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Remember childhood when you were ridiculously excited about the postman’s knock? What will plop through the letterbox? A pen pal’s letter par avion? Mum’s Woman’s Weekly magazine? Perhaps a birthday book token? Internet lives have smothered such simple pleasures for most of us, but not for the 100 people living around Marlborough Sounds, the remote sea-drowned valleys north of the South Island.
Without road access, mobile reception or Wi-Fi, the Pelorus mail boat is still a lifeline for locals in the Sounds, and doubles up as a quirky tourist day trip.
Bindy, our skipper-postie-guide, deftly bundled sacks of mail, boxes of food and eight tourists on board, cranked up the engines and nudged her payload out of Havelock Marina into the winter mizzle, navigating around vast green-lipped mussel farms. The revival of the national appetite for mussels is a welcome boon for the local economy. Mussels are the proverbial new gold, alongside tourism.
The mail run covers one-fifth of the New Zealand coastline, but barely 50 households — yet each gets a weekly postal delivery. These parts are still more accustomed to blue penguins than humans, few folks have landed since Captain Cook dropped anchor 250 years ago.
A pod of playful dolphins clearly felt it their duty to accompany us for most of our mail run, on a drizzly day in June. Wildlife reigns supreme in these tranquil waters, undisturbed by ferries or cruise ships. Trip highlights often include sightings of the rare king shag, a gannet colony and fur seals, as well as our dolphin guard of honour.
Our first port of call was easy to spot, Douglas and his white straggly beard and yellow oilskins beckoning like a harbour buoy. With one box of frozen pies and another of beer to tide him over for the week, we left a happy chap. ‘‘Doug goes to the same barber as his dog,’’ Bindy teased, as we chugged away.
Locals pay normal postage rates for this extraordinary service — free grocery delivery and passage to the mainland are a bonus. We covered 60 nautical miles, delivering supplies to just seven families — a labour of neighbourly love cleverly boosted by the tourist dollar.
The mailboat also takes kayaks and bikes, offers drop-off and pick-up transfers, and can recommend accommodation in the Sounds ranging from lodges to farmsteads and camping. This combo opens up all sorts of off-grid tramping, kayaking and biking possibilities during the summer months, for adventure seekers and nature lovers.
Our last duty was a return call to Wilson’s farm — no-one had appeared when we first docked. Bindy was a little concerned and tooted twice. No worries, the Wilson family had been farm-sitting for neighbours and returned home late.
Echoes of Pelorus life and my cruise into the heart of a unique Kiwi community will float through my mind whenever I next hear the postman knock or savour a green-lipped mussel.
Need to know
•The Pelorus Sound mail boat operates day cruises year round.
•Itineraries vary depending on the mail run required.
•Full day trip, about 10am departure from Havelock Marina, returning about 4pm depending on tides and route.
•Cost about $130 per adult, free for two children per paying adult & for under-5s.
•Free tea, coffee and biscuits on board, BYO lunch or eat at a lodge en route.
Margaret Batty is a UK-based writer.