Pony Express in New Zealand
In 1963 the North Otago town of Oamaru celebrated the centennial of its
European settlement. Part of the celebrations included a "Pony Express"
mail specially run from Dunedin to Oamaru by horseback and packhorse -
this mail, in turn, commemorating the establishment of the first
overland mail through Oamaru in February 1857 (not 1887).
Prior to 1857 the six provinces of New Zealand largely had to communicate with one another by irregular coastal shipping. The Local Posts Act 1856 gave the Provinces authority to establish local "posts" ( mail carriage services and post offices) with a local charge in addition to the General Government's postage rate. Under this Act the Canterbury Province (head post office at Lyttelton) arranged a fortnightly packhorse mail to be carried by William Baines south to the Waitaki river, the southern boundary. At the same time a packhorse mail would be carried north, by David Hutchison, via Waikouaiti, Moeraki to Papakaio, very close to the Waitaki river, where north bound mails would be exchanged with the south mails from Christchurch. The agency post office at Papakaio moved into Oamaru on the coast when settlement developed there.
When the Post Office Department was created in October 1858 these overland mails were continued as main or trunk mail lines. The packhorse was replaced by horse-and-coaches when they came into use in the early-mid 1860s, and later, 1876-78, by railway train services.
The term "pony express" intimating that mails were carried at speed or with urgency, does not appear to have been officially used by the Post Office in New Zealand. Instead packhorses or horseback was the standard means of carrying mails overland between provincial centers (all on the coast) or from the coast to inland settlements for many years. One rural delivery service in Abel Tasman Park area of coastal Nelson continued to the 1940s. They were simply referred to as Mail services without any other distinction.
According to standard histories of the area, the first regular road mail services across the area began in February 1857, at a time when roads were few and bridges mostly nonexistent. For the area north of Dunedin, the Otago Provincial Government contracted David Hutchison (at 290 pounds per year) to provide a fortnightly service between Dunedin and the Waitaki River, where Canterbury Provincial contractors presumably took over for the trip to Christchurch. He is stated to have made the journey from Dunedin to Oamaru (about 116 km by road these days) in one day, changing horses at Goodwood, 8km north of Waikouaiti. 2 pence per half ounce was charged as a special inland rate in addition to any other charges.
During the North Otago Centennial celebrations December 1962 - February 1963 a "pony express" mail was run between Dunedin and Oamaru in an re-enactment of the first mail service to Duneden in February 1857. Bearded Ashley Henderson was the mail carrier, riding a horse and leading a packhorse with mailbags. Specially printed envelopes were issued in Oamaru and on receipt in Dunedin were date stamped with a special commemorative date stamp. Leaving Dunedin on 6 February 1963, with overnight stops at Seacliff, Palmerston, and Maheno, Henderson arrived at Oamara on the afternoon of 9 February, his arrival being timed to coincide with the centennial floral festival. On arrival the mailbags were taken to the Oamaru Chief Post Office where the covers were back stamped 4 p.m. with the normal mail room date stamp. Six registered letters and 8,412 ordinary covers or letters were carried on this centennial mail.
Information provided by Robin M. Startup, Postal Historian and Archivist, Royal Philatelic Society of New Zealand.