Remember how in the Oregon Trail computer game when you reached a river you were always given a choice to ford it or not, and you always chose to ford it thinking “Yeah, it’ll probably be okay, and it’s so much faster,” and then you and/or your oxen always drowned? That choose-your-own-fate decision screen was at the forefront on my mind on the first night of last week’s tramp in Abel Tasman National Park. I’ll write about my whole four-day hiking adventure later this week, because it was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had here in New Zealand, but there was one moment on the trip that is worthy of its own post as the most terrifying experience I’ve had while travelling to date.
For the most part, the Abel Tasman Coastal Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, is a fairly relaxed hike, with well-defined paths and only a few hundred metres of elevation climb over it’s ~60km (we did about 50km due to our schedule and a slip that made the trail north of Anapai Bay inaccessible). However, there is one section that is far more than a leisurely walk in the park: the Awaroa inlet crossing.
Immediately to the north of Awaroa hut is a river mouth that can only be crossed two hours either side of low tide… unless you want to swim. I checked the tide tables for the day we were beginning our hike from Totaranui campsite, about 7km north of Awaroa, and believed that low tide was around 5pm, meaning we could cross sometime after 3pm. Unfortunately, I was informed by the water taxi operator who was transporting us from Marahau to the start of our tramp that I had actually misread the table; the low tide that day wasn’t until 9pm. No worries, we thought, we’d do a couple of side trails and when we reached the start of the crossing we could easily chill out for a few hours on the beach until it was time to cross.
At first, things went according to plan. We arrived in Totaranui and hiked north to Anapai beach. After returning to Totaranui and stopping for lunch, we continued on for two hours or so until we reached the Awaroa inlet shoreline around 4:30pm. When we arrived, we thoroughly understood why crossing before the allotted timeframe was not going to happen:
At the base of that little dip in the two hills was the hut. It’s a good thing we took note of that for later.
So we arrived with the intention of chilling out, making some food, and waiting for the water to recede. It started raining almost immediately. We retreated back under the trees to keep our packs dry, and returned to the beach when the rain let up about half an hour later. To our surprise, after a few minutes another couple arrived on the shoreline. We hadn’t encountered anyone else on the trail all day (the perk of hiking in winter), but suddenly there they were, two young French hikers walking out of the bush.
Even more surprising was the fact that when we went back under cover to retrieve our packs and then returned to the beach once more, only one of them was still there. We were shocked to realise that the boy had started off into the water, and the girl had changed into shorts and removed her boots to follow. It was only 5:30pm, nearly two hours before the recommended window of safe crossing. By this time, the rain had let up but the sun had set. We couldn’t see the Frenchman in the river, just the light from his head torch. The girl took off, almost immediately up to her knees in the stream, and soon, she too, was nearly out of sight.
Maybe they knew something we didn’t, we thought? Maybe they would easily make it across? But then, no—the lights from their headlamps got farther and farther away, then suddenly began to get closer again. Hoping that they hadn’t been injured, we watched until they stumbled back onto our shore. “Still too deep,” the boy said. We resolved to wait as long as possible before trying to cross, even if it meant holding out all the way until low tide at 9.07pm.
An hour later, the French couple took off again. We could see lights at the hut in the distance; the hut itself didn’t have power so that meant there must be people already at the hut, presumably travelling from south to north. We hoped they had made a fire in the stove. We followed the lights of the French couple, weaving back and forth; we guessed that they were trying to avoid deeper areas of the river. We had no idea how deep the water was at this point; it was much too dark to see. The rain started up again and made it hard to even follow their lights, but they didn’t come back this time so we assumed they must have made it. Still, we thought it safer to wait at least a bit longer before we tried to cross ourselves.
6.30pm. 7pm. 7.30pm. We made dinner, fighting the wind to keep our small camp stove heating water in the pot. I had boil-in-a-bag noodles and Steve had a freeze dried curry. Neither was particularly satisfying, but eating helped kill time. Just before 8pm, I turned to Steve and said that I thought it was time to go. We were only an hour from low tide, within the timeframe that the DOC said was safe for crossing, the rain and wind were picking up, and we’d been hearing thunder rumbling in the distance on and off since we first arrived at the beach. I was afraid that if it got closer our only option would be to spend the night on the shore—in the middle of the water during a thunderstorm was the last place I wanted to be.
