• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ
Te Puru local Bill Brownlee waits for his mailbag to be collected. Photo/Supplied.

The joys of day-tripping to the Marlborough Sounds on a mail boat

The Pelorus Mail Boat delivers the goods, reckons day-tripper Pamela Wade.

It’s a surprise to see quite so many pigs. When we set off from Havelock on the mail boat run along Pelorus Sound, we knew there would be seabirds, and hoped for seals and dolphins, but pigs? And pet sheep? They are unexpected.

So are the boxes of groceries, gas bottles, lengths of timber and even people, who are delivered along with the mail – but we soon learn that this service, which follows three different routes to remote homes dotted around the Sounds, is very much more than just a contract with NZ Post.

On a sunny spring day, we set out for our seven-hour cruise along the Outer Route, Captain James giving a droll commentary as we glide out from little Havelock, now down to just one pub – in its gold rush heyday, we heard, there were 20. James tells us about the famous names in Havelock’s past. Ernest Rutherford is one, William Pickering another; but most important to the mail boat is Eric Johnson, and James points out his memorial plaque on the break-water of the crowded little marina.

He was the enterprising teenager who, in 1919, began what would become the mail run, in the Mahau, a boat he built himself from local white pine. He built his customer base, too, up to a peak of 200 families, and the twice-weekly operation had him out on the water at 7am and not puttering back home until well after midnight. It was a punishing routine but, with modifications and improvements, he kept it up for more than 50 years, providing an essential service to the farmers, foresters and fishermen, who in those days were dotted throughout Pelorus and Kenepuru Sounds.

Today the population, equally as scattered, is smaller, but just as appreciative of what is as much a social service as a mail delivery. At all but one of our stops, people come eagerly down to their jetties as the boat nears, exchanging not only canvas mailbags but also greetings, news and gossip. It is clear that for them, even more than for us passengers, the visit of the mail boat is an event, a chance to see fresh faces and make contact, however briefly, with the outside world.

Many tucked-away homes can be reached only by boat; even those who have road access need to spend several hours bumping along challenging shingle tracks pitted with potholes, winding around endless bays to get eventually to town. Not that they see this as a disadvantage: they have chosen to live here, and we quickly come to understand why.

Related articles: Where to stay and what to eat in Marlborough | Adventures in the Arctic on a tiny boat | A trip to the bottom of New Zealand

A mail boat cruise is the ideal way to reach the Sound’s outer islands. Photo/Supplied.

Islands of all sizes are surrounded by luminous turquoise sea lapping at rocky shores and the occasional golden beach, and on all sides bush-clad hills roll away into the distance. Birdsong echoes down to the water. Apart from the homes of the mail recipients, there are few signs of human interference with nature: some forestry and farmland, a solidly built wartime gun emplacement that, word has it, fired only three test shots, and an isolated long-drop on a headland with surely one of the world’s best views from a loo. And there are the mussel farms: black lines in the clear water punctuated by blue and orange floats. They’re big business, today’s gold.

At several of them, fur seals are sunbathing on the floats on this glorious sunny day, flopping into the water as we glide near, and waving their flippers at us. We also see dusky dolphins, a big school of them riding our bow-wave watching us watching them, and giving us a farewell display of show-off leaps clear of the water.

But mainly we see pigs. People, of course, and sheep, and dogs; but most notably pet pigs. Most are spotty kunekunes, some your standard pink porker, but they all have names and they are all keen to greet James and his deckhands Fern and Bindi. The slobbering – especially from hairy Paul – is the give-away: they know to expect a handful of biscuits from the sack on the boat, and lean precariously over the edge of the jetty to gobble up their treats.

The welcoming crew at Waitata Bay. Photo/Supplied.

The dogs – Ruby, Buddy, Bodie and others – aren’t left out either; nor are the sheep (Boris and friends), including the plus-sized lamb still greedily slurping milk from a bottle the youngest passenger is allowed to hold. We see no people at Waitata Bay, just two pigs and a labrador, each rewarded with snacks for guarding the mailbag.

At Te Puru, we meet chirpy old Bill Brownlee, with 93 years of Sounds history behind him. His house and garden are immaculate, his well-tended yacht moored at the jetty is a far cry from the historic wrecks littering the beach at nearby Whakatahuri Bay. On Forsyth Island, Peter and Jan proudly show off the basket of crayfish slung beneath their jetty, to be served to their lodge guests at dinner that night. In another anonymous bay, Brian rides his quad bike down to the beach and hands over a parcel to be posted. “How much?” he asks, waving notes at Fern. “Fifteen dollars? Fifty? Take it, it’s no use to me here.”

Gradually, James ticks off the visits listed in the book by his wheel, as the pile of fat canvas mailbags on the row of seats beside him slowly shrinks. Meantime, we passengers make ourselves at home on his comfortable catamaran. We sit on the roof admiring the view, or make ourselves cups of tea in the cabin to have with our packed lunches; a few people have a go at steering, some chat with Fern and Bindi; others browse through the books of local histories. Time passes, agreeably slowly.

Finally, we reach our last stop: a pickup from Paradise Bay. Clutching a suitcase and a stuffed plastic sack, a woman climbs aboard from the beach.

She looks far too cheerful to be leaving Paradise. None of us on board can understand it.   

For more information on Pelorus Mail Boat Cruises, visit themailboat.co.nz.

This article was first published in the August 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on TwitterFacebookInstagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great travel stories.