Abel Tasman National Park

Our walk began with a series of pristine golden beaches and towering manuka stands. The little fantail birds waved us along like tiny air traffic controllers while just a few steps forward, the bellbird insisted we pause to hear its mesmerizing song. And so there we were, stuck in some kind of dream again. With so many awe-inspiring New Zealand landscapes already under our belts, it seemed almost superfluous that we had found yet another. So just to be sure, we shook out our limbs, pinched ourselves twice, and bravely pushed on. As we headed deeper and deeper into our good luck and disbelief, we began to feel giddily optimistic about the fate of the Earth…in those five days, the sun, the scenery, and our good spirits never once failed us.

The Abel Tasman Coastal Track stretches along 60 kilometers of the serendipitously serene coastline that makes up the 700-acre Abel Tasman National Park. It is the smallest of New Zealand’s national parks, sitting in the northwest corner of the South Island, but it features one of the country’s most popular Great Walks. They say that the track’s mild climate and leisurely elevation changes make it accessible for all skill levels, but the real secret is that water taxis and luggage transfers are available between each overnight stopping point. I could never quite hide my surprise when I saw an extremely obese person or a lady in heels walking down a trail that the Department of Conservation advertises as “backcountry.”

We consider ourselves to be pretty badass, however, so we snubbed the water taxis and carried everything on our backs. I Sherpa-ed the big backpack myself because Damián had hurt his shoulder the week before. The doctor recommended that he avoided hauling any weight so he only took on our small camera backpack. I carried the big one for the whole five days, but Damián was quick to point out that my altruism was actually just a cheap attention-grab.

“What is it with you Americans?” he scoffed on day two. “You always have to be the hero. I can probably carry it for a little while now. My shoulder doesn’t hurt that bad, just let me take it.”

“No, absolutely not!” I insisted publicly and with excessive flair, possibly unfurling an imaginary American flag in my mind. “I can do this – for you and for my country – and besides, you need to take care of yourself, honey.”

“You just like it when people walk by and realize that this tiny girl is carrying all that weight, “ Damián accused. “You just like the attention.” He was mostly right. I bathed in the looks of amazement we received as I huffed it up a hill, hunched over and breathing hard, while Damián just glided on ahead, unburdened and almost impatient for my arrival to the top. More than one man offered to carry the pack for awhile, totally aghast at Damián’s lack of chivalry. I flatly refused any help but I always puffed out my chest in a show of great feminine pride.

Damián rolled his eyes. “Let’s go, Abel Tasman Warrior Princess. Keep it moving…Nothing to see here, folks.”

In fact, becoming an Abel Tasman Warrior Princess was a lot easier than I had anticipated. At the Tourism Office in Takaka a few weeks before, I had been told that Abel Tasman was a “a backcountry trail” and thus, I immediately activated all of my backcountry protocol. This includes buying water-purifying tablets and safety flares, restocking the emergency kit, carefully calculating our food supply and repackaging to achieve weight reduction, notifying family members of our trip plans, and looking into renting a satellite phone.

“We do not need a satellite phone,” Damián had argued. “Seriously, stop trying to be a hero.”

“Hey – you don’t know, city boy,” I chirped. “I’ve spent two months in Montana. THE wilderness. I know what I’m doing.”

I was forced to eat my own words almost immediately because after the first day, it became clear that Abel Tasman was not at all “backcountry.” The “primitive huts” that I thought we had booked each night were actually really nice bungalows with flush toilets, cold showers, and kitchens with tap water. One of them even had a cell phone charging station. (WTF?) Park rangers were on hand at every overnight location to check in campers and the trail itself was so wide and flat that it could have easily been designated as wheelchair accessible. Initially, I was quite disappointed that our great big adventure turned out to be just a great big vacation, but I adjusted quickly.

With picture perfect skies every day and all of our basic necessities under control, the only thing left to fear was the wildlife, which is a bit of a joke. There are no dangerous or large land mammals present on current day New Zealand and so no matter what terrible sound you hear from the bushes, the biggest thing that is going to jump out at you is a bird, and probably a little one at that. Even the largest bird – the moa (about the size of an ostrich) – was hunted to extinction by the Maori hundreds of years ago.

