Elisabeth Easther talks to Darren Mills of Waikato River Explorer.
I had an amazing childhood and spent lots of time at my mother's parents' bach on Waiheke. My happiest memories were going on bush walks with my grandfather, fishing in a little dinghy off Hekerua Bay, building sandcastles and cutting back gorse. Going back and forth on the old ferries, that sparked my interest in boats and I always wanted to be the skipper of the Waiheke ferry — and many years later, I was.
My father was a diamond importer and he wholesaled to Fijian jewellers, one of whom was a wealthy Suva businessman. When he went on honeymoon, he offered us his apartment so, one summer we lived in Fiji for four months. I went diving there and stood on a crown of thorns. The spur went through my flipper and I thought I was going to lose my leg but the doctor said "nah, it looks all right, just take a couple of Panadol". But it was so sore. The guy next door was the Suva harbour pilot, and I'd get up at five in morning and go out in the pilot boat and bring in the container ships.
As a teenager I became less interested in boats and more interested in meeting girls. When I was 16 I became a radio DJ, doing midnight to dawn on ZM. But I was still mucking around in boats in my spare time, and I got my skipper's ticket so I had a Plan B in case radio turned to crap.
My first big trip with my wife was to Hawaii in 1990. This was back when you could smoke on planes and I sat next to a woman who smoked two packs of 25 on the way up. I almost died from passive smoking.
In our early 20s, my wife and I decided to have kids and, instead of going on an OE, just go on holidays.
My younger brother lives in Queenstown. They have a beautiful house on the banks of the Shotover River and from his bedroom you can see The Remarkables on one side and Coronet Peak out the other. A couple of years ago we went heli-biking and it was fantastic. They load the bikes onto the helicopter and fly you to the top of the Crown Ranges. We did it in early November so we were above the snow line. It's bollocky cold at the top and all downhill, by the time you get down it's 25C and we had a lovely lunch at the Cardona pub. Another time we went mountain biking in Naseby and I did a triple somersault over the handlebars. I landed on a soft nest of leaves which was lucky, but it gave me a scare.
Having lived in Hamilton for radio, I knew there'd be an opportunity on the river. We got involved with the Walpa Delta about 10 years ago, but the owner moved her to Auckland.
When the Delta left I went to Rotorua to work on The Lakeland Queen and while I was there I got to know the tourism industry, all the while thinking there must an opportunity for a sustainable tourism business on the Waikato River, for travellers going from Auckland to Rotorua. I just needed to find right the boat — big enough to make money and small enough not to cost too much when she's out of the water — and today we do 10,000 to 12,000 passengers a year.
The great thing about the river, it's always calm, even on a horrible day the scenery is never obscured so we never have to cancel for weather, but on the lake, on a nasty day, you can't see the banks.
For the future, we're looking at providing commuter services as well as a water taxi for cyclists. We've been talking to the people from Te Awa River Ride, looking at having riders hop on at Chartwell then off at Mystery Creek before riding to Karapiro. The sky's the limit for what can be achieved in New Zealand's most underrated city and we feel we're just getting some traction.
Further information: see waikatoexplorer.co.nz