribe, and needless to say he high-tailed (if you can do that in a sailing ship) his way out of there.
The Ngati Tumatakokiri were conquered around 1800 and the conquerors in turn were invaded in the 1820s. The modern Maori, Te Ati Awa and Ngati Rarua, trace their ancestry back to this latter invasion.
Frenchman Dumont d'Urville followed in January 1827, exploring the area between Marahau and Torrent Bay. Permanent European settlement began around 1855. The settlers logged forests, built ships, quarried granite and fired the hillsides to create pasture. For a time there was prosperity but soon the easy timber was gone and gorse and bracken invaded the hills.
The park is built mostly of granite; it colours the beaches and streambeds and gives rise to characteristically infertile soils. Despite this infertility, the damp gullies just above sea level support rich forest. Although many trees were removed during the milling era, a lush understorey of trees and shrubs, tree ferns, kiekie and supplejack remains, and the gullies lead the regeneration process.
Black beech is the natural cover of the dry ridges and headlands close to the sea, with hard beech further back where more moisture is available. Kanuka occurs where there have been windfalls or a history of fires. Manuka occurs where repeated burning has degraded the soil.
D'Urville found South Island kokako in the forests around Torrent Bay; these and several other native bird species have since disappeared. Bellbirds, fantails, pigeons and tui are now the main forest birds. Around the beaches, estuaries and wetlands, pukeko and weka are common.
A range of wading birds stalk the estuaries for fish and shellfish. Offshore, gannets, shags and terns can be seen diving for food. Little blue penguins feed at sea during the day and return to burrows on the park's islands at night.
Little is known about the park's freshwater fish. However, many of the park's waterways are slightly acidic and stained a tea colour by tannin leached from the soil - features known to be unfavourable to introduced trout, which compete with and prey upon native fish.
Unmodified estuaries are an integral feature of the Abel Tasman Coast. Twice a day with the tides, nutrients pour in from the sea to nourish the estuary's many fish, snails, worms, and crabs. These, in turn, are food for coastal birds. Being sandy, (rather than muddy), the park's estuaries are easily explored around low tide.
Areas inundated by only the highest tides carry salt marsh vegetation, rushes, glasswort and sea primrose. Between the tides creatures like periwinkles, tubeworms, Neptune's necklace and pink algae have adapted to regular exposure to sun and wind and sea.
New Zealand fur seals are found along the coast of the park, particularly on the more remote granite headlands of Separation Point and Tonga Island. Their numbers are increasing rapidly and they have recently started breeding there.
In 1993, Tonga Island Marine Reserve was created along part of the Abel Tasman coast where it is hoped the marine environment will be restored to its natural state.
The park is well known for having many exquisite sea kayaking locations with sheltered coves, clear water and white sands and there are now at least six sea kayaking operators in the area that offer rental or guided tours. Mountain biking is also starting to take off in the park as popularity and demand grows for multi-purpose tracks.
The Abel Tasman Coast Track is another of New Zealand’s Great Walks and extends for 54.4kms (33 miles). What makes this hike unique is that you must time your hike to coincide with tidal crossings where you can only cross a few hours either side of low tide – many funny stories (and some a bit more serious) emerge of hikers that don’t heed these warnings! This beautiful tracks takes an average of 3 to 5 days to complete and can be hiked from either end. To find out more, read on about the Abel Tasman Coastal Track!
New to adventure vacations or not quite ready to hang up your hiking boots just yet? On this South Island walking tour you'll experience beautiful, famous and little-known places – taking plenty of time to explore along the way! For a great way to see the North Island too, combine this trip with our 11-day 'Kauri' (5 day 'Kauri' options available).
Activity level: The ‘Kiwi’ suits anyone who enjoys walking and likes to give things a go. The pace is flexible and relaxed with most hikes taking one to three hours to complete on well-formed tracks with some undulations.
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