So, thanks to the unique history of New Zealand, my metamorphosis into the Abel Tasman Warrior Princess was complete from day one. I had no qualms about being the first to ford the stream or going to the bathroom alone in the middle of the night. I didn’t worry about checking my bed for harmful bugs or snakes because I knew there would be none and any strange sound from the trees never caused my heart to skip a beat because it was almost always the ever-harmless Weka, which can only be described as a kind of exotic wild chicken.

My only test came when a sugar low caught Damián off-guard after he had climbed up a big cliff face overlooking the sea. We had been hiking for two hours and it was quite hot, but he seemed to be stuck under a waterfall. He was sweating a lot. Immediately, my hero instincts kicked into high gear.

“Damián, do you need a Gluc Up?” I asked.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he snapped. “I’m perfectly fine.” Unexpected rudeness is usually the first sign he is going down. I watched him carefully for a moment and he awkwardly inched his way farther up the cliff face with less grace than usual. He appeared to be drunk, which is another common characteristic of someone on a low.

“Damián, why don’t you come down from there?” I suggested, trying to keep as much sweetness as possible in my voice. “The trail doesn’t go that way.”

“Are you crazy?” he scoffed. “After all that effort to get up here? I’m never coming down. I’m king of this cliff!”

It’s hard for me not to laugh when he says such out-of-character things like this and I immediately feel bad after doing so. I suddenly find my husband has been taken over by a five-year-old kid with an attitude. But the situation was serious. I didn’t want him anywhere near that ledge. I fished around for a Gluc Up 15 in my backpack and threw it at him. He did not catch it. Another telltale sign. It took him a few seconds to locate it on the ground. He picked it up and stared at it.

“Go on and take it, please,” I said patiently.

Damián shook his head. “No. I’m not hungry.”

“Damián,” I pleaded. “You need to eat that. Just trust me.”

He looked at me curiously, at the Gluc Up pack, and then back at me. “Ashley? Will this save my life?”

I tried not to smile. I wondered how aware he was of what he was saying. It seemed like some part of him knew what I was trying to communicate, but the rest of him had wandered elsewhere. “Yes, Damián,” I promised. “It will. It always does. Why don’t you come down here on the trail and eat it next to me?”

And miraculously, he did. I never know if he is going to listen to my requests or if I will be locked into some bizarre battle to get him to ingest sugar. It always depends on how low he has gone. The wait for Damián to return to his normal self is usually 15-20 minutes, but it always feels longer, excruciatingly long, and I never quite trust him when he’s back.

“Are you OK?” I ask him over and over again until finally I can detect enough clarity in his voice and focus in his gaze to be convinced. Sometimes, I ask him to measure his glucose levels so that I can be sure. Other times, he simply snaps out of it and asks me, “What happened?”

We got over it quickly, but my Abel Tasman Warrior Princess enthusiasm had been checked. Just when everything really did feel perfect, diabetes reared its ugly head and reminded us that we must always, always be on our toes and a safe distance away from the cliff edge.

As the days progressed, we adjusted Damián’s insulin dose to fit better with the amount of exercise we accomplished each day and I made a practice of checking in with him more often. We were extremely grateful for the Gluc Up 15 packs that we had on hand because they provided the fastest and most reliable solution to a low and they’re very lightweight to carry, ideal for backpacking.

We walked an average of 12-15 kms per day, stopping at many beaches along the way. Each beach seemed more beautiful than the last. Each hut had its own unique character, but the last one was definitely my favorite, the Whariwharangi Bay. It was the only hut without electricity and the furthest from the trailhead, which meant a lot of people didn’t make it that far. The building itself was a lovely old 1898 farmstead. It now served as a hiking refuge, tucked in the woods about five minutes from the calm waters of the bay.

It was an incredibly peaceful place and we all arrived feeling victorious, having made it to the last night of our hike. We had fallen into this beautifully simple routine of walking, swimming, eating, playing cards, watching the sunset, sleeping, and repeating, and I didn’t want it to end. Life felt really really good in Abel Tasman.

I took a walk alone along the beach at sunset and stumbled upon the only unsettling part of the evening. There was a carcass of a dead whale washed up on the beach. In fact, it was actually tied to a tree to prevent the ocean from taking it back. I was told that the park rangers do this because after the seagulls eat away the flesh of the animal, the Maori people use the bones for their handicrafts.

