Back when the jetboats buzz began


The Queenstown jetboat company which lays claim to pioneering adventure tourism celebrates its 50th birthday this summer.

When Kawarau Jet began in the summer of 1959-60, Queenstown’s most adventurous non-winter activity was a walk in The Gardens, Kawarau co-owner Andy Brinsley says.

The Earnslaw was still carrying sheep while the Skyline gondola and Shotover Jet – the latter spawned by KJ – were both a few years away.

As it happens, the company’s beginnings in commercial jetboating were an incidental sideline.

As Hamilton Jet agents, Invercargill brothers Alan and Harold Melhop came to Frankton Arm to demonstrate their jetboats to wealthy Southlanders and had to be pestered to take people for rides, proceeds from which initially set up the Lakeland Christian Camp on Kelvin Peninsula.

The Melhop boats operated from a Frankton Beach jetty till the entrepreneurial borough council suggested they shift to Queenstown Bay, where KJ remains today.

In the early days, the company ran trips down the Kawarau River and all the way up the Shotover to the Edith Cavell Bridge.

But its small, underpowered boats often found it hard to navigate the Shotover so a separate Shotover Jet operation was launched from the offshoot’s present base.

Ten years ago, KJ temporarily diverted from its core business.

When Brinsley and local developer John Martin came aboard to join 50 per cent shareholder Shaun Kelly in 1999, the town flooded and KJ craft ran free commuter trips for several days.

Back then, KJ carried 20,000-plus passengers a year – now it’s about 65,000.

Brinsley estimates they’ve carried well over one million passengers all up.

The company’s been in the headlines lately – first, after a Chinese passenger was killed when a boat flipped during a trip. Its battle to stop rival Thunder Jet from operating on the Kawarau continues.

Amidst that, Brinsley’s proud the company has been the first adventure operator to gain Qualmark’s enviro silver award, which recognises its technological innovations.

He’s also proud of the company’s contribution to community causes, in­­cluding water safety instruction for primary schoolchildren.

Kicking off the 50th celebrations is a local’s day on Sunday raising funds for both the Bruce Grant Youth Trust and the Lakeland Christian Camp.