Elisabeth Easther talks to Fiordland Discovery's owner-operator Kate Rollason.

I'm from South Shropshire, on the English/Welsh border. I was about 13 the first time I went overseas and it was such an adventure after previously only driving to Wales. Off to France to go camping we went, then crossed on the ferry and I was so excited. My main memory is of my brother stepping on a stonefish and being bundled off to a French hospital.

After school I did a degree in English literature then, a week after finishing, I went to Jamaica on a student work exchange. I was working in a hotel outside Montego Bay, the owner was bizarre, very reclusive and, with the other girl who was working there, we asked very politely if we could have the same day off. And we got fired. We found work in another hotel and in the weekends we went hitch-hiking around the island. Looking for adventure with our Lonely Planet, we'd head off with Jamaican guys into the back of beyond on the back of mopeds. If my kids did that now, I'd be horrified.

Towards the end of that trip, I was set to crew on a boat for a big race from Kingston when we heard about a hurricane due to hit the next morning. We were hunkering down in the hills above Kingston, all the furniture in the middle of the room, the windows taped up. I went out in the eye of the storm and it was the weirdest thing, so quiet, the strangest light and absolutely silent.

Kate Rollason, right, with husband Rob Swale, owner-operators of Fiordland Discovery. Photo / Supplied
Kate Rollason, right, with husband Rob Swale, owner-operators of Fiordland Discovery. Photo / Supplied

Living back in England, one Friday night I was at the pub, when a friend said, "I want to go to Australia to visit my boyfriend but I'm scared to go by myself". And I said, "I'll come". We got our tickets on the Saturday, went to London to get our visas on Monday in preparation for flying out Tuesday afternoon. Then the friend was dumped and decided not to go. But I went anyway. I had no idea what I was going to do or where I was going to stay — all I had was a flight to Brisbane.

I had such a great time. It felt so free after growing up in England in the 80s. From there, I did the classic thing: backpacking and working. I had no plan, no idea what I wanted to be. I just wanted to explore and not get tied down.

I didn't know much about New Zealand, but I knew I wanted to come here, and when my Australian visa ran out I had to leave, so I hopped on a plane to New Zealand. I arrived in Auckland and hitch-hiked with a friend to the Bay of Islands, Taupo, Wellington and we ended up doing a ski season in Wanaka.

Rob was one of my flatmates in Queenstown, and I know it's against the rules but he's my husband now. In the early 90s, not long after we got together he took over his dad's wooden boat and fished for crayfish. When the quota price got ridiculous we swapped the boat for a gold claim up the Arrow River but because the sea is in his blood he returned to commercial fishing, doing fishing and diving charters on the side. Rob prefers the people who just love fishing, diving and hunting, not the stag-party trips. He tended to attract wealthy, older businessmen who'd want to come back with their families but didn't want to be crammed into one bunkroom. This got Rob thinking about multi-day trips with individual cabins and en suites, which is where we are now.

Today we operate overnights in Milford from early November to March, then down to the Southern Inlet till mid-July. Last year, for the first time, we did overnight cruises in the winter season. I think it's the most amazing time to visit, hardly anyone's here, yet you have clear winter days, snowy mountains.

Because we operate a very upmarket boat, there's an expectation of the sort of service we provide. Yes we have a beautiful boat and yes we're very professional and we always have fantastic cuisine, but it's also about who we are as people. Rob is very true to himself — his father was a fisherman and his grandfather a gold miner — and it's very clear that what we're offering is a personal service.

I always say I should've been born a Kiwi. In England I never really felt I fitted in, but when I first arrived in Queenstown, I felt I'd come home.

Further information: see fiordlanddiscovery.co.nz