“It’s time,” I said, “We have to go.” Steve nodded. We removed our boots and socks, rolled up our pants legs, and put on our packs. The tide had gone out significantly by this point, and so we were a couple hundred metres into the 1km crossing before we began to feel the water splashing around our ankles. And then our shins. And then our knees. Suddenly, a flash of lightning lit up the sky. Reader, I screamed. “We have to go, faster,” I said, “Now.” We picked up the pace, and the water got higher. Crossing in the day we might have been able to make our way around deep patches, but with only the flickering lights of headlamps at the hut and that dip in the hills that acted like an arrow pointing us in the right direction, we had to try to keep our route as straight as possible.
The wind howled around us and the rain pelted down as we found ourselves nearly waist deep in the water. Then I took a step and almost dropped even deeper; luckily I had the forethought to hoist my pack up with one arm so the bottom (where my sleeping bag was) didn’t get soaked. We had to take a few steps to the right until the water got slightly shallower again and we could continue on. After a few more similar detours, we had to get back on track. “This way,” Steve yelled over the sound of the wind, pointing in the direction of the hut lights. I started to turn but… it seemed like we were turning too far to the left. Surely we hadn’t made that many strides to the right, right?
I’ve never been so grateful to be waist deep in water in the middle of a thunderstorm as when a flash of lightning illuminated that dip in the hills that signified the location of the hut. Strangely, I thought, it wasn’t above the lights we saw in the distance, but I knew it was the right way. “I don’t know if that’s a boat, or a reflection, or a mirage, but that’s not the hut,” I shouted, and luckily, after a moment, Steve agreed.
Walking through waist-deep water is exhausting, and it felt like we weren’t getting any closer to shore. I was terrified that one of us would slip or step into a deep hole or on a rock and get dragged down or swept out to sea. After what seemed like an hour but was only about half that time, the water finally began to get shallower, dropping from our waist back to our knees and then only splashing around our feet. We could see the lights from the hut once more, and over the wind we began to catch snippets of voices yelling, “Come here! Over here!” The sand was littered with rocks and shells, but we barely felt them digging into our feet as we made our way onto the riverbank and toward the hut.
“What are you doing? What were you thinking! Come inside and get warm!” a German-accented voice yelled to us as we reached the door of the hut. As the girl ushered us inside, I turned back and saw lights again. I realised there were still more people crossing, nearly to the shore, and I wondered where they had come from as they certainly hadn’t been on the other beach when we’d left. But I figured the Germans would focus on getting them in safely, and I headed into the hut to drop my pack and strip off my soaking wet leggings.
It was only later I found out it was that same French couple—whether they’d turned back and waited on a different shore or whether they’d been in the water the whole time, I didn’t know, but at least they finally got in safely, if a bit worse for wear. I didn’t know that until morning though, as I pretty much immediately found an unoccupied bunk, rolled out my sleeping bag, and went to bed. I stayed awake just long enough to hear the rain outside get much, much harder, the thunder faster and heavier, and I felt thankful that, as strenuous and scary as it was, we had chosen to cross when we did.
By morning, the storm has passed, and the northbound hikers had a much easier time crossing than we had the night before. We watched from the porch of the hut as they went in only up to their knees; even though the day was calm and clear and most of the inlet was dry, we still kept and eye on them until they were safely to the other shore. Then we packed up our belongings and set off, leaving Awaroa behind us to travel on to our next destination, Bark Bay.
While I’m certainly not against thrill-seeking (I am definitely skydiving before I leave New Zealand, for example), that late-night crossing was not an experience I’d be eager to repeat. However, by the end of the tramp, a heart-stopping adventure had become simply an exciting story. Apart from a few spritzes of rain during the course of the next few days, there was no sign of the storm that had pummeled us that first night, and although we crossed a few more streams over the ~50km we hiked, the water never covered more than the toes of our waterproof hiking boots. I’ll share more about our amazing hike through Abel Tasman later this week, but for now I’ll just remind you to always double-check the tide tables, and trust your instincts when it comes to going in the right direction. Safe trails.