Mārahau: Gateway to the Abel Tasman National Park
My very first visit to Mārahau was in July 1997, and I have to admit, my first impression was not entirely favourable. I was only back in Aotearoa for a quick visit and my Mum had picked me up from the Nelson Airport
to drive me to this place where she and Dad had recently moved to
after having purchased the lease on
the Mārahau Beach Camp.
As we drove over Mārahau hill I wondered aloud why somebody didn’t deal to the gorse lining the road on both sides for most of the way. Then when we actually hit the village itself and I saw the dilapidated state of the camping ground I was a bit worried my folks had poured their savings into a dud investment. It also appeared the shop and accommodation that went with the business had been constructed by somebody with as much skill in the arts of architecture and carpentry as I possess myself: Zero.
On about day two of my visit I found myself working alongside my late uncle, Bud Nalder, as we attempted to clear out the piles of junk that had built up over many years from behind the sheds holding some well-worn kayaks. I found the work itself quite rewarding as my day job back in China was mostly spent sitting at a desk, but it also increased my worry at what Mum and Dad had got themselves into. Once Bud and I finished our work for the day he suggested we take a couple of the single kayaks and go for a quick paddle up into the Abel Tasman. That short paddle, from Mārahau to Apple Tree Bay, changed everything for me.
The sea was flat-ass-calm, the late afternoon sun was out and in contrast to the grey, wintery, smoggy city where I was living, the Abel Tasman was straight out of a different universe. On the last day of that visit, and then on every subsequent visit over the next several years, the sunrise on the day of my departure would be spectacular and I would need to force myself to return to the big city. Fast forward to 2022 and I am writing this from exactly the same spot from where I would look out over the Astrolabe Roadstead at all of those last-day sunrises. The only difference being that the location where the bedroom once was in the old shabby building is now my office in the new kayaking and water taxi base we constructed in 2018. One of the main reasons my wife and I made the decision to move to this area when we returned from overseas, rather than settling in Auckland as per our original plan, was because we kept coming back to Mārahau for holidays and our adoration of the place just grew with every visit. The road that winds into Mārahau along the northern edge of the Otuwhero Inlet, particularly at sunrise and on a full tide, is a magical way to enter the village. When I drive along this road in the mornings on my way to work I often find myself both thanking the gods for my good fortune and congratulating myself on my life choices.
While visitors to Mārahau, particularly in pre-COVID times, had grown each year at the same pace as the popularity of the Abel Tasman National Park, the village has not fallen into the trap of becoming overdeveloped. Whilst some of the visitor hotspots around New Zealand, and indeed in our own area, have become distinctly commercialised, overly concreted, manicured and manufactured, Mārahau has maintained much of its original, and authentic off-the-beaten-track charm. Much like Golden Bay, the Mārahau community is a fantastic mix of multi-generational local residents, people who have more recently arrived from elsewhere, and then the visitors looking to experience the Abel Tasman. While new homes and holiday houses have been constructed in the new subdivision located back from the waterfront, this has added to, rather than diminished the distinctive local vibe.
One of the things I most love about Mārahau is the ebb and flow of the place depending on the time of the day and the time of the year. During the winter months there are very few visitors to Mārahau and the whole place becomes a rather subdued and sleepy little village. Then in spring, around the beginning of October, the seasonal workers such as kayak guides show up, the cafes and other businesses open up for the season and the rise in energy levels is palpable. Most of the visitors before Christmas, at least back before the world went kinda funky on us, were from overseas. Then on Boxing Day each year, Kiwis from other parts of the country flood the place either using Mārahau as their base for a holiday in the area or to walk or kayak in the national park. Locals from around Nelson Tasman also show up in droves either to chill out on one of the Mārahau beaches or as part of their efforts to showcase the best of their local area to their visitors. Even at these peak periods for visitation, Mārahau never feels like it is being stretched beyond its capacity. There is plenty of car parking so visitors don’t need to park their cars in a different postcode to where they are headed for the day, and there is an abundance of space at either of the beaches even when
visitation is at its peak.
“In the afternoons the village has another
influx of people as visitors return from their trips into the Abel Tasman..”
There is also a distinct ebb and flow to the days during summer with visitors flowing into the village in the morning to catch the first water taxis, to attend their kayak briefings or to walk into the Abel Tasman via the Coastal Track. By mid-morning Mārahau will have largely emptied out as most day visitors will be up in the Park leaving only a few people in and around the village enjoying some beach time or sitting in the cafes. With a large tidal range of over 5m the water can either be lapping at the rockwall beside the road, somewhere out in the far distance or someplace in between. Some people see this as a curse and would prefer it if there was always deep water close to the shoreline, but I like how the beach is always changing.
