History of the company
In 2008 ziplines were an emerging sector of the tourism industry overseas but had not yet made their way to New Zealand. What today we know as Ziptrek (a Queenstown operation) was going through a lengthy court process to be allowed to operate where they do now and in Australia only 2 commercial zipline tours existed. One was in the in the Daintree forest in North Queensland and the 2nd near the town of Launceston in Tasmania.
So the concept was to bring them here, secure the best site in New Zealand (not necessarily Rotorua) with a ready supply of customers and showcase the magic of the native forests. The pre-requisite was native forest. No native forest – no zipline tour.
In 2009 James and his (new) wife Erin visited Launceston in Tasmania and went on the Hollybank Canopy Tour.
Its big glory ride was a 400 metre finale over a whitewater filled River. It was slightly underwhelming – not because the thrill was lacking (it’s higher and longer than RCT) but because the staff failed to gel the group together, engage them in any meaningful way and missed a huge opportunity to win the customer over.
They also told us we couldn’t take cameras for safety reasons but they do and we could buy the pictures -it left a pretty sour taste in everyone’s mouth.
However it was well put together and its safety was impressive.
In 2009 while searching Google satellite maps at work, I hovered the mouse over Dansey Road. I had never driven up Dansey Road. But it looked like a big forest with big trees. Making my excuses I left the office and went for a drive – the sight of the big podacarps sticking out was exciting.
I parked up and ventured inside at the Mamaku end. This place could be perfect…….I wonder who owns it?
In 2009 James flew up to Canada and went and experienced several operations – some people were welcoming and happy to share information – others not.
The total outtake of all of these was I was convinced you didn’t need the biggest or longest zipline to be a commercial success. You needed an otherwise inaccessible landscape and a deeply engaging story to ensure longevity.
On return to Rotorua I hired a cheap helicopter, borrowed a mates’ go pro and went for a flight over the reserve – it was vast…..but there were big huge gulleys all through it and massive looking trees.
I was convinced this was the place.
After several positive visits to the Department of Conservation who it turned out were the owners I was further convinced it could happen.
I told them we would restore the forest and they liked the idea of that. They would support it but first they needed to issue a concession.
And that wasn’t going to be easy….or cheap…. Or quick. It ended up taking 2 years, numerous professionals, horrendous fees, multiple presentations to anyone who thought they needed to know but in the end we got there.
In October 2010 I invited the Sydney company who build the Tasmanian site that Erin and I had visited to come and have a look. They had just finished building one in the Otways near Melbourne.
I spent 4 days in the forest with them – at the end of the time we had identified 4 locations amongst many others that were to become significant in the future of RCT. It all seems so obvious now but at the time it wasn’t.
- Platform 1 mound
- The bird platform tree
- The rimu at platform 5
- The start of the 170 metre line
- The tawa that platform nine is attached to
And so I waited for their proposal and quote which took them 2 months to put together. And on Christmas eve 2010, their proposal arrived– it would cost over 3 million dollars to construct a Canopy Tours in the Mamaku Ranges. It was demoralising and took a while to get over it.
So that’s where Andrew comes in…..
Andrew and I first met at University in 1999 in Dunedin and had kept in touch through the years.
Andrew (he’s an engineer if you didn’t know) had actually come for a walk in the forest before in early 2010 at the Mamaku end but we had spoken nothing more about it.
But in January of 2011 a new solution was needed. I had a problem in that I didn’t know how to go about building it anymore – the Australian company was meant to do that! So I gave Andrew a ring…..
He was semi-receptive and I told him I would send him more information – so I put together a proposal that he couldn’t say no to. It took him a few weeks but I knew that I had stretched the truth as far as possible and been convincing enough he wouldn’t say no.
And about a month later in February 2011 he said he would come down for a look so I showed him the exact site that we had identified with the Australians.
And so it went from there. When Andrew suggested we build it ourselves I was a little concerned but I was naive enough to not understand fully what that meant so I went along with it.
We built a practice line at my Dad’s cousin’s orchard in rural Auckland. It was way too fast. But lessons were learnt.
Andrew spent his evenings in 2011 tinkering away designing platforms, methods and ordering all sorts of other contraptions which would come into play for building the site in 2012. He also said he had a builder mate called Nick in Melbourne who he could convince to come and help. He roped Nick in to help build it, so Nick moved to Rotorua for 5 months.
Andrew’s father Chris also was a huge help in the building process.
The build began on the 3rd of March. Finally we could cut away some supplejack and get going. It took the first day to open up a path from the carpark clearing to the first gulley. It was going to be a long few months!!
On Day 2 the police arrived having fielded numerous calls from locals that dodgy activity was happening on Dansey Road. They asked if we had permission to be making walking tracks.
But as Andrew said when TV 1 breakfast show interviewed him, when you put lots and lots of little packages together it becomes one big package eventually, and so it is true with Canopy Tours – platform by platform it all came together slowly. There were a few flukes where things just happened to line up but for every fluke there were setbacks. See that interview here:
The potato gun was a constant companion for firing lines through the undergrowth and hoping for the best. Here’s a video of it in action:
But in the end it all came together – A little dodgy in places and with a few lessons still to come but good enough to open with.
