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Walks on the wild side

Visitors explore the beauty of Abel Tasman National Park from a sea kayak.

Visitors explore the beauty of Abel Tasman National Park from a sea kayak.

A view from the Abel Tasman Coastal Track.

A view from the Abel Tasman Coastal Track.

Two visitors leave a message by forming letters from pieces of pebble stone at Sandy Bay in Marahau.

Two visitors leave a message by forming letters from pieces of pebble stone at Sandy Bay in Marahau.

Jang enjoys an ice cream after a long walk along the Abel Tasman Coastal Track in Marahau.

Jang enjoys an ice cream after a long walk along the Abel Tasman Coastal Track in Marahau.

The tiny town of Marahau is the perfect place to enjoy the coastal paradise of New Zealand's Abel Tasman National Park

Tucked away at the north end of South Island, Marahau is home to just 500 souls so when I pull over at the Abel Tasman Kayaks Base and park, the last thing I am expecting to see are any Asians tourists. This small coastal town, which has no shopping malls or karaoke parlours though it does boast two restaurants and a wine shop, tends to draw only local visitors.

Yet waiting patiently next to the sea kayaks are a Chinese couple, a young Arab guy who's busy checking his camera and a young couple from Ukraine, taking turns to adjust each other life jackets. Jang, my girlfriend, and I make seven. That seems, well, almost like a takeover of this small town at the top of the world.

"Marahau's population is regularly outnumbered by visitors, especially in summer," says Jack, the friendly Kiwi who runs Abel Tasman Kayaks (www.AbelTasmanKayaks.co.nz).

"The Abel Tasman National Park, a short distance from here, draws visitors and weekenders for such eco-tourism activities as sea kayaking and walks along the famed coastal tracks."

Marahau is already known among the Chinese and Japan, Jack tells us, but he reckons no one in Thailand will have heard of the quiet coastal settlement. Seems like we're the first Thais to set foot here.

That doesn't surprise me. While Thais are coming in increasing numbers to New Zealand, they tend to opt for group tours and travel agents are not very interested in adding such a small town to the itinerary. We're different. Part of our 10-day self-drive road trip around South Island, Marahau has been part of our plans from the beginning thanks to a hearty recommendation from New Zealand Tourism.

"No trip to the Nelson Tasman region is complete," reads the statement from the tourist body, "without exploring Marahau".

So why is a town of just 500 people worth for exploring?

As we drive our 4-WD Toyota along the coast of Sandy Bay, I can't help feeling that people would more likely want to leave town than come here. Small cottages, boats and signposts roll by but we don't spot a single person or even a sheep.

Understanding dawns as we step into the kayak and the beauty of Marahau becomes evident.

"Marahau is famous for outdoor activities around Abel Tasman National Park," explains Tom, my kayak guide. "The park has a unique environment that's accessible by land and sea and is bounded by golden beaches, granite rock headlands and the blue waters of Tasman Bay. People come here to kayak and stroll along the trails."

The sea is mirror-like, blue and cold. Kayaking to the first cove is a struggle, as we are up against the wind and the sea turns choppy as we ease out of the harbour, Jang has bagged the front seat and points excitedly every time we encounter seabirds and swans. One gull mum shrieks in fear as our kayak gets too close to her nest on the cliff. We quickly move away and leave her alone before a mob of angry seagulls teaches us a lesson.

Kayakers are also likely to get up close to seals. One of the most popular spots for kayaking is Tonga Island, which is east of Onetahuti beach. The island is home to a colony of New Zealand fur seals, and is a protected Marine Mammal Reserve though visitors can paddle around the area if accompanied by an authorised guide. We don't go that far since our kayaking will end at Anchorage Bay, roughly half way between Marahau and Tonga Island, though we do spot one seal fighting with an octopus.

"The seal will take quite some time to conquer it, as the octopus always puts up a good fight," says our guide, pointing to the swirl of water where the action is taking place. Four pairs of arms are up against two pairs of flippers. The seal wins and has the octopus for brunch.

We have a picnic at Anchorage Bay thanks to Tom, who has packed sandwiches, fruit, muffins and hot drinks for everyone. A small and peaceful bay, with a beach of golden sand and a beautiful ocean view, it's a wonderful setting and the sandwich tastes twice as nice as a result.

From Anchorage Bay, we will be on our own walking south back to Marahau. The guide gives us a map and tells us: "Keep going south, and make sure the ocean is on the left hand side". The Chinese couple looks terrified but the walk turns out to be very easy.

Part of Abel Tasman Coastal Track (one of New Zealand's popular Great Walks), the trail runs for about 12 kilometres from Anchorage Bay to Marahau. The walking trails, with well-posted signs and bridges over streams and creeks, are designed for walkers of all ages, from six to 60 years old.

As we make our way along the track, we are seduced by some of New Zealand's most iconic coastal vistas: golden sand beaches, the pure azure blue of the sea and myriad of native forest colours and textures. I turn round frequently to find Jang hugging one of the many large trees. Between the beaches we enter regenerating native beech and podocarp forest and as we cross the headlands, we are rewarded by a stunning panorama. More often than not, we stop for the quail, small plump birds sporting a curved crown feather on their foreheads.

After four hours of walking, we emerge from the forest and find ourselves on the flat golden sands of Sandy Bay. We rest our weary feet on a bench and watch as the beach community comes to life. One man walks a whole string of dogs along the promenade while further along, a pre-teen boy sits on the beach, back propped up against his BMX. In the distance, a woman seems to be enjoying some personal time.

Our hotel is right by the beach so we're in no hurry to get back. Jang rewards herself with ice cream while I secure two bottles of local wine.

The writer travelled in Marahau as a guest of New Zealand Tourism.



If you go

_ The author travelled with Thai Airways from Bangkok to Auckland then flew Air New Zealand to Nelson - a city on the eastern shores of Tasman Bay, South Island. Marahau is about one hour drive from Nelson.



Check in

_ New Zealand has plenty of choices of accommodation. Throughout our 10-day road trip in South Island, we came across everything from self-contained lodges to stylish, full-service resorts. In Marahau, we stayed at Abel Tasman Marahau Lodge (www.abeltasmanmarahaulodge.co.nz).

_ Located between the small township of Marahau and the entrance to the Abel Tasman National Park, this self-contained lodge is run by Don and Robyn, both of whom are happy to help you explore Marahau. Our two-bedroom cottage, complete with a balcony overlooking the spacious private garden, was clean and comfortable and a perfect base for exploring the beauty of the national park.




















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