Because of our remote and inaccessible location, Queenstowners took to the air early.
The Queenstown airport was granted a license in 1935, two years before commercial flights began in Auckland, and five years before Christchurch airport was founded. For those first aviators, landing in Queenstown was an adventure itself. The paddocks of the old Queenstown racecourse were the airstrip, and landing depended on the prevailing wind. Local pilot Jules Tapper became an early pioneer of flights to scenic locations when he co-founded the Hollyford Valley Walk in Fiordland National Park with Viv Allott in 1968.
Jules recalls, “I always liked the outdoors, so when an opportunity came up in the national park, we went for it. It was so remote we had to use aircraft and I flew hundreds of trips to Hollyford Valley.” In 1976 he applied for an air service license, flying passengers in to hunt and tramp.
The Mount Cook Group brought the first commercial flights into Queenstown in the 1960s. In the 1980s, Jules went to work for the group, first heading up their flightseeing team, then becoming regional manager, and finally leading the company. The story of the Mount Cook Group and its many initiatives is inextricably bound up with Queenstown’s evolution as an adventure destination. Although Jules refers to himself as a “tooth in the cog of the gearbox", his New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to aviation and tourism gives a truer indication of the role he's played.
While young Jules Tapper was learning to fly, brothers Alan and Harold Melhop were introducing Queenstowners to a new kind of thrill on the Kawarau River.
Engineers by trade, their Invercargill firm was the agency for the new Hamilton Jet. In 1958 Alan and Harold demoed a jet boat to a potential customer on the Kawarau Falls Dam. They soon found that whenever they did a demo, they made a sale. Not only that, but everyone wanted a go.
As trustees for the Lakeland Christian Camp, Alan and Harold were always trying to come up with ways to raise money. In 1959 they started jet boat joy rides for five shillings a spin, with huge success. Recognising a good business opportunity, the brothers persuaded the other camp trustees to invest in a jet boat, and the world’s first commercial jet boat tour was born. Kawarau Jet Services (or KJet as they’re now known) proved so popular that the council invited them to move their berth from Frankton Jetty to the Queenstown Pier.
You can see a new generation of jet boats out on Lake Wakatipu. Hydro Attack’s dramatic semi-submersibles are another world-first for Queenstown. Like a cross between a jet and torpedo, they hit speeds of 80kph, diving beneath the surface and breaching into the air.
In the 1970s, Kon Tiki Rafts introduced thrill seekers to white water rafting with New Zealand’s first commercial rafting experience. Queenstown’s two rivers offer a full spectrum of rafting experiences, from the serene reaches of the mighty Kawarau River to gnarly grade 5 rapids on the Shotover.
Parasailing combines the excitement of jet skiing with epic views. For 30 years Queenstown Paraflights have been elevating people 600 feet above Lake Wakatipu for panoramic vistas of the snow-capped Remarkables.
Paragliding was introduced to Queenstown in 1987 by Rene Schwaller. Rene visited his family in Switzerland to find people leaping off mountains for fun. He returned home to Queenstown equipped with two modified parachutes and a new skill, which he demonstrated by riding up the Skyline Gondola and jumping off Bob’s Peak.
In the early 90's Queenstown became home to a hard-core group hiking up tall peaks and flying off them. It wasn’t long before visitors wanted to have a go too, and commercial operators started offering hang-gliding and paragliding experiences. Rene taught local Olympian Bruce Grant to paraglide. Bruce then invented the first tandem paragliders and the duo set up G Force Paragliding off Bob’s Peak in 1991.
Queenstown is also the New Zealand birthplace of tandem skydiving. NZONE Skydive’s drop zone at the foot of the Remarkables is described as “one of the best places in the world to jump out of a perfectly good aeroplane”.
Bruce Grant died on an expedition to K2 in 1995. Before he left for his last adventure he said, “set your sights high, the higher the better, and wonderful things will happen.” His philosophy could be the motto of all those who’ve made Queenstown the home of adventure.