More than 100 years ago, the Waikato River was the main transport route for the early European settlers of New Zealand. In Hamilton today, the river is used by only one ferry operator, who wants to see its return to a bustling transport route, with water taxis shuttling residents and visitors up and down the mighty Waikato. Tom Rowland reports.
Darren Mills, who operates the Waikato River Explorer and is the former manager of the river boat Waipa Delta, is fighting to see the return of the Waikato River as a passenger transport route, but said red tape remains a major obstacle for future operators who may be planning a start-up service.
Waikato River Explorer currently runs two vessels, the Cynthia Dew, and the Kiwi Cat which carry people from Memorial Park in the CBD to the Hamilton Gardens, while also running a Fieldays ferry service each year.
"Setting up a business like this is not so easy. We have got to deal with Maritime New Zealand where you have to take boats out of the water every four years and get them re-surveyed which is thousands of dollars, you then have got to get resource consents from two or three councils, we need a liquor license from Waipa District Council and then a resource consent from Hamilton City Council for operating at the jetty facilities at the Hamilton Gardens and in the CBD," Mills said.
He said he would welcome strong competition for a Waikato River ferry service; however, operators were put off by the process.
"There has already been one put off who wanted to operate a water taxi service, he was told he would have to undertake a comprehensive survey of the river users and people who border the river.
"That's really frustrating because we want competition."
Mills said the current Hamilton City Council had been heading in the right direction with turning the river into a transport route.
"The current Hamilton mayor, Andrew King, came in with his vision to open the city up to the river, and said the council's existing River Plan was a waste of money and let's just incorporate it with the museum.
"I thought brilliant, here is a guy that thinks like us. We don't need to spend 14 million bucks, all we need to run is a couple of decent paths and a jetty," Mills said.
"The one in 100 year floods happen every 10 years here, so you imagine if you build this amazing boardwalk and once or twice a decade she is under water and gets wrecked."
A new CBD jetty on the river below the Waikato Museum signed off by the council in April 2018, part of the River Plan, will include a gangway, ramp and a 5sq m pontoon. The structure will extend 23m into the river. Construction is set to begin this summer.
Mills said once the CBD jetty was constructed he had plans to extend his ferry service.
"The Kiwi Cat which is our newest vessel will remain offering lunch, afternoon and dinner cruises. We will also sell the other boat and get a bunch of 20 seater water taxis."
"Eventually we want to run a service from Horotiu, at the proposed Te Awa Lakes housing development on the river north of Hamilton, to Peacocke, where at morning and evening peak times they can take a boat home or to work via the river."
Mills said the developers of Te Awa Lakes told him they wanted his ferry service to be a part of the development.
Hamilton City Councillor Geoff Taylor, who chairs the river taskforce for the city said the proposed Waikato Regional Theatre near the museum would help play a part in developing the CBD riverbanks, and encouraging more river transportation.
"Waikato River Explorer has been doing a terrific job for seven years now with only limited infrastructure in place," Taylor said.
"By summer we are building a brand new jetty on the river bank below Waikato Museum which will at last open up the central city to host river cruises. People will be able to travel from Hamilton Gardens to the CBD and back which I think will make a real difference. It's incredible that as a city we haven't already got a decent jetty in place but at last we're getting one."
He said that the river could play a huge part in improving tourism in the Waikato.
"It's always seemed to me that with Turangawaewae at Ngaruawahia and the Kingitanga we haven't taken advantage of waka tourism. There must be huge interest from overseas tourists in visiting the home of the Maori King etc and having authentic experiences such as waka rides on the river but it never seems to happen. I'm hoping that is going to happen in the near future." (-Waikato News)