Behind the letterboxes of Rural Delivery 10 are faces, families, history and stories of farm and forest. The Wairarapa Journal travels the route southeast of Masterton, with a postie who thinks beyond the gate.
Drenching rain, searing sun and other elements of nature have been thrown at the right arm of Stuart Wilton, rural postman.
Each morning, he drives the 200km route of RD 10, feeding letters, parcels, newspapers and circulars into rural boxes, from the driver’s seat of his long red ute.
It sounds easy and perfunctory. Stop, post, drive on. But a short time with Stuart reveals he cares not just about the post reaching home, but about the folk behind the letterboxes. By the 200th kilometre we’ve completed something akin to a security sweep, a visiting service and a history tour of the countryside. And he isn’t pretending for our benefit – his astonishing knowledge is proof of genuine commitment enhanced by time.
Whether the clients on Stuart’s owner-driver contract route like it or not, he knows a bit about them. RD 10 covers 146 letterboxes and 86 registered farms. “You can tell a lot about people by their mail,’’ he says, with a slow nod. But their business is safe with him.
On this day, Stuart is mouth-sore from major dental work. But in nine years, he has taken just two weeks’ leave. Here’s why:
His postal route is a panorama of Wairarapa beauty and character. Lifestyle blocks with excellent views on the edge of Masterton roll into large working farms. Within RD 10 are the colonial homesteads of Te Parae and Brancepeth – the latter’s hand-built rabbit fence a solid totara wall curving across the hill.
There’s a school, a forest, animals tiny and large and a myriad of interesting people, some living lives of eccentric delight.
Letterboxes change the further out we drive, from small “townie’’ boxes, to dog kennel-sized jobs with every type of latch, hinge and weatherproofing, deep into Wainuioru and Stronvar, between town and coast.
At Wainuioru School, a cheerful ‘Hi Stuart’ from the children lifts his spirits for the quiet drive through atmospheric Ngaumu Forest. The light changes, as the tall shadows of green giants throw a mysterious gloom over the abandoned Ngaumu workers’ village. Roads are unsealed here and a little more unstable – a third of the RD 10 route is gravel.
Men who look like tiny Lego figures from high up pull pine trees from hillsides, then haul them up slopes on colossal moving chains. The logs are headed for the mill in Masterton and Stuart connects with truck drivers by radio – a safety measure to avoid collisions on the tight roads.
We stop at the old Bungy Bridge, its striking upright joists are a wood and steel skeleton hanging over the Upokongaruru Stream. A beautiful deep gorge gives life to the isolation of the bridge, built in 1916. Stuart points out perfectly round ‘cannonball rocks’ and the spherical holes they leave in the gorge face.
A former police officer, with a farm of his own across the valley, Stuart has the skills to spot anything out of the ordinary. Observation, first aid and a general awareness of the people, vehicles and animals on his route, make him a useful bloke to have passing by each day.
People are aware of his good nature. He’s picked up a live lamb (with a bottle of milk for feeding) from one letterbox and deposited it in another; changed flat tyres; herded stock safely off the road; ferried pots of jam between neighbours; and put lost tourists back on the right path.
“I once came across some Americans in a campervan at Wainuioru – they thought they were in Waiouru but couldn’t find their hotel,” Stuart says.
He knows which letterboxes have resident birds (four on this day). We swing open the door of a large box, but something wild and fierce has been at the young family’s nest during the night – the stark reality of the food chain. He knows that if left too long in a box, mail will be feasted on by slaters. He’s found motherless ducklings in the road and known exactly which farmer to give them to for caring.
“I lambed a ewe for a customer the other day,” he says, in a nonchalant sort of way.
Stuart can rattle off which letterboxes stick shut during a frost and take a little more grunt; which kids will stick the letterbox flags up for a joke during the school holidays. Young shepherds are even more cheeky, leaving live eels, rabbits and possums to spring out at him. Stuart’s delivered milk, online grocery orders and boxes of wine to customers too busy, or too weary, to drive into town.
One farmer meets us at the gate, takes his mail and compares rainfall measurements. At another farm, Stuart jumps from the ute and hauls up a metal tine, fallen off some machinery in a field. He props it up in the dirt for the farmer to see.
We visit an 83-year-old bachelor at a magical little place in Ngahape and witness a firm friendship. He sometimes drives behind Stuart’s ute into Masterton, for safety. We drop a Farmers Club Card update into the box of a woman who lives in a house with “a chequered past”.
We listen, amazed, as Stuart rattles off the names and interesting info about the many families of RD 10. Some live off the grid. People have married, divorced, had children who have travelled on the school bus, left home and come back for good, or for holidays.
We pass the same lone jogger three times as we drive around a loop in the route. She waves three times. At the lime works, Stuart alights from the ute and zips in and out of the little office, exchanging quarry banter with the manager over the yard.
We quite suddenly come upon a house with its top storey relocated from a once hip nightclub in Palmerston North – ‘Boogie Nites’ the intact sign screams across the paddocks. Questionable, if it wasn’t so beautifully quirky.
The countryside is full of surprises – a little space observatory dome, a proper log cabin, an outdoor model railway, experimental eco houses. There used to be a golf course on the edge of the forest – the clubrooms still stand.
At 290m above sea level, we catch a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean. Further on, Stuart can see his own property across the rippling valley.
“Why would I take a holiday, when I’m on holiday every day doing this?’’ he asks with a grin. “I’m finished by lunchtime.”
Who knows what ebbs and flows NZ Post will face. “I’m delivering 20 per cent of the letters I was nine years ago,” Stuart says. “But parcels have just gone silly, with online sales and home businesses.” He scoops up some outgoing parcels from the letterbox of a woman who sells toys online – one of them jangles. Part of the postal service is to run packages into town for delivery.
As the bundles of mail to be delivered dwindle in the back of the ute, a knot of rubber bands widens around the gearstick in front “Did you know, there are no RD 13s in New Zealand?” Stuart asks. We didn’t.
And yes, he is right handed – imagine being a left handed rural postie. But as he talks, he waves ambidextrously with left and right fingers to every passing vehicle.
His mouth must be murder. Another day around RD 10 and Stuart has done his job.
Story by Julia Mahony
Photography by Jannelle Preston-Searle