Places to eat …
As I write this, it’s almost full tide, which is lovely. But I like low tides just as much with tractors meandering across the sand flats to launch the water taxis they are coupled to, kayaking groups starting their paddle across the bay and hundreds of birds feeding in the Eelgrass and tidal pools. In the afternoons the village has another influx of people as
visitors return from their trips into the Abel Tasman, many of which stumble into Hooked, the cafe and beer garden located on the waterfront just in time for the 4pm happy hour. For Hooked, which is part of my family’s business,
2023 will be its twentieth year in business. With its Kiwi beach bach decor and outdoor garden areas looking across Tasman Bay, Hooked is worth a visit to Mārahau in its own right. It is a particularly wonderful spot in the late afternoon in the garden bar where visitors and locals mix together to recount the day’s adventures in the Abel Tasman.
The Park Cafe, located right at the southern entrance to the Abel Tasman, and another local institution, was established by Jane and Yirka Ritschny in 1986. The Park Cafe pitches itself as having rustic charm, which is entirely accurate with much of the interior being wooden, unpainted and natural. The Park Cafe’s open mic nights are spontaneous outpourings of creativity that are often nothing short of magical. The legendary Fat Tui, a caravan based gourmet burger cafe which reopened last summer after a period of hiatus, rounds out the local dining options.
Looking back …
Marilyn Denton has been holidaying in Mārahau since the mid 1950s. While based in Nelson, Marilyn and her first husband, Roger, would sail their yacht across the bay to spend weekends and holidays in the Abel Tasman. Then in 1954 they began building a bach on the Mārahau waterfront, constructed largely from the timber milled on the site where DOC’s Motueka office stands today. Marilyn cites the opening of the road over the Mārahau Hill as one of the most exciting and important developments over the time she has been coming to the place. Before this road opened, getting to Mārahau involved driving through the narrow, winding track from Kaiteriteri. Marilyn remembers how they would pick up a trailer load of building supplies on their way through Motueka and how it took many years to build their bach. In fact, she reckons it is never finished and is forever having to be expanded to provide enough beds for her ever growing, multi-generation family. Many years ago Mārahau became the cherished place where her family would spend most weekends and almost every holiday. She can remember her son coming home for a visit from university when he was in his early 20s during which he lay on the floor of their Nelson home asking, in the tone of a much younger more petulant child, when the heck they would be going over to Mārahau.
“Sixty-plus years ago, the Mārahau foreshore was a lot different to what it is
Sixty-plus years ago, the Mārahau foreshore was a lot different to it is today. Marilyn has photos of the foreshore with plants and even a public toilet located across the road which is now covered by water at every high tide. The sea gradually washed that all away but it took the local community and the Tasman District Council many years to agree on and then put in the rockwall along the foreshore. Over those years Marilyn has only twice seen the lethal combination of a strong easterly storm and a king tide send surges of water across the road and into her front garden. The first was in the mid-1970s when she removed five trailer loads of seaweed from her section and the second instance was when cyclone Fehi hit in February 2018. Marilyn is hopeful that sea level rise from global warming doesn’t “take all of this away from us.
When Marilyn began spending time in Mārahau she had the distinct impression the ‘locals’ were not particularly enthusiastic about sharing their little corner of paradise with the newcomers. In those days the land around Mārahau was mostly planted in tobacco so the community consisted of farmers, seasonal workers and small numbers of holidaymakers. There would often be social evenings at what was the local community hall back then which would include dancing and a shared meal consisting largely of cockles collected from the foreshore. Then in the 1980s after, more holiday homes had been constructed she can remember when an increase in visitors, particularly in the 1990s, led to tension within the local community. She tells a story of how, after the road along the waterfront was sealed, her family put some sand across the road to prevent their kid’s feet from getting burnt on the hot surface. When he saw this, the late Kelvin Goodman and founder of Abel Tasman AquaTaxi, came along the road and angrily removed it with a shovel while muttering curses about how it was making things difficult for his boats and tractors.
In fact, Marilyn found it difficult to get used to the tractor movements along the road and remembers a time when the procession of tractors would mean “you couldn’t hear a conversation with your neighbour and our front room would be full of exhaust fumes.” She became known as“the tractor lady” as she recorded tractor movements, up to 130 in a single day at the time, and sought to have something done about the issue. She felt the tension between the local community and the commercial operators but eventually, efforts were made to use more modern tractors, to limit exhaust emissions and to attenuate engine noise. Marilyn thinks she has also become more accustomed to the tractors and the other changes toMārahau brought about by the increase in commercial activity. While the place is full of people with wildly differing views and opinions everybody gets on pretty well and the appeal of the place has only increased over the years
Marilyn’s three children, now adults with their own families, still come for their summer holidays and she still likes it so much here that she moves up from Christchurch to live inMārahau for the summer period. Her lifetime of memories in Mārahau is best illustrated on the walls of her quint-essentially Kiwi bach with old family photos of both the people and the place as it was, and as it is now.
Blog by Brendan Alborn
Brendan has a long association with the Abel Tasman, visiting it for the first time when his parents moved to Marahau in 1997. After spending much of his life overseas, Brendan and his family moved to the area at the end of 2010. When Brendan is not spending his time in the outdoors he seems to spend much of his time creating even flimsier justifications for spending more time in the outdoors.