In an act of desperation we also took a lease on the building at 173 Old Taupo Road. It wasn’t ideal – far too far from the forest – but it would have to do.
And about this time word started getting out, the paper was keen to tell stories and we needed some people to help us run this thing.
We ran an ad on SEEK and the Daily Post was kind enough to do a front page story (pictured) which raised the profile. We had hundreds of applications, most were rubbish but there were a few gems.
We organised to meet our favourites in the carpark on Dansey Road and take them for a spin around the course. They didn’t know but they were the best of the lot – we had no choice but to employ them. And that is when Gary, Dan and Alex became part of the furniture at RCT. We also had a bloke Colin who is now famous and Michelle and Brooke who have since departed.
Training followed – or more accurately figuring out together what on earth we were meant to be doing. A friends and family weekend was held in the pouring rain – it was nerve racking – were the friends and family going to come back in one piece? Little Michelle nearly didn’t.
Here’s a picture of Dan and Michelle about to take a tour out on the friends and family weekend.
The New Zealand Herald put a picture of Alex on the front cover and TV3 and One News both ran stories about us.
And so on 16th August we opened the doors. The first customers we found on the lakefront of Rotorua.
They were the only people we could convince to come through. Things began slowly. In fact in the first month we averaged 8 paying customers per day.
And so the business started to grow as our marketing reached the right audience, the mainstream media paid us attention (we were on TV3 news, TVNZ breakfast and the front page of the New Zealand Herald in the first month!) and people came on board and supported us.
New staff arrived (Shane, Georgie, Stef and Brad), feedback indicated we were heading in the right direction and things were starting to happen.
And that’s the story of how we came to be!!
The conservation story – clearing up the facts, fabrications and winging it stories being told in the forest….
It is written into our lease that we must make a contribution to conservation in that forest – it was our suggestion. For reasons that I can’t remember that amount is $20,000 per annum. But that’s where it stops. There was no specification from them on what we would do.
It was always intended that whatever story on our tours the journey would be powerful enough that it would make people think afterwards, that could potentially create a conversation that could change attitudes.
It all really started to take shape during the period when the course was being built.
A local man called Willie Ducre (pictured below) made himself known within days. He educated us heaps on pest control as he had been doing it for 50 years. As we established tracks in the forest he would put victor rat traps with a milk bottle over the top to ensure it caught no birds.
He only had about 20 traps out but he was getting a 95% kill rate. It was eye-opening the sheer volume and ease which rats were being killed. Willie was instrumental in forming the idea that this whole forest could be restored and that rats were the key to getting the birds back.
in Summer 2012/2013 the conservation trail consisted of the three predator signs that are now at the trap stop. Also the conservation success stories sign was where the current Forest Restoration sign is now – so it was a very dull story on the conservation trail. However the main story we pushed to customers was we are going to restore this entire forest – we just didn’t know how it was going to be done.
In 2013 the idea was pitched that we could do a massive pest eradication for maximum impact – rather than trap by trap.
We proposed the idea to the Department of Conservation and they were supportive and provided plenty of technical advice into the best way to go about it. So the concept was born that we would prepare 50 hectares of forest for an all out pest eradication blitz.
The concept was simple – lay out 500 traps, pre-feed them and then set them all live on the first day of conservation week.
One News came and did a story on it: Watch it here: (Cameo from Georgie’s husband Rob)
Gary was in his element and got to work and came up with all sorts of solutions:
- He placed motion sensor cameras in the forest and used all sorts of lures including a dead trout to monitor activity.
- He spotted bats in one image which led to the eventual confirmation using bat detectors that there was a long tail bat colony.
- He came up with the rat housing design – DOC was dubious but motion sensored cameras said the rats were heading in!
- We did full team late nights making traps – see pictures
- We had a website created and appealed to businesses to sponsor a trap.
- Everyone chipped in cutting and preparing the 10 kilometres of trapping lines
- The most exhaustive day was putting the traps out in the forest…..
- They were then pre-fed with aniseed and flour every day
- And on the 13 of September they were all set live and you know the story from there as you tell it everyday!
We learnt some very valuable lessons:
- It’s bloody expensive costing twice what we had expected
- It’s bloody hard work and hard to maintain constant enthusiasm for bashing about of the trails in the forest
- It’s gross
So in 2014 we let the conservation rest. We didn’t have enough funds to make a big effort to attack phase 2 so we let the $ accumulate in the bank. Before we attack phase 2 we need at least $100K to make it possible.
So at the moment we are very advanced in a partnership deal with the Department of Conservation where they will provide expertise and $ to help us achieve phase 2. While restoring the forest is a nice and noble thing to do they don’t really care too much about that. They care about its strategic location and the education work we are doing, the inspiration we are providing visitors and the long lasting conservation messages we are spreading.
So how will the forest look in ten years subject to successful partnership with DOC.
- Fully restored and fenced with rare creature relocations and scientific experiments underway.
- Education facilities providing an inspiration classroom and a conservation centre of excellence for 40,000 secondary school kids a year
- Public facilities including walking trails and viewing platforms and towers
- Fully managed by a charitable trust that Canopy Tours is one of many stakeholders and contributors
- A nationally recognised project where a business generated and kickstarted a community into action and its influence is seen in projects replicated throughout the country.