Slice of Life Delivered with New Zealand Mail


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The pigs conceal their excitement better than the dog. The yellow Lab stands with his paws curled over the jetty’s edge as the boat slowly wobbles up alongside it. He shuffles from paw to paw, bobs his head, and whimpers, eyes locked on the incoming vessel. Meanwhile, two large black pigs dawdle down the garden footpath from the house to the jetty. It’s obvious: they’ll get there when they get there.

Sort of like the mail carried by the Pelorus Sound mail boat, which I’ve hopped aboard for the day. The pigs belong to one of the families on today’s run. The boat leaves the Havelock marina three times a week, delivering mail to people living along Pelorus Sound, one branch of the South Island of New Zealand’s Marlborough Sounds. It’s a remote place where electricity is often available only on a do-it-yourself basis and where roads, when they do exist, are difficult at best.

“It takes a special person to live out there,” says Val Martin, who, along with her partner, Nick, has operated the mail boat for the past four-and-a-half years. “It’s an isolated place.”

Nick and Val take the mail and typically about 40 tourists and other passengers out to the farthest reaches of Pelorus Sound, making nine scheduled stops. The sound stretches 35 kilometres between the small mussel-farming town of Havelock and the Cook Strait, which divides the country’s North and South islands.

As we putter out of the harbour, the sound presents itself in front of us. Hilly, wrinkled lumps of land sit in the calm blue-green waters. Some are covered in dense forest, like landfills of tightly clustered broccoli infused with New Zealand’s famous giant fern—the only fern I’ve met that requires a trunk to support itself. Other islands bear the scars of deforestation but have managed to regenerate enough life to bring on a green tinge, causing them to resemble giant lounging shar-pei puppies dressed in green fleece.

The people of the sound are as varied as the terrain. Our first stop is Pohuenui Island, owned by a German family, where you can bunk in a dorm for $35 per night or rent a whole lodge for $900. One of the couples who manage the property is getting married this weekend, and it looks like the extended family has come to collect the mail. Once the boat meets the wharf, a quick exchange is made—the incoming mail goes to the outstretched hands on the wharf and last week’s empty bag comes back on the boat. After a quick chat about cricket and the upcoming wedding, we’re off across the sound.

Nick points out the next stop’s homestead, which is perched atop a forested hill. It’s owned by a Dutch couple who came to the area 16 years ago. They bought 42 hectares of it, put up a house, and are raising three kids. Father and son Brian and Liam Plaisier lean against the railing of their jetty as we pull up.

“Great article!” Val yells out to the pair. They smile but look confused. The family was featured in yesterday’s edition of the local paper, the Marlborough Express, in a full-page glimpse into family life in the sound. They haven’t seen the article yet, so once the mailbags have been exchanged, Val shows them her copy.

A life spent with outsiders looking in seems to be part of the package for those living here. The local paper paints a picture of modern-day renegades bucking the norm and doing something that, deep down, most of us wish we had the guts to do. Meanwhile, something as mundane as picking up the mail requires you to put on your pants and a smile because a boatload of tourists is going to snap photos of you while you do it. Val says that, for the most part, people don’t mind, save for a few who’ve made it clear they don’t want to be an attraction and leave their mailbag on the jetty for pickup.

On our third stop, we meet the pigs. Oompa and Kenya don’t need to be called anymore because they know the routine, which involves dog biscuits. The dogs have already devoured theirs by the time the pigs trot down to the wharf. They sloppily lick the treats out of Val’s hands.

A visit with the pet pigs is usually a perk of the job, but they can be a nuisance. Once when the owners weren’t home, Val left a package on the jetty. As the boat was pulling away, she noticed that the pigs were trying to nudge the box off the end of the wharf.

Keeping mail away from curious pigs is just one of the requirements of the job. Hand-eye coordination is another. High tides cause the boat to teeter well above the jetties, requiring agility and careful manoeuvring to hand things off. On the other hand, a very low tide once put the boat well below a jetty.

“I thought, ”˜I’ll have to throw it [the mailbag] up on top of the wharf,’ ” Val remembers. But that didn’t work as planned. “It went up, right over the wharf, and down into the water on the other side.”

When we dock back in Havelock, seven-and-a-half hours after we set off, the empty bags are offloaded along with the passengers. In a few days, Nick and Val will be at it again, with mailbags refilled. And the people, dogs, and pigs of Pelorus Sound will be ready and waiting on their jetties, some more anxiously than others, to see what the mail brings.