Barrier or a beginning? How to find yourself, one New Zealand coastal walkway at a time

My feet aged 500 years on the Abel Tasman Coast Track.

Most of the trip is a blur. I was a teenager, tramping with my best friend and her mum, her sister, and some strident feminists who did not shave their armpits.

At night, they talked about periods and body image. I nodded, worldy, cool, secretly flailing in the face of all this female knowledge. They ate salami with garlic. I’m not even sure they were wearing bras.

It was a coastal track but the only beach I truly remember is the first one, where the boat dropped us off and the sand was as golden as a television advertisement. There were no bikinis or drinks with flamingo straws. We are women: Hear us walk and talk for hours and hours and then pitch our tents with absolutely no help from anybody.

That first day was magic. By the end of the 14th, or the second night, I’d had enough. The relentless rain was collecting in every crevice and I’d run out of chocolate. It was too wet for tents, we were too slow to reach a hut in time to nab a bed, and this group with the fortitude of lion queens made the decision to just keep going.

Were there views? Was there even a coast? I remember a long, low stretch of water, gone silver in the misty rain. The bush was monochrome and it was art-house movie beautiful. Then the women started singing to keep their spirits up and the scene turned red and murderous.

You eat an elephant one bite at a time. You walk a coastal track one step at a time.

At the end of that epic many-days-in-one tramp, my friend took a photograph of my feet. They are the cleanest they have ever been, bleached white by my soaked socks and more wrinkled than a Sharpei puppy. The picture of my 500-year-old feet is long lost, but in my mind’s eye, the camera also captured my legs. Long, strong, tanned. Limbs that belonged to a girl who could do anything and be anything. A coastal walker who had looked forward and kept going.

The beach is so benign. Go for a swim, lie on a towel, admire your freshly painted toenails (Aruba Blue, Saltwater Happy, et al). A portable speaker plays Six60. A portable barbecue burns the sausages. Everything tastes like tomato sauce and sunscreen and you only ever walk as far as the water.

The coast, by contrast, is dynamic. A border, an edge, a space between there and somewhere else. Sometimes, it feels like the sand is knee-deep. A long, slow slog along the track that’s dipped down to sea level. Gravel and shells. Rotting seaweed. Dead jellyfish. Scum-coloured seafoam like someone pulled the plug on a filthy bathtub. Stop and swig from your water bottle. Stare at the waves. Smash-bash-crash. Oh, that’s good. You could be a moody poet.

Aotearoa has a 15,000km coastline. We are island dwellers who stride clifftops and beaches because we need to see the sea.

The scientists would like you to know that, in other parts of the world, the mixed sand and gravel beaches we take for granted are rare. That our black sand beaches – mined for gold and iron – have been eroded from the Southern Alps and volcanoes and that when the oceans rose 6000 years ago, they flooded our mainland valleys, forming features like the Marlborough Sounds.

We stand on these edges and we look out. Once, it felt like I did walk to the end of the known world. We took a boat ride to the boardwalks that finish near Mason Bay, at an intersection of Rakiura/Stewart Island’s tough northwest and southern circuit tracks.Windswept and wild and in my head forever. I was hiking with a friend from New York. Her feet hurt, she said, because she hadn’t worn flat shoes since her last visit to Aotearoa. Some people call our coastline a barrier. I think it is a beginning.


The Herald is searching for the Best of Summer … and we need your help.

We want you to nominate your favourites from around the country in five categories: Best campground, best fish and chip shop, best playground, best beach walk, and best icecream or gelato shop.

Getting your nominations in is easy – just [scroll to the bottom of this page] or go to to find the simple entry form. There, you’ll be able to nominate one contender for each category, as well as telling us a little bit about why you think they deserve to win. Send us a favourite photo of you and your whānau enjoying these great summer spots, and we’ll profile some of your entries throughout the month.

Nominations are open until the end of Sunday, January 9. From there, your entries will be counted and the 10 most popular nominees in each of the five categories will be named as our finalists. You will then be able to vote for the ultimate winners.

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