Home to patches of pristine wilderness, New Zealand is ruggedly beautiful, boasting rainforest, a wind-worn coastline and mighty fiords. There are car-less roads draped through mountain valleys, snow-capped peaks and beach-side pie carts that conjure images of an era you would have thought long-since confined to the annals of history. All this is illuminated by a light so soft that it seems borrowed from another world. You want to experience as much as possible here - see all there is. But as the hills around us faded from pink to violet, and the golden oldies blaring from the radio disappeared into a sea of static, we had to admit that our own New Zealand road trip had perhaps gone a little awry.
This saga had begun 48 hours earlier when my travel buddy and I entered Abel Tasman National Park, a natural oasis found on the northern tip of the South Island. We were here in search of space, warmth and wine - elements the Nelson-Tasman district has long been famed for.
We had already been in the area for a few days, getting acquainted with the city of Nelson and its surrounds by staying at Awatea Tasman Bay - a charming, curio-filled cottage that overlooks a melange of paddocks, orchards and waterways. It is a short drive from Tasman’s Great Taste Trail, a cycling route that winds its way from Nelson - through farms and wineries, across Rabbit Island, past Mapua and its picture-perfect wharf - to Kaiteriteri, the gateway to Abel Tasman National Park. Should you wish to tackle this route, bikes can be hired from The Gentle Cycling Company, who also provide maps marked with some of the cafes, farm shops, vineyards and galleries that line the trail. On learning of our penchant for local art, the owner, Rose Griffin, recommended a few additional stops - like the studio of screen printing artist Graeme Stradling. He is part of the well-established creative community who moved to this quieter corner of the world for the velvety light and beauty, and saw no reason to ever leave.
Tasman’s Great Taste Trail was indeed a glorious introduction, and departing Awatea Tasman Bay for Abel Tasman National Park, packs full of culinary supplies gathered on our ride, we were ready for adventure. And for this we looked to the charmingly laid-back Abel Tasman Kayaks, who offer equipment hire and tours through the national park - New Zealand's smallest. Abandoning the car at their beach-shack-esque base, we followed our chatty, dreadlocked guide past wave-carved boulders and rocky beaches adorned with sun-seeking sea lions, paddling in and out of empty coves and wondering why we didn't do this more often. Pausing to cool my hands in the crystalline water, I realised that all I’d been thinking about was the repetitive action of my body, the power needed to pull myself through the waves. Here, there is nothing to distract but the view - and it’s glorious.
We farewelled our guide and kayaks at Bark Bay - a campsite that can only accessed by boat or on foot (there is a water taxi service should you need it). Aware that the following day would be formidable, we devoured our gourmand-worthy picnic while watching the tide ebb and flow beneath a flaxen sky, before retreating to the communal bunks of Bark Bay’s timber hut. Far from glamorous, there is a certain magic to such rustic settings, and tuning my head to the window, my friend and fellow adventurous snoring softly beside me, I fell asleep counting the stars.
Waking to birdsong, we set off before the sun cleared the surrounding hills. The morning was to be spent walking a 15 kilometre stretch of the Abel Tasman Coast Track, an iconic trail that takes around four days to complete and twists across rainforest, golden beaches and native bushland - popular attractions being the forest-framed, moss-festooned Cleopatra's Pool and the swing bridge that spans Falls River. It was spectacular; the path entirely our own and the azure water never far from view. But a 15 kilometre hike, especially one with so many vistas worth pausing for, tends to take longer than expected, and by the time we reached the water taxi at Torrent Bay it was well past midday.
That’s when the madcap road trip really began. We’d been desperate to end our South Island odyssey with a few nights of stargazing and unwinding in an architecturally astounding glass box in the middle of nowhere. This was found just outside the coastal town of Kaikoura, which is normally only a four and a bit hour drive from Abel Tasman National Park (as an Australian, such a distance is far from intimidating). However, a few months before our visit an earthquake had ravaged the region, and although New Zealand is a country familiar with geological instability, the scale and damage of this particular event was staggering. Kaikoura, renowned for its whale watching and heavily reliant on seasonal tourism, was almost entirely cut off from the rest of the country. But because of this, travelling there felt essential - a small gesture, our way of supporting an area desperately in need of visitors, especially after the loss of a vital bumper season. And so, with the road from Marlborough (the one we’d planned to travel along) closed as a result of the damage, we embarked on an eight hour journey along the secondary roads that crossed the island’s centre. Rest assured, the highway is now fully restored, so our foolishness does not need to be repeated.
With the light long-gone and the conversation brilliantly bizarre - memories of the Manuka forests and townships we’d driven through hours before, now a distant memory - we reached a single lane road, turned onto a dirt track, forded a stream and stopped, finally, a little delirious, at the sign for Kahutara PurePod; our eco-luxe, off-grid destination.
Stepping into the elegant, open-plan glass cabin, the joy of having arrived overwhelmed us - had we really only awoken that morning in an Abel Tasman hut? Phone reception, neighbours and light pollution were non-existent - and the only thing visible through the glass walls and ceiling was the dazzling celestial display. Come morning, this would be replaced by cascading hills, a glacial river and sun-warmed fields. But for now, we stayed in the moment, books at the ready and minds at ease. Content, sun-drunk and a touch exhausted, I fell into bed, astounded by how calming even the most ridiculously planned New Zealand adventure can be.