Prepare yourself for a close encounter of the furred kind
- we certainly weren't.
The Abel Tasman National Park is a breathtakingly beautiful part of the country, world-renowned for stretches of golden sand and sparkling turquoise water. But as is so often the case with nature, beauty and danger can be a combined package.
One of the very first things explained as you enter this magical land is that the tides can be swift and unpredictable, transforming inviting sweeps of beach into rapidly shrinking islets in no time at all. Do not lose track of time, obey the signs (they are there for your safety) and keep to established tracks - easy.
In keeping with the unspoiled nature of this idyll, we were staying at Awaroa Lodge - a luxurious conclave proud of its Eco credentials, and justifiably not an inexpensive destination. We booked three nights and thoroughly enjoyed all that the Lodge and surrounds had to offer. So why, on that final afternoon, could I not just succumb to the enveloping sense of peace and relaxation and just pick up a book? Instead, restlessness took hold and I proposed a walk. My wife would have been quite justified in throwing the book I should have been reading at me and telling me to pour a drink instead, but being a trooper, agreed to come with me.
A half hour bush track took us to a nearby beach, but both being long-legged, it didn't even take us that long. Emboldened, I eyed the rocky shoreline and uttered the words which could have killed us: "Why don't we walk back along the coast?"
We set off, clambering over the first of what was to be countless rocky outcrops framing the first of countless small coves. Every one of these coves contained a family of seals headed by a large mother, maniacally territorial and protective of her small cubs. The beaches were strewn with concealing boulders and the inevitable attack could come from anywhere. A sudden, overpowering fishy stench, furious grunting and barking, and a large, terrifyingly swift shape whose front end seemed to be composed solely of bulging eyes and jagged rows of teeth would chase us to the next ‘corner’ We might even have thought the first time was funny, but each repetition forced us further past the point of no return.
A glance at a map would have shown that the track we walked crossed the narrow neck of a peninsula, which then fanned out into the endless zig-zagging coastline we were now trying to navigate. We didn't know this - but knew we were in trouble.
The constant close encounters of the furred kind were taking their toll - we were becoming ‘seal-shocked’. We tried to leave the water's edge and beat a track into the thick bush, but abandoned this desperate gambit when we almost pitched into a hidden gully. Gradually, the sun began to sink and the air temperature dropped (neither of us were dressed for this). The tide came in fast, eating the shore until we had literally nowhere left to go but up.
Pulling ourselves up a steep slope by grasping hold of flax bushes, we pushed into the bush until finding a clearing. Back at the Lodge, where-ever it might be, we had a sumptuous meal and expensive bed waiting - here we had a few squares of melted chocolate and prickly bracken to collapse onto. The relentless clambering and adrenaline overdose in our systems from constant escapes had wiped us out – and so we lay for what felt like hours, unable to do anything except watch the few visible patches of sky darken fully into night.
Gradually we revived and tried to build a fern mattress in the dark. That endless night was measured in brief periods of dozing, followed by huddling against the cold and even sit-ups to try and keep warm. The first faint glow of dawn was a blessed relief and we set off again as soon as we could see our watches. The sound of a distant boat made trying to return to the beach an attractive proposition, but somehow we were now at the top of a cliff, and had no option but to continue upwards instead. Cresting a hill we almost wept to discover that a couple of small valleys away lay the unbelievable sight of Awaroa Lodge.
We literally threw ourselves up and down those thickly wooded gullies - crashing along wild pig trails with no regard for thorns and branches. Finally staggering into our room at 7.30am, we were ridiculously anxious that someone had seen us and desperate to freshen up and appear for breakfast as if nothing had happened. It was probably a combination of shame and a frantic need to return to some kind of normality.
A few hours later we were speeding away on our water taxi, considerably less sad than usual to come to the end of a holiday. The sun shone, the waves foamed and sparkled - and then the Pilot leaned over and shouted above the sound of the motor: "We've got a bit of extra time, do you want to see some seals?"