Avoiding crowds on the Abel Tasman Coast Track isn’t always easy, but with plenty of campsites to choose from, you can plan your trip with solitude in mind.
Having tramped lengths of the Abel Tasman Coast Track over four visits, and camped in eight of the park’s 18 DOC campgrounds, I’ve concluded that those seeking solitude may be disappointed by the Great Walk.
New Zealand’s most popular – and arguably most accessible – national park, is a beach paradise and a different world to the likes of the isolated Heaphy Track, only a few hours to the west.
The northern end between Totaranui and Whariwharangi remains unserviced by water taxis – and is therefore rarely visited – but the rest of the park is a playground for daywalkers, campers, bach-goers, and, if you’re particularly unlucky, jet skis.
Accessibility is a gift and a curse for the park. While it’s wonderful that visitors of all ages and abilities can enjoy it, those walking the Coast Track on a busy summer’s day may find the masses overwhelming.
The official Great Walk stops of The Anchorage, Bark Bay (Wairima), Awaroa and Whariwharangi Bay are all perfectly adequate and picturesque spots, but the beauty of the park lies in its many options for campers, and those hoping to avoid the traditional hotspots can do so easily, with a little extra planning.
Here is my dream itinerary for Great Walk campers keen to soak in the sights and relish in a bit of solitude in our busiest national park.
Marahau to Akersten Bay or Te Pukatea Bay
The Anchorage is undoubtedly gorgeous, but its capacity to sleep 134 visitors in the hut and campsite can make it overwhelming – especially around meal times. With flotillas of kayaks lining its shores too, getting that uncluttered photograph is often out of the question.
Fortunately for crowd-conscious campers, the Marahau to Anchorage leg of the walk has more campsites than any other, and alternatives abound for those looking for a more secluded stay.
Akersten Bay is a sheltered strip of sand at the bottom of a short steep path around an hour shy of The Anchorage.
Three small campsites are nestled on elevated ledges metres from the sand, amongst the kawakawa and ferns.
Unsuitable for large groups, the site is perfect for the lucky half-dozen who will get the beach to themselves. I spontaneously booked this campground at the visitor centre one afternoon, and found it empty when I arrived in time for sunset – you can’t beat a private beach for $15.
Its proximity to Marahau will bring with it a steady stream of passing boats, however, so if you’re a fan of skinny dipping, work it around the water taxi operating hours.
Facing east, it’s the perfect spot to catch the sun rise over Tasman Bay, and any damp gear will quickly dry in the morning light. As the sun sets, Adele Island gleams offshore in an orange haze – a pleasant view to fix your blissful gaze upon after the short walk in.
Be wary of weka here. With fewer victims to target, you will find yourself the unfortunate centre of their scavenging attention. One brazen bird tried lugging away my frying pan from between my feet while I cooked breakfast pancakes.
An alternative stay is the instantly recognisable Te Pukatea Bay – a much-photographed crescent of sand starring on much of Abel Tasman’s promotional material.
The east-facing refuge is well worth the 15-20 minute walk over the headland saddle from the Anchorage campsite, but take a moment there to fill your water bottles or use the flush toilets – Te Pukatea is not so lavishly equipped.
The campsite is tucked in the bush, and is suitable only for compact tents. Picnic tables, a toilet and water tap round out the site’s amenities.
Pleasingly symmetrical, the headlands flanking the bay will provide shelter from all but direct easterly winds, however it loses sun early in the evening.
Keep an eye out for swooping kereru and short-tailed stingray in the shallows – both species paid no heed to my personal space, and my yelps no doubt woke campers.
To continue the track, complete the Pitt Head Loop for the iconic vantage point over Te Pukatea, and later, good views over Pitt Head to the north and The Anchorage to the west. It’s a 4km loop, so factor the extra mileage into your day two plans.
With 10 sites available, Te Pukatea sells out quickly, so book early – I’m told it’s one of the most popular campgrounds in the park, and I missed out on two visits. There is no warden here, but the Anchorage Hut warden will likely walk over to pick up any freeloaders.
Akersten Bay/Te Pukatea Bay to Torrent Bay
With baches lining its shore, Torrent Bay can be a puzzling scene of civilisation for first time Coast Track walkers. When camping there, I encountered a middle aged couple strolling the beach in clean clothes, wine glasses in hand, while dinner cooked in their bach oven. They looked sadly at my dehy meal, before heading home to stoke their fire and settle in for the night, leaving me to question my life choices.
