Amanda Jones
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Abel Tasman Park - New Zealand

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Written by Amanda Jones
Special to the San Francisco Chronicle

There are two kinds of men in New Zealand—blokes and blouses. Blokes are your average manly-man. But if you're the sort of guy who needs shoes to cross a coral reef, well, you're a blouse. And then there are the bush blokes—average manly-men who spend most of their time at one with the forest, like Daniel Day Lewis in "Last of the Mohicans." These guys are tough. And they date tough women, known to most as “Sheilas.” Bush blokes never wear shoes; in fact they typically refuse to enter places that require them. Our guide Steve happened to be a bush bloke, and come hell or high water, he was going to turn us into Sheilas.

Several weeks earlier, I’d arrived in New Zealand for a family visit. I’d hooked up with some old high school buddies and they’d invited me to join them on a quick weekend trip. The plan was to take a three-day guided sea-kayaking and hiking trip in the Abel Tasman National Park, a stretch of forest-and-white-sand coastline in the northwest of New Zealand’s South Island.

The group included Jackie, a formerly shy sixteen-year-old grown into a power executive; Sarah who had gone from recalcitrant school-girl to captain of industry; Stacey, a mother and the co-owner of a famous NZ fishing lodge, and Jeff, Sarah’s advertising executive boyfriend. We gathered in Motueka, a backcountry town close to the Abel Tasman Park.

Early in the morning we were picked up by Abel Tasman Enterprises and outfitted with kayaking gear. Then we were introduced to the American family who would be joining our group on the trip. The mother was a salt-of-the-earth Oregonian. Her teenage son appeared to have spent the past several years in a basement. Fluorescently pale, he wore ludicrous baggy jeans and giant army boots. An outfit that would at best cause blisters and at worst abet drowning. He had numerous body piercings, earning him the nickname of Pincushion Boy. His older sister was more prepared for the outdoors with black lycra clinging to impressive musculature and a cocoa tan.

And then Steve, the guide, sauntered in. It was April and early mornings were frigid. Steve wore bare feet, skimpy shorts and a thin T-shirt.

“Owsidgowin gurls,” he said, turning to Jackie and Sarah who were collecting voicemail on their cell-phones. “Ya won’t be needin’ those phones in a kayak ladies. Lose ’em.”

We re-boarded the bus and drove to Kaiteriteri to meet the ferry that took us three-and-a-half hours up the coast to Totaranui, our launching spot. The air was crisp and the sky was cobalt. “It’s is a cracker time of year, gurls.” Steve seemed to have overlooked the fact that we had a male along. “Summer tourists gone, sun’s out, lodges to ourselves. Luvly.”

When I asked Steve how many tourists the park sees in a year, he told me somewhere near 100,000. “The numbers’ve gone bonkers over the past ten years. Hardly a soul came before that.” He seemed only vaguely resentful that his livelihood had seen such an upswing. When I told Steve that Yosemite National Park gets four million tourists annually he was stupefied, unable to comprehend a scene so dreadful.

New Zealand has a total population of four million, 75 percent of whom live on the North Island—the smaller of the two islands. South Islanders, therefore, tend to think of the North as some kind of overpopulated madhouse. Fewer people live in the entire 58,500 square miles of the South Island than in the 2,050 square miles of greater Auckland city.

At midday, the ferry pulled into Totaranui, a pearly beach arcing around a deep blue bay. Cicadas trilled in the beachside bushes, wildflowers carpeted a flat field and a thick green forest of giant punga ferns ran unbroken to a distant mountain range.

“Today we walk,” Steve informed us over lunch, “Tomorrow we walk ’n kayak, and the final day we kayak all day. Now, I want you mob to say a bit about yourselves and tell us how much wilderness experience you’ve got.”

