Since I first set eyes on Queen Charlotte Sounds, on my first ferry voyage south, I’ve wanted to see more. It’s been a long wait, but that dream recently came true, thanks to Picton’s Beachcomber Cruises.
January marked the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook sailing into Ship Cove on The Endeavour. In a magical half-day outing, not only did I get to see more of the Sounds than I ever hoped, but I followed in the footsteps of Cook and even delivered the mail.
Beachcomber Cruises is the official NZ Post delivery service by water in the area. As our skipper, Kyle Gribben, welcomed us onboard the Matua, he promised a tour that would take us off the beaten track.
No two trips are the same, as each mail route covers a different area. As we sat back and relaxed on the comfortable top deck, I spotted the unmistakeable wave of a seal flipper in the harbour and wondered what we would see.
Rich in history and wildlife
We couldn’t have picked a better afternoon to sail as the morning cloud gave way to blue skies and glorious sunshine. As we whizzed along, with Anakiwa and Moetapu Bays to our left, Kyle’s love for the area was evident, and I did my best to commit as much of what I learned to memory.
Our first mail drop was at Curious Cove. As our vessel pulled up to the jetty, the lady of the lodge was waiting with her dog, who wagged his tail excitedly when our skipper handed him a dog biscuit. Our next drop off was at the Lazy Fish, where – not surprisingly – several dogs were waiting to collect the mail.
From here, we entered the Tory Channel, which is shared with the interisland ferries. Past Maraetai Bay we went, alongside Arapawa Island, with Kyle keeping us informed along the way. In days gone by, Māori who lived on the island would light fires so that people travelling from the north could follow the smoke.
I never realised how many permanent residents live out here in the wild and it was amazing to see the power lines stretching across the water, hooking the island up to mains power. It was also both interesting and amusing to see the ingenious ways residents had developed to haul their groceries and freight up from the jetty to their houses in the bush.
We saw everything from pulley systems to wheelbarrows. “Whatever residents need, from building supplies to quad bikes and heavy machinery, we can bring it all out here,” Kyle told us. There are five Chinook salmon farms in the Marlborough Sounds, as well as mussel farms.
As you can imagine, this is a great part of the journey to see plenty of wildlife, and we saw several fur seals hanging out close by. While we didn’t see any this day, dolphins are frequently sighted on the Mail Boat Cruise, and even orca had been seen just a couple of days earlier.
A moment to remember
As we reached Te Rua Bay, with the sun on our faces and breathing in the sea air, I couldn’t remember when I last felt so content. Fishermen waved as we sailed past and as we arrived at our next mail drop, and I chuckled at the lambs grazing happily on the beach all around the jetty.
The last drop of the day was to a pāua pearl farm; then it was time to head to Ship Cove. Along the way, we passed Blumine Island, Motuara Island, which is inhabited by kiwi, and Long Island, also a marine reserve. All three islands are predator-free and closely monitored by the Department of Conservation, with good reason.
“A DOC officer told me they once eradicated 19 deer in one day, from one of these islands alone,” Kyle told us. “These islands are protected so that future generations can enjoy them in years to come. See those rocks over there? They’re not actually rocks; it’s bull kelp seaweed. That stuff grows up to 60m long.”
Coincidentally, I had just been reading a book about Captain Cook’s voyages, so was excited to learn we would be going to Ship’s Cove. It was here the explorer himself claimed the South Island here with his flag. He arrived by mistake, in 1770, after being blown into the cove in a big storm but ended up spending 100 days there to repair his boat and it became his favourite base in Aotearoa.
It was also there he started trading with Māori. While everyone else scrambled to see the iconic monument upon disembarking, I went off on a solo expedition of my own. I wanted to stand on the beach where he landed and see what he saw.
I had it all to myself, and as I looked out from the shore, with the Sounds on one side of me, and the entrance to Cook Strait on the other, I have to say it was one of the most memorable and stunning moments of our years of adventuring.
I could have stayed all night, and some of our passengers were doing just that as they disembarked to walk the Queen Charlotte Track. For us, however, it was time to make our return to Picton, stopping at Furneaux Lodge and Punga Cove along the way to pick up some more exhausted but happy trampers who had completed the track.
As we sailed gently into Punga Cove, we spotted a seal asleep on the back of a local boat. He looked as relaxed as I felt. All too soon we arrived back at Picton. I didn’t want to go back into civilisation, but our cruise had been everything I hoped for and more. After almost 30 years, I can finally say I’ve seen Queen Charlotte Sounds properly.
Sail the Sounds
Keen to experience the Mail Boat Cruise? Here are a few tips.
- The cruise runs every day of the week except Sunday and departs from the Picton waterfront. There is no best day to go or best route, each one has its highlights, but the team can answer any questions you may have.
- The Mail Boat Cruise stops at historic Ship Cove in the summer months only.
- If you sit on the top deck, at some stage, you will get wet. It adds to the fun, however, and if you wish, you can observe from the Matua’s comfortable and dry interior.
- You will learn a lot. I never realised just how much until sailing north on the ferry a few days later. As my fellow passengers stood beside me as we sailed through the Sounds, I was able to wow them with my geographical knowledge.
- The Mail Boat Cruise is just one of a variety of excellent Beachcomber day trips. For more information, visit beachcombercruises.co.nz