Spotlight on Tōtaranui campground

Tōtaranui Beach - Tōtaranui Beach camp

Tōtaranui campground is my favourite camping ground in the country, well at least it is outside of the December/January peak season when the place is full to capacity.

We did camp there once during that peak-period many years ago, but that only reaffirmed our view that the best time to stay there is in the spring and autumn, when the place isn’t full to the gunnels, mainly with people who seem to have brought every single item they own, plus a bunch of additional gear they have borrowed from their neighbours.

The only coastal part of the Abel Tasman National Park accessible by road, and the only large-scale camping ground in the entire Park, Tōtaranui campground has 250 sites and capacity for 850people. One visit to Tōtaranui will confirm just why it is one of the most popular camping grounds in the South Island. It’s a beautiful, long and crescent-shaped, golden-sand Abel Tasman beach with a wonderful lagoon at the northern end. All of the campsites are unpowered and the mobile phone coverage is patchy at best, so it makes the place a perfect haven away from the outside world, particularly if you want to get yourself unglued from your screen for a while.

Our tradition is to camp at Tōtaranui for Labour Weekend in late October and again over the Easter break. We have found this a great way to celebrate the beginning of a new summer season in October and then as something of a bookend to the camping season in April before the temperatures drop. Swimming in the ocean is still nice enough at both of those times of year, and it’s generally a good time of year for fishing too.

Tōtaranui campground was one of the first places we started camping at regularly when we moved back to Aotearoa at the end of 2010. When we first started taking our young family on camping trips we would sleep in small tents, before we graduated to a large canvas tent with two separate areas and even a sunroom at the front. Putting up the canvas tent was always a task we dreaded and one that would often be a real test of the strength of my marriage to Johnna. For example, “Put pole 46 into the red tab. Not that red tab. The one on your right side”

“Okay, the OTHER right side then if you want to be pedantic….”, Cue the gnashing of teeth, grunts of exertion and dark looks being exchanged. The first time we borrowed my parent’s caravan for one of our Tōtaranui campground expeditions it had been raining earlier in the day, which made the gravel and clay-based track that starts at the bottom of the hill at Wainui, rather muddy and slippery. The The Dangerous Kitchen - Pizzacaravan was a 6.5m NZ made model so was well-built and therefore pretty heavy, so we started to slide around a bit as we climbed the first hill. Johnna and I exchanged a look as we both felt that first slide, but I jammed our SUV into low gear and we crawled along the unsealed road to Tōtaranui at about 10km per hour. Luckily we didn’t get any additional rain that weekend, it was wonderful to have the comfortable caravan with all of the mod cons such as a fridge and hot water, and then our drive back along the unsealed road was completely uneventful. In May 2018 Johnna and I purchased our own campervan, Queenie, and have used that each time we’ve been to Tōtaranui campground since. 

Yet another of our traditions is to stop at 
the Dangerous Kitchen

on the way through Tākaka for pizza on our way to Tōtaranui. And unlike the old days when we would often arrive in the dark and then need to pitch our tents and set up our other gear, we pull up the campervan and within 5 minutes we’re in full relaxation mode and there will be every chance we’re cracking into a tasty beverage.

The daily routine at Tōtaranui campground for me includes a run, usually to the north along the Coast Track to Anapai, the next bay accessible from the trail, or if I’m feeling energetic, through to Mutton Cove or as far as Separation Point. During the Easter of 2023 I was running with a group of friends when, during the climb out of Anapai on the way north, I started to feel distinctly queasy. My stomach hadn’t felt wonderful when we started the run, but the build-up of pressure in my plumbing works was threatening to overwhelm me. Let’s just say I did a new personal best time back down the hill to the toilet at Anapai, and it all ended well enough.

Tōtaranui Beach - Tōtaranui campground
Peninsular Nature Loop

I have sometimes run to the south towards Goat Bay, Waiharakeke and Awaroa, but that first hill is a bit of a monster and therefore an unpleasant way to start the run. If a long walk is more your thing there is an excellent loop circuit you can do from Tōtaranaui up Gibbs Hill to Whariwharangi, then back along the Abel Tasman Coast Track via Separation Point, Mutton Cove and Anapai. I can’t recall how many hours this walk took us but it was at least three. It was well and truly worthwhile as the terrain was varied and the views were amazing. Abel Tasman AquaTaxi also has various trips that use Tōtaranui as a departure point so you can do something like travel to the south to Onetahuti and then walk to Tōtaranui (14.2km – 5 to 6 hours). You just need to remember to check the tides as crossing of the Awaroa estuary is only possible 2 hours either side of low tide.

