Shotover Jet launches a book next week to celebrate its five decades in adventure tourism. Mountain Scene takes a sneaky peek
The elderly American woman shrieked with excitement and fear as the Shotover Jet hurtled through the canyons in shallow water nerve-rackingly close to the rocky walls.
Her subsequent claim to driver Greg Ross – “young man, I have never had so much fun with my clothes on before” – has become company folklore.
This was the benchmark and the ultimate compliment for Ross, who joined Shotover Jet as the Gambles’ first full-time driver in 1976. By the time he left three years later he had driven the river 6500 times.
“It was an incredible job and in the peak we did 25 trips a day. It was a big call repeating the same thing over and over again and could be quite exhausting. In fact, one day I went to sleep at the wheel while we were heading under the Edith Cavell Bridge. I woke up when the boat hit the sandbank and stopped in a hell of a hurry. That wouldn’t happen today with the regulations that are in place.”
Ross worked alongside Tim Warwick, Mark Livingstone and later Mark Quickfall, and together they were a formidable group.
If ever the mantra “work hard, play hard” applied to anyone it was the Shotover Jet boat drivers and there are plenty of behind-the-scenes tales of waterskiing in the canyons after hours and moonlit jetboat excursions.
The Gambles chose drivers for their good looks and personality and they were regarded as the “pin-up boys” of the tourist industry.
Gamble didn’t want anyone on the river who had previous driving experience, reckoning that the less they knew the better.
Ex-Navy man Tim Warwick joined Shotover Jet in 1977, remaining for 13 years in a job that “got into the blood”.
“It was a surprise to find driving a jetboat was quite difficult and certainly different to driving a warship. I trained on Lake Wakatipu (Whakatipu Wai Maori) first, then on the Kawarau River and finally the Shotover. You would probably get locked up today for the job description the drivers had back then.
“Basically we had to get as close to the rocks as possible and if the bits of rubber we stuck on the side of the boat didn’t touch the rocks you weren’t doing your job properly. But it was less dangerous than it looked, really managed risk. It was exciting and if the passengers didn’t come off the boat feeling legless then you hadn’t performed properly.”
Warwick said the young drivers were given a fairly free rein by Gamble and manager Don Kennett.
“No one had to motivate us to work. It was fantastic. Here we were basically being given control of Formula One racing cars. We had a whale of a time, along with the courtesy van drivers who were brilliant.”
Gamble recognised the value of his boat drivers and at almost $10,000 per annum the job was one of the most highly-paid in the industry in the 1970s.
Quickfall recalled that because there was no regulatory body specific to commercial jetboating in the 1970s they made up their own rules before a code of practice was eventually developed by the Marine Department in liaison with the commercial jetboat industry.
“Even though we were all young we took the responsibility of driving boat loads of people up and down the Shotover seriously. Training centred round developing a safe driving style and it took hours of practice with a senior driver before you went solo with paying passengers.”
There was no restriction on how close boats could go to the rocks but Quickfall said while there was a perception amongst passengers that the boat was heading towards the rock faces, the jet propulsion was in fact pushing the back of the boat away, with the hull also sliding away from the rocks.
“So what it meant was that if an error of judgement was made the boat was heading away from danger.”
Ross agreed the trip was all about the people although some passengers could be apprehensive.
“I remember having a group of Japanese on board and when I got to the first stop and turned round to talk to them there was no one there. They had all dropped on to the floor and were lying down because they were so frightened. But in the end they enjoyed the experience.”
An edited extract from Shotover Jet, The Story Of Queenstown’s Adventure Tourism Pioneer, written by Jenny McLeod