Enjoying lawn bowls in the “Winterless North”

June 21, 2021

You’d be forgiven for never having been to Opononi.

Even after you get to Dargaville, there’s still another 100km of winding road before a view of the spectacular sand dunes on the north head of the Hokianga heralds your arrival in the twin villages of Omapare and Opononi.

It may be a bit of a trek … but there’s a special treat along the way … a short walk into Waipoua Forest to enjoy the awesome grandfatherly girth of Tane Mahuta, New Zealand’s largest Kauri,

Up until now, Opononi has very much been a quiet settlement.  Sure, it had a short burst of fame in the summer of 1955/1956 when Opo the Dolphin made the Hokianga home, charming the locals like a Hollywood ‘Flipper’ with local children riding on its back.

But like many parts of the New Zealand of yesteryear, it has been ‘discovered’ and is enjoying (or not enjoying depending on your point of view) new popularity.

The Opononi Bowling Club is also thriving.

Although only founded in 1985, the Opononi Bowling Club has 40 or so full-playing members.  What’s more, it’s not a membership that’s dying … they come from all ages … from 7 years old right up to the 97 year old Patron ‘Teps' Martin.

It’s also not a membership that’s mainly men.  Opononi started off life as a women’s-only club, and the local men played at Rawene or Waimamaku down the road. A few years into their birth, the women-only club let men join (It would have been great to be a fly on the wall at that AGM!)

But the real secret to Opononi’s success is the fact that it is only incidentally a bowling club.  Instead it behaves like a community club … a facility which the whole Opononi community cherishes and looks after.  Bowls just happens to take centrestage.

“For example,” observes Club President Paul Fowlie, “The day care patients from the local Rawene Hospital join other community members every Thursday at the club.  They play indoor games and activities, and share a pot luck lunch.”

“And every November, we run a fundraising tournament for the hospital.  It’s a real fun day.  The nurses come along, and we mix up the teams with bowlers and non-bowlers.  Last year we raised $1800.”

“Another big tournament of the year is the ‘Ching Hira’,” says Life Member Fred Toi. ”It’s an any combination Fours.  It was started by a market gardener from Tuakau south of Auckland, who used to come up here once a year with his family and a truckload of veges for the locals.  The Ching Hira just became a tradition here … even after he passed away.  We still get a full green for the two days.”

“The other biggie is the 28th Maori Battalion Memorial Tournament held in March every year,” adds Fred.  “it’s an any combination Triples, and it’s so popular we have to run two sections for the 32 teams. They’re not just locals … we even get players returning every year from Houhora in the Far North down to Cambridge in the Waikato.”

But it’s not just the bowls that’s the attraction playing at Opononi.  “We put on a pretty good feed,” laughs Fred. “Kaimoana .. a hangi … a spit … you name it.  And music on the green ... the local country and music club has use of the club for practice, and holds a 3-day festival which the whole community participates in … everybody loves it.”

Despite all this fun and frivolity, there’s a serious side to the bowls at Opononi.  The club picks up more than its share of Centre titles … as many as 13 in the 2016/2017 season.

“We had 3 in the Far North team that went to Wellington for the National Intercentre recently,” says Club Secretary/Treasurer Linda Fowlie. “And one of our members, Rob Tane, came third in the National Singles a few years back.”

“Our J1-5 players have won the Centre Six‘s four years running and represented Bowls Far North in the regional play offs. Our school students have had success at the Secondary School National Singles (3rd) and Sport Northland Secondary School Pairs (1st).”

“We were a National finalist at the Bowls New Zealand ‘Club of the Year’ a couple of years ago and were Bowls Far North ‘Club of the Year’ two years in a row.”

All this success is not surprising.  The club just keeps on getting better and better.

“The next project is to refurb the inside of the club rooms, and put a new roof on,” says Paul.  “We’ve just laid down new concrete surrounds around the green, and built new shelters.    Grant funding helped a lot.  It helps that we are not just seen as a bowling club, but as a facility that’s used by the whole community.  Including the hospital.”

Any bowler would be proud to call the Opononi Bowling Club ‘home’.

Former Centre President and a NZ Bowls ladies team Manager , Margaret Walters, who passed away late last year was a Life member of the Opononi Bowling Club.  Rugby player David ‘Hurricane’ Haynes who represented Northland and New Zealand Maori in the 70s, frequently visits the club to participate in tournaments and pick up the spoils.

But it’s the way a club makes a great home for the unfamous, rather than just the famous, that is the hallmark of a great club.

And that’s what Opononi does so well.