Wednesday, October 18th, 2006

Abel Tasman was a Dutchman, an explorer and the first white man to see New Zealand. Zeeland is one of the old names for Holland. Abel Tasman never set foot on the soil here. His ship, anchored off the northern coast of the South Island, was approached by curious Maori in December of 1642, and after some predictable miscommunication and misunderstanding, there was even more predictable bloodshed. Abel Tasman sailed away never to return.

Tasman also discovered Fiji. He didn’t get off the ship there, either.

The part of New Zealand that Tasman saw but didn’t touch is where we recently spent four days. It’s hard to imagine seeing this coastline and not feeling compelled to reach it. These days it’s one of the most popular hikes in the country, a “Great Walk” that stretches some 51 kilometers northward from Maranau to Wainui Bay. While North Korea was being rebuked by the world and the Tigers were shelling Oakland to move closer to their first World Series in 22 years, we threw 35 pounds of camping gear and food on our backs and headed for the woods. It was the right decision.

Abel Tasman National Park comprises 15,000 hectares (one hectare = 2.47 acres) of second-growth forest that has been a protected area since 1942, the 300th anniversary of Tasman’s abbreviated visit. Before that it was the province of the timber conglomerate. Had it not been for the work of one woman, Perrine Moncrieff, the park may never have been established, and one of New Zealand’s – and the world’s – best places would likely have become just another denuded monument to industry rapine.

Every step we took in the park made us gladder for Moncrieff’s efforts. We are not alone in our views. It’s obvious, when you first step foot on the track here, that this is a well-visited place – the country’s most-visited park, according to the literature. The path is smooth (we hiked ¾ of it in sandals), the signage ample, and even at the end of the supposedly slow season (mid-October) we saw plenty of visitors. The campgrounds are staffed and well-groomed –grass cut, leaves raked, no sign of garbage. The toilets even have little magnetic counters on the doors to determine when they’ve serviced enough trampers and need to be refurbished.

All very British, really. Efficient. Orderly.

Abel Tasman did not entirely escape what’s known as “the milling era.” Many acres were lost: most of the park is second-growth, with very few large, old trees remaining: kiekie, supplejack, black and hard beech predominate, and some old stands of kanuka and manuka remain. (I don’t know these trees by sight, aside from the beech and kiekie, but the guidebook is very detailed. Admit it, for a second there you were impressed.) I can say firsthand that the terrain is unpredictable, ranging from subtropical to desertine. Long precipitous ravines of vine-wrapped forest – dark, wet and cool – give way starkly to coarse scrub and an almost western-U.S. dryness: hot, sandy, knuckles of thorny root reaching up from the loamy soil: a profusion of sunlight baking fields of thorny brush. Great outcroppings of lichen-covered granite jut into the trail, which winds in places like a terrace around mountainous humps, before leading steeply down the rolling rock to secluded beaches.

The fauna is equally diverse: The birdcalls were beyond us but on our own we were able to identify wood pigeons, kingfishers and quail, of course tui (very common: resembles a magpie but trills sweetly), and what I’m pretty sure was a New Zealand falcon. As well as gannets and seagulls on the beaches. And ducks, lots of ducks.

Seals – big, brown, blubbery seals – cavorted in estuaries and rivers in several areas of the park. They tell you to stay at least 20 meters from seals when they’re on land, because it’s not their natural environment and they get jittery and may charge. A charging seal is more problematic than it sounds. In water, though, they’re always playful. Lisa, standing on a suspension footbridge 30 meters overhead, recorded a group (pack? herd?) as they sunned their sleek fat bodies on the rocks. For a while they seemed to play a game with the falling leaves, batting at them with their rubbery flippers. Seal language sounds like angry coughing.

They say there are no native predators in New Zealand, but they’re wrong. They lie. I speak here of the dreaded sand fly. It didn’t take long for us to get acquainted with this evil bug.

No more ravenous creature exists under the sun or moon. On this hike we actually longed for mosquitoes (mozzies, in the local parlance), we were so weary of the ubiquitous sand fly. Mosquito bites, after all, stop itching after a few minutes. A sand fly can bite you and you’ll be scratching the same red welt two weeks later. They look harmless, about a quarter the size of a normal housefly, but sand flies attack in swarms and are undeterred by all but the most potent bug sprays. They are near impossible to kill by swatting. I got lucky and killed a few of them with point-blank shots of repellent. I enjoyed watching the little bloodsuckers writhe in agony before expiring: payment, in part, for the sins of their cousins. I wish I’d killed more, and I’m not sorry.

Ask a ranger and he or she will tell you the biggest problem in New Zealand’s parks is not sand flies, but possums. All along the track we spotted small, oblong cages marked “Predator Control” and designed to capture the possum, an invasive rodent much villainized by Kiwis. Seems they raid nests and garbage cans, and deprive birds of food. Some Aussie is said to have illegally imported them in 1837 or thereabouts, and now they number in the millions and can’t be eradicated. Even as New Zealand tries, they celebrate the effort by putting possums on postcards.

No word on the success of the effort, but none of the boxes we saw was occupied.

Later, we learned firsthand just how big the possum problem is in this country.

In the meantime, we thought we’d discovered a bigger problem. Our first night we camped at Anchorage, the park’s largest campground, and were quickly surrounded by a group of twenty kayaking Americans who stayed up late into the night, drinking and talking and seemingly encouraged in their rowdiness by their guide, a young Kiwi woman with a voice like a rooster. She spoke only in capital letters. I used to live with a guy like that, in college. Exclamation points at the end of every sentence: I WENT TO THE STORE AND BOUGHT SOME MILK! RIGHT ON!

Not good. But we weren’t going to be killjoys. It happens, we said, no big deal. Let it slide. But we were a little worried that it be the norm on this trip.

Our second night couldn’t have been more different. At a place called Bark Bay we were all alone. Campsites for eighty and we had the place to ourselves.

I asked Bark Bay’s ranger (they may call them something else here, don’t know) if it was unusual to have so much elbow room.

“Nothing’s unusual,” he said with the air of a country philosopher. His name was Lew. “It’s early in the season.”

“I only ask because last night we were at Anchorage and we had a large party of kayakers and they were up late – ”

“How late were they up?” he asked pointedly.

“Oh, only till about 10:30, 11 – ”

“And they were noisy?”


“And they kept you awake?”

“For a while, yes, but – ”

“Were they on a guided tour?”

“Yes. But ” – I laughed a bit, nervously – “she, the guide that is, was the loudest one.”

He fixed me with a hard, inquisitive look. “Young woman? Short, lots of pep?”

“That’s the one.” I noticed suddenly that he was writing all this down. “But listen, I don’t want to get anyone in trouble – ”

“No trouble. But we’ve had this problem with them before. I know just who you’re talking about.” Lew finished his note-taking. “Now listen” – and he looked very seriously at me – “people come out here to get away from that sort of thing. I want you to have a nice, quiet night tonight. Sleep well. All right? Cheers.”

And off he went to make sure the bathrooms were well-stocked with toilet paper. I never got to tell him before we left in the morning that we would have slept perfectly well – if not for trouble of an altogether inhuman nature. Trouble that as much as he might like to, Lew couldn’t have done much to help us with.

Trouble the whole nation of New Zealand has struggled with.

Possum trouble.


Hey everyone, just wanted to drop a note to let you know you can now view our New Zealand North Island pics by clicking here or by clicking on the photos on the right hand column in the blog. Enjoy! More photo brilliance with the South Island as our subject coming soon.

 P.S. If you haven’t already checked out our other amazing pictures, click here.