Its campground, found in a secluded shelter of manuka several hundred metres west of the beach, has no such glam.
Ten campsites overlook the charming tidal estuary, which comes alive at high tide with the splashes of fish and stingray. Mossy earth provides soft sleeping, but a lack of sun can make for cold mornings and evenings.
At the head of the inlet, the white sandy spit of Torrent Bay is as gorgeous a beach as any on the track. It catches evening sun much later than the campground too, so you may like to enjoy a picnic dinner on the sand – if you don’t mind bumping into civilised walkers, of course.
The campsite is by no means the most idyllic in the park, but, situated between The Anchorage and Bark Bay, it allows walkers to cruise on day two, and free up time to explore some worthwhile sidetracks.
These include Cleopatra’s Pool, where it’s easy to kill a couple of hours swimming in refreshing pools, slipping down the rock slide and watching the resident eels.
Be careful of sharp rocks surrounding the bottom pool, however. I cut open my sternum here trying to breaststroke away from the falls, and spent the next three days walking topless to keep my shirt from sticking to my wound.
If you have the energy, take the 1.5hr return trip to Cascade Falls – a peaceful spot amongst mossy boulders. Don’t expect to beat DOC’s recommended time on this one, though. It’s steep, muddy at times, and took me the full 1.5 hours.
Torrent Bay to Onetahuti Bay
A longer third day can bypass the 40 site Bark Bay to arrive instead at the long blissful stretch of Onetahuti Bay.
The moment you lay eyes on its turquoise waters from the southern headland, you’ll be glad you booked a night at this tropical spot.
Overlooking Tonga Island, Onetahuti is one of the few beaches that form part the Coast Track, and cruising down the beach with boots off, feet in the water, has been a highlight of my visits.
With 20 sites, it may be more crowded than desired but there is plenty of room on the gently-curving crescent of sand to lay down your towel without bothering another soul.
A scheduled stop for water taxis, Onetahuti may have fairly frequent water traffic, particularly in peak season, but the vista is well worth the interruptions.
There are outdated maps still in rotation which mark the end of Onetahuti as a tidal crossing, but a bridge and boardwalk installation has now made it accessible at all tides.
If you’re feeling peckish at day’s end and feel like a treat, head over the hill to Awaroa Lodge’s outdoor pizzeria. It feels like cheating, and perhaps it is, but enjoying a hard-earned pizza and beer mid-tramp is hard to beat.
Onetahuti Bay to Anapai Bay
Accessible by road and catering for up to 850 campers, Totaranui comes as a bit of a shock to walkers heading north of Onetahuti, and is best avoided if possible.
Likewise, Awaroa – while breathtaking from above – is an extremely tidal inlet, and the beach is a long walk from the campsite. Famously purchased by New Zealanders via a Givealittle campaign, it’s a shame this stretch of paradise is so hard to access for those who helped pay for it.
If the tides allow, aim to skip both Awaroa and Totaranui on day four to arrive at Anapai Bay.
It may take some planning to make it work, as the Awaroa inlet is only walkable two hours either side of low tide.
Unserviced by water taxis, Anapai Bay is quieter than the southern end of the park, and its six sites with sea views will make for a peaceful night.
Its iconic stone pillars jut from the sand like an archaeological discovery, giving the beach a wonderful frame for photography, and plenty of features to explore.
Stumbling upon a whale carcass on the beach here added to the sense of isolation, but if you prefer your marine mammals living, look out for seals in the shallows – I saw plenty on my visit in autumn.
Be wary of Weka – with fewer victims to target,
you will find yourself the
centre of their scavenging attention
Anapai Bay to Totaranui or Wainui Bay
If you require a water taxi exit on your final day and don’t wish to backtrack, head north-west from Anapai Bay, through Mutton Cove Campsite to Whariwharangi.
From here, head south-west on the Inland Track, and at the junction, veer south over Gibbs Hill to arrive back at Totaranui.
It’s a bit of a slog, but you will no doubt feel you’ve earned a sit down on the water taxi, as you zoom past your five day journey in less than an hour.
Alternatively, continue to Wainui Bay if you have arranged land transport.