Creating the best zipline in New Zealand that would stand out above the rest is no easy feat, but this was the aspirational goal of Rotorua Canopy Tours founders James Fitzgerald and Andrew Blackford.
How it all began - the creation of Rotorua Canopy Tours
Growing up in New Zealand, the two university mates, James and Andrew, always had a passion for the outdoors and wanted to a truly unforgettable customer experience. So they decided to get together to create the best zipline in New Zealand. In 2012 the first Rotorua Canopy Tours tour was opened – The Original Canopy Tour.
As word began to spread about this incredible experience, the company grew and the 3-hour Original Canopy Tour became a huge hit with kiwis and people visiting from all over the world. The rave reviews began to flood in and Rotorua Canopy Tours got busier and busier. In 2016 The Original Canopy Tour took out the tourism industry’s top prize, the Air New Zealand Supreme Tourism Award James and Andrew had done it! They had created the best zipline in New Zealand!
Photo: The Rotorua Canopy Tours team with Rt Hon Sir John Key and Rotorua Mayor, Steve Chadwick, after winning the Air New Zealand Supreme Tourism Award.
After the huge success of the Original Canopy Tour, Rotorua Canopy Tours' guests were asking for more, so in 2017 we decided it was time to not only build the best zipline in New Zealand, but the best zipline in the world – the Ultimate Canopy Tour!
The Ultimate Canopy Tour was designed to be even higher, longer and more spectacular. The course includes all the things people love about the Original Canopy Tour – ziplines, swing bridges and the most popular part of the tour – the conservation trail. But, The Ultimate Canopy Tour also includes some breath-taking new features (some features others said couldn’t be done) which make world class.
How did we build the best ziplines in New Zealand?
A next level zipline course like this takes a lot of hard work and planning. Andrew, one of Rotorua Canopy Tours founders, led the team to the build of the Ultimate Canopy Tour zipline course.
Andrew is an experienced engineer who came up with incredible design. A number of Rotorua Canopy Tours guides assisted with the build as they had the skills and expertise for working at heights, building and how the ziplines and new features work. Scott, one of the Rotorua Canopy Tours guides worked on the build full time. Shane, Spencer, Cam, Josh, Kris and Luke split their time over the build between guiding on the Original Canopy Tour and building the new Ultimate Canopy Tour. All of the guides loved seeing the Ultimate Canopy Tour come together, and to be a part of the build was special experience for them all.
Photo: Rotorua Canopy Tours guide Kris standing on a platform while building a swing bridge.
Luckily for us we already had a pretty amazing spot to build the best zipline in New Zealand – the Dansey Road Scenic Reserve – a pristine and marvelous forest filled with ancient trees, gully's and deep ravines. This beautiful natural scenery helped make it that much easier to create the ultimate adventure.
Photo: The Rocky Knob feature almost complete during the Ultimate Canopy Tour build.
From the beginning the team had a vision to create something truly spectacular. They did a helicopter flight over the forest during the early planning stages and when they saw the rocky outcrop they just knew they had to incorporate this in the tour somehow. This later become the rocky cliff walkway which is 50m high above the forest floor and gives absolutely breath-taking views of the valley below. Other ideas like building stairs around a tree became a reality in the mesmerising Spiral Staircase near the beginning of the tour.
Photo: The incredible Rocky Cliff Walkway once completed on the Ultimate Canopy Tour.
Building the best zipline in New Zealand wasn't without it challenges. The tours second swing bridge was a first for how it was constructed. When Andrew was designing the bridge at the beginning of the planning process he definitely didn’t have the final design in mind. Usually bridges start on the ground on one side and finish on the ground on the other, however this one springs off a platform which is 8m up in the air – this definitely had some engineering challenges but was worth it for such an incredible tour feature.
