Could the Waikato River be the new Riff Raff statue?

PAUL BARLOW
Last updated 12:48 16/12/2013
paul arber waikato river
BRUCE MERCER/Fairfax NZ

UNIQUE: But do we use the Waikato River to its full potential?

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OPINION: I was looking through some old photos today and I found some from a trip I took my now-12-year-old son on with his kindergarten.

I suspect every kid who grew up in Hamilton in the late 80s and early 90s went on this trip - I didn't actually grow up here so I may be wrong - but this was one of those moments that was purely Hamilton. It was the kindy trip on the Waipa Delta, and I really miss seeing that grand old girl pretending to paddle steam under the Fairfield Bridge.

I say pretend because it wasn't actually a paddle steamer, it was just dressed up as one - and in a city where we have a statue dedicated to a transexual transvestite, knowing we had this icon that was the steam boat equivalent of a cross dresser is kind of cool, and very appropriate for the city.

But in 2009 the Delta sailed off into the sunset, leaving Hamilton bereft of regular waterway transport for a few years. It's only recently that an alternative has been set up with the Waikato River Explorer.

And while the MV Waipa Delta has drifted from port to port in the past five years, never settling, or finding success and a place it can call home, we've been sitting here in Hamilton watching the water go by. From bridges, because we still haven't managed to find a better way to utilise the defining characteristic of our home.

The odd thing is though that much of the infrastructure is in place already. With river walks spanning both banks of the Waikato and numerous jetty points from Ngaruawahia down to Mystery Creek, with a large number in city locations, like Pukete's Braithwaite Park, Haye's Paddock, Memorial Park and the rowing club - all it would seemingly take is someone enterprising enough, with enough capital behind them, to set up regular transport schedules to ferry people around the city.

Of course it's not quite as simple as plonking a dinghy in the river with an outboard - there's other considerations to, well, consider.

No venture on the river could be undertaken on this scale without the support of Tainui - after all, the river is a cornerstone to the Tainui people's identity. It would be nothing short of disrespectful to try this without their blessing. In saying that, I suspect that any venture that brings people to the river, that helps reintegrate it into the lives of those around it, would be something Tainui would support, as long as the river is respected.

Then you would need to work with the Waikato Regional Council - the local authority tasked with taking care of the river because of its cornerstone role in the ecosystem of the entire Waikato. This is the organisation which would need to make sure the environmental impact from such a venture would be minimal to negligible. Unless the boats are solar-powered hoverboats, there's always an element of risk going to be involved here. Being charged with public transport as well, WRC may be involved in funding the project.

And of course Hamilton City Council would also have a say - after all they're responsible for the pontoons and jetties that this service would be utilising.

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It was this relationship that caused the initial strain with the Waipa Delta owners and every mayor from Margaret Evans to Michael Redman claims to have tried to put attention on the infrastructure needed to keep the boat here. But to no avail. Even Julie Hardaker made it an election priority in her first term and still no results. It seems HCC simply can't untangle the red tape enough to ensure this infrastructure is looked after or improved.

But none of this is insurmountable. Hamilton has shown that, when someone with drive and passion pushes an idea, it will get behind it - look at the success of Mark Servian's campaign to erect Richard O'Brien in bronze: it had its detractors everywhere but that drive, the conviction of Mark and his team, ended up bringing the city together. 

Maybe finding a way to populate the river with ferries, to bring back a bustle to our waterways and help the city integrate its greatest asset, will act a little like the plan to plant kowhai trees in an attempt to bring back tui to the city - perhaps this will bring us back our steamboat so the next generation of kids can travel the river in uniquely Hamilton style.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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