“What was the name of the bay we were just in, the one with the mussel farm?” I look up and ask Penny, the Pelorus Express Mail Boat’s second in command.
“Four Fathom. D’you know what a fathom is?” she chortles and squints down at me through maroon wireframe eye glasses. Her short, spiky brown hair stands stiff against the cool spring breeze.
“Um, no,” I sheepishly answer.
“A fathom is six feet deep, so four fathoms deep. Ha!” She exhales and bends down, grabbing two forgotten tea mugs off the deck floor before lumbering back inside the cabin.
I go back to surveying the sun-drenched scenery. Scattered puffs of white cloud hang low and lazy in the sky, casting shadows over the forested hills that rise out of the smooth turquoise waters of Pelorus Sound. It’s one of the main waterways, along with Queen Charlotte, Kenepuru and Mahau that are collectively known as New Zealand’s Marlborough Sounds.
“Australians call those mountains. Ha!” Penny returns and her mouth widens into a grin as she plops down next to me. She’s lived in the area most of her life. She spent a few years in Australia. Some time in Spain. But she loves this place and its people.
The boat chugs along, following a route established by steam ships almost a century ago when anything from mail to groceries to livestock was delivered to the rugged individualists who called the remote reaches of the Sounds home.
Not much has changed.
“Just a few weeks ago we had dozens of chickens onboard,” the skipper, Jim, announces. His thick Scottish accent is further warbled as it rolls out of the boat’s PA system.
Today’s delivery is less exciting. Limp, beige canvas mail sacks strewn about the cabin floor bear the surnames of the families living off-grid in the Sounds. Their homes are only accessible by boat. Power is supplied by the DIY hydro-electric schemes they’ve built using repurposed engines from laundry machines.
A handful of tourists—myself included—are the heaviest and only live cargo on this run. Jim tells us that without us the delivery service would’ve gone broke a long time ago. As proof, he passes around a photo of tourists aboard a mail boat in 1918. Their smart tweed suits make me feel suddenly self-conscious in my sweatpants, hoodie and sneakers.
Jim’s the ninth owner of the business, but he’s no ordinary mailman. He’s part-historian and part-educator who easily shifts from discussing the economics of the Sounds’ green-lipped mussel industry to explaining the Department of Conservation’s takahe breeding program on Maud Island.
“Recently, the married rangers on the island have started their own breeding program,” Jim jokes and tells us about the newest resident of the Sounds, the couple’s baby boy.
Mostly, he’s an enthusiastic tour guide who is genuinely chuffed to have stumbled upon the Sounds fourteen years ago as a backpacker.
When we come across a group of playful white-bellied dusky dolphins, he shouts to no one in particular: “I love my job! Where else in the world can you stop and watch dolphins moseying about like this?”
With the engine cut, the breeze subsides, and the sun warms my face. Jim scrambles around the boat’s various decks. His pale, red-freckled skin is safely shaded by his floppy canvas sunhat. He snaps photo after photo of everyone gawking at the acrobatic creatures gliding and twirling through the clear water below.
Later, when it’s Penny’s turn to steer, he walks around showing everyone the photos he’s taken. “Ah, fantastic, that’s a great one of you two!” he says referring to my husband and me. “What’s your email address? I’ll send them over to you.” And he does.
As the boat turns into each bay en route to the next stop, I peer into the distance searching for the narrow docks that jut out from isolated beaches. Most often, there’s a person or two waiting for their weekly delivery from Jim and Penny, the “sea posties” of the Marlborough Sounds.
A fifth generation commercial fisherman of Waihinau Bay stands at the end of his dock, his wife by his side. They wave goodbye to their teenage granddaughter who is catching a ride back to the tiny town of Havelock, where the Pelorus Express docks.
In Waitata Bay we encounter George. He looks like the quintessential New Zealand outdoorsman in his polo shirt and loose khaki pants that are shoved into calf-high Red Band gum boots. His sidekick Pumba is an unexpected highlight of the day. Frothy saliva gathers at the corners of the eighty kilo pet pig’s mouth as she devours the treats Jim and Penny feed her.
“It’s putting me off my coffee,” a woman next to me laughs and turns away from the lip-smacking, snorting beast.
At Port Ligar, no one is in sight. A family with ten kids lives here, but perhaps they’re too busy home schooling some of those kids or running their sheep station, fishing lodge and mussel farm. It’s the only stop where there’s no chit-chatting with the locals, so Penny quickly reaches inside the mailbox – a cut out black buoy – and places this week’s mail sacks on the wooden slat inside.
After the final delivery, we begin the journey back to Havelock, stopping briefly to observe a king shag colony. Their slender black and white bodies blend in nicely with the tiny islet they’ve claimed in Forsyth Bay.
Because the tides are low, we have to go quite slow, Jim announces. We don’t mind. We’re on the top deck, soaking up the late afternoon sun and views, which now include muddy shores covered with birds. A pair of royal spoonbills walks robot-like over the earth, their snow-white heads turning methodically from left to right in search of dinner.
Penny steers the boat home and Jim makes a final round, this time to pass out the lemon sponge cake given to him by one of the postal customers. I reach into the recycled plastic blue ice cream container and pull out a thick, gooey slice.
I savor the homemade confection and the last few minutes aboard the Pelorus Express. ”Ha,” I think to myself, “what a fantastic day!”