When local Māori guides began hosting visitors to ‘the eighth wonder of the world’, the Pink and White Terraces, it ignited an industry which would ultimately become our country’s largest – tourism.
And the most famous of those guides – Guide Sophia – clearly set a powerful example, with her descendants continuing to forge new paths in the tourism sector today.
Karen Walmsley is a director, alongside her husband David, of Lake Tarawera Water Taxis, which provides transport across the lake for hikers of the Tarawera Trail – a 15km, one-day walk that opened in 2013 – as well as other trails around the lake’s catchment.
It’s a business with a future-focused growth story, but a story that’s also strongly rooted in the past.
When the devastating eruption of Mt Tarawera in 1886 destroyed the terraces, Guide Sophia, alongside her husbands’ Tūhourangi people, fled the area and relocated to Whakarewarewa in Rotorua, where she continued to guide.
Fast forward more than 100 years to the late 2000s, and attention began to turn to ways to help Tūhourangi return to their ancestral homeland; among those mulling the opportunities was Karen, then an employee at the Ministry of Māori Development.
“We were looking for ways to entice our Tūhourangi people to return to their lands, because they had not lived there since the eruption of Mt Tarawera on 10 June 1886. There were local tribal trusts who were also looking for opportunities to grow their economies, but also ways they could help our people participate in the region a lot more,” she says.
“We came up with the idea for a walk, because that would connect our land blocks, but would also provide an opportunity for people to access the region with minimal impact on the environment.”
Key to success
During the intervening years of feasibility studies and consultation, business opportunities related to the proposed walk were also explored, and a water taxi operation was identified as key to the success of the trail.
Karen and David, who already ran a luxury lodge and guided tours at the lake, saw the opportunity and bought an existing water taxi business on the lake the year the trail opened.
“One of the things our family committed to do was to participate in the business opportunities and grow them with a view that, in the long term, the tribe could pick up the option to purchase the business and use that as a way to strengthen their economic capabilities.”
The trail has proved a hit, and customer demand for the water taxi has been such that last year, with financing assistance from BNZ, the company purchased a second, 50-seater boat called Sophia to sit alongside its original 14-seater.
Challenging winter months
Boosting marketing efforts has helped the company make the most of the added capacity during the tourism high season, and having a larger boat is allowing them to tap into new markets, such as school, tramping club, corporate and wedding groups.
However, says Karen, the winter months are challenging, especially as the business retains its three staff year round. A contract with the regional council to transport workers across the lake to control invasive plants over winter has helped, and BNZ also supports the business with overdraft facilities during the low season.
In addition to ferrying customers, the couple run guided tours and two glamping facilities at the lake – activities they bring together under the brand Totally Tarawera.
“This all began with a kernel of an idea,” says Karen, “which was to encourage our tribal people to return to their homelands,” she says. “We have a vision for that on a large scale, but part of that is the businesses we are involved with, because it means that when our people return there are opportunities here for them.”