Our other main daylight activity at Tōtaranui is fishing, usually in a dinghy straight out in front of the main beach. There are two boat ramps, both at the northern end of the beach. One ramp goes into the estuary and the other is a narrow concrete ramp that goes down to the main beach. You have to be a confident backer of a trailer to get your boat down the main boat ramp, and even then, it’s not difficult to screw it up or to get stuck in the sand at the bottom of the ramp during those niggly low or half-tide conditions. The most prevalent target species of fish are snapper and blue cod, and we usually get enough for a feed. The most popular way of preparing the fish is to simply fillet it, cut it into small pieces and eat it as fresh as possible after dipping it in a mix of soy sauce and wasabi. Only when every-body has eaten their own body weight in sushi will we be allowed to fry the rest of the fish, coated in breadcrumbs or beer-battered.

At some point most days, usually in the late afternoon, somebody in our group will pick up a musical instrument and begin to play a tune. More often than not, somebody else will pick up another instrument and this will spark an improv jam involving guitars, box drums and more recently, a small keyboard. We’re quite a musical lot and have passed this on to many of our children, although none of them would be seen dead jamming with a bunch of late middle-aged Generation Xers.

"The ability to have an open fire in any of the concrete fire pits dotted around the camp is one of the nicest things about the whole Tōtaranui campground experience."

Tōtaranui campground - sitting around the fire
Bushmans’ TV at Tōtaranui campground

The ability to have an open fire in any of the concrete fire pits dotted around the camp is one of the nicest things about the whole Tōtaranui campground experience and it means we can comfortably stay outside long into the evening. There is something about sitting around an outdoor fire, or Bushman’s TV, that really appeals to me on a level that I don’t fully understand. We typically engage in long rounds of inappropriate joke telling, as well as challenges to get the fire so hot people have to move their camp chairs progressively away from the flames as the night goes on. On one visit when we were running low on firewood, Greg came up with a genius idea to encourage all of the kids in our midst to gather wood on the beach and in the trees around our site. He challenged the kids to make the fire so hot that he would have to move his chair back, and if they succeeded in doing so, he would give each of them $20. The kids brought into the concept and dutifully collected a whole heap of firewood. As the fire raged, whether Greg had moved his camp chair back or not became a dispute and matter of great controversy. The kids believed he had moved. Greg was adamant he hadn’t. When he wouldn’t pay up the $20 the kids were absolutely incensed at the whole injustice of the affair. For many months afterwards, Greg was the recipient of hateful stares from many of Riwaka’s young folk. Eventually, he did pay up and moved directly back to his previous status as the crazy favourite uncle.

Tōtaranui campground - Tōtaranui beach
Sunset Tōtaranui

On most visits, however, another mate Tim will bring a met-ric-crap-tonne of firewood and will also rig up his patented heat direction screen. This is an invention entirely of his own inception, and I believe a world-first. He brings a sheet of corrugated roofing iron, two fencing standards and some wire which he uses to make a screen to direct the heat from the fire back towards the people sitting around it. This remains one of the best examples of Kiwi ingenuity I have ever seen, and it also causes some curious looks from other campers. When we visited Tōtaranui campground for Easter 2023 however, Tim brought a huge log of gum from his farm which he knew would continue to burn for a long time. The only trouble with this specific log though, was that as it did burn the resulting smoke was a pungent, toxic mix that made us all start to feel distinctly like we were being poisoned. There was even some talk of abandoning the fire that night and attempting to make friends with the group at the fire further down the campsite. 

After lingering on the final day of every trip for one more walk, swim or cuppa on the beach, the pack-up process with the campervan is mercifully short and uncomplicated. Then we’re on our way and after stopping in Tākaka for icecream we’re home within a couple of hours, recharged and pleased with our life choices.

Here's a few ways to visit Tōtaranui campground!

Water Taxi – One Way Fare

Water Taxi | Half Day
from $52
Water taxis provide quick and convenient access to the six major bays along the spectacular Abel Tasman coastline.
Book Now

Totaranui Scenic Cruise

Scenic Cruise | Half Day
from $111
Return water taxi trip: Cruise from Totaranui to Marahau for a brief look around before returning to Totaranui.
Book Now

Bridge and Beach

Walking & Hiking | Full Day
from $103
Return water taxi and walk: Water taxi from Totaranui to Torrent Bay before walking through to Bark Bay. Water taxi back to Totaranui.
Book Now

Slice of Paradise - enjoy an Abel Tasman water taxi ride and a walk in the park!

Slice of Paradise

Walking & Hiking | Full Day
from $130
Return water taxi and walking trip: Travel the length of the park to Totaranui and back to Onetahuti or Bark Bay then walk the picture-perfect bays.
Book Now

Homeward Bound

Guided Kayak & Walk | 3 Days
from $332
Guided kayak trip: Explore the entire Abel Tasman Coast with the ultimate combo of water taxi rides, walking, guided and freedom kayaking.
Book Now
2 Day Kayak Hire - Abel Tasman Kayaking

Freedom Totaranui

Freedom Kayak | 3 Days
from $279
Freedom kayaking package: Paddle from Marahau to Onetahuti over two days and then walk through to Totaranui on your third day.
Book Now

Blog & photography 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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