Cowboy days over for New Zealand rafters
The days are long gone when rafting guides would wake up with a hangover and head out on to the whitewater, says Turangi rafting operator Luke Boddington.
Boddington, owner of Rafting New Zealand, is a 15-year veteran in the adrenalin-inducing adventure sport which caters for more than 100,000 visitors nationally each year.
Boddington estimated his company has grabbed 7-8 per cent annual share of those visitor numbers.
But he remembered well as an 18-year-old novice being told by seasoned guides he would never be considered a "real" guide unless he went to work hungover.
"It was a challenge I could identify with and determined to prove I was capable of achieving."
He is now more satisfied, as co-owner with wife Pianika of one of New Zealand's more successful rafting companies, that the so-called "cowboy days" of the industry are behind him. The rafting industry here is regarded as one of the best in the world, he said.
Guides are qualified and highly experienced, with every commercial operator subject to an annual audit by Maritime New Zealand of its operational safety plans, he said. "It's resulted in being one of the safest adventure industries around."
After working for Turangi rafting pioneers Rod Brown and Tui Brabyn as guides, Luke and Pianika took over and rebranded the company five years ago.
The couple's ambition has been to make more visitors aware of the unlimited potential for rafting adventures in the central North Island, at a fraction of the cost at more popular South Island tourist destinations, he said.
Rafting NZ's Turangi base was upgraded to more comfortable surroundings for customers with hot showers, heated changing rooms and leather couches beside a roaring log fire in the waiting area.
The company employed only New Zealand guides - up to 15 during the peak summer season - all with extensive local knowledge.
"It is more authentic for visitors if you have a Kiwi accent giving a traditional Maori ‘mihi', or welcome, than someone with a Californian accent."
Maori culture runs strongly through the company but did not overwhelm what is a unique New Zealand experience for visitors, he said.
While the Tongariro River remained the "bread and butter" for the company, the Kaituna, Wairoa and Mohaka Rivers were also utilised.
The company offered a range of options from grade 3 whitewater trips, taking 2 hours through 50 rapids over 14 kilometres, to family trips covering half the distance.
Prices range from $109 daily to $5000 for a week-long South Island adventure.
"Our motto is - to deliver an adventure experience, first you must know what it is to adventure," Boddington said. "We don't give visitors a tour of the river, we give them an adventure."
In December the company expanded its presence into Taupo and built a $500,000 4D whitewater rafting simulator - the first of its type in the country - called Whitewater World.
For $15 customers - seated inside a cinema complex, wearing waterproof ponchos and equipped with 3D glasses - are rocked and rolled over waterfalls and through rapids, and sprayed with fine jets of water, during a 12-minute simulated rafting trip down the Tongariro River screened in 4D.
The company toyed with a simulated rafting experience for 18 months before committing to the project in June.
"It fitted in with bringing more awareness of the rafting opportunities in the area.
"Rafting has a finite market, a lot of people want to go whitewater rafting but are put off by the risk factor and the cost.
"Our aim is to create a white water adventure experience for everybody - to take rafting to the masses - and hopefully encourage them to do the real thing."
Boddington said the success of the simulator would not be known for 12 months. He hoped it would encourage more people to go rafting and help the company reach its target of 10,000 visitors on the river each year.