Having been idle for more than two years, the Welcome Aboard Port Hills gondola attraction is poised to re-open on Monday March 25. It will be a low-key event followed by an official grand opening on April 19. This week I took a ride with Welcome Aboard Operations Manager John Smith and Managing Director Michael Esposito. Although once familiar with the cableway, I was in for a new enlightening experience. For a start a huge rock retaining bund is being completed just above the base station. No doubt it will be dubbed “The Great Wall of China,” “Hadrian’s Wall” or some-such. Perhaps there is an opportunity for a name the wall competition? It is certainly impressive. Further up we passed rock-catching attenuators.
Better than a rock-catching wall Michael tells me. An attenuator does not get bowled over with the first rock catch. Rather, it reduces the energy of the de-accelerating rock.
Larger, threatening, rocks have been blown up. Others have been purposefully rolled down to assess direction and potential damage. Results have been fed into a computer to find a simulated risk management.
“Our parameters were to make the Gondola ride safe. In fact, assessing information from Britain, our expectations are that a gondola ride will be safer than taking a bus ride or taking a 10-minute walk,” says Michael.
At the top the whole venue is taking on a fresh new look. The former restaurant is being redeveloped as a function centre for corporate events, weddings, 50th wedding anniversaries and so on. (Functions have already been booked.)
The café, billed to become a key part of a gondola experience, is renamed, Red Rock Café. It was the café name when the attraction first opened some 20 years ago. The café venue has new floor coverings, furniture and light shades. The company has taken charge of the catering which will include food prepared fresh on the premises. Coffee promises to be the best anywhere.
(A slight correction. Someone, I think I know who, tried the coffee at Welcome Aboard’s Thrillseekers attraction and blurted it was the best they had tasted. The same coffee is being brewed at Red Rock Café making Red Rock coffee first equal with Thrillseekers.)
Most interior walls present a new décor featuring bright New Zealand themes along with Welcome Aboard attractions such as the tram in quaint New Regent Street and Punting on the Avon.
I felt a slight regret not spotting the grumpy guy in the ticket office mural. I suspect his whiskery face did not match a new fresh atmosphere.
The Time Tunnel is being improved, especially with original film of famous Kiwi events – Jack Lovelock winning gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and Bill Hamilton with his famous jet boat. Whitebait TV and Jason Gunn have been involved.
I was stunned by the views as I watched a container ship berthing in Port Lyttelton. The earthquake damage to nearby Castle Rock is obvious. A helicopter was removing some of the rock-fall prevention equipment. All the gondola cabins have been refurbished with striking exterior images and interior covers are new.
The Top Station did not suffer significant structural damage despite sitting astride the seismic event of February 22, 2011. The damage was mostly from water exploding from fire sprinklers. Michael says 60,000 litres of water gushed from the fire system during the earthquake and aftershocks.
Much of the premise revamp was on the company’s agenda for the next few years. Seismic events merely brought the work forward. It has cost Welcome Aboard Christchurch some $2 million. That includes rock fall compliance. Michael stresses it did not involve a ratepayer contribution. Nor did it divert Christchurch City Council attention from all important residential rock securing efforts.
The company principals have had to sink long arms into deep pockets at a time when business has been clearly munted. How they have kept their enthusiasm and humour is almost beyond comprehension. But that’s what they have bravely done.