The story of the jet boat is a traditional, Kiwi story with its roots in the Mackenzie Basin of the South Island. Bill Hamilton, a local farmer, found he was in need of a type of a boat that was able to navigate the shallow, braided rivers of the area where he lived. In 1954, using the New Zealand can do, Number 8 wire mentality, Bill Hamilton simply decided to make one. Over fifty years later, Hamilton jet boats are known the world over and are a source of one of New Zealand’s many adventure activities.
There are heaps of companies throughout New Zealand offering jet boat tours – from Taupo, to Queenstown, to Christchuch. I was in Christchurch last weekend, and decided to take in the jet boating experience on Canterbury’s Waimakariri River.
Though only a short hour outside of Christchurch, Southern Alps Jet is based in a location that feels like it’s miles away from anywhere. After turning off of the SH73 in Springfield, a winding country road filled with one-way bridges takes you to the Rubicon Valley Tourist Center. A one-lane, pothole filled road leads you to Southern Alps Jet’s base.
I was running late for my 12pm tour, and Alistair was waiting for me outside when I pulled up in my Toyota Hiace campervan. After welcoming me with a smile and a firm handshake, Alistair took me inside to get kitted up with a life vest and waterproof jacket. We boarded a vintage passenger bus and made our way to the banks of the Waimak.
The Waimak is Canterbury’s largest river. Snow fed, and starting high in the Southern Alps, the Waimak flows through Canterbury all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The Maori name for the Waimakariri means, “cold, rushing water.” Just like many of New Zealand’s rivers, and for the reason Hamilton created his jet boat, the Waimak meanders its way to the sea as a braided river. Viewed from above, it’s path passes through beds of sand and rocks of the plains and appears to be absentmindedly braided.
We exited the bus to find the bright yellow jet boat docked and idling in the rushing, milky emerald waters of the Waimak. If it wasn’t for the recent rain in the Alps, I was told we would be able to see all the way to the bottom – we would perhaps even see the Waimak’s trout and salmon swim upstream. In the distance, small, rolling mountains faded away into higher mountains, which faded away into low-lying clouds. On a clear day, the whole of the Southern Alps would be within view.
Alistair led me to the jet boat, and as it sat quietly rumbling in the rushing water, he went over the last minute safety precautions. With the formalities out of the way, Alistair put the boat into gear and we roared up the shallow waters of the Waimak. The Hamilton jet boat is designed so as it sucks in water from underneath the hull and shoots it out the back. Thanks to this design, it is able to at full speed shoot across inches of water at death defying speeds.
As we cruised up the river, reaching speeds of up to 70 km/hr, we passed dangerously close to sheer cliffs jutting out of the water. The Hamilton jet boat’s design allows the driver to turn on a dime. Alistair led us up rapids, through narrow canyons, turning at the sickening last moment around boulders and cliff faces. We bumped up rapids before finally stopping to take in the sheer beauty of the area.
Alistair killed the engine and used the time to fill me in on the local history of the river and the Waimakariri Gorge. As I listened, I couldn’t help but appreciate the sheer remoteness of the area where we were. Miles away from anything, Alistair informed me that this area can only be viewed by boat or by air.
With the history out of the way, and the jet boat’s motor roaring again, we made our way downstream. With the help of the current, we were able to reach speeds of nearly 100 km/hr. As we shot over rapids, my stomach continued to drop as we narrowly missed rock walls by only inches. Before pulling up to the dock and waiting bus, Alistair performed a couple more ‘Hamilton turns’ – a high speed maneuver where the boat is turned sharply causing the boats stern to lift, and spin around quickly with a large spray of water.
As we docked the jet boat, I realized that I was on edge and frightened throughout the entire ride – yet I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. Are you keen to give jet boating a go? Here is some info to get you started.
The One Hour AlpJet Discovery tour I went on will cost you $105. A terrific deal when you consider the ShootOver Jet in Queenstown charges about the same price for a 30 minute tour.
I enjoyed the combination of history and thrills that the tour provided. Learn about the region’s history and shoot up the river at frightening speeds.
Southern Alps Jet is based about an hour outside of Christchurch. Shuttles can be arranged for groups of four or more. If you have your own transportation, consider arranging a tour on the day you’re heading to the West Coast via Arthur’s Pass.
Full Disclosure: Alistair and Southern Alps Jet provided me with a complimentary tour in return for a review.