It’s a weekly ritual that has been going on for almost a century. Some row out in their tiny dinghies, others arrive on horseback along the beach or appear as if by magic from the thick green bush. Dogs wait patiently because they know that a bag of biscuits and a kind and generous skipper are not far away. It is the sound of the engine of the mail boat drifting across the silent water that brings them to the weatherbeaten wharves and they arrive on time, like clockwork.
Life in the Marlborough Sounds is not for the faint hearted. There is no road access, houses have homemade water wheels to generate power and phone service is patchy if not non existent. But what there is uninterrupted glorious scenery. Steep dark mountain slopes disappear into the deep green water and wispy white clouds cast ethereal shadows over the glassy surface. It’s like having a new Monet masterpiece to look at every day.
The Pelorus Mail Boat is the essential link between the residents of the Sounds and the world beyond, delivering groceries, newspapers, courier parcels, gossip, yarns and a laugh or two. Three days a week, the mail boat offers a full day outing for visitors, leaving Havelock Marina at 9:30am and returning around 5pm.
Jim, the skipper from Scotland, tells stories of days gone by when there were saw mills and railways and commercial farms in the Sounds. It’s a quieter place now. Only one commercial farm remains, it’s been in the same family’s hands since 1881, and it has been a long time since a train was seen in these parts, the old track finding new purpose as a beautiful tramp or mountain bike ride. Today, the clean water and sunny days are ideal growing conditions for greenshell mussels and this is the main commercial activity in the Sounds. Jim will oblige with interesting commentary as he manoeuvres his boat as close as he can without disturbing the baby mussels and resident seals and blue penguins. It’s not uncommon to find a pod of dolphins eager to play, a cheeky smile on their faces as they tantalise budding wildlife photographers hanging off the boat waiting for the money shot.
There are 200 families living in the Sounds in houses hidden in isolated bays and dotted over steep hillsides. One family has one of the islands, Maud Island, to itself and is fully employed keeping the island pest free so that endangered species like the Takahe and Giant Weta can breed in peace. Access to the island is restricted but scientists come from all over to study the Maud Island frog, a unique creature that doesn’t croak or produce tadpoles and can live for 40 years. The scientists give the frogs a name when they reach 35 years; Gollum, Wellington and Xena are currently enjoying their golden years on the island. The children on Maud Island, and the others in other parts of the Sounds, do their book learning by correspondence and I imagine that they get through their work quickly so that they can get to the more important jobs of fishing and messing about in boats and who can blame them?