All in all we amounted to a pretty lame crowd. Jackie, Sarah, Stacey and the Oregonian mother had little experience with the outdoors, Jeff had a respectable amount, Pincushion Boy refused to comment, so it seemed a tie for most savvy lay between myself and she-of-the-buff-biceps—and I could not compete against those. Neither of us had sea kayaked before.

Steve smiled, “Righty-o, we’ll be takin’ the long, steep route today then.”

We hiked six miles along the coastal trail, under towering rimu’s, feathered pungas and scrubby manuka trees, through sylvan tunnels that glowed in the sunlight. Geckos squatted on wheki fronds and fantail birds flicked across the canopy. The path underfoot felt mossy, and there was the musty scent of thriving vegetation. There are said to be a few kiwis left in this forest, those homely, flightless, grub-eating birds for which the entire population is nicknamed.

Something happens to blokes like Steve when you get them into the bush. They become, well, tender. We meandered behind him while he fondled petals, stroked tree-trunks and imitated birds, whispering erudite words about parasitic vines and the call of the bellbird, whose modest frame houses the sweetest song imaginable.

When the light trickling through the trees started to turn golden, Steve suddenly snapped out of his reverie, barking, “Right you lot, no more muckin’ about, we’ll have’ta bust a gut to reach the Awaroa inlet before the tide beats us to it. Crikey, the cook at the Lodge will have me guts for garters.”

We reached the inlet as the tide was rushing out. An oversized dinghy waited for us, and the boatman looked nervous. It took several attempts to navigate the spreading shallows.

Dusk had arrived as we reached the Homestead Lodge at Awaroa. We were “knackered” as the locals say, ready for a Steinlager and “a good feed.” The Homestead Lodge is an elegant replica of William Hatfield’s family homestead, built in 1884 when the area was an isolated outpost for loggers and granite quarriers. Lyn Hatfield, the great-granddaughter of William, now operates Abel Tasman Enterprises.

History of the area dates back to 1642, when Abel Tasman, the first pakeha (white man) to sail these waters, fled after Maori cannibals feasted on the friendship party he sent ashore. He thus relinquished the glory of New Zealand to Captain Cook, who explored over a century later in 1769.

The Abel Tasman region is one of the sunniest spots in the whole country. The park is open to day-hikers, campers and hut-stayers, and most of the 100,000 guide themselves through the trek or over the waters in kayaks. Abel Tasman Enterprises holds the concession to take guided trips and operate private lodges en route.

Dinner was lamb, of course, and afterwards we gathered by the fire in the drawing room.

“Anyone here ’fraid of ghosts?” Steve asked, looking around the room.

“Seriously, this house has a ghost. She’s harmless. Don’t wantcha to have a hissy (slang for hysteria) if she pops up in your room tonight. It’s Adele Hatfield. She’d eight kids here, left William for another man, and then her second bloke shot her dead in 1906. She never really passed over, if ya know what I mean. Came home here to bother the likes of you lot.”

The original homestead had been destroyed by fire and apparently, when Lyn Hatfield made plans to build a guest lodge on the site, Adele popped up and demanded that she not modernize, but rebuild an exact duplicate of the original.

“Yeah, what can we expect of this ‘ghost’?” Sarah said, a non-believer.

“Well, she’ll open your bedroom door and walk in. Leave a dent on the bedcover when she sits down, move things, change the time on watches, all the regular stuff. One time I heard someone in the kitchen at 3 a.m. Went down and the table was set for tea. Wasn’t any of us.”

The morning was dull with clouds gathering swiftly overhead. After breakfast we walked down the beach and headed inland over a ridge, dropping into Tonga Bay. There we met Mark, a Sea Bloke and our kayaking leader. A boat had deposited him there along with six two-man sea-kayaks and all the necessary gear. We stood looking out to sea. The wind had picked up, the temperature had dropped and the waves looked ominously dark and swollen.

Mark was slight, with sun-frosted ringlets and a salt-baked face. “Ah, no wurries,” he said, “just a headwind.”

