Māori used waka extensively in the Marlborough Sounds and also to cross Raukawa Moana (Cook Strait). In colonial times water transport was standard in the Sounds, and also on occasion along Marlborough’s east coast.
In the heyday of coastal shipping (the late 19th and early 20th centuries), there were ports at Havelock, Picton, Port Underwood, Blenheim, the Wairau Bar and Kaikōura. Vessels also called in at numerous landings in the Sounds and along the Kaikōura coast. Road links with other provinces took time to develop, not least because many rivers had to be bridged.
Off to the big smoke
Voyages by whaleboat were made from Kaikōura to Cloudy Bay, Wellington or Kāpiti by whalers desperate for fresh company. They often displayed some carelessness. E. J. Wakefield wrote, ‘I have seen a whaleboat leave Wellington for Kaikōura ... in a gale of wind which kept small coasters in, only because Black Murray, the chief headsman [of the whalers], thought his men had enjoyed enough of their advances, and because he thought it easier to get them away to their station while they were intoxicated.’1
Ferry services linked Picton with both Wellington and Nelson – although the latter stopped once the road to Nelson was improved, probably in the 1890s.
Roads began as bridle tracks, with ferries or fords allowing rivers to be crossed. A bridle track from Nelson up the Whangamoa valley and over the Rai Saddle was opened in 1877. It was a longer route but had an easier gradient than that over the Maungatapu, known colloquially as ‘Moketap’. A coach service ran on the route from 1887 until the advent of service cars (an early form of motorised public transport) around 1915.
The Awatere River road/rail bridge opened in 1902. An inland road opened south from Kaikōura in 1887 and a coast road in 1901, though the Waiau, the first big river in Canterbury, was not bridged until 1911.
A road to the West Coast via the Wairau valley (today’s State Highway 63) opened in 1930, and an improved Blenheim–Seddon road over Dashwood Pass opened in 1933.
T. Lyford ran the Clarence River ferry for many years. He employed a Māori man called Mason to work the boat, which was attached to a wire rope firmly anchored on both sides of the river. Passengers paid 2s. 6d. to be ferried across with their luggage, whilst their unsaddled horses swam over.
Marlborough and Nelson were never linked by rail, although a government subsidy meant that freight was trucked out of Nelson at the cheaper rail rates. Making up the difference cost over £100,000 (nearly $7 million in 2019 terms) in 1950/51. The subsidies stopped in 1982.
The main trunk line
Protests in both 1911 and 1931 at the cessation of work on the Canterbury–Marlborough railway were unsuccessful. The line finally opened in 1945, but had little traffic because of the limited ferry service between Wellington and Picton.
In 1962 the Railways Department started a roll-on, roll-off ferry service between Wellington and Picton. Marlborough was now fully incorporated in the main trunk route, both rail and road.
The new ferries established Picton as a busy port – but the port on the Wairau closed, with the last vessel using it, the Echo, laid up for good in 1965. In 2011 the government considered building a port in Clifford Bay, south of Blenheim, but in 2013 it was decided to retain the terminal in Picton.
Another ‘main trunk’ was that of the national power grid. The undersea cable which transmits electricity between the North and South islands was laid across Cook Strait in 1965, from Fighting Bay on the Marlborough side.
The first flight across Cook Strait arrived at Dillon’s Point, near Blenheim, in 1920. In 1935 commercial services began to Nelson and Wellington, and the government established the Woodbourne air base.
Straits Air Freight Express (SAFE) operated a daily freight service between Blenheim and Wellington for the Railways Department from 1947. In the deregulated 1990s and 2000s Blenheim and Picton became the hub or destination for a number of small airlines which catered to the demand for swift travel across Cook Strait.