Seeing how the other half live: on the mailboat run in Queen Charlotte Sound

Queen Charlotte Sound runs in a north-easterly direction from the coastal town of Picton, at the northern tip of South Island. The Sound is dominated by bush-clad valley slopes, deep bays and coves, and is a haven for birds and marine mammals. Although Picton, which lies near the head of the sound, is a town of reasonable size, other settlements along the Sound are small and isolated.

Due to the rugged nature of the coast, for many of properties along the Sound access is by boat only. Not only do property owners need a boat – or maybe a helicopter or two! – to access their properties, but the New Zealand Postal Service is unable to deliver mail in the normal way.

When a land route is not available the only way for post to be delivered is by mailboat, and the contractor employed to run this service also takes tourists out on its vessel. This seems to us to be the perfect way of seeing part of coastal New Zealand that would otherwise be inaccessible to us, and has the added bonus of giving me a few hours break from driving.

*

We board the mailboat at Picton harbour. It’s spacious and uncrowded, and will be a comfortable space to spend the next few hours. As we set off into Queen Charlotte Sound it soon becomes evident that it’s a different world out here. 

The slopes either side of the water are heavily wooded, but here and there, half hidden amongst the trees, we spot the occasional house.  Some are horrendously expensive, others slightly less so. Apparently, prices here are determined in part by how private your pad is: if no other bugger’s pad is visible from your property, it’s going to cost you a damn sight more.

As well as playing host to the houses of the well-heeled, the hillsides are also home to the occasional exclusive “resort.”  These are small clusters of upmarket properties where the rich and famous hang out while other people, less rich and not famous at all, attend to their every need and fancy. 

Our skipper tells us that Bob Dylan has spent time here, which makes sense: this place clearly suits folk of a reclusive disposition. If you’re a socialite and your aim in life is to party, party, party, then putting down roots in Queen Charlotte Sound would be a very bad idea.

The main clue that there is a property hidden in the undergrowth is the presence of a jetty where the owner parks his boat.  Everyone living here permanently has a boat, or at least access to a boat.

During the course of our journey we call at perhaps a dozen jetties to deliver the mail.  The owners have been contacted in advance and know to expect us. They are waiting on the jetty as we approach, and chat like old friends with the skipper when he hands over the mail.  The delivery made, we take our leave and head off to the next mail drop.

On the way there’s wildlife to be spotted.  We catch a glimpse of our first Little Blue Penguins of the holiday, paddling energetically across the Sound.  But they’re not in the mood for company, and like a U-Boat captain under attack from the RAF they dive as soon as they’ve been identified.  We don’t see them again, and Mrs P’s camera doesn’t see any action.

From a conservation perspective there’s some good stuff going on in and around the Sound.  There is, for example, a concerted effort to rid the hillsides of non-native trees, mostly fir trees planted to service the timber trade, and replace them with indigenous New Zealand specimens. 

And several of the small islands dotted around the Sound have been cleared of all mammalian predators enabling them to be used as sanctuaries for native birds.  On a couple of the islands juvenile Kiwis, which have been born in captivity, are allowed to roam free until they are big and tough enough to be returned to their ancestral homes.

Back on home soil, the youngsters raised on these protected islands in Queen Charlotte Sound will now be strong enough to beat seven shades out of any stoat that fancies having them for lunch.

In deference to the fact the mailboat is carrying a number of fee-paying tourists we make a 15 minutes stop at Ship Cove.  Captain James Cook liked this place and came here three times in the late 18th century; a monument commemorates his visits. 

But more importantly, from our perspective, at Ship Cove we spot our first Weka.  These are brown, stocky, flightless native birds just a little larger than a European moorhen. 

Weka have a reputation for being light fingered, and the skipper warns us before we leave the boat that they are able and willing to steal anything that is not nailed down.  They sound like real characters, but the birds we spot are too occupied with parental duties to get up to any mischief at our expense.

After a brief photo opportunity with the Weka we head back to the mailboat for our return trip to Picton.  Travelling along Queen Charlotte Sound has been a slightly surreal experience; although appealing to look at this place is remote, road-less and lonely. 

I never knew that places like this exist in New Zealand, and while I’m pleased that we’ve had an insight into the way the other half lives, I’m sure as hell glad I don’t live here myself.