A milestone with heartbreak

TRACY NEAL
Last updated 13:00 28/01/2014
 Jill and Keith Anderson
MARTIN de RUYTER/Fairfax NZ

MILESTONE: Jill and Keith Anderson celebrate 20 years of operating Happy Valley Adventures.

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Twenty years in tourism has become a bittersweet milestone for Keith and Jill Anderson.

The Cable Bay couple who have invested great sums and waged a few big battles putting Happy Valley Adventures on the tourism map, have their backs to the wall in their latest fight.

Mr Anderson is weakened by the cancer he has been trying to throw off for a couple of years, and is not so much angry about it as he is sad.

"It's just bloody heart-breaking," he said tearfully while looking at the hallmark fleet of Happy Valley quad bikes in the yard of the Cable Bay property.

Happy Valley Adventures is 20 years-old today, and will be quietly celebrating the occasion with staff, a cake and maybe some balloons.

The Andersons never expected the business to last as long as it has, but despite the rigours of the past few years brought on by the global economic downturn, the wheels are still turning on what is now one of the region's most enduring tourism businesses.

The Cable Bay property which Mr Anderson recognised would not sustain an economic farming operation when he bought it in 1980, but he had to have it anyway, supports a range of soft adventure activities which have made Happy Valley a popular destination. The quad bikes are the signature attraction, plus horse trekking, paintball, amphibious Argo rides, a cafe, and the world's longest flying fox, Skywire, which was installed after an epic bureaucratic battle.

The Andersons are proud of their longevity in an industry where an average lifespan is four to five years.

"It's quite outstanding that we've survived four times that," Mr Anderson said.

Mrs Anderson said they had made the business their lifestyle. She said a big part of their success was due to the team they had around them. The business employed 10 to 12 staff over summer, but in winter it was kept going with just three staff.

"Because of what our team puts in, people give back. There are some amazing people we meet out there," Mrs Anderson said.

Mr Anderson said they never underestimated the value of their clients, but some of the most rewarding moments had been the relationships developed with iwi.

"Some people have travelled thousands of miles to get to us. It's our duty, our mission, to make sure they go away cheerful and happy," Mr Anderson said.

The couple don't hesitate to say that despite many hardships, including being stricken by floods, fire and recession, bureaucracy has handed them their toughest moments. "Regulatory responsibilities are still the hardest," Mr Anderson said.

They still remember their first client 20 years ago - an Israeli tourist who was their one and only guest, so they boosted numbers on the quad bike outing with friends who went along for the ride.

"We were so excited, but we never thought we'd still be here 20 years later," Mrs Anderson said.

The "Skywire drama" which took seven years to get resource consent, took its toll on their financial and emotional health.

"Achieving Skywire was massive," Mrs Anderson said.

A memorable moment from the past two decades was the time one quad bike rider wanted another round on the fun track and the guide told him he could if he went naked.

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"So all these guys stripped off and rode the track naked. It stopped traffic on Cable Bay Rd," Mr Anderson said.

They did not keep tabs on the numbers that visited Happy Valley Adventures each year, because the business was broken down into several parts. The paintball activity was attracting increasing numbers, but the best gauge of the business was that they now operated a fleet of 23 quad bikes - they started with eight - and this season had picked up after a few years of "going backwards".

Mr Anderson's cancer first appeared in 2010 and went into remission but it was now "biting back". He was no longer able to do much on the property.

"I get a lot of pleasure hopping on the bike and roaming around. There's not much I can do except watch what the staff are doing and make sure they're doing it right."

The former tree planting contractor, who reckons he has planted more than a million trees in his lifetime, is content to rest with that legacy and in the knowledge that he has done what he was born to do.

"Keith is a Welsh name for ‘forest dweller'. Iwi have told me I was fated to look after these trees," he said of the many stands of conservation plantings on the farm.

In their day to day gratitude, the Andersons are possibly among very few in Nelson thankful for the damp summer. "It's been by far the wettest, greenest summer I've ever known," Mr Anderson said.

- The Nelson Mail

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