Jet boating pioneers celebrate 60 years of Queenstown adventure thrills

An iconic New Zealand tourism business is celebrating 60 years of adventure thrills in Queenstown.

A pioneering and iconic New Zealand tourism business is celebrating 60 years of adventure thrills in Queenstown.

Jet boats were the latest thing in waterborne travel when Kawarau Jet Services launched what has become an enduring New Zealand tourism experience on the waters around Queenstown.

The jet boat was originally designed by New Zealand engineer William Hamilton as a means to conquering the shallow waters of the distinctive rocky, braided rivers that crisscross the farm lands of the South Island's eastern plains, but it wasn't long before it also developed into a thrilling tourism experience - thanks to a couple of enterprising Queenstown businessmen.

It was 1958 when the Melhop brothers, who owned the dealership for the revolutionary new style of boating known as the Hamilton Jet boat, took the first paying customers aboard their family boat to experience a jet-powered crossing of the Kawarau Falls dam. At five shillings per ride, holiday makers were soon lining up for the thrill and Queenstown’s first adventure activity was launched, turning Kawarau Jet Services (now known as KJet) into a name synonymous with pioneering adventure tourism.

Early tours operated from the Frankton end of Lake Wakatipu from 1958 until 1960 when the company moved operations to Queenstown’s Main Town Pier, from where it continues to operate. 

The success of the new tour business soon saw it expand to include the Shotover River, which provided guests with a longer and more varied adventure experience viewing Queenstown from Lake Wakatipu, the deep picturesque Kawarau River and the shallow braids of the lower Shotover River and Canyons. In 1965, a second company called Shotover Jet Services was launched to provide tours that avoided the more challenging shallow braids of the lower Shotover. 

Those first trips were highly successful fund raisers for a Queenstown-based Christian camping trust which went on to invest in the operation. Later, when the tour companies (operating as Kawarau Jet Services and Shotover Jet Services) were sold in 1966, proceeds went back into building two dormitory blocks at the Lakeland Campsite (aptly named the Shotover and Kawarau dormitories) which continues to operate to this day.

The jet boat has become the iconic way to experience those dramatic South Island rivers and no New Zealand adventure holiday is complete without a high-speed spin on the waterways.

KJet operates excursions on three Queenstown waterways including the Kawarau and Shotover rivers with their challenging shallow braids, rocky towering cliffs and turbulent waters. The 60-minute jet boat ride reaches speeds of up to 95kph with 360° spins on a scenic 45km journey.

Through the years, the companies that preceded today's KJet have been responsible for pioneering the design and innovation of twin-engine jet boat technology and, in 1995, launched the first twin-engine boats that have become the industry standard. The company was also the first to implement roll bars on the jet boats to provide rollover protection. These are now a benchmark safety standard for all commercial jet boats.

Today the company has four distinctive yellow twin-engine boats which have heated, shock absorbing handrails and padded seats to keep passengers comfortable and warm during Queenstown’s coldest winter months.

Milford Sound’s original cruise operator Southern Discoveries purchased a 50 per cent share in Kawarau Jet Services in 2011 and the company rebranded to KJet in 2012.