Otatara : Playing bowls 12,000km from Bonneville

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The newly painted Otatara pavilion looking sharp for the coming summer season.

When Burt Munro was spending his weekends tearing along the beach on his modified 1926 Indian Scout, he was probably also watching the new Otatara Bowling Club pavilion being built as he drove from his home in Invercargill to Oreti Beach. That’s of course when he wasn’t setting new land speed records at Bonneville in Utah.

Burt was already strapped for cash, so the foundation subscription of £2 2/- at the bowling club may have been a bit rich for him to contemplate playing the beautiful game. But in 1949, it didn’t stop over 30 Southlanders joining up to a club which celebrates its 70th birthday later this year.

The Otatara Bowling Club touts itself as a ‘bit of country on the edge of town’. And the singing tuis and bellbirds, as well as the low-flying kererus ghosting across the green, are a constant reminder to bowlers that they are lucky to be playing in this little bit of paradise on the outskirts of Invercargill.

The members are also lucky to have what is regarded by many as one of the best greens in Southland.

“It’s great to have John Haslam,” says Club President John Henderson, “He’s a terrific greenkeeper … a perfectionist who is passionate about keeping our green at its best.”

The Otatara strip attracts a lot of admirers on the greens

But it’s not just the green that looks sharp at Otatara.

“This year we had all hands on deck to repaint the outside of the club pavilion,” says John. “We were able to complete the job over three or four weekends. We all pitched in. To be honest, I think that’s what makes this such a great little club. There’s only 30 or so of us, but we all love the club and each other’s company.”

John should know. As the Club Bar Manager, you could say that he’s responsible for stimulating the camaraderie as well.

He’s also a Scotsman. Born at Greenock, just down the Clyde from Glasgow, John came out to New Zealand in 1969. He joined the Union Steamship Company, then ended up searching for oil in the Great South Basin. He then settled down as a harbour pilot for the Bluff Harbour Board (‘South Port’ as it is branded today), becoming its Operations Manager and Harbourmaster. His pre-retirement job was as a Master on Bluebridge Cook Strait Ferries.

John’s is part of a team that’s dedicated to making sure the club’s ‘Mates in Bowls’ programme continues to flourish.

But it’s not any offer of oysters, whiskey or cheese rolls that keeps the bowlers coming back for more bowls over the 5-week programme. ‘We’re renowned for our hot chips and meat patties,” says John, “And if it takes chips and patties to get new members, so be it.”

Like virtually all clubs around New Zealand, Otatara is on the look out for new members. Whilst the current crop aren’t all as mature as club member Jim Fish, who at 90 years old is still active on the green, John is keen to see younger people taking up the game.

“We’re fortunate that although we only have a modest membership, we’re financially sound. The club owns the land (bought for £30 in 1948) and pavilion. We don’t have a lot of outgoings.”

That’s great to hear.

And great to know that we’ll continue to enjoy seeing the stand-out strip of the Otatara team – emblazoned with a tui and flax bush on its white blue and yellow colours – at bowling tournaments well into the future.

by Rob Davis