When Queenstown's iconic gondola was built in the 1960s, its steepness caused difficulties for the engineers and operators.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the official opening of the gondola, which was the first gondola system in the southern hemisphere.

Strung up the 450m-high hillside behind Queenstown known to many as Bob's Peak, the gondola is described by its owner, Skyline Enterprises, as the steepest cable-car lift in the southern hemisphere.

It was a Pomagalski system, from the French company later called Poma and now Leitner-Poma. Queenstown was among the first places to get a Poma automatic gondola lift, the company says.

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Jon Dumble, 80, is the last surviving founder of Skyline Enterprises, a company which built on the success of Skyline Tours and the road cut up Bob's Peak in the early 1960s.

Jon Dumble was a co-founder of the Queenstown gondola company. Photo / Supplied
Jon Dumble was a co-founder of the Queenstown gondola company. Photo / Supplied

Using VW Kombi vans, Skyline Tours began shuttling passengers up to the expansive views of Lake Wakatipu, the Remarkables and other peaks in 1963. The Chalet tearooms opened the following year and later became a restaurant.

Before the gondola, the first mechanised tourist access to the hilltop behind Queenstown was in VW Kombi vans. Photo / Supplied
Before the gondola, the first mechanised tourist access to the hilltop behind Queenstown was in VW Kombi vans. Photo / Supplied

Dumble drove the vans, ran the Chalet and was the first managing director of Skyline Enterprises.

"It became impossible to cope with the numbers as Queenstown tourism grew," Dumble told the Otago Daily Times. "There had to be more access available and the only solution was the gondola ..."

Dumble told the Herald the Queenstown community was "keen for any development" and supported the gondola's construction, but he doubted it would be approved if starting out today.

He described difficulties in navigating the French purchase through the foreign currency restrictions, the per-passenger fees authorities wanted to charge and the gondola machinery's teething troubles.

"Because it was so steep, and because Pomagalski had not built that steep before, they over-designed it, for safety - reasonably; I can understand their position.

"The result was the counter-weight was so heavy it caused a huge amount of maintenance initially on the rubber sheaves [grooved pulley wheels] that the cable runs on ... on each tower.

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"The pressure was so great that the rubber was cutting out fast."

"Prior to opening each day, the gondola supervisor would have to go up the towers to ensure the sheaves were operational."

Negotiations involving the Marine Department and Poma eventually led to a lightening of the counter-weight.

The popularity of Queenstown grew and from a start with 56,000 gondola rides in its first year, the attraction now carries more than 800,000 passengers annually.

Skyline too has grown spectacularly and is now involved in numerous mainly tourism-oriented ventures including luge rides in four countries, helicopters, scenic flights, glacier tourism, accommodation, gambling, and Milford Sound cruises.

The present Queenstown gondola system dates from 1987. Skyline Enterprises is planning a further upgrading. Photo / Supplied
The present Queenstown gondola system dates from 1987. Skyline Enterprises is planning a further upgrading. Photo / Supplied

Gondolas have spread to Christchurch and the Skyline ride in Rotorua. Ruapehu Alpine Lifts is planning at least one. Controversially, Skyline looked at building one with Ngai Tahu up the Caples Valley west of Queenstown and is now investigating putting one up near the Franz Josef Glacier. The Porter Group wants to build one from Frankton to the Remarkables skifield.

The original Queenstown gondola was replaced with a Doppelmayr system in 1987. The company is now planning another rebuild and huge expansion of the gondola, restaurant, bar and conference and retail facilities which is expected to open in 2020 at a cost of $100 million. The new gondola cabins will each carry 10 people - up from four now - increasing maximum capacity from 1100 an hour, to 3000.

To mark the 50th anniversary, Skyline is offering discounts to Queenstowners and displaying company memorabilia.