Words by Niamh McCarthy, images supplied by Matt Searles
Peel Forest postie Matt Searles is a very busy man and delivering mail along NZ’s longest single road mail run is only one of his many daily tasks. Along with wife Shelley he runs The Green Man at Peel Forest Café and manages the adjoining DOC campground. He’s also a very talented photographer and somehow finds the time to document his very scenic mail run on his Instagram page Mail to Messy featuring breath-taking images of his route up the Rangitata Valley to Mesopotamia Station. Summer season is a very busy time for the couple, “we’re very much the centre of things here in Peel Forest, the bar and café is a social hub for the local community as well as for tourists as we’re a gateway for people travelling up the Rangitata Gorge” Matt explains. Historically a postal service has always operated from the café which is the final outpost for mail and parcels destined for the remote Rangitata Valley area. The café was originally a general store and Matt and Shelley still provide basic supplies for locals and tourists alike – providing locals with milk for tea, campers with matches and tired kids with ice-cream - the café is definitely a lifeline for this rural community.
Englishman Matt has lived in New Zealand for over nineteen years. He met Timaru native Shelley in the UK and decided to return with her to Canterbury. They lived in the Kaituna Valley for many years and Matt admits the couple enjoy living in small remote communities while Matts background in marketing, photography and web design allows him to work from home. They relocated to Peel Forest a few years ago to be closer to Shelley’s family and took over the café and mail business in June 2018. “We’d always wanted to work on something together and we knew the prior owners well and I’d also done some relief mail run work. When the owners told us they were leaving we chatted about it and thought ‘lets’ give it a go’”. They rebranded the café as The Green Man at Peel Forest, took the contract from NZ Post to manage the mail and from DOC to manage the campsite, “we’ve both had prior hospitality experience so it wasn’t a blind jump into something, we had an idea of what we were getting into but the businesses definitely keep us busy!”
Since taking over and rebranding the café the couple have been busy introducing new menus and products and extending opening hours ensuring the local community have somewhere to socialise. As well as locals, they also cater to functions and large groups as well as offering tasty food to the campers next door and host live music on weekends. “Something we’ve always wanted to do is offer people great tasty food with a social conscience so we stock lots of organic and Fair-Trade products and try to source as much local food as we can. Shelley has dietary requirements so she has inspired lots of dairy and gluten free dishes. In our experience sometimes when you are off the beaten track there isn’t a lot of choice so we didn’t want our location to be a barrier for choice. If you have a food allergy and you come here we always try to have a few good options on offer.”
Matt delivers the mail from Tuesday to Saturday and the 100 km return journey up the valley usually takes about 2.5 hours with 15 potential stops on the route. As a mail run with one single road getting lost isn’t a problem and also there isn’t a lot of change in ownership of homes so he knows most of his customers even if he only occasionally sees them moving a mob of sheep. Couriers don’t travel up the route so all kinds of deliveries are put into the safe hands of Matt to deliver up the valley. “I’m the end of the road for mail so I carry all sorts of things, from milk to ear tags to helicopter lubricants and even the odd child who needs a lift home after staying with friends. Today someone dropped in floor tile sample to send up to a resident and I’ve also got 16 litres of ice-cream to deliver, there’s always something random in the van!”
As a keen photographer this most beautiful of mail routes provides Matt with endless opportunities while going about his daily routine. “It’s very hard as a photographer to find the time to go out and take shots so being postie is the perfect outlet to capture the landscape. The route is a hidden gem and I really try and take pictures that capture the essence of the landscape and also document the passing of time through the seasons.” Matts work is displayed on his Instagram page “Mail to Messy” and the images are spectacular and have amassed a large online following including many of the local landowners who are proud as punch to have their back yard displayed through very beautiful imagery and are now used to the sight of the local postie with his camera. Matt also uses drone photography which he admits can be difficult in the windy conditions of the valley but on calmer days the perspective from the drone really can capture something special. “Even getting the camera a few metres off the ground offers a totally different angle, for example moving livestock can look spectacular from above, or the other day a baling contractor was keen to look at my photos as he thought on that day he’d done perfect lines and thought the drone would have got the best shots.”
Between the café, campsite, mail run and photography Matt is definitely always busy but surprisingly has a few more plans up his sleeve for the future. He’d like to start taking groups up the valley offering photography opportunities and providing a tasty picnic lunch courtesy of the café, “I’ve got a great body of work to show people what they can expect and obviously with the café we can provide great food for the excursions.” He’s also going to be displaying some of his work at an exhibition at the Susan Badcock Gallery in Geraldine later this year which will feature some original work not already featured on his Mail to Messy page, “I’m really excited about that and already thinking of the types of image I’ll have on show and the shots I want to take.”
Some of the images are also displayed in the café as Matt and Shelley are keen to promote the wonderful area they call home and it’s also a great way to engage tourists and encourage them to explore the wider Peel Forest and Rangitata Valley areas. “It really is big country in a little country around here and tourists are always surprised when they realise some of the shots are only a half hour drive away. We’re very passionate about getting people out exploring and even reminding the locals how lucky we are to live in such a wonderful part of the world and Mail to Messy is a great way to do that.”