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Walking and Kayaking in New Zealand's Abel Tasman National Park

Near the water's edge, some small irregularity in the smooth surface had caught the eye of our trekking guide. bending down, he scraped away wet, golden sand with the tip of a finger. There was a sudden glint of green. John Glasgow's find was a rare fragment of polished pounamu, the greenstone or nephrite so prized by the Maoris. Perhaps it had been a fish lure or a tiny scraper - the working of its flaked edges suggested some practical purpose.

I asked the Maori community what I should do with the piece of pounamu I found. John told us, "They said I wasn't the discoverer ... instead, it had found me, and now I was its guardian." John told us the story as we wandered along the beach at Tonga bay in the Abel Tasman National Park, on the north-west tip of New Zealand's South Island. The track, one of the country's Eight Great Walks, is a two or three day trip between Marahau in the south and Totaranui in the north. The route hugs the coast, overlooking the azure-blue waters of a string of sun-spangled bays, and climbing over the densely forested headlands dividing beach from golden beach.

As a walking route, its attracts trampers from across the world. But I found an even better way to see the Abel Tasman's forests and beaches - an intriguing combination of pleasant walking, launch cruising, and offshore explorations by sea kayak.

On my three-day expedition with Abel Tasman National Park Enterprises, I enjoyed sunny hours on the water, with the tang of salt on my lips, and easy rambling's through the green gloom of ancient forests, where the whip-crack of birdsong was the only sound to break the shady silence. And at the end of each day, there was the welcoming glow of light from the windows of a private lodge with a view to the sea, a hot shower to refresh weary muscles, and the warm scent of fresh-brewed coffee. Later on the day ended with a hearty home-cooked meal and the cheerful company of my fellow travellers.

If there's a better way to discover the pleasures and beauties of New Zealand's forests and coasts. I'd like to know about it. Abel Tasman National Park Enterprises is a family company, and that's reflected in the friendly hospitality which makes the trip so memorable for their guests. For more than a century, the Wilson family has had a close connection with the area, and today, three generations are involved in the business, offering visitors a special insight into their unique and beautiful corner of New Zealand.

John Wilson skippers the company's busy cruise launches, while his wife Lyn, runs Old Cederman House, a comfortable B & B which is also a remarkable time capsule of family memorabilia. Their son, Darryl, manages the company's operations from a bustling office in Motueka. His young children have walked the tracks, played on the golden beaches and paddled the sheltered waters, and perhaps it won't be long before they're helping to guide visitors through the native forest, or welcoming them to the company's comfortable beachfront lodges.

Although different in architecture and outlook, the two lodges offer guests the same warm welcome and high degree of comfort. Both have spacious relaxing living rooms to chat, read a book in a cosy armchair, or watch the leaping flames in the fireplace if the evening is chilly. Comfortable, well-appointed bedrooms with private facilities promise a restful sleep before the challenges of the new day.

The Torrent Bay lodge, half a dozen steps from the beach, overlooks the calm haven of Anchorage Bay. bright, light and airy, it's the perfect beach house. There are shady verandas, shell collections on the windowsill, a dinghy pulled up in the grassy dune - it's the kind of place you'd love to have for quiet weekends or long summer holidays.

A day's walk or paddle north along the sparkling coast is the Homestead Lodge at Awaroa. Here, on the site of her great grandfather's home, Meadowbank, Lyn Wilson and her family have built a careful replica of the original homestead, with its tall graceful gables and bay windows. The old gardens have been retained or restored - in the bark of a gnarled, ancient laurel tree near the front of the house, there's even a heart carved by her great-uncle, 85 years ago. Both lodges have live-in chefs, who prepare and present excellent and generous meals. Vaughan's imaginative selection of salads to accompany the evening feast at Awaroa was a special highlight, and I still remember his home-baked apple shortcake and rich, strong coffee that greeted us when we reached the lodge, pleasantly weary after the day's walk.

The knowledge and empathy of the guides was a strong feature of our Abel Tasman experience. Both John Glasgow, who guided on the track, and Janet Heinz, our capable kayaking leader have a love for the wild country and coast, and an infectious delight in sharing it. John's family also has a long connection with the area. As we sailed by aboard the cruise launch, Abel Tasman Explorer, he pointed out the family's seaside cabin in ... where else? ... Glasgow Bay.

Walking with John was a journey of discovery. With a deep understanding of the region's delicate ecology, flora and fauna, history and cultural heritage, he gave us insights that we could never have enjoyed without his knowledge and enthusiasm. Next time, I'd like to make it a five-day exploration - three days was hardly long enough. Even so, I was grateful to have discovered this jewel on the edge of the sea. Or could it have been the other way around? Perhaps, like John Glasgow's greenstone, the gleaming beaches and dark forests of Abel Tasman had instead found me.

If that were so, I'd be their guardian ... and indeed, I keep and treasure clear and bright memories of towering rimu trees, yellow sand, the slap of ripples on the kayak's hull, good company, warm friendship, and sea water blue as the sky.

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