He handed out waterproof pullovers, lifejackets, and spray skirts, telling us to dress warmly underneath.

Jackie and I, both with underdeveloped biceps, were paired up. Sarah and Jeff were together and Stacey got Pincushion Boy. I looked at over Stacey enviously. Despite the potential hazard of those trousers and the thought of having to talk in Bevis-and-Butthead-speak all day, having male muscles on board could be a bonus in these seas.

Nevertheless, Jackie and I set off in high spirits, slicing at the water in perfect tempo. What we lacked in brute strength we would make up in style. Mark indicated that we should all “make a raft” on the leeward side of Tonga Island, a rocky hummock at the mouth of the bay. Making a raft required bringing your vessel parallel to your fellow kayakers and gently making contact. Jackie, feet on the steering controls, charged in at full speed and hit the pedal we’d been told would turn the boat. No response—we smashed head-on into our rafted compatriots.

“Nice try, gurls.” Steve said, grinning, “Next time try puttin’ your rudda in the water.”

Tonga Island was the home of a fur seal colony and many of the females had young. There are few things in life as irresistible as a baby seal. They slid into the water, spiraling up alongside the kayaks. We could have petted them they swam so close, but Mark discouraged it. Seals have been known to bite tourists.

When we left the shelter of Tonga Island the seas were huge and paddling through them was a brutal slog. Although we now had our rudder engaged, we were beating straight into the wind, which by mid-morning was blowing 20 knots. Whitecaps frothed and the kayak nosed deep into the troughs. By the time we stopped for lunch, we had kayaked seven miles and my arms were on fire. We pulled into a cove, struggled out of our skirts and headed for a protected lagoon. Once out of the wind, the sun was baking hot and we collapsed on the sand, barely able to lift a sandwich to our lips.

It was 2:30 by the time we got back in the boats. The wind was now 25 knots, and we had three miles to get to the Torrent Bay Lodge.

“Hug the coastline,” Mark said, “and above all, safety first. We’re about to enter the Mad Mile and these are confused seas. Stick together.”

Jackie and I dug furiously into the water—and still we were behind. At first it was by a few hundred yards, then a quarter mile, a half mile and then the group were just tiny specks appearing every so often on the top of a wave. Obviously, our safety was first on their minds.

Mark was benevolent, turning back often to offer encouragement and entertain us with tales of his encounters with Adele, the friendly ghost. When Steve backtracked for a visit, I made the mistake of asking him what we were doing wrong.

“Nuthin’,” he said, “it’s just your fat bottom.”

“What did you say?”

Laughing, he continued, “You’ve got a wide-bottomed kayak. They’re harder to paddle—heavier.”

Thought so.

Darkness had fallen by the time Jackie and I surfed the waves into Torrent Bay. Morepork owls hooted and possum eyes glowed from the trees. We felt triumphant, wet and exhausted. When we struggled into the lodge the others were bathed and changed, sitting with gin and tonic in hand beside a roaring fire.

Over dinner, Jackie suggested we play a quick hand of poker for Pincushion as boatmate for the next day.

“No way,” Stacey said, “He’s mine. You think I want one of you blouses in my kayak?”

The weather god felt our pain. The morning broke with a cloudless sky and flat ocean. Jackie and I traded our fat-bottomed kayak for a sleeker model and cut to the head of the group. No wet-weather gear this time. By eleven we were down to bare arms. Lunch was on Adele Island (no wonder she never left), with a crescent sand spit at one end and a leafy summit in the center. Some went for a swim while the rest of us hiked the tangled flanks of the peak.

And then it was the long, flat stretch back to Marahau and the end of our journey. It came as a shock to round the corner and see signs of civilization—a row of houses, a boat ramp, and a single shop.

“Had a good time did we girls?” Steve said as we loaded the boats on the trailer. “Well, off you go then to your phones. Ya prob’ly missed lotsa calls from the Big Smoke. Just tell them you’re sorry, but you went bush with the blokes.”