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In the dog days of winter, consider hiking in New Zealand

Alone with his thoughts, a satisfied hiker surveys a golden sunset on the Abel Tasman Coast Track in New Zealand. (William Brock / Courtesy)
Alone with his thoughts, a satisfied hiker surveys a golden sunset on the Abel Tasman Coast Track in New Zealand. (William Brock / Courtesy)
By William Brock For The Spokesman-Review

Most folks don’t know it, but a multiday backpacking trip in New Zealand would do them a world of good at this time of year. Down there, in the sun-drenched days of deepest summer, thermal refugees from the Northern Hemisphere can hike in shorts, swim in the rivers and nap in the shade of 15-foot tall ferns.

My wife, daughters and I were there recently, hiking in Abel Tasman National Park along the northwest coast of the South Island. The landscape was spectacular, the flora and fauna were amazing, and every day brought something new.

There were stingrays zipping around in 4 inches of water, right next to the beach. There were hungry orcas on the prowl for stingrays. And there were freshwater eels as long as your leg.

Abel Tasman National Park is a land apart, remarkably similar to Big Sur on the California coast, but filled with riotous plant life befitting a rainforest. It’s a breathtaking union of land and sea, speckled with limpid blue bays, mysterious caves and graceful capes nestled in the arms of the sea.

A well-maintained trail runs through the park, skirting the coast, with plenty of spur trails down to lovely beaches and huts maintained by the country’s Department of Conservation.

Don’t expect solitude, because the Abel Tasman Coast Track is one of the most popular hiking trails in New Zealand. Visitors come from all over the world, and a cacophony of languages is heard around the huts and campsites. Bunks inside the huts sell out months in advance, and even pitching a tent requires a prior reservation and a per-person fee of $30 (NZ) per night.

Once you’re on the trail, however, all the hassle and expense fades away, and the overwhelming sensation is one of wonderment. At times, the trees and ferns close in overhead, leaving hikers in cool, green tunnels that stretch for hundreds of yards. Beautiful birdsong fills the air. Beneath it all, there’s the restless sound of the sea.

The tides are profound, often 7 or 8 feet, and they move with startling speed. Entire bays can fill or drain in a matter of minutes – leaving powerboats and sailboats stranded on the sandy flats. The sand, coarse and granular, is the color of honey.

No matter where you look, there’s plenty to keep the eye busy.

Huge ferns dot the hillsides, each one a cascade of leafy fronds, with every frond as delicate as the lace doilies in grandmother’s parlor. Beguiling streams tumble from the heights, and every vantage point reveals a new page from the Book of Paradise.

Because it’s next to the sea, the Abel Tasman Coast Track is not a high, alpine trail. There’s plenty of rain, but there’s no snow and it doesn’t get cold. The trail does some climbing here and there, but it is largely flat, wide and well-maintained. Simply put, the hiking is easy.

Long-haul hikers with big packs are the exception, not the rule, as the trails are awash with day hikers. Thanks to the flexibility provided by commercial water taxis, day hikers can hop off at beautiful beach No. 1 and get then picked up, hours later, at beautiful beach No. 2.

The real beauty of Abel Tasman National Park is revealed over the course of days, not hours, as its moods evolve through fog, mist, rain and sun. Given enough time, there are opportunities to swim in the Tasman Sea, explore its rocky inlets, or simply sit on a piece of driftwood and soak in everything.

Gannet birds dive like osprey, plunging into the sea for fish. Stingrays (specifically, eagle rays) as big as bath mats zoom around like aquatic UFOs, clearly visible from the beach. Now and then, orcas breach the surface, their narrow dorsal fins sticking 3 or 4 feet out of the water.

As dawn approaches and the evening rains begin to ease, ethereal birdsong fills the air. At times, it sounds like the high flutes of a pipe organ – each note clear and distinct from the others.

On the second day of our hike, after a night of heavy rain, we took a short side-hike to a lovely waterfall/swimming hole called Cleopatra’s Pool. We ate lunch on a flat rock at water’s edge. As we were finishing up, my eldest daughter, Sage, announced she was going for a swim. A moment later, a thick brown eel lazily finned its way to the surface right next to us.

It was an unsettling moment and, upon further reflection, Sage declared she wasn’t going swimming after all.

The fact that freshwater eels can grow to 3 feet or more speaks volumes about the unspoiled nature of Abel Tasman National Park. Maybe that’s because it’s an absolute gem, and those who visit – foreigners and locals alike – treat it with the respect it deserves.

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