Don Stephens : A life at the edge of history

June 25, 2022

Don Stephens is one of those guys that’s packed a heap of life experience into his 71, going on 72 years.

But what’s more surprising is that Don is visually-impaired, with all but no sight in his left eye, and glaucoma in his right eye. And what remaining sight he has is continuing to deteriorate. His experiences would exhaust someone with 20/20, let alone a person verging on blindness.

For the last 11 years, Don has been playing bowls out of the Riccarton Racecourse Bowling Club on the western outskirts of Christchurch.

“I used to go for a walk every day which took me past the bowling club,” says Don. “One day, I decided to pop in and see what it was all about. They grabbed me, and didn’t let go! And I’ve been a bowler ever since!”

But Don is not a Cantabrian. He was born and brought up in Blenheim, joined the Army Education Corp at 18, and served at Waiouru, then Linton where he studied psychology at Massey University. “I wanted to go to Vietnam,” he says. “But they wouldn’t send me, so I went off to Britain in 1972.”

“I ended up joining the British Army infantry and training at Dartmoor. It was the start of a career of almost 10 years in the British Army which included stints in Northern Ireland during The Troubles and in Germany with the NATO forces.”

“I was even guarding Rudolf Hess at Spandau Prison at one point, and also took my turn doing guard duty on the Berlin Wall. We operated out of West Berlin.

Don was at the edge of history.

Unfortunately, it was in Europe that his vision first showed the signs of being damaged.

“I was a bit of a mountaineer and rockclimber. One time we decided to take on the Matterhorn, but got caught in a snowstorm. I lent my snow goggles to a bloke who was really suffering on the climb, and probably didn’t do myself any favours.”

Don came back to New Zealand in 1983, and started up a new career as a newspaper reporter, initially on the West Coast, then in Southland and Kaikoura, before free-lancing from his home in Blenheim. But Don remained pretty restless.

Inspired by A H Reed’s ‘Marlborough Journey’ and John A Lee’s ‘Shiner Slattery’, he decided to try the nomadic life, and walk the length of State Highway 6.

“That won’t mean much to people, but it starts in Invercargill and goes up through Queenstown, the Haast Pass, Westport, Nelson and finishes in Blenheim 1260 kilometres later.”

“It was fabulous. It was the best single thing I have ever done. I walked most days, and slept out in a pup tent. Often people I met along the way would take me in for the night … or give me a meal. It took nearly 3 months over the Autumn/Winter period.”

But unbeknown to Don, he was suffering from PTSD from his years in tight spots in the army, and it was sapping his self-confidence. “It culminated in a breakdown in 2002, so I came to Christchurch to be near to my brother.”

Going out walking in Upper Riccarton was part of his road back to health, and repeatedly past the Riccarton Racecourse Bowling Club was going to eventually introduce him to a brand new sport … a brand new life ... and brand new happiness.

Don took to bowls like a duck to water. Not only as a vision-impaired player (he qualified for the NZBLBA as a B4 in 2020), but mixing it with the able-bodied members as well.

He accumulated 7 club championships and reached 4 Centre finals as an ‘unimpaired’ player : Champion of Champion Fours, Champion of Champion Junior Singles, Men’s Junior Singles, and Over 60’s Pairs. And most likely Don’s not finished there … as a relatively new septuagenarian his tally is likely to continue in coming years.

But it’s as a disabled player that Don’s really shone.

“I won the Singles and Pairs (with Deane Roberston) at the Nationals in Christchurch this year. It was great to win. I had been going to the Nationals since 2015 ... my first game was against Danny O’Connor, the holder of 10 National titles!”

Hopefully, COVID-permitting, we’ll see more of Don in the Nationals in 2023. That’s of course if he doesn’t get distracted by yet another new adventure … which takes him to the edge of history once again.