The last time I went sea kayaking was in Northern California and we dragged our boats for a mile and paddled out through crashing head high surf and at night we ate canned sardines and slept on rocks. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Certainly not a 90 ft yacht ride through the little islands of Abel Tasman National Park on the northern tip of the South Island. Nor did I anticipate crab salad served on the deck with local Chardonnay. Nor the green water Onetahuti Bay with a curve of white sand beach, an icy waterfall spilling from the woods, a camp of wall tents already set up, with cots and fresh linens, the hiss of sautéed shrimp from a propane stove, and the tang of spicy scallop ettoufe wafting through camp. I thought, if there were grizzly bears in New Zealand, everyone within five miles would have followed the scent trail like the uncurling thread in a cartoon. Kim pushed through the flap of our tent with a broad smile, holding up her trophy: there was a truffle on her cot.
Rob Douglas of Simply Wild, a bespoke adventure tour company, set up this section of our trip. A veteran of eight Coast to Coast Races, (150 miles of mountain running, cycling and whitewater kayaking,) he believes in playing hard and living soft. While dinner simmered we swam off the sand, and as dusk filled the cove like a tide and an ocean of stars deepened overhead, we wriggled through a slot opening in the rock cliff at the end of the beach and in the pitch overhead glimmered points of light that mimicked the sky outside. Glow worms. Making their own weird planetarium.
In the morning we set out for six hours of kayaking hard along a coast of dense lush forest backing coves and little bays, each with a windswept beach and almost no people. A little blue penguin swam by. Seals barked on small rocky island, and clear rivers flowed out of the hills into estuaries so vividly blue and green they seemed more a Peter Jackson creation than of this earth. Red billed oystercatchers crowded the sand spits, and stately herons, and white breasted cormorants. We had the tide with us and kayaked up the slow rivers – the Falls, the Torrent – into the deep shade of the woods. Some of the shaggy rimu trees were 800 years old, the rata trees flowered red. Country so stunning, we didn’t even notice the work of paddling. As the afternoon wind kicked up and sent spray into our faces, I wondered why so much of the tourism craze for New Zealand lately was based on the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit movies, based on a fantasy land when the real one, right here, right now, was so incomparably beautiful.