Tucked away in the northern reaches of South Island lies Marahau, a quaint village home to just 500 residents. In this tranquil haven, you’ll find two restaurants and a charming local wine shop nestled along the bay. When we arrive at the Abel Tasman Kayaks Base, we do not anticipate encountering any fellow Asian travellers – let alone Thai. This idyllic coastal enclave, devoid of shopping malls and karaoke bars, seldom attracts Asian tourists. However, we are mistaken.
Here, amid a cluster of sea kayaks on the shore, a Chinese couple patiently awaits their briefing. Nearby, a young Arab gentleman meticulously inspects his camera. A Ukrainian couple takes turns adjusting each other’s life jackets, and then there are Jang and I, hailing from Thailand. Six Asian adventurers find themselves in this remote town of 500 souls, nestled at the southern tip of the world—a surprising gathering, to say the least.
“Marahau’s local population is frequently outnumbered by visitors, especially during the summer months,” explains Jack, a Kiwi man who operates Abel Tasman Kayaks. “The Abel Tasman National Park, just a stone’s throw from our kayak base, lures in both day-trippers and weekend explorers, drawn by the promise of eco-tourism activities such as sea kayaking and hiking along the coastal trails.”
According to Jack, Marahau is gradually gaining recognition among Chinese and Japanese travellers, yet this tranquil coastal settlement likely remains unheard of in Thailand. In fact, Jang and I are the first two Thai individuals ever to set foot in Marahau.
This revelation does not astonish me. Thai tourists in New Zealand tend to favour group tours, with travel agencies seldom including a pit stop in a small town of 500 Kiwis like Marahau in their itineraries. However, we opt for a different approach. As part of our 10-day road trip through South Island, Marahau has been on our agenda from the outset, thanks to a recommendation from New Zealand Tourism.
New Zealand Tourism claims that no visit to the Nelson Tasman region is complete without exploring Marahau. But why is a town with just 500 residents worth exploring?
At first glance, as we cruise in our 4-WD Toyota along the coastline of Sandy Bay, it appears that people are more inclined to leave this town than to arrive. As we approach, small cottages, boats, and signposts come into view, yet there is nary a soul in sight—not even a solitary sheep. However, a town need not be bustling to be considered the best. The true beauty of Marahau will reveal itself once we embark on our sea kayaking adventure.
“For visitors, Marahau is renowned for outdoor activities within the Abel Tasman National Park,” shares Tom, my sea kayaking guide. “The park offers a unique environment accessible both by land and sea, characterized by its golden beaches, granite rock headlands, and the crystal-blue waters of Tasman Bay. Visitors flock here for sea kayaking and leisurely walks along the scenic trails.”
The sea resembles a mirror—serene, blue, and refreshingly cool. Our journey to the first cove is a bit challenging, with the wind working against us and the waters growing choppy as we veer away from the harbour. Nevertheless, the effort is well rewarded. Jang occupies the front seat of our sit-in sea kayak, and her excitement surges each time we encounter seabirds and swans. At one point, we inadvertently venture too close to a seagull mother’s nest perched on a cliff, prompting her to emit a series of alarmed “quacks.” We quickly distance ourselves to avoid any further disturbance, aware that an angry mob of seagulls could teach us a lesson in respecting wildlife.
Apart from seabirds, encounters with seals are also a possibility. One of the most popular destinations for kayakers in Abel Tasman National Park is Tonga Island, located to the east of Onetahuti beach. The island hosts a colony of New Zealand fur seals and enjoys the status of a protected Marine Mammal Reserve. With the guidance of an authorized expert, you can peacefully paddle around the island, forging a gentle understanding with its resident seals. Although we do not venture that far, as our kayaking adventure is set to conclude at Anchorage Bay—halfway between Marahau and Tonga Island—we are fortunate to witness a seal locked in a tussle with an octopus in the distance.
“Our seal friend is in for a considerable challenge, as octopuses are known to put up quite the fight,” our guide remarks as he directs our attention to the swirling waters where the spectacle unfolds. Four pairs of arms square off against two hands and two legs, or whatever remains of the octopus. In the end, the seal emerges victorious, securing the octopus as its brunch.
After this exhilarating sea adventure, we settle down for a picnic at Anchorage Bay. Tom spreads out a beachside feast, complete with sandwiches, fresh fruit, muffins, and steaming hot beverages. This tranquil bay, with its golden-sandy beach and captivating ocean views, provides the perfect backdrop for our meal, making a simple sandwich taste twice as delightful as it should.
From Anchorage Bay, our next adventure awaits—hiking southward back to Marahau. Our guide equips us with a map and provides a brief overview of the trek. “Head south and keep the ocean on your left-hand side,” he advises. The Chinese couple appears somewhat apprehensive at the prospect of being alone in the woods for four hours.
As it turns out, the hike is more of a leisurely stroll than a challenging trek. Part of the Abel Tasman Coastal Track, one of New Zealand’s renowned Great Walks, the trail extends approximately 12 kilometres from Anchorage Bay to Marahau. Well-marked signs and sturdy bridges over streams and creeks make it accessible to trekkers of all ages, from six to sixty. Along the way, we occasionally encounter fellow hikers exploring the woodlands.
As we meander along the trail, some of New Zealand’s most iconic coastal vistas unfold before us—golden sandy beaches, the vivid azure expanse of the sea, and a rich tapestry of native forest hues and textures. Jang often pauses to embrace the towering trees, visibly ecstatic to connect with nature. Between the beaches, we venture into regenerating native beech and podocarp forests, traversing headlands that reward us with breathtaking panoramic vistas. On occasion, we pause to observe curious quails with peculiar top-knots darting about the trail.
Hit the Open Road in the South Island
From sea kayaking throughout Abel Tasman National Park to eating green mussels in Havelock and washing them down with Marlborough’s best Sauvignon Blanc, to driving across the gorgeous landscape to Mount Cook, New Zealand’s South Island is a perfect trip. To discover the spirit of the island, with its beauty and wide space, no organized tour can make your fantasy come true – only self-drive at your own pace.
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After a satisfying four-hour journey of walking, strolling, and exploring the wilderness, we finally emerge from the forest and onto an expansive, empty, flat, golden-sandy beach. We rest our weary feet on a bench at Sandy Bay, observing as the quiet beach community gradually comes to life. A man strolls along the promenade with his pack of dogs, while a pre-teen boy sits on the beach, propped against his BMX, gazing thoughtfully out over Sandy Bay. In the distance, a woman enjoys her solitary moment along the endless beach.
Our hotel is just a short walk from the beach, and we have no rush to return. Jang treats herself to an ice cream, while I secure two bottles of local wine—a fitting conclusion.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
To reach Marahau, we travel with Thai Airways from Bangkok to Auckland. From Auckland, we take an Air New Zealand flight to Nelson, a city located on the eastern shores of Tasman Bay in the South Island. Marahau is approximately a one-hour drive from Nelson.
WHERE TO STAY IN MARAHAU
New Zealand offers a plethora of accommodation options. During our 10-day road trip across the South Island, we encounter a diverse range of accommodations, from self-contained lodges to stylish full-service resorts. In Marahau, we find delightful lodging at the Abel Tasman Marahau Lodge (www.abeltasmanmarahaulodge.co.nz). Nestled between the small township of Marahau and the entrance to the Abel Tasman National Park, this self-contained lodge provides us with a clean and comfortable two-bedroom cottage complete with a balcony overlooking the spacious private garden. It proves to be an ideal base for exploring the natural beauty of the national park.