Pelorus: Sounds like a red-letter day afloat

By Steve Sole

A pleasure trip on the mail boat offers an intriguing glimpse into the life and times along the shores of Pelorus Sound, writes Steve Sole

Everybody knows today's the day and like everybody else who has waited for mail along Pelorus Sound over the past 138 years they're pleased to meet the weekly mail boat.

Some, like the woman at our first stop, have no big news but that doesn't stop her saying to the dozen passengers on top deck, "Have a good day everyone". Others, like John Foote of Wilson Bay Farm, have exciting news to share.

The farm's jetty, with boat-resistant piles made of sawn timber, straight strong branches and railway tracks bound together, leads to a large corrugated-iron shed with fading white walls and rusty roof. Placed around it are a neatly coiled length of rope, tall gas bottle, small trailer, fuel tank, fishing boat in dry dock and what looks like a fish-cleaning table.

Behind it, farm tracks disappear up a valley under huge pine trees. Although frantic to follow John, two dogs "stay", while a pup circles, pants, and licks his hands as they walk up the jetty to meet us.

These visits are not long and there's no need to tie up the boat, the Pelorus Express, so skipper Nick Martin keeps it at arm's length off the jetty while his wife Val holds the canvas bag with this week's mail at the ready.

John blurts out his news, as any grandfather would: "Shelley's got a little daughter!"

A trip on the Pelorus Express offers this glimpse into John's world, and that of many others who have chosen the private life that boat-only or twisting-road access can offer, and a fish-eye view of Pelorus Sound. It had departed three hours earlier from Havelock, the town that services Pelorus and Kenepuru Sounds and markets itself as the Greenshell Mussel Capital of the World.

That's a big claim but, along with tourism, Havelock's wealth does comes packaged in greenshells, as we learned later. You can see how the two industries mingle at the marina with a mussel processing factory and, overlooking the slipway, the obligatory cappuccino cafe.

As the Pelorus Express leaves Havelock Marina, we glide past dozens of vessels; from mussel dredges to fishing boats, pleasure craft and gin palaces. A chap is painting the Oceania with his little doggie companion, a couple of gents have just filled their pleasure boat with fuel. One grumbles, "It's certainly not getting any cheaper."

The Pelorus Express is a purpose-built mail boat with room for up to 40 passengers but there's only a dozen or so aboard today.

We are hardly past Shag Point when the couple on the outside deck are darting between their binoculars and a book on New Zealand birds. It's a gannet. Later, they're delighted to see two little penguins.

On the opposite shore we see the first of a seemingly endless number of homes, invariably with curtains drawn, tucked away in the bush near the water, often with boats moored nearby. Passengers frequently comment, "Oh, look at that one. That must cost a fortune."

All the while, New Zealand's red Mercantile Ensign flaps on the stern like a lazy fish and wispy white clouds scratch the blue dome. The day is so calm, it's easy to forget we're on a boat until a passing vessel rocks us with its wake.

It's not always this way, of course, but Val says they've only been forced to retreat once. "There were 3m swells right here. The boat was safe but it got too dangerous at the wharves so we had to turn around."

The Marlborough Sounds, of which Pelorus Sound is part, are generally protected from the gales of nearby Cook Strait. In fact, they're calm enough to anchor over 570 mussel farms.

We see them everywhere and Nick slows to steer the boat right through one. Each farm, Nick explains in one of his many informative commentaries, is made up of a number of "backbones". Each backbone - surface ropes about the length of a rugby field - has up to 4km of crop line dangling from it and the whole thing, which can weigh up to 70 tons, is supported by 50 to 70 black buoys. A farm can have from three to 30 backbones.

Each year, the Marlborough Sounds harvests 50,000 tons of mussels, much of it processed at the Greenshell Mussel Capital of the World.

We have hardly left the mussel farm when we see a barge being loaded with pine logs. Vast, steep valleys of the sound are planted with pines and after harvesting the resultant barren hills are one of its ugliest sights. Nick assures us, "About 18 months after forest harvesting, there is quite a bit of greenery. Like you can see over there on our left. So it doesn't stay bare for very long."

We get to see what the forests looked like 200 years ago as we nose into Dillon Dell which has never been milled. As the name suggests, it's tiny but its sudden tranquillity has a sobering effect on everybody - even the screeching trampers we picked up at Nydia Bay.

But everything outside Dillon Dell has changed considerably. Within three hours of leaving Havelock, Nick and Val heave two beer kegs off the boat for the restaurant at Te Rawa. The mail boat in 1912, the steamship SS Manaroa, took seven hours to get here.

At Te Wairua Nature Reserve's jetty, where native bush comes to the water's edge, the chatty John Broomfield says to Nick, "You're a little early today".

"Yep, an outgoing tide makes a big difference. And we'll have in incoming tide going back, too."

Such timing with the tides is rare and is why we arrive back in Havelock 30 minutes earlier than usual for the Tuesday run.

Everybody we met who lives in secluded bays with names like Paradise, Penguin and Fairy, has been amiable but none put their circumstances as clearly and heartfelt as the two kids who told us, "We live here. Choice place to live, eh? We love it. It's a beautiful place."

PELORUS MAIL BOAT
The boat takes runs Tuesday, Thursday and Friday taking different routes each day. It departs Havelock at 9.30am, returning late afternoon.

Cost is $105 adults, kids free. For more details, visit www.mail-boat.co.nz.

ACCOMMODATION
Try Linkwater Motel, 1594 Queen Charlotte Drive, Havelock. Studio units cost $85, family units $140. See www.linkwatermotel.com.

FURTHER INFORMATION
For more about Havelock see www.havelocknz.com. For information on Marlborough generally visit www.destinationmarlborough.com.

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