Cruising the Marlborough Sounds on the Pelorus Mail Boat

Setting out on a beautiful autumn day

Driving off from Christchurch, on a beautifully sunny day, we travelled through the colourful autumn tree-lined roads over the scenic North Canterbury countryside to reach the coast south of Kaikoura.

Along this coastal road we stopped to enjoy the sea views, dolphins jumping in the close waves, sea birds roosting on the rocks in the bay, and the sun glistening on the water.

The seal colonies, rich with adults and babies, are a popular stopping point for travellers and surfers frequent the little bays in all weathers.

With the stunning Kaikoura Ranges as a backdrop, today shrouded in a fine mist glistening in the midday sun, it is well worth the stop.

The stunning drive to ‘Kingfisher Cottage’

Leaving the coast, we drove through the grapevine covered hills towards the wine region of Blenheim. We enjoyed a coffee with a friend before moving on towards our destination for the next two nights—a lovely cottage on the hills above Linkwater on the edge of the small Mahakipawa Arm of the Marlborough Sounds.

To get there, we drove the windy but beautiful Queen Charlotte Drive that meanders over the hills from Picton to the Queen Charlotte Sound and along the edge of this scenic waterway.

Manfred preparing to cook at Kingfisher Cottage
Manfred preparing to cook at Kingfisher Cottage

We loved the simplicity of the ‘Kingfisher Cottage’ but the vista was the biggest attraction, where the various times of the day offered a different view of the curve of the Arm, the bush-covered hills, and, at night, the twinkling lights of houses and villages along the way.

A little about the Marlborough Sounds

The following day we were booked on the ‘Pelorus Mail Boat’, both a tourist attraction and a functional delivery system for those who live in the remote bays and islands of ‘The Sounds’ which cover 4,136 sq km (1500 sq mi). This labyrinth of waterways consists of 4 major Sounds and has a coastline of 3,218 km (2000 mi) to encompass The Queen Charlotte, Kenepuru, Pelorus, and Mahau Sounds.

The two main towns are Picton and Havelock; the latter being where we began our Sounds Journey. There are many other nature experiences to be enjoyed in this region such as boating, kayaking, diving, fishing, and dolphin watching. At the right time, you might even see an orca; and the birdlife, on and off the water, include gannets and blue penguins, with native birdsong heard from the bush-clad hills towering above the sheltered bays and open waterways. Seals are prolific and are often seen sitting atop the buoys of the hundreds of mussel farms situated on the water.

Salmon farms are dotted along the waterways often sitting alongside the 700 mussel farms—75% of New Zealand’s mussels are farmed here, and if you like these shellfish they go well with a Marlborough wine!

Queen Charlotte Sound and Anikiwa

Queen Charlotte Sound boasts a world-famous 70 km (43.5 mi) walking track with the option of kayaking part of the journey and overnight stops in beautiful bays where nature abounds. Anikiwa is home to the Outward Bound non-profit organisation established in 1962 to foster personal and professional development, and help people reach their potential through outdoor challenges. Although these are just two well-known places in ‘The Sounds’, there are many more including a yoga retreat in a remote bay on Pelorus Sound along with farm experiences or B&Bs to rest and relax.

The Pelorus Mail Boat – a little history

The ‘Pelorus Mail Boat’ run was established in 1869 using a government steamer when the population was sparser; but, as the numbers of farms and residents grew so did this valuable and essential service. Small post offices were ‘dotted’ throughout the area and mail was dropped at these strategic places to be collected by the locals living on the more remote islands and farms around the region.

The residents would row their small boats to the post office to pick up their mail. In 1918, the mail service was handed to private operators and it has remained this way.

Many of the goods carried and delivered include farming supplies and tourists. As there is very little, or in some cases, no road access, the locals rely on the mail boat for transport and it remains a lifeline from the remote islands and bays to the town of Havelock. Many of these places also have no mobile reception nor mains electricity.

But this remoteness appeals to many who want to live ‘off the grid’ or even just have a few days away from mainstream life in the city or towns of New Zealand, or the world at large.

And so our ‘Mail Boat’ journey begins

The day dawned grey and bleak with the promise of rain but our spirits were not deterred and, with a knowing that these weather conditions can have their own beauty, we waited with the other tourists to board the boat. We set off into the marked channel toward the Mahau Sound with the captain giving us an introduction to the day ahead including the weather forecast.

We sat on the top of the boat with the wind in our faces, encased in our jackets, hats, and warm gloves.

The views were spectacular as we passed many sheltered bays and the entrances to longer deeper waterways such as Kenepuru Sound where the boat goes on shorter runs on another day of the week. Friday is the day of the ‘outer route’ run and includes some of the islands, bays, and the edge of the open water of the Tasman sea, stopping at the stations and retreats, farms and jetties along the way.

Stop and Drop – Mail for remote locations

After making the first stop at Te Rawa Retreat, with a plan to stop off on the way back and pick up some returning passengers, we crossed the Pelorus Sound and cruised into the sheltered bay where ‘Homewood’, a yoga retreat, is set in the bush-clad hills high above the waterline.

