Tolaga Bay Bowling Club: gaining new life at 97

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Anton Tashkoff shows off what is widely regarded as one of the best greens in the Bowls Gisborne East Coast Centre.

When the Tolaga Bay Bowling Club was founded in 1922, the township of Tolaga Bay on the East Cape of the North Island was a thriving coastal settlement. It had a population of over a thousand. Plans were underway to build New Zealand’s longest wharf (660 metres) enabling coastal ships to trade with the area, and the road to Gisborne was still very much a work in progress.

It was typical practice at the time for councils to nurture sport in the community, and bowling clubs were established up and down the Cape – at Te Araroa, Ruatoria, Tokomaru Bay and Tolaga Bay. But as the population drifted away, so too the bowling clubs closed. Until only Tolaga Bay Bowling Club remains today.

However, it’s a club that’s determined to hold on.

“We have to,” laughs club bar manager Anton Tashkoff. “We put ‘the East Coast’ in the name of the local Centre. No more Tolaga Bay … no more Bowls Gisborne East Coast!”

Tolaga Bay’s not only doing a wonderful job of ‘holding on’, but growing the club too.

Less than 10 years ago the club was down to five full-playing members and $1,000 in the bank. But that determination to stick around has meant that membership today has ‘swelled’ to 20 full-playing members and another 15 or so social members. The membership loves what they have here and aren’t going to let it go. And they shouldn’t. They have something unique in New Zealand.

Bowls-wise, the single grass green provides one of the best playing surfaces in the centre. “The ditch edgings and the bank caps need replacing,” observes Anton as he kicks at a bit of rotting timber, “and the green needs levelling. But our greenkeepers over the last 8 years (Mike Atkins, Chas Henry and their band of helpers) have brought it back up to a standard where we have been able to not only host centre fixtures, but the Aotearoa Maori Bowls Tournament as well.”

“Chas has recently picked up a new greens mower. It’s got a flash name : a Protrim Silent Green. It’s battery-powered – no power cord to move all the time. And it’s silent as. We wont have the neighbours complaining about the noise … all one of them!”, he smiled.

‘The Green Team’ and the new mower will ensure the green is in pristine condition for the club’s signature tournament – the 2-day mixed Triples held at the end of March every year. “It’s called the Something-Something Tolaga Bay Two-Day, depending on who the sponsor is!” says Past President Jo Atkins. “(In fact), if Mark Cameron wants to give us a thousand bucks, we’ll call it the Mark Cameron Tolaga Bay Two-Day if he likes!”

Players come from the Hawkes Bay and Bay of Plenty every year … not only for the bowls, but for the feast of kai moana for which Tolaga Bay tournaments are renowned; crayfish, kina, paua, snapper and more.

“We provide breakfast, lunch and dinner,” says Jo. And quart bottles of the preferred local brew, Tui, are just $6. No wonder they have a full-house every year. Former Patron and political figurehead Parekura Horomia would be proud of his club’s hospitality.

Having said that, the facilities at Tolaga Bay do provide some challenges at tournament time.

The lounge bar area would be lucky to top the size of a double garage, although it’s enveloped in an awesome blanket of bowling memorabilia.

The locker room is an old garden shed which has bowling bags that could date back to opening day in 1922, but also one or two contemporary sets for any visitor to use.

There’s only one men’s and women’s toilet located outside in an old concrete block. It does the job. Just. “But you don’t want too many people busting to do no.1’s or no.2’s at the same time,” laughs Anton.

Even with a lot of sweat equity (and you wouldn’t find mucker-inners more keen to muck in than here!), the club still needs $300,000 to get the club facilities to where they want them to be. That may not be a big number in Auckland, but down here it rivals the GDP of Tolaga Bay.

“We’d be grateful for any help,” says Jo. “We don’t do things extravagantly here. We can’t. We don’t charge casual green fees. Even our annual subs are only $90, and we hand over $75 of that to the centre.”

The club’s big strength is that it knows it will be able to count on all 30 members to pitch in and help. Even veteran Life Members Buddy Kururangi and Ila Soames pop in occasionally to play, to support and to make sure the club’s behaving!

(From left) Vern Marshall, Peter Hughes, Zaedys Hughes (front), Ben Elkington, Anton Tashkoff (front), Jo Atkins and Mike Manama are more than happy to get stuck in and keep their club ticking over for generations to follow.

It’s not just a great community club that hosts birthdays, anniversaries and special events for the whole of Tolaga Bay. The local school also makes good use of the green and players encourage the local tamariki to give bowls a go.

On top of that, the club also turns out some pretty sharp bowlers as well.

Just the other week, the men’s Four from Tolaga Bay – Murray Duncan, Mick Maunder, George Vaotuua and Vern Marshall – cleaned up at the Centre Championships.

Vern Marshall is a former New Zealand Under 25’s and New Zealand Emerging Player. He’s been playing bowls for 37 years out of Te Karaka and Kahutia in Poverty Bay and now out of Tolaga Bay. He’s got 52 centre titles and 3 National Club titles. He drinks Tui. “I love it here he says, we are whanau.”

Vern’s official title is Club Tournament Controller. He’s responsible for deciding whether a mooted Red Band Tournament, where all the entrants wear their gumboot of choice, is a goer or not.

Maybe throwing some gumboots at a bloke called Shane Jones and getting him along to the tournament might be a good strategy. Rumour has it that he has a few bucks looking for a new home in the provinces.

Keep up the great work Tolaga Bay.

by Rob Davis