From humble beginnings – The Waikato River Explorer

Deciding to put a boat with charter cruise capability onto the Waikato River would strike many as a bout of madness, but for kiwi-couple Darren and Vanessa Mills it was all part of the dream.

Having kick-started his career as a radio DJ, Darren soon found that he could not ignore the lure of the seas and followed his passion for the water to become General Manager of the Waipa Delta from 2005-2009.

“I moved on from the Waipa Delta to become Operations Manager at the Lakeland Queen in Rotorua in 2009 – 2012 and witnessed first-hand the popularity of water-based activities with the tourist market and knew that there was nobody offering anything like that on the Waikato River,” says Darren.

“I also Skippered Commuter Ferries for Fullers in Auckland and I felt I had a good enough knowledge of what was required for an operation like the one we were envisioning and what it would take to set it up.

“Learning lessons from my experience with similar operations, we knew that our vessel had to be big enough to make money from yet small enough to take out of the water by crane. We also knew that we would need to construct our own riverside infrastructure and find a safe and secure overnight base with power, water and pump out facilities. We also knew that compliance was going to be an important factor with no less than five regulatory authorities demanding their pound of flesh and a power company who could drain the river one day then flood it the next all in the name of the free market.

Mystery Creek Events Centre was identified early on by Darren and Vanessa as the perfect overnight berth. After a few meetings with Peter Sergel, Director Hamilton Gardens, the couple soon gained access to the thousands of visitors who flock to the international award-winning gardens each year.

From humble beginnings in October 2012, to major renovations in 2016, the cruise business has certainly grown significantly. Waikato River explorer is set to welcome more than 15,000 passengers on board in the coming year.

Darren says 60% of the Waikato River Explorer’s guests are from out of town, with many of them coming down from Auckland for the day. The couple are now heavily involved in hosting international tour groups and have contracts with several of the industry leaders.

“As well as regularly scheduled scenic cruises, we also offer a cruise to a Country Café at Mystery Creek and weekly wine tasting at Mystery Creek Wines. Our annual Fieldays Ferry has become incredibly popular with those not wanting to sit in traffic for hours and our twin barbecues on the stern of the vessel get a good thrashing every summer with groups enjoying the last of the day’s sunlight and the glow-worms that line the steep banks of the river after dark.”

Of course, Darren admits that being the only scheduled cruise operator on the river has its advantages but it also comes with its fair share of challenges.

“One of our biggest challenges occurred during Fieldays in 2014. The river was flooded for over 24 hours which meant covering the cost of a lot of expensive bus transfers.”

“On the flip side it’s great to see so many people out enjoying the Waikato River during the warmer months. Every now and then we spot a sea of ‘floaters’ heading downstream in everything from rubber rafts to airbed mattresses and water wings. Each summer there are also a couple of groups of partyers who attach floats to pub bar-leaners and picnic tables before taking off downstream. We even had one of them do a naked war dance for us on one of the warmer days! “

“Running the Waikato River Explorer is the most fun I have had in 35 years of working for a living. From celebrating weddings, birthdays and family reunions, to showing off our amazing river daily! It really is an asset and our hope for the future is that we will continue to see more engagement from the local community to activate the river’s potential as a major attraction.”