We crisscrossed around the sounds visiting Richmond Bay, Waitato Bay, Bulwar, Ligar Bay, Forsyth Island and across another small stretch of water, Forsyth Bay.

These remote places each have a unique look and feel. Some are working farms, other are holiday destinations with cabins in the bush and backpackers accommodation; however, they all looked rustic and charming.

By this time, the rain had set in, the birds flew low on the water, and seals sat majestically on the buoys of several of the mussel farms or bobbed in and out of the water as we cruised along.

By now we were sitting at the back of the boat under cover from the rain but enjoyed the fresh sea air, lunch on the go with tea and coffee provided, and a restful journey along the Sounds. Out towards the Tasman Sea, the Chetwode Islands loomed in the distance, rain-smeared and almost mystical as we crossed towards Forsyth Island.

Stay and Play – two destinations for a ‘getaway from it all’ holiday

As examples of the rich offerings here in these outer regions, Richmond Bay is advertised as a ‘holiday destination’ where you can enjoy boat tours, fishing, dolphin watching, mountain biking, or hiking through paths and trails. Farm life is to be enjoyed and, no matter what time of the year you are visiting, there will always be some seasonal operation happening such as lambing, mustering, or shearing.

There are no poisonous plants or wild animals amongst the abundant flora and fauna in this ‘100% nature on this island that is not an island,’ as the captain kept telling us, as he recounted some stories about this 2,166 ha (5760 acres) of farmland. Panoramic views of the Marlborough Sounds can be seen from the 600 m tops of the hills surrounding the 50 km of coastline which is joined to the mainland by a narrow isthmus—hence, it is not ‘really’ an island.

Again, making the most of the beauty of the native bush, the clear calm waters of the Pelorus Sound, Te Rawa exudes relaxation and comfort among the remoteness of its situation in a quiet bay. With birdsong and calm waves lapping the shore, relaxation is assured. Kayaking, fishing, bushwalking, and other activities are available for those who want more than just enjoying the sun on a warm day.

A variety of accommodation is available, with self-catering or dining in the lodge which is fully licenced. Wines from the Marlborough region accompany the meals and the coffee shop serves fresh espresso coffee, homemade cakes, and New Zealand’s Kapiti ice cream.

A graveyard of ships skeletons

Quirky as it may sound, one of the stops was at a bay where the coastline was strewn with skeletons of long-dead and decaying ships, some partially burnt, but all rusting in the sea air and water. The captain told us the story of this unusual ship graveyard and how the long-ago owners would buy old or damaged boats and build new ones leaving the remains as we saw them today.

The main characters in this story were colourful and creative and tried to force a way through the narrow isthmus to forge a quick passage to the other side. Despite efforts using shovels and dynamite, they were not successful and the story lends more folklore to the ‘island that is not an island’. It was not a particularly pretty sight but made for a good story for the passengers.

Seeing the ‘Sounds’ in wet weather

Due to the inclement weather, we did not stop off to enjoy what the various lodges and farms were offering for the visitors, and the picnic lunch stop was also cancelled due to the owners not being on-site and the wetness of the day. However, seeing this wonderful nature-land with the misty mountain tops creating a stunning vista as we arrived and left each of the destinations made up for missing the ‘hop on hop off’ opportunities.

Mussel and Salmon farms dot the landscape

As we hopped between bays, the mussel farms and salmon farms, tucked in the bays and along the coastline, provided an interesting visual contrast to the pristine nature of the region.

Large vessels store the feed for the salmon and look like enormous land tanks sitting on the still ocean, which had me thinking about pollution, ecosystem balance, and the seafood supplies for local restaurants.

The way home….

The ride back on the very calm waterway left us feeling satisfied with our journey, even if the rain spoiled some aspects of the trip, like sitting on the top of the boat, stopping off at various locations and maybe even spotting some dolphins or orcas; was that a spout from the water I just saw?! Questioning the hostess for this trip, she said it was possible; however, if it was, it did not rise out of the water to reveal itself.

Arriving back at the port in Havelock, we had some coffee at a local pub restaurant before driving back to our little cottage at Linkwater and settling in for dinner.

Destination ‘Golden Bay’

The next day, in driving rain we set out for Golden Bay:

Read that story here.

Stop and smell the roses; the slow journey home

Following our departure from Golden Bay, we had an overnight stop in a farming and lifestyle block area above Ruby Bay near popular Mapua. We made a short side trip to one of our favourite holiday destinations in the Upper Moutere, before meeting a friend for lunch in Nelson and driving back to Kaikoura. We once again enjoyed good weather as we drove down the coast, sighting seals on the rocks by the seashore. Here, in Kaikoura, we shared the company of more good friends where a nice meal, wine, and conversation was enjoyed, with views of the Kaikoura ranges and the ocean reminding us just how beautiful our country is. As we drove back to Christchurch, first along the coast with the sea birds and dolphins at play, through the now even more brightly coloured autumn leaf laden trees, our little journey had come to an end, but the photos, stories, and memories live on.

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