Paul van der Kaag - Living on the edge
He’s had the odd mishap in almost 40 years of Queenstown adventures, but thankfully veteran rafting and parapenting guide Paul van der Kaag has escaped unscathed.
All 6ft 5in (1.96m) of him was almost too much for ambulance staff to manoeuvre inside their vehicle on one occasion, though, after Paul ruptured a medial ligament while rafting.
“I was heavily sedated and suggested they tie an orange flag to my foot because they couldn’t shut the door,” he grins. He’s also spent an hour dangling precariously by his parapente strings very high up a tree atop Skyline Hill. Fortunately, he didn’t fall onto rocks below before friends landed, packed their chutes, and rode the gondola to the rescue.
All in a day’s work, and play, for this laidback Aussie, who grew up in an adventurous outdoors family in Sydney, the youngest and ‘Golden Boy’ to Dutch parents. Paul and his older sisters were on skis aged three at Perisher. “We skied, boated and surfed, growing up on Sydney’s North Shore.” School holidays were spent working in Dad’s paper manufacturing business, earning enough to buy his first surfboard and ski boots at 13.
Naturally an asset to his high school First Basketball team, they were New South Wales State Champions and Paul starred in the First XV.
After three years as a jackaroo west of Sydney, in 1985 Paul joined mate Tom Ellis in Queenstown for a ski season, working as a barman in Maggie’s Bar at Lakeland Hotel, donning skis by day and bow tie by night. That spring, he trained as a whitewater rafting guide with Kawarau Rafts owners Robert Eymann and John Hogan.
There were no OSH regulations back then and mishaps usually went under the radar. Guides were well versed in first aid. They had to be. They took six rafts up The Remarkables after it opened in 1985 for the Spring Festival Raft Race on snow. “It was so dangerous, people wearing ski boots hurtling down the hill on rafts out of control, loads of fun. The next year we banned ski boots.”
A workplace romance blossomed between Paul and, now wife of 32 years, Brigit, who drove the rafting vans. They headed to Switzerland to learn to parapente after meeting a couple of French Swiss parapenters here. They learned to fly at a parapenting school in Grindelwald, beneath The Eiger mountain, then worked for Brigit’s Olympic skier father’s coach in Klosters.
Back in Queenstown, Paul and fellow rafting guide Ged Hay started Max Air Parapenting – a commercial paragliding school. “We’d gained experience overseas, but it was very early days here,” recalls Paul. “We worked with the hang gliding clubs and local regulators.” Most clients they launched off the Crown Terrace Zig Zag landed in the paddock, but not all. “The odd one ended up in a tree.”
No need for this pair to negotiate the hairy gravel Remarkables access road. “After skiing, Ged and I would take the last lift to Shadow Basin and fly off the front face of the Remarkables, landing in the paddock at the bottom. You couldn’t do that now.”
As if that wasn’t enough of a thrill, Paul and Ged, mountaineer Mark Whetu, Fred Bramwell and Penny Webster placed second in the first ever Raid Gauloise Grand Traverse endurance race from Lake Ohau to Manapouri in 1989 – one of three Kiwi teams. Steve Gurney’s team won. “We did okay.”
The year before they married in 1991, Paul and Brigit bought Impact Screen Prints which they owned for 25 years. Kids Jessica and Willem followed.
“We did all the personalised T-shirts and hoodies for Contiki Tours, for tourism, rafting and jetboating, restaurant uniforms.” Their business quickly grew and eventually they bought Queenstown Cap and Clothing Co and Embroidery Action. The hours were long “but we could go first tracking in the morning if we wanted to,” enthuses Paul.
Impact won the Chamber of Commerce Small Business Award in 2012. Paul vowed at the gala dinner he’d paddleboard from Kelvin Heights into town, still in black tie, the next morning if they won. And he did, with a life jacket, of course - Paul was among those who pushed for sensible regulations nationally for stand-up paddleboarding.
As Wakatipu Ski Club president, he’s worked his share of annual ski club sale fundraisers and marshalled for many a 50K of Coronet CureKids fundraiser too.
These days Paul’s back on the water as a skipper and guide in Fiordland, where the odd crayfish goes down a treat.