Photo: The Dansey's Reserve suspension bridge on the Ultimate Canopy Tour
The team also realised the zipline between platform 3 and 4 would be too steep and too fast, so had to go back to the drawing board with the design. They didn't want to reposition the platforms, so instead came up with a new braking system. This 220m slow and scenic zipline is now a favourite for taking in the beautiful forest scenery.
The biggest barrier of all when building the best zipline in New Zealand was all the logistic challenges and getting all the materials into the forest. Andrew and Scott used the Canopy Tours Staff house to their advantage and pre-fabricated the platforms in the backyard. There they could set everything up on the ground and make sure that everything fitted correctly. When it came time to put the decking on the frame, they layed it out on top and drilled 400+ holes into the structure.
Photo: The platform getting the final touches at the staff house - almost ready to be taken to the forest.
Once the platforms were ready to go it was time to get them up in the forest. A laser system was used to get the height needed for the ziplines, an arborist came in to check that the trees could hold the platforms. Finally ropes lifted the platforms into place and then the platforms were connected to the trees.
There were a few methods used to get the ziplines between platforms. When the Original Canopy Tour course was built all of the ziplines were put into place by massive spud guns. The team used this method for the smaller ziplines on the Ultimate Canopy Tour but for the longer ziplines they used a Phantom 3 drone which flew across a rope and then the zipline was pulled up by the rope. A helicopter was also used to put one of the ziplines in place – something a little bit different and exciting!
Photo: The helicopter that was used to put a zipline into place on the Ultimate Canopy Tour build
The whole process involved lots of walking and carrying materials (the team all lost a few kilos!) and the team worked with Mamaku Rail Cruises to get things in through their existing rail line.
What really helped was all the fantastic community support Rotorua Canopy Tours had, particularity from the Mamaku residents who live in the area surrounding the Dansey Road Scenic Reserve, Mamaku Rail Cruises, Heli Hire and the Mamaku Garage to name a few.
Photo: Andrew and Scott hanging at a height completing one of the swingbridges on the Ultimate Canopy Tour build.
Adding the finishing touches
The full build took about six months, starting in November 2017 with a break over December and January - the peak holiday season. In February they returned to the build full time again working 5-6 days a week hanging at a height for 6 -7 hours. Luckily they had special seats mounted onto their harness so it was a lot more comfortable than it sounds.
Finally in July 2018 the Ultimate Canopy Tour was launched to the public and we couldn't have been more excited to have the new experience up and running.
Although the tour was open, it wasn’t quite complete. The final touch was adding a tandem zipline to our longest ever 400m zipline. Our aim was always to impact the forest as little as possible. The platforms for the tandem zipline were too close to the bank to add the tandem line from the start as there would have been many large trees in the way. After Andrew and Scott were able to extend the platforms and pivot the zipline slightly, it gave more room to safely add a second line.
Scott told us that his biggest challenge was this platform tower at the end of this 400 metre tandem zipline. The tower had a lot of extra bits involved, the heavy steel work was hard as they were also working at a height. Although it was a challenge, it was rewarding once completed as they can look at it now and know they had built the best zipline in New Zealand.
The tandem zipline was finally completed in November 2018 and finished off this incredible tour. We all love a bit of competition so racing your friends or family down a zipline just makes it that much more fun!
Photo: You can race 400m down a tandem zipline on the Ultimate Canopy Tour
Our guests are absolutely loving the Ultimate Canopy Tour and we’ve had some amazing reviews:
Natalie from Auckland - “This ultimate canopy tour was 10/10 from start to finish.”
Rebecca R - "My family of 4 did the ultimate canopy zipline experience and had a blast! The swinging bridges, zip lines, hanging path around the rock cliff were all exhilarating.”
Now Scott and the team can often be found doing regular maintenance work on both courses to make sure they are in perfect condition for everyone to safely enjoy. We can’t wait to welcome more guests on the best zipline adventure in New Zealand and show off our beautiful untouched forest – it’s New Zealand like you’ve never seen it.
Photo: The controlled descent on the Ultimate Canopy Tour zipline Rotorua.