The Queenstown region has always been a magnet for adventurers and entrepreneurs and these pioneers became the mainstay of New Zealand’s adventure tourism industry. World-first innovations such as commercial jet boating and bungy jumping have forged Queenstown’s enduring reputation as the ‘Adventure Capital of the World’.
Visitors have been flocking to Queenstown - in New Zealand’s Southern Lakes region - since the 1860s when gold was first discovered in the Shotover River. When the gold eventually ran out, many of those early prospectors decided to stay, captivated by the beauty of the surrounding mountains and rivers.
Around the turn of the 20th century, it was the region’s many walking trails and tracks that created the early beginnings of the tourism industry. During the summer months, people would come from all over New Zealand and the world to experience the magnificent walks, including the famed Milford, Routeburn and Hollyford tracks.
But it was a different story in winter as Queenstown came to a virtual standstill while locals hibernated until the start of the summer walking season.
Coronet Peak ski resort
Over time, as roads and facilities developed, the town became a picturesque overnight stop for coach tours to Milford Sound which had become known as one of the seven natural wonders of the world.
It wasn’t until 1947, when New Zealand tourism pioneer Sir Henry Wigley - founder of transport operator Mount Cook Group - opened a commercial ski area within sight of the lakeside town at Coronet Peak that Queenstown began to develop as a year-round resort.
Sir William Hamilton - who later developed the modern jet boat - was called upon and used technical knowledge, determination, and more than a smattering of good old Kiwi ingenuity to build a rope tow for Coronet Peak from scratch.
With good access, reliable snow and a nearby airport, skiers flocked to Queenstown and it became a thriving winter ski resort, prompting new development including construction of several hotels.
Jet boat thrills
Queenstown's first real taste of adventure tourism came with the establishment of commercial jet boating in 1960.
A New Zealand invention, the jet boat was developed by South Island farmer Bill Hamilton to give better access to his high country land which was dissected by shallow braided rivers. The jet boat’s manoeuvrability and ability to travel in shallow water inspired another application as Kawarau Jet and Shotover Jet began to take tourists into the spectacular Shotover River canyons.
White water rafting soon followed the jet boat success when Kon Tiki Rafts started New Zealand’s first commercial rafting in 1974. The Shotover and Kawarau rivers were ideal for giving visitors a taste of rafting thrills and spills and it wasn't long before new operators were scrambling to keep up with the demand.
Queenstown’s ‘adventure’ reputation was cemented in 1988 when young entrepreneurs AJ Hackett and Henry Van Asch arrived in town to develop the world’s first commercial bungy jump operation.
Inspired by the native tribesmen of Vanuatu who use forest vines to leap from man-made towers, the pair had spent two years working with the University of Auckland to develop a cord made of individual rubber strands which, when attached to the ankles, could be used to ‘bungy’ jump from a fixed platform.
AJ Hackett had received world wide publicity earlier with a daring jump in the early hours of the morning from the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and their plan was to use the historic Kawarau Bridge - at 43m above the river - as the location for their ground-breaking adventure business.
Many locals were sceptical of the venture, believing that the activity would last only a few months before folding. However, it wasn't long before visitors were flocking to Queenstown in their thousands to experience the adventure activity that everyone was talking about ... and so the bungy phenomenon was born.
The company has since developed numerous sites in Queenstown and around the world to keep up with demand. It is estimated that more than 350,000 visitors have bungy jumped in Queenstown alone since that first commercial jump in 1988.
The wave of interest in adventure created an environment that a host of other activity operators to follow, further reinforcing Queenstown’s reputation as ‘The Adventure Capital of the World’.
Tandem paragliding was pioneered in Queenstown by Bruce Grant. Watching pilot and passenger running off the edge of a mountain together with the canopy rising behind them, then gliding from Bob’s Peak into town has become an iconic Queenstown sight.
NZONE Skydive became New Zealand’s first commercial tandem skydiving operator in 1990 and the first to introduce freefall photography. The company now employs 70 highly skilled personnel and is involved in development of skydiving skills through its unique XLR8 free fall training programme. More than 170,000 people have experienced the multi-award winning thrill.
Other innovators and entrepreneurs have followed in the wake of these early pioneers and Queenstown now offers a huge range of adventures from river rafting, parasailing and canyoning to abseiling, zip-lining and kite skiing.
And then there's the ultimate adventure package - five high adventure experiences completed all in one epic thrill-filled day. The 5X1NZ is an only-in-New-Zealand adrenalin adventure covering skydive, snowboard, mountain bike, bungy and jet boat. Kiwi adventure sportsman Churck Berry was the first to complete the challenge in September 2014.
Queenstown adventures - a brief history:
1947 - Coronet Peak ski area opens
1960 - Kawarau Jet
1968 - Skyline Gondola
1969 - TSS Earnslaw (1912) begins scenic cruises
1970 - Shotover Jet
1974 - Kon Tiki Rafting / now Queenstown Rafting
1978 - Cardrona ski field opens
1985 - The Remarkables ski field opens
1988 - AJ Hackett Bungy
1990 - NZONE Skydiving
2014 - 5X1NZ world-first adventure experience