The Pelorus Postie - It’s probably true that no-one knows New Zealand’s stunningly beautiful Marlborough Sounds better than the region’s long-distance waterborne postman. Bill Richards* reports from New Zealand.

After 20 years on the beat, cruising more than 500kms a week around the spectacular tangle of drowned valleys, Nick Martin says the scenery is actually gaining beauty.
Good news, this, for the fortunate folk of the north-east corner of New Zealand’s South Island whose lives are richer just for living close to these waterways. Good news too for tourists who travel the world to experience the extraordinary blends of twisted channels, mountainous shorelines and calm protected bays.
Mother Nature is working here to restore one of her treasures.
Nick and his wife Val are co-owners and skippers of the mail boat Pelorus Express, a comfortable custom-built 41ft powerboat driven by a 380hp marine engine. As well as mail, they deliver provisions to Pelorus’s scattered residents and take sightseers along for an intimate look at the magnificent scenery.
One day last September I bought a ticket and went for the ride. We called on just seven of Nick and Val’s 31 customers. It took us most of the day to reach these few in their remote and often secluded cottages and resort outposts. In a normal week the couple make this trip of 150km and two others of 140km and 125km to ensure they call on all 31 individuals, families and groups.
At the outer extremity of Pelorus we called on a man whose family is prominent in the history of Havelock and the region’s timber industry. Bill Brownlee, now in his 80s, has retired on his property beside the sound where he enjoys the quiet life.
Bill’s great-grandfather, William Ross Brownlee, a Scottish engineer, established Havelock’s first timber mill in 1864 – the year gold was discovered. He went on to build three more mills, lay kilometres of track and pioneer the use of steam engines to bring the logs in.
Bill’s grandfather and his father worked in the timber industry, as did Bill himself for a few years before he joined the army and then took up a farm near Havelock. The little community museum in Havelock holds a large collection of tools and machinery from the Brownlee family’s now closed timber enterprises.
Postman’s close ... Mailbag in hand, this couple stand ready for Pelarus Sound postie Nick Martin’s weekly call.The Marlborough Sounds, we’re told, were formed by the flooding of roughly parallel river valleys after the last Ice Age – around 10,000 years ago. Essentially there are three long fjord-like sounds running south-west to north-east, emptying into the Cook Strait, the sometimes stormy stretch of water that separates New Zealand’s North and South Islands.
Queen Charlotte Sound, the most easterly and best known of the three, has the little port of Picton at its headwaters. Passengers and vehicles from Wellington and the populous North Island arrive here, making Picton an important gateway to Marlborough’s rich wine producing area and the South Island highway network.
The other two sounds are Pelorus and Kenepuru. Pelorus, the most westerly, extensive and remote of the three, is postman Nick Martin’s territory.
Archaeologists have evidence that the Maori travelled across and settled the region centuries ago. And there’s a Maori legend concerning the origins of the sounds that Nick tells tourists travelling with him as he delivers the mail …
The great navigator Kupe is said to have chased a giant octopus across the Pacific and into Cook Strait. Somewhere near Arapawa Island at the entrance to Queen Charlotte Sound he engaged combat with the octopus, driving a spear into it. The intricate waterways of the sounds formed where the octopus’s tentacles came to rest in the mud and its eyes can still be seen protruding above the water in Cook Strait in the form of the two small islands known as The Brothers.
Pelorus Sound Posties Nick and Val Martin.The European settlement of New Zealand commenced in the early 1820s and the discovery of gold brought a rush of prospectors to the head of Pelorus Sound in the early 1860s. The village of Havelock in this area, now known for its prodigious crops of green lip mussels, dates from the gold rush period … and according to Nick Martin, that’s when the human assault on the Marlborough Sounds commenced.
First came the timber-getters who harvested native hard and softwoods in thousands from the steep slopes of the peninsulas and islands. With trees down, the farmers followed, opening up wide acreages of grasslands for sheep.
The idyllic Marlborough Sounds had become populated and bustling with primary industry. Perhaps these intruders were dreaming Arcadians settling in such a beautiful rural environment?
“Not at all,” said Martin. “They were battlers.
“Think of it. They were taking logs from almost impossibly steep sites. There were virtually no roads for them to use to move their provisions in, or their products out. Even for the most basic provisions they had to row back into Havelock. If they were living on the outer reaches of Pelorus Sound it would take two days to reach the village. They’d have to camp overnight on the way in, and again on the way back home.”
In splendid isolation ... this lonely household is linked to the outside world through the sound’s waterborne postman. Photo Bill Richards.Many of the difficulties they encountered in the 19th century became more difficult in the 20th. Critically, wool prices plunged after World War II. Financially marginal sheep farms, as most of them were, become untenable.
The farmers now have just about all moved out. There’s only one sheep farm left on Pelorus Sound, plus a resort where a flock has been retained for the interest of visitors. Sheep numbers along the sound have plummeted from 200,000 to fewer than 5,000.
Pine trees have now been planted over wide areas of former farming land, but observers say these projects too have produced only marginal returns, particularly on the outer reaches of the sounds. Nick Martin quotes the experience of one investor who waited patiently for 27 years for the pine trees to mature, then realised just $1 per tree after covering costs.
The saddest slopes along these magnificent waterways are those where the pine trees have been harvested and the ground has been left completely bare except for a litter of logs that were not worth hauling away.

The marina at Havelock, home base of the Pelorus Sound postie.
So the sounds are mostly silent again. And, for most observers, there’s good news: the native trees, shrubs and grasses are returning, vigorously, and reclaiming a lot of the vacated farmland. Martin can point to several areas that were open grazing properties when he took over the postman’s role 20 years ago and are now thickly wooded with natural trees.
“I think it’s great,” he says. “These areas are looking so much better now.”
Scarred hillside, Pelorus Sound.Is Nick happy to see commercial activity retreat and nature regain its hold?
“Hell yes,” he says. “The seeds have been waiting in the ground. Now they have their chance. The natural regrowth is spreading like wildfire, and it looks good.”
Five property owners on Pelorus Sound have now created nature reserves on their freeholdings to protect native flora and fauna. What’s more, according to Nick Martin, the waterborne postie, just about everyone out there would like to see the whole sound revert to its original state.
Mother Nature, it seems, is seizing the present opportunity to fix it for them.
h For information about joining Nick and Val Martin on the Pelorus Mail Run visit

* Bill Richards, a journalist, served many years as media and external relations manager with the National Trust and the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney.