The sound of tranquillity
Pelorus Sound – Marlborough’s jewel.
First – a confession. I like to think I’ve sailed extensively in the Marlborough Sounds. That’s only half-true. In reality – I’ve sailed within the Queen Charlotte Sound. And there’s no denying its majesty and appeal – breathtaking scenery, idyllic anchorages, great fishing, fun restaurants, exceptional wine.
But the ‘Sounds experience’ changed for me earlier this year when I ventured into the Pelorus Sound – often described as Charlotte’s more demure, retiring sister – for the first time. It is – in my opinion – even more beautiful and much more interesting.
It comes with all the attractions listed above but, perhaps because of its relative isolation, the deafening silence, the star-studded night skies, the expansive waterways and hidden inlets – there’s a greater mystique. With its 380km shoreline, it is the largest of the Sounds and its name derives from a ‘blend’. In 1838 HMS Pelorus did the first survey of the Sound – and a ‘pelorus’ is a navigational accessory used on early sailing ships.
An extraordinarily convoluted (think maze) boating
playground, it would take weeks if not months to adequately explore its waterways, inlets and anchorages. But the best-kept secret of the Pelorus Sound is that you don’t even need a boat to dip into its treasures. Instead, hop aboard the Pelorus Express mail boat.
This service – celebrating its centenary this year – was originally established to deliver mail (and supplies and livestock and pretty much anything else) to the locals living in some of the Sound’s remotest outposts. A century ago, it was a much busier place, and over the years has hosted whalers, miners, sawmillers, shipbuilders and farmers.
Today those industries have (mostly) disappeared and have been replaced by the country’s largest mussel farming industry. What’s remained largely unchanged though, is that there are (still) very few access roads and hardly any on-grid electricity. For many places a boat is (still) the only means of access.
Fortunately, the mail boat operating today is much more modern (and a lot faster) than the vessels that plied the Sound a century ago. She’s brand new – a fast, stable 15m alloy catamaran equipped with twin 600hp diesels. She runs seven days a week in summer (three in winter) and, in the words of her crew, her service has morphed over the years.
Says Jim Baillie, the boat’s infectiously-upbeat owner/skipper and walking-pelorus-sound-encyclopaedia: “We used to be a mail service boat carrying a few tourists. Today we’re a tourist boat carrying a bit of mail.” Baillie is the ninth owner of the operation. The new cat is a birthday present, he says, to celebrate the service’s centenary.
Based at Havelock Marina at the head of the Sound, she’s the daytripper’s key to discovering Pelorus Sound. With her speed she covers the entire Sound, leaving at 10.00am and returning at around 4.00pm. And it’s an enormously enjoyable voyage.
MORE THAN A MAIL BOAT
The boat’s a glorious platform for taking in the sights through the Sound – presenting vistas you couldn’t hope to capture from a car – bright greens and deep blues one moment, dark, brooding peaks around the next corner. And always the sparkling water.
It’s the add-ons that create the service’s overall charm. This includes the humourous, informative commentary from Baillie, delivered in his rich, Scottish brogue. It meanders through the Sound’s colourful history, its geography, its marine farming industry, its diverse fauna and flora – and its ecology.
For many visitors the most intriguing part of the trip is meeting the locals living in homesteads tucked deep into remote bays. Each has a jetty and the ‘mail delivery’ is always a lively ritual because the livestock’s included in the welcoming party.
At the stops you’ll meet the usual variety of dogs and cats, but also goats, pigs, ducks and geese – all waiting with expectant faces as the vessel noses up to the jetties. The exchange – a bag/ box drop swapped for another – is quick, but it does allow for a bit of gossip and updates.
As you’d expect, living in places that are unconnected to the modern world presents a few curiosities. Wifi passwords aren’t a pressing concern. Electricity is self-supplied – usually by diesel generators. TV coverage is intermittent at best and, talking to the locals, you sense it isn’t really missed.
There are also ingenious ‘energy’ solutions. The owner of the Wilson Bay Farm, for example, has converted the guts of an old washing machine into a hydro-generator. A stream running across the upper part of his property feeds the converted machine (there’s a 65m head).
With the tub now functioning as a ‘turbine’ and spinning the motor (now a generator), it powers a network of low-voltage lights around the homestead. If the stream dries a bit and the pressure falls, removing a few bulbs from the network sees the rest glowing more brightly. Wilson Bay Farm, incidentally, was established in 1881 and has been in the same family for seven generations.
One of the most fascinating characters is Bill Brownlee. At 91 years young Bill lives alone at Te Puru, one of the last, more
Tranquility is an ephemeral notion – emotional rather than tangible, elusive and indefinable, calm and silent.
remote stops on the mail boat’s route. The great-grandson of one of the early sawmillers, Bill has lived here for 45 years.
He has six children and says they sometimes drop by (courtesy of the mail boat) with a little tucker. But when he runs low on supplies he usually takes his yacht – Waimarie – to Havelock (a 10hour round trip) or Picton (12 hours). She’s anchored in the bay off his homestead, and he’s owned her for 61 years.
Tranquillity is an ephemeral notion – emotional rather than tangible, elusive and indefinable, calm and silent. But it is the feeling that displaces all others as the mail boat sweeps along below the towering ranges.
I was the model of sobriety on the cruise – no alcohol passed my lips – but in Pelorus I think I heard the sound of tranquillity.
ABOVE LEFT Some of the ship remains still evident at Wakatahuri Bay. BELOW It used to be a mail boat with a few tourists. It’s now a tourist boat carrying mail – and an enormously enjoyable experience.
BELOW RIGHT A quick mail bag swap offers a chance for a brief catch-up.
RIGHT Hedonist’s heaven – the view from the jacuzzi at the Sounds Retreat – tucked away at the head of the Queen Charlotte Sound.