Gavin Oliver was on a Northern Line train in central London, jammed so tight against the other commuters the only way he could read his newspaper was by rolling it into a tube. He caught sight of a New Zealand Tourism advertisement: “Wouldn’t you rather be here?”
Oh yes, he definitely would. Oliver got to work at Oxford Circus, where he owned a corporate travel business, and went straight to the New Zealand immigration website.
Now his commute, which used to begin on the 8.20am train from the commuter town of Basingstoke to Waterloo, which was so crowded he brought a camping stool to perch on beside the toilets, has become much more pleasant. Last month, the ferry ride from Auckland to Waiheke included glimpses of dolphins and orca.
Oliver doesn’t rue the decision to leave. He runs EcoZip, a unique adventure-tourism zipline experience set in one of the last remaining stands of native bush on Waiheke.
Open just three years, the company is already breaking even and ready to expand, both in New Zealand and overseas.
Oliver first visited here in 2008, partly for business, partly to watch the England cricket tour. He went home and told his wife Liz how good it was, and asked if she wanted to emigrate. That tube journey sealed the decision, and when they arrived here, Liz was pregnant with the second of their three children. “With hindsight, it was lunacy,” he admits.
Oliver set up a small tour business, taking day trips to the Bay of Islands, the Coromandel and Rotorua, but he sold out in 2012 when he met his future business partners, Kiwi Jeremy Zinzan and American Chris Hollister. They bonded over a shared love of hiking and decided to go into business together. The aim was to come up with an idea that would keep overseas tourists in Auckland longer than simply the time it took to buy a bus ticket north or south, and get them a glimpse of our native bush. “We were gobsmacked at the number of overseas tourists who come to Auckland and don’t spend any time here,” he says.
Hollister proposed the idea of ziplines. So they did their research: Oliver went to Utah, Hollister to Costa Rica and Alaska, Zinzan to Hawaii. They came up with their ideal blueprint and had it all manufactured here – designed in Wellington, with the harnesses and the unique soft-braking system coming from Christchurch.
At first, they tried for North Head in Auckland and also had conversations about Rangitoto Island, but then they found the site of a defunct vineyard on Waiheke. The vineyard was important because it meant the site was zoned commercial, not residential, and the land below had a covenant on it as a site of environmental significance.
They tore out the vineyard, replanting 1500 syrah vines, with the first vintage due next year [now available to purchase in the webstore here on this website]. But the ziplining was the focus and they set to work quickly: it was built in just six months over the winter of 2012. Visitors numbered 8500 in the first summer, 10,500 the second, and they expect to see 14,000 this year. It’s open all year round, with only lightning and very high winds halting them.
“What we’ve delivered is adventure tourism anyone can do: our oldest has been 94 but we regularly get people in their 60s, 70s and 80s,” says Oliver. “It’s adventure tourism for the non-adventurous.”
About 60 per cent of their visitors are domestic but that could rise as more find out. For that they might thank The Bachelor NZ, after featuring on one of Art Green’s dates. At 8.28pm that night, three people were browsing the EcoZip website. At 8.40pm, 10 minutes after the show started, there were 350. “The number of people who said ‘Oh, I saw you on The Bachelor’ and I would say ‘Oh, I didn’t think you were the sort of person to watch reality TV’ and they would say ‘Oh, the wife was watching’ or ‘I was channel surfing’.”
Oliver will often hover, incognito, as visitors finish their trip and ask for feedback. He also still occasionally guides a tour, and likes to take visitors to the foot of the trail after they’ve ridden the ziplines, to where supplejack hangs and a giant puriri they suspect is 600 years old towers above the canopy, and tell them this is what you would have seen everywhere as a European settler in the 1850s.
“We don’t pay as much attention to what is on our doorstep as we should,” he explains. “Just like I lived for 20 years in the shadow of Buckingham Palace and never went to the Changing of the Guard because it was always there.”
Sitting at the top of a steep hill, [with the Eventide] vines to the left, and clear and beautiful views down to Ostend over thick native bush in front, Ecozip is a breathtaking sight for tourists.
The first of the three ziplines starts from the top of the hill and they switchback down the valley to the trail below. But even for those with a raging fear of heights, this isn’t scary: instead the emotions are a mix of relaxation and exhilaration as you’re hitched to the 200m tandem lines (so you can travel down beside a loved one), the braking mechanism giving you a much gentler halt than the average playground’s flying fox.
The guides are knowledgeable, local and affable: we spend much of the time chatting to Johnny, a cheerful expat Englishman and former semi-pro soccer play who married a Waihekean and has been here for years. Below the third line, the canopy drops away 40m below and the views are amazing. It’s over too soon. Then there’s a gradual, 1.4km climb through the trees back to base afterwards, the guides chatting amiably all the way, before most guests take the complimentary bus back to Oneroa. We opt for a 10km downhill jog back to town and dinner, with Johnny completing his job by giving us directions for the best off-road running route home.
EcoZip Adventures & Eventide Wine
150 Trig Hill Rd, Onetangi, Waiheke Island.
See also ecozipadventures.co.nz
First published reprinted courtesy of Stuff New Zealand