Guiding the Kayak Guides – NMIT Adventure Tourism and Guiding

Abel Tasman kayak guides - guided kayak tours - NMIT Adventure Tourism

If you have ever kayaked in the Abel Tasman there is a high chance your kayak guides will be graduates of the NMIT Te Pūkenga Adventure Tourism and Guiding Course.

The odds of this being the case increase exponentially if you did a sea kayaking trip or if you went canyoning with Abel Tasman Canyons. In fact, it is no stretch to say that the activity providers in the Abel Tasman National Park, particularly the kayaking companies, wouldn’t be able to do what they do without the stream of NMIT graduates flowing into their businesses each summer.

NMIT Te Pūkenga has its main campus right in the middle of Nelson, where it runs tertiary Level 4 and 5 courses for  students looking to work in the adventure activities industry. Students who complete the first-year course graduate with a Certificate in Adventure Tourism and Guiding while students who finish the full two-year course earn a Diploma.  Graduates can then go on to obtain industry tickets such as NZOIA awards (New Zealand Outdoor Instructors Association), NZRA (New Zealand Rafting Association) and NZSIA (New Zealand Snow Instructors Alliance) qualifications to name a few. With around 80% of the NMIT Te Pūkenga Adventure Tourism programme course work being completed out of the classroom, the outdoor playground that is Te Tauihu (Top of the South) is the perfect place for all of this training to happen. With many km of coastline, and three national parks, the programme is effectively two years of rock climbing, canyoning, skiing, sea kayaking, rafting, and tramping.

Each year the class becomes a strong group, and often many of the class end up working in the Abel Tasman National Park. The NMIT tutors have always had close connections with the activity operators in the Abel Tasman, so there has always been a steady flow of graduates coming through to work as guides in the Park. Many of those tutors have worked as guides themselves before they started teaching at NMIT and people such as Toby Wild, of Moana SUP and Todd Jago of Waka Abel Tasman, have long and ongoing links to the Abel Tasman activities sector.

I spoke to Sam Russek, NMIT’s Guiding and Adventure Tourism tutor, about his current role and how he got involved in the first place. Sam started out working as an outdoor education teacher at Motueka High School in 2004, and was originally planning to spend his summer holidays rock climbing. However, his climbing plans were disrupted when he started suffering from compartment syndrome, a painful condition that occurs when pressure within the muscles builds to dangerous levels. He took himself out to Mārahau to meet with some kayaking guides, and after some on-the-job training, ended up working the rest of the summer as a kayak guide for Marahau Sea Kayaks (MSK).

Sam Russek, NMIT Tutor
Sam Russek, NMIT Tutor.

As fate would have it this is how Sam met his future wife, Freesia, a born and bred Mārahau local, who was also a kayak guide for MSK. When they had Ruby, the eldest of their two daughters, Sam thought he had better – in his own words – “get a real job,” so went back to teaching. However, the pull of the Abel Tasman was strong, and he ended up back in the Park managing operations for Kaiteriteri Kayaks for a few years before being lured back into teaching at NMIT Te Pūkenga in around 2014.

“NMIT already had a strong sea kayaking programme when Todd and Toby handed the baton over to me,” he says “We continue to do some of those things but have also constantly developed the programme.” Over several years Sam has done a lot of work to ensure the students who graduate from NMIT have the correct skills, knowledge, and experience to match the demands of being an outdoor adventure guide. “Ensuring the outdoor employers, who are our key stakeholders, get work-ready staff who meet their specific requirements is a high priority.” Sam also says one of his personal aims is to “get people passionate about sea kayaking and the outdoors.” He also ensures his graduates are placed in workplaces that suit their personalities. 

Developing a guiding career in the Abel Tasman can be a challenge but also very fulfilling as the industry is seasonal, and it operates in a reasonably small market. However, the NMIT tutors have seen examples of people starting out as Kayak guides and then progressing after a few seasons of kayak-guiding to skippering water taxis and then into operations and management. Gwyn Rees started as a kayak guide, moved on to operations and management for MSK, before gaining the qualifications and experience required to skipper a water taxi for Abel Tasman AquaTaxi. Jarred Lawrence is another person who started as a kayak guide before becoming a water taxi skipper and working in operations, currently plying his trade for Abel Tasman Kayaks. 

Sam is a massive proponent of the philosophy of ‘lifelong learning’, both for himself and his students. Luckily for the operators in the Abel Tasman, this means we can look forward to skilled and capable people continuing to come into our businesses.

Here's a few guided kayak tours to get you started!

Magical Marine Reserve

Guided Kayak | Full Day
from $280
Guided kayak tour: Explore the wonders of the Tonga Island Marine Reserve in your kayak.
Book Now

Half Day Blast

Guided Kayak | Half Day
from $198
Guided kayak trip: Kayak with your guide one way between Marahau and Observation Beach and then water taxi back to Marahau.
Book Now

Blast & Walk

Guided Kayak | Full Day
from $186
Guided kayak trip: Kayak with your guide one way between Marahau and Observation Beach and freedom walk the opposite way along the Abel Tasman Coast Track.
Book Now

Ocean and Earth

Guided Kayak & Walk | 2 Days
from $304
Guided kayak trip: Combine the Magical Marine Reserve guided trip with a night at Anchorage and walk back to Marahau.
Book Now
Full Day Adventure

Gourmet Platter

Guided Kayak & Walk | Full Day
from $230
Guided kayak trip: Walk the best section of the Abel Tasman Coast Track in the morning and kayak through the Astrolabe in the afternoon.
Book Now

Best of Both Worlds

Guided Kayak & Walk | Full Day
from $270
Guided kayak trip: Kayak in the Tonga Marine Reserve and then walk the most scenic section of the Abel Tasman Coast Track in one day!
Book Now

Words  by Brendan Alborn
Owner Operator

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.

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