I was astounded by the scene. The whale had always been a beloved, magical animal of my childhood. Since I grew up nowhere near the ocean, it had always seemed like a mythical creature to me.To finally see it, but in death, disturbed some deep part of my soul. It was already in the advanced stages of decomposition. The smell was overpowering and about a half a dozen seagulls were pecking away at its insides, oblivious to my discomfort. Yet the whale’s eyeballs were still intact and staring towards the sea, its mouth, frozen in a sort of half-smile. It seemed so human.

Just a month before, hundreds of whales died in a mass stranding in Golden Bay, not too far from where we were camped. Hundreds. I could not fathom what that looked like when I was having trouble wrapping my head around just one.

I stood there for a long time, watching Nature have its way with the whale as the sun sank down over a lonely horizon. I thought about a lot of things and at the same time, I thought about nothing. But mostly, I worried. I worried that beautiful places like Abel Tasman and majestic animals like the whale are under greater and greater threat each day. I worried that there won’t be anything left. Not for me or you or future generations to enjoy, but just the right for these wild places and beings to exist. To exist for the sake of existing, not for the benefit of humankind. Running through all our wrongdoings towards Mother Earth, I found myself wishing for human extinction.

At its core, it was a selfish thought. Because after completing the Abel Tasman Track, I felt I could die in peace. Or maybe I’d already died? It was so truly incomprehensibly beautiful here….

On these occasions, I am certain that our endless search for happiness is really just humankinds’ misunderstood quest to return to Nature, our roots in the natural world. We’ve distanced ourselves so far from that first home. And in some weird way that I can’t fully explain, that’s what I felt in that moment on the beach: me, the living being, the dead whale, and the peaceful ocean breeze. Home. I felt home.  A sad but happy circle of life stared me in the face, reminding me to stay humble.To remain as close as possible to the ground.



The Abel Tasman Great Walk is one of the most popular Great Walks in New Zealand. For that reason, it is important to make your camping or hut reservations well in advance. We secured our reservations two months prior to our trip but we probably found spots open only because we could be flexible with our dates. If you are traveling to New Zealand in a specific time frame and you want to enjoy the Abel Tasman Great Walk, it is not uncommon for people to book the huts 8-10 months in advance. People will often book in advance and cancel later (see terms and conditions) so if you don’t see your dates available, it’s a good idea to check the website frequently for any changes.

Huts are more difficult to secure than campsites. If you are looking for a campsite, you will likely be okay booking 1-2 months in advance. Keep in mind that peak season is December-February. We went in late March which is considered “shoulder season” and there were still a lot of people, so we can’t imagine what the park is like when it’s really busy. We paid $38 NZD per hut and campsites cost $15 NZD. Both huts and campsites are equipped with long drop toilet facilities but other amenities vary according to the campsite.

If you’re going to do the hike, be wary of rain and sand flies. While we were lucky not to get any rain on our hike, we were told by every park ranger that this is not the norm. Be prepared for just as much rain as sun. Stock up insect repellent or wear long sleeves and pants because the sand flies can be vicious.

You will also have to arrange transportation from the track’s finish back to your vehicle. You can either do this by land via bus or private transfer or by water. We recommend using Abel Tasman Aqua Taxi. They let us park our car in their secure, private parking lot for the four nights we were on the hike and kept some of our valuables locked up for us. On our last day, we retraced our steps to Totaranui Bay (approx 2. hours), which is the furthest pick-up point from the start of the trail. For $47 NZD per person, an aqua taxi will pick you up and bring you back to the trailhead. We felt this was the best option because of the added assurance that our car and valuables would be safe. Additionally, our boat ride back to the base, with views of the glittering coastline, allowed us to marvel at the distance we had walked in those five days.


If you’re intimidated about managing your diabetes in a backcountry setting, don’t worry, Abel Tasman is not backcountry. There is a fair amount of cell phone access, water taxis coming and going regularly, and a park ranger at every overnight hut, so you’ll never be far from medical attention.

However, going on a five-day hike does imply a major change in routine so it’s best to be extra vigilant about your glucose levels. In Damián’s case, he observed how his body responded to the increase in exercise and adjusted by cutting in half the amount of rapid insulin he injected at breakfast. He completely skipped his lunch injection and he maintained his usual dose at dinner. He always made sure to have a supply of Gluc Up 15 or granola bars on hand to correct any lows. His carbohydrate intake was relatively easy to control because we were eating pre-cooked cardboard box meals. It wasn’t the healthiest option but it was the lightest and after four days of it, we were no worse for the wear. These were the adjustments that worked for us but keep in mind that every body is different and you will need to make your own calculations.

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