Gore jetboat pioneer takes on Fiji

JILL HERRON
Last updated 05:00 02/08/2014
neil ross
BOATING ADVENTURER: Safari jet boating pioneer Neil Ross.

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For Southlander Neil Ross, no river is too tough to tackle.

The safari jetboating pioneer conquered the Dart River at Glenorchy, established Haast River Safaris, built up a second coastal business on the Waiatoto River and now, after a 10-year investment, has helped to claim the Sigatoka River in Fiji.

Ross, 60, enjoys nothing more than a new adventure of the boating variety.

Which is a good thing, because the scenario that faced him when he first travelled to Fiji to assess a new site, probably would have motivated most people to jump on the next flight home.

Fortunately for the Fijians, Ross is not an easily daunted type of bloke.

Ten years ago on that first recce to the Sigatoka Valley, roads and boat launching spots were few and far between.

The locals were wary, the area's infrastructure limited at best and it was a long haul to the nearest tourist spots.

To add to the equation, Ross quickly became aware that the young Australian wanting to start the business was in short supply of both capital and boating knowledge.

"Jay Whyte emailed me initially about supplying parts, then the messages went back and forth and eventually I went over for a look. We walked along parts of the river and he had no idea what he was looking for and didn't understand what I was looking at."

Whyte's enthusiasm and work ethic impressed Ross, and the pair became great friends as well as business partners.

New Zealand's challenging back-country rivers were the driver training ground for Whyte and, once Ross was satisfied he was up to scratch, the first boat was taken over by shipping container. Two years and many long village meetings later, the locals finally embraced the plan.

A launch site was eventually established, the tightly controlled tourism market broken into and, Ross said, a myriad of challenges worked through.

"I remember asking Jay where the vehicle with a tow ball was. Well, there wasn't one. It took a week to find a tow ball, we found one in a garage in Nadi but it was the wrong size. We had no machinery so it took me a couple of days to grind it to the right size which was an absolute s... of a job."

They borrowed a tractor, whose owner insisted on driving it himself, the owner having never reversed a trailer in his life, let alone through soft mud.

Trips began, taking wide-eyed tourists up the untouched river valley, stopping off at a village for a few hours to visit homes, share a meal and learn traditions.

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Today, each village hosts tourist groups once a week for half of the year, on a carefully managed roster.

The per-head levy they earn is administered by village leaders, funding community projects

Ross supports Whyte's work in the villages and as Fiji's first white mayor or ‘special administrator' of Sigatoka town.

By training and employing female drivers, the pair are also helping break down traditional Fijian workplace barriers to women.

The experience of coming out to New Zealand to train on South Island rivers has made a lasting impression on the Fijian women.

Some recalled - with great hilarity - arriving at Ross's sheep farm near Mataura late at night and being roused at the crack of dawn the next morning to go and help lamb ewes in thick snow . . . all the while wondering what on earth they had got themselves into.

Ross has trained Kiwi women as drivers too, fellow Southlander Toni Chittock being one of his stars. "The girls listen, they are safe and they do what you ask them to do. There is no male ego, the girls just do it better and it's no different for the Fiji operation."

Ross's first commercial "safari" jetboating operation 25 years ago was on the Dart River at Glenorchy.

There he managed to lure tourists away from more sedate cruises around Lake Wakatipu, and convince them to pay more to travel a bumpy gravel road and boat the Dart instead.

Initially a one-man-band, he drove the van to Glenorchy, loaded the people, drove the boat, then dropped everyone back to their Queenstown hotels, day in, day out.

After the business was established, Ross looked to the West Coast for new adventures.

Ross, a self-taught engineer, built one of the first service workshops in Queenstown, helped establish a boating operation on the Fraser River in Canada and is a former jet boat marathon world champion.

When Queenstown got too busy for him and wife Robyn, the couple headed back to Gore where they set up jetboat.com.

Now, surrounded by good old Southland mud, Ross' rustic workshop on the family farm is his happy place, tinkering on boat projects between trips away to Canada, Fiji and Europe. "This old workshop could tell you stories you would not believe."

There have been a lot of bottles of rum drunk in here, it's a bit of an old dump but its fine for what we do. "I always said to myself I'll work hard when I'm young and spend her up when I get old and that's exactly what I'm doing."

- The Southland Times

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