The Bowling Club at the Birthplace of the Nation

June 29, 2021

Every Kiwi should, at least once in their lifetime, visit Waitangi in the Bay of Islands.

It’s where our nation was ‘born’ … where the first signatures were put on the Treaty of Waitangi before copies were despatched around New Zealand to gain more widespread signatories … and more widespread legitimacy.

The Waitangi National Trust responsible for the guardianship of the 506 hectare signatory site has done a great job of developing the heritage estate into much more than the original 34-metre high flagpole on the front lawn of James Busby’s old wooden home and neighbouring meeting house (Te Whare Runanga).  There’s now a bespoke home for the ceremonial waka.  There’s a Treaty museum (Te Kongahu).  There’s a Maori war memorial museum (Te Rau Aroha).  It has indeed become a worthy ‘mecca’.

But unbeknown to most, tucked away in the corner of the Waitangi National Trust estate, you’ll also find the Waitangi Bowling Club.

“We’ve been here since the club was formed in 1953,” explains Waitangi Bowling Club newly-elected Secretary/Treasurer Sonya Marsh. “We lease the land from the Waitangi National Trust.  And one of the many matters on my list is to lay the groundwork for renewing our lease when it expires in 5 or so years’ time.”

That probably sounds pretty simple for the many clubs around New Zealand who have dealt with the renewal of council leases.  But for something as politically-infused as the Waitangi estate, renewal may not be nearly as straightforward.

However, Sonya and the other members of the Waitangi Bowling Club are up for the challenge.

“We’ve been here before,” says Patron and long-serving member (36 year), Lou Vinsen. “When they were contemplating building the museum 10 years ago, the bowling club was originally earmarked for the site.  Big dollar figures got thrown around for the cost of moving us … our lawyers talked to their lawyers … and the whole thing went away.  They ended up building it across the carpark.”

And the club is ready to fight for the future again

“We’ve got a great spot here,” says Lou.  “It’s worth fighting for.  It’s like a little oasis … we’re surrounded by trees, and to be honest it gets as hot as hell in here.  There’s no wind.  Even the green gets hot.”

“My mate Clem and I fried an egg on the green once!” he laughs.

But that clement weather also causes problems for Greenkeeper Robin Norman … as it does for all greenkeepers in the Far North.  “It’s pretty hard to grow grass up here,” say Lou. “The weeds and diseases love it … Robin does a great job.  He makes a pretty fast green!”

The local quails also love the 33.3 metre square.

“They’re out there all the time,” says Vice-President Faye Norman, who spends a lot of time at the club tending to this and that.  “The baby quails are like little bumble bees … sometimes they even fall in the ditch and get stuck!”

A covey of quails has made the Waitangi Bowling Club home

Despite Waitangi being a small club (18 or so full-playing members), the club punches well above its weight.

“We won the Women’s Centre Triples this year,” says Sonya.  “And the men were runners-up in the Pairs, the Triples and the Fours.  We’ve never had any national honours though.”

The club also attracts a lot of visitors.

“Bryan Willams and Geoff Old, the ex-All Blacks, come and play here over summer … I think they have holiday houses up here.  Plus, we usually get a number of ‘swallows’ out here over summer from England.  Although of course that didn’t happen this last season,”

But the summer season stops for a week at the beginning of February.

“During the week around Waitangi Day, this place becomes ‘police central’. They set up their headquarters here in the pavilion.  The whole club is off-limits to members that week, but we get a nice rental which keeps our finances in good shape for the year.  Last year they even installed air-conditioning at their expense.”

Next time, you’re doing what all Kiwis should do (visiting Waitangi), take your bowls with you.  It’s a special place to play.  And if the new guard of members lead by Sonya Marsh have anything to do with it, it’s going to be a very special place to play bowls for a long time to come.