Able Were We, on the Abel Tasman Track

This is camping in New Zealand? On our four-day hike we had no heavy packs to carry and slept in real beds

ABEL TASMAN didn't get a very friendly welcome when he dropped anchor near Whariwharangi Beach on New Zealand's South Island in 1642. The Dutch explorer's brief visit ended with four of his men being killed by Maoris.

He never came back, but 300 years to the day later, the New Zealand government gave his name to a park. Today, the tiny, 22,500-hectare (90 square-mile) Abel Tasman National Park, on the northern tip of the South Island is the most popular of all New Zealand's parks and is visited by 25,000 people a year.

Rock music blasting at 6 a.m. on the bus from the charming town of Nelson to the park seemed an equally unfriendly welcome for us. But it got better.

On a four-day trek through the park, we discovered why it's so popular: The trek was more than civilized. We had guides, carried no packs, and had real beds and home-cooked food.

In addition, while the Milford Track farther south is world-renowned for its stunning views of mountains, fjords, and lakes, it is harder to reach and requires a greater time commitment. The Abel Tasman Track, a coastal trail, is known for its proximity to civilization, gentler climbs, and views of the ocean glinting through the trees. And because of the mild weather, it's open when the Milford Track is closed.

On Day 1 the aural torture of the bus trip ended when we were switched to a boat at Kaiteriteri. The half-day boat tour took us along the rocky coastline, past the aptly named Split-Apple Rock and sparkling turquoise water. We pulled in and out of wide stretches of empty bays that our guides told us would be jammed with 60 to 70 yachts come summer. At Tonga Bay, the boat dropped off the nine of us for the guided walk. All we had to carry were light day-packs.

We had a 12-kilometer (7.5-mile) walk ahead of us. The Abel Tasman trail is a series of paths that used to link farms. We trekked up and down high ridges overlooking the Pacific and through cool gullies.

Our guides, Geoff Button and Paris Brady, nimble as mountain-goats helped us cross a swing bridge and pointed out waterfalls, massive stone blocks from a defunct granite quarry, and the remains of a railroad that ended in the sand. High on a bluff we looked down on Frenchman's Bay, one of many lovely bays we were to see. It had just one cabin nestled in the trees.

We spotted a bell bird or two, passed rimu trees that were from 1,000 to 1,200 years old, huge ferns, and an estuary. Pitt Head was a Maori defense point dating from presettlement times: It had steep sides, narrow ridge access, and views of the sea.

We passed several hikers ``freedom walking'' the Abel Tasman - carrying their own gear and sleeping in designated Spartan huts. In summer, we were told, carrying tents is mandatory, because the huts fill up.

After the at-times rigorous walk, it was lovely to be pampered. The last stretch of the trail took us across a long, yellow-sand beach. We followed our noses to a green house from which wafted the welcome fragrance of dinner. Shells, glass buoys, and birds' nests decorated the house. We set up in our rooms, took hot showers, then repaired to the veranda for refreshments and chats with our fellow travelers.

You could, if you felt anti- social or lazy, do little more than watch the dramatic 14-foot tide come in and swamp the sandbars. Or watch birds swoop off on mysterious errands. Or read -

the house was stocked with a variety of suitably obscure old books and magazines.

For the more adventuresome, there were fishing lines, rowboats, kayaks, and canoes available free of charge.

My gang was a good one. There were two young men from Luxembourg, two young women from Germany, a couple from Bavaria, and a couple from Australia. German speakers outnumbered English speakers, but the former chose to practice their English and teach us Letzeburgish (the Luxembourg language).

Two decks of ``Uno'' cards provided a universal language. Rosi, the dynamic German who became ringleader, kept inflicting ``nwools'' (new rules). While we played out international politics through cards late into the night, Paris and Geoff kayaked under a full moon.

Day 2 dawned equally sunny. After a breakfast of potato omelets, we headed out along the steeper, more inland part of the trail. The high point was scrabbling through bush to discover ``Cleopatra's Pool,'' so named because the rock formation looks like a statue of a woman lying on her side.

If it had been summer, we could have slid down a rock slide, made a sharp left turn at Cleopatra's back, and splashed into the pool.

That was about the only time I wished it were summer. Spring in New Zealand is fickle; we could have had sun or pouring rain. But it was mostly sunny, we had the place to ourselves, and there were fewer nasty, biting sand flies now than there are in summer.

The Wilson family has operated Abel Tasman Enterprises - the concession for the house, the guided walks, and the boat - for 17 years. They renovated a former beach house in 1986; it now sleeps 18 to 20 in nine bedrooms. The boat is piloted by John Wilson and his son Mark. Our cook was their youngest daughter, Julia, whose first visit here was when she was two weeks old.

``We get all ages,'' Julia says, as she rolls out the pavlova, a New Zealand dessert made from egg whites, fruit, and whipped cream. ``But a lot of older people come because they don't have to carry their gear.''

Clouds rolled in on Day 3, but it stayed warm. We had a 6-km (3.75-mile) climb to a waterfall, then ate lunch next to a pool. Geoff mysteriously banged a rock on the side of the pool.

``Just watch,'' he said.

Soon, a yard-long eel swam out from behind some rocks. Geoff got out some long bacon rinds and dangled them into the water. The eel bit, Geoff tugged, but the eel won. We all got turns feeding it. After the sluggish eel wouldn't eat any more and sank behind a rock, we hurried back down to get in some kayaking before the tide went out too far.

On Day 4 we said goodbye to Julia and took off for the final 14-km (8.75-mile) hike. We passed a kind of moonscape of felled pine trees. Pines, which are not native, tend to take over.

So the Department of Conservation has chopped down entire forests of them. The project is part of a giant recovery experiment by the government that is trying to encourage native plants to take over from introduced species.

In the end, the Abel Tasman National Park gave this gang from several countries a far better welcome than Abel Tasman himself received.

``We saw a different side of New Zealand,'' said John Morwood of Geelong, Australia. ``Last time it was the mountains, but this time coastal plain,'' he said as we all bid farewell. ``We expected to be with a number of people from different countries, and we enjoyed that,'' he added.

* The four-day Abel Tasman National Park Tour costs $680 (NZ; US$374) for adults, $500 (NZ; US$275) for children. A six-day trip is also available. Contact your local travel agent or: The New Zealand Tourism Board, 501 Santa Monica Blvd., No. 300, Santa Monica, Calif. 90401.

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