Hamilton's long-awaited commuter ferry service on the Waikato River will make its debut for Fieldays next week, shuttling staff and visitors between the CBD and Mystery Creek.
Then, from Monday June 21 the 10.76m long big yellow River Bus will embark on her new venture carrying workers and students (and some bikes) in and out of the city with a 20 minute river run from Braithwaite Park at Pukete, including a pick up and drop off at Swarbricks Landing along the way.
The River Bus is the latest venture of Waikato River Explorer Ltd, which currently runs the popular Kiwi Cat café cruise between the city and Hamilton Gardens.
Managing director Darren Mills has invested a huge amount of time, money, effort and sheer persistence through the setbacks of Covid-19 and its tourism drought – not to mention multiple layers of bureaucracy – to keep alive his dream of seeing the Waikato River again become the bustling transport route it was for early European settlers and long before that for Māori travellers.
With bookings already coming in for the CBD commuter service, that dream is starting to take shape. But it will be Fieldays visitors who will get the first rides in the 29-passenger River Bus with an hourly express service departure from 7.30am to Mystery Creek from the new city council jetty behind Waikato Museum.
For this year's NZ National Agricultural Fieldays at Mystery Creek from June 16 to 19 the 12.5m 44-passenger Kiwi Cat will run three return trips each Fieldays morning and afternoon from Hamilton Gardens. The catamaran - with café service on board - will be making an early start with a 6.20am workers' trip that gets people to Mystery Creek by about 7.40am.
So what is the speed of a big yellow River Bus offering an express passengers service? A lot faster than what you might think, according to Darren.
"Her cruising speed is about 25 knots, but on the river last week for a shakedown run we had her doing almost 35 knots against the current – but she was empty then," he says.
"The twin outboards are near-new Yamahas that have done only 700 hours each, and, like the engines we have on our other vessel, are low emission, all computerised and very fuel efficient.. She only chugs through about 50 litres of fuel an hour, which for engines that size is pretty good."
Darren hastens to add that during normal operations "we won't be doing that kind of speed all the time, obviously".
There are certain sections of the river where it is too narrow to do anything above 5 knots, with the speed limit being 5 knots within 30m of the river bank. "There are certain sections where the river is wider than 60m, that's when we will be taking her up to 20–25 knots depending on the timing of the run," says Darren.
Of course, one obvious question for Darren was does he have plans to bless his new boat with a new name? River Bus just doesn't have much of a ring to it for a fast and flash new queen of the river. The answer is yes, he is working towards a suitable name, but is unable to give away any details just yet.
"She will be named after a significant local person but I can't reveal that yet; I haven't yet finished the permission process, " was all Darren would reveal .
Then, just to add another level to the maritime mystery, Darren also dropped a mention of a new name being prepared for the Kiwi Cat. While he did hint at another significant local person the Waikato Herald thought it best to keep it under wraps too until all can be revealed in the fullness of time.
Turns out Darren had a lot more to reveal too about his plans for commuter ferry services on the river with the new River Bus being Darren's "live business case" for what is likely to be a much longer journey that will hopefully lead to custom designed electric boats taking people up and down the river a lot further than just Hamilton or Mystery Creek.
Darren says he is talking about Cambridge and other towns that he hopes will one day "realise the asset they have flowing through them".
Darren's dream really took off a while back when talking with a friend of a friend who runs a company that was building an electric ferry for Wellington Harbour.
"I thought well, that would be a fabulous idea for the river and a great catalyst for kicking off a commuter service, you know, having a an electric vessel. The more I got into it the more I discovered."
First was the realisation of the need for a feasibility study and the extent and scope of the work needed for it.
I went to funding agencies to see what was the likelihood of getting a grant for the feasibility, and they said well you need to have a business case, so I thought well okay we will have to figure that one out at some stage in the future – and then Covid hit," says Darren.
"I was sitting there thinking okay we need to come up with some other income stream because without overseas tourists our business is probably not going to perform so well.
"It was at that time I thought okay, let's do a live business case - buy a boat and run it for six months as a trial to see if there is a genuine need. I went to the Waikato Regional Council with the idea for that and also them helping us out in the form of a subsidy just to kick off the service.
"They said yeah we'll help, we'll gladly subsidise it as a trial and then look to integrate it into the city transport system after that."
With electric boats there will be no fumes, no noise and no impact on the environment at all. Electric boats are twice as expensive to build as conventional ones but Darren and hopes to be able to fund the difference out of development funds that are around for that purpose.
The city commuter service starts Monday June 21 from Braithwaite Park - the jetty is under the Waikato River pedestrian bridge that links Flagstaff with Totara Drive in Pukete - giving passengers access from both sides of the river. From there it is five and a half minutes upstream to Swarbricks Landing, a couple of minutes alongside there and then eight minutes more to get into the city.
Adult fares for the full trip are $12 each way with concessions for a 10-trip pass - and as Darren likes to point out you can take the bus for less but it has 27 stops and takes 55 minutes.
"But we are not competing with buses," he says. "We offer a premium service, we will get you there in 20 minutes we are never going to be as cheap as the bus, but you still have to sit in the traffic, the ferry takes cars off the road and you can cycle down to the boat and take your bike into town."
Full details of times and fares and bookings are on the Water River Explorer website.