The Dominion Post
Tararua tourism lifts off
‘The beauty of the Tararuas, it’s just such an under-rated place . . . and there are relatively few days [each year] when you can see it from the air.’
SKIMMING the golden, tussockcovered spine of the Tararua Range as the setting sun ignited the Tasman to the west and darkened the Pacific to the east, an awed customer gave Amalgamated Helicopters its best review yet.
‘‘Oh my God, I haven’t seen anything like that, and I live in Fiordland,’’ he told the Carterton firm’s chief pilot and co-director Jason Diedrichs.
Originally from Masterton, Diedrichs and wife Sally, the firm’s co-owner and chief executive, started off in Gisborne working for Ashworth Helicopters. But in 1999 they were recruited to run Amalgamated in Wairarapa,
Pilot Jamie Hansen founded in 1987 to fly live deer out of the Tararuas.
In 2003 the Diedrichs took the plunge and bought the firm for a price ‘‘in the hundreds of thousands’’. Initially they leased a chopper, before building up a business plan strong enough to get a loan from a finance company in 2005 and buy their own, for just over $1 million.
‘‘It was no mean feat and we needed all our mettle, especially with a young family in tow,’’ Sally says.
The business had diversified after the venison recovery industry collapsed and the couple have continued further into other agricultural and commercial services such as spraying, fertilising, sowing, heavy lifting, pest control, firefighting, burnoff control, vineyard frost protection, forestry tasks and mustering, among others.
There’s also aerial survey and inspection, search and rescue, event filming, media transport and tailored hunting, fishing and tramping trips.
‘‘Anything a helicopter can do, we can do,’’ Sally says.
Having started out with just themselves and one loader driver, the couple now own two Hughes 500E helicopters and employ four fulltime staff, including two other pilots, with another coming aboard soon. It’s a multimilliondollar company, and the fact they are looking to add a third chopper, at around $1 million second-hand, indicates things are going well.
They attribute their success to good staff, keeping things safe, simple and high-quality, and ‘‘slow but concrete’’ growth.
With a solid financial base, 25,000 flying hours between the pilots and accreditation from the Aviation Industry Association’s Aircare programme, it was time to expand.
With the big Wellington market just over an hour’s drive away, the couple decided earlier this year to begin increasing the roughly five per cent of revenue currently derived from scenic flights.
The Tararuas’ notoriously wild weather might seem an obstacle, but for pilot Jamie Hansen, in charge of tourist flights, it’s an anticipation-generating asset.
‘‘The beauty of the Tararuas, it’s just such an under-rated place . . . and there are relatively few days [each year] when you can see it from the air. That’s what it’s about, getting people in there on those days,’’ said the Cape Palliser-bred pilot.
He will tailor flights for any budget, route or occasion. The flexible approach is summed up by Hansen’s ‘‘You’re on the List’’ service, which offers a seat on a fourpassenger, 15-minute flight over 1470-metre Mt Holdsworth for $125. Once ‘‘the list’’ of all four seats is full, the flight is scheduled around the weather and passenger availability.
Gift vouchers are popular, and even a five-minute whirl is an option – Amalgamated’s base in the Tararua foothills means the peaks are moments away.
To future-proof against noise complaints the couple got the site’s usage as a helicopter base written into Wairarapa’s combined council district plan.
Marketing has been mainly word of mouth, but the new focus on tourism has generated a website revamp and presence on social media, full of colourful work stories and photos.
Community involvement, such as donated flight vouchers for school fundraisers and free flights for groups of disabled children, has helped their profile.
The other key advantage Wairarapa itself.
‘‘People don’t realise how big it is, and how spectacular,’’ says Jason.
But that might be about to change – the firm features in regional tourism promoter Destination Wairarapa’s ‘‘Winter Escape’’ competition, with a flight over dramatic Tararua snowscapes an eye-catching prize.