Jet-boat tour firm marks 25 years

A Dart River Jet Safaris boat heads up the Dart River, near Paradise, in 2008. Photo by Craig Baxter.
A Dart River Jet Safaris boat heads up the Dart River, near Paradise, in 2008. Photo by Craig Baxter.
Dart River Jet will today mark 25 years of operation with a reunion of hundreds of former staff from across New Zealand and Australia, along with founders Neil and Robyn Ross, in Glenorchy.

Now a thriving business attracting domestic and international visitors and owned by Ngai Tahu Tourism, the business started with one five-seater Hamilton 141a jet-boat and Mr Ross, a Glenorchy farmer and jet-boat lover.

The early years of the operation were built on passion, hard graft and Mrs Ross' support, he said.

''People around Queenstown said I was completely mad when I suggested a back-country jet-boat tour to friends in the tourism industry.

''There were already a number of operators on the rivers and people said tourists were only interested in thrills as opposed to a scenic boat ride,'' he said.

However, Mr Ross worked from some basic customer research and a belief others would enjoy the Dart scenery as much as he did, and the inaugural Dart River Jet Safari departed on October 1, 1988 - with five passengers.

Among Dart River Jet Safaris passengers over the past 25 years were the late Sir Edmund Hillary and his wife, Lady June (second row, first and second from right). The couple are pictured during their honeymoon in December 1989. Photo supplied.
Among Dart River Jet Safaris passengers over the past 25 years were the late Sir Edmund Hillary and his wife, Lady June (second row, first and second from right). The couple are pictured during their honeymoon in December 1989. Photo supplied.
''They were blown away.

''One in particular, Rip Gray, wrote to me soon afterwards to say the tour had exceeded all his expectations.

''With that feedback, we knew we had something special.''

The ''unique component'' of combining jet-boating with accessing the remote back-country was - and still is - a drawcard, Mr Ross said.

Within 12 months the one-man operation had doubled in size, had added staff and vehicles, and set up in Queenstown, dropping a second boat, the Destroyer, into the water.

The company was also the first operator in the area to hire a female driver, Toni Chiddock, who was one of the best drivers in the history of the company, Mr Ross said.

By 1996 the company - with seven boats, nine full-time and four part-time staff, three coaches and a ''significant'' annual turnover - attracted the eye of Shotover Jet, which took over operations.

Dart River Jet general manager Clark Scott said the business had continued to grow from strength to strength, following in the Ross family's determined footsteps.

''Twenty-five years ago, Neil saw a gap in the market, and created a business that today remains one of Queenstown and New Zealand's top water-based adventure tours, with international appeal,'' Mr Scott said.

''It's a real honour to be here now - what makes us most proud is that the success of the business is its full sensory and educational experience, taking in the beauty and history of the [Mt Aspiring] national park and Dart River Valley from water and land.''

The Dart Wilderness Jet and Funyak trips take visitors on the region's longest jet-boat rides into the Mt Aspiring National Park, combining scenery, wilderness jet-boating, Maori heritage and adventure.

During today's celebrations guests will take their families on a Wilderness Jet experience along the Dart River before an ''adults only'' night of nostalgia over dinner, drinks, cakes and speeches at the Glenorchy Lodge, which will include an ''open mic'' session to enable staff to tell stories about the early days of the company.