Everyone has a Bucket List, but as Mark Alexander finds out, there is something very satisfying about ticking off New Zealand
When the first Bucket List was penned, it no doubt included a number of entries that would have been considered extravagant. Radical even. These fanciful ideas, such as swimming with dolphins or gazing at the Northern Lights, are now happily incorporated into annual holiday jaunts, with the Bucket List being relegated to a kind of ongoing shopping inventory, rather than a must-do wish list.
A number of destinations have benefitted from this move from the whimsical to the doable. Places like Bali and New York are now standard fare for habitual list makers. But the place that has gained most from this attitude shift happens to be one of the remotest. There are many desirable and exotic places around the world, but the one many people want to see for themselves is New Zealand.
So instead of adding New Zealand to my Bucket List, I decided to visit it – a far-off land where you are greeted with a bare tongue and an offer to rub noses. As far as my foreign adventures go, this would be the most far-reaching to date.
AROUND THE WORLD Let’s get one thing out of the way; wherever you are reading this, the Land of the Long White Cloud, to give New Zealand its Maori name, is a long way off. The flights are tedious, require infinite patience and, if possible, a well-cushioned derriere. It is a tiresome trip, but what awaits is a land of stunning beaches, tropical forests, ink-blue lakes and prehistoric landscapes punctuated by the occasional active volcano. If god doodled, this would be one of his more imaginative sketches.
New Zealand is the most beautiful place you are ever likely to visit – bar none. It was worth the debilitating jet lag and lingering fatigue (which strikes with vengeance on the return leg) to witness this stunning country. Indeed, the decision to strike it off my Bucket List was justified as soon as I stepped off the plane at Auckland on the North Island. By the time I reached Queenstown on the South Island, my satisfied smile had grown into a broad Cheshire Cat grin.
OVER THE HILLS I was here to photograph the ultra-exclusive venue of the 2015 New Zealand Open – The Hills, and the juxtaposition of a championship course surrounded by a glacial valley, with jaw-dropping views, filled me with joy and excitement.
To be honest, I knew little about the layout before I arrived, and would have known even less if I hadn’t spotted the chequebook sized nameplate on the wooden gate, modestly confirming this as the official point of entry. Once inside, the meandering road towards the clubhouse gave little away and it wasn’t until I stood on the first tee that I properly saw what this course was all about.
What lay in front of me was a deeply undulating fairway, leading up to a plateau green with an enormous mountain range providing a stunning backdrop. This was golf on a grand scale, and if that’s the kind of thing that gets your golf juices flowing then The Hills could cause a flood. This is epic golf where bare rocks bank against smooth greens and long, flowing grasses define meticulously cut fairways. Add in the occasional sculpture, framed by the dramatic landscape, and you have a very special place indeed.
“He has very high expectations and an incredible eye for detail,” says The Hill’s director of golf, Craig Palmer. He is describing the club’s owner Sir Michael Hill, who also heads up one of the world’s leading jewellery brands. “He wants this to be as good as there is.”
PURELY PRIVATE. Palmer has been at The Hills for six years and now manages a club that employs 25 greenkeepers and has attracted 200 member families. He says he still accepts some non-member bookings, but admits the goal is to become purely private at some point. My advice is to get in while you still can.
While The Hills may be at the top end of the New Zealand golf spectrum – you can expect to shell out NZ$550 for a round – it by no means defines New Zealand golf. “New Zealand is a serious golf destination which has a great range of golfing experiences,” says Palmer. “For instance, Arrowtown Golf Club gets forgotten about but it’s one of my favourite courses; it’s like it was built by hobbits. There are hollows and swales and it is always in beautiful condition.”
Bearing in mind Arrowtown Golf Club is literally across the road from The Hills, you get the impression there is a healthy dose of camaraderie between the clubs, which is refreshing. The fact the courses are within shouting distance of one another, but are separated by green fees that vary by NZ$475, also shores up Palmer’s theory that New Zealand’s greatest strength is its diversity.
MISSING LINKS In order to test this premise, I visited Paraparaumu Beach Golf Club, which is a 45-minute drive north of Wellington, New Zealand’s capital. It is a world away from the extravagance of The Hills.
Here there is tradition, sandy soils and rippled fairways. With the Kapiti Coast providing sea breezes, Paraparaumu is a true links test defined by pot bunkers and uneven stances. Designed in 1949 by Alex Russell, one-time partner of Dr Alister MacKenzie, this is golf in its purest form seasoned by salty air and sandy lies. So authentic was it I had to remind myself that I was in New Zealand and not Scotland.
“I loved it instantly,” noted former New Zealand Open champion Peter Thomson. “We have nothing like it in Australia.” While the five times Open Championship winner clearly has a soft spot for this links layout, it turns out it is also a bit of a one-off in New Zealand as well.
“We don’t have a lot of classic links,” says general manager Leo Barber, “and links golf is a particular taste, so not everyone gets it. International visitors from the UK and Europe love it, while some Americans don’t.”
Debates around the merits of links golf reverberate around clubhouses the world over. In my opinion, Paraparaumu is a little slice of links heaven going for a song at NZ$150. For all the right reasons, it encourages you to play the ball on the ground to use the contours to get the ball close, especially when it’s windy.
“The wind is a big part of Paraparaumu,” says Barber. “It’s something we embrace, along with firm surfaces and brown grass. We let the course change with the seasons – it’s not springtime all year round. In the middle of summer it will bake and go golden, and in the winter it will turn green and play a little softer. That’s golf, it changes with the seasons.”
WILD TIMES The North Island is home to not only Paraparaumu, but also the majority of the four million New Zealanders. Cities like Tauranga, Rotorua and Taupo are bustling places that welcome visitors with a variety of outdoor activities – many geared towards adrenalin junkies and thrill seekers. Opportunities to go bungee jumping, skydiving or caving are everywhere, and because the idea of ‘getting your buzz on’ is commonplace, you can’t help getting sucked in.
Much like the water rushing through our jet boat as it careered along the Waikato River’s Nga Awa Purua rapids. Propelled by a 500 hp Chevy V8 engine and Hamilton 212 jet engine, the boat blasted both up and down stream, skimming over the surface and abruptly halting in a spin of foam and water. The rush of air and blur of rocks was bracing and addictive.
By the end of the 35-minute dash, all the passengers on my boat were screaming for more. At the very least, it provided me with a cooling douse of clear blue mountain water, admittedly at break-neck speed. Not that I minded; I loved it!
SAFE HAVEN Nearby, along the Volcanic Highway, is the Wairakei Golf Course and Sanctuary, which is surrounded by an impressive and slightly intimidating five-kilometre Xcluder fence. To get in, you first must pass through a two-metre tall automated gate, designed to keep predators like rats, stoats and weasels out.
Although it feels like you’re entering Jurassic Park, the oasis the fence creates is testimony to its effectiveness. Once through the security cordon, I was welcomed by blossoming wild flowers and colourful wild birds wandering about a course that is expertly maintained and beautifully presented. The layout follows rich and unusual volcanic contours that stem from the nearby Wairakei Geothermal Park, creating an attractive and challenging 18-hole parkland course.
David Park, operations manager at Wairakei, explains the sanctuary came about when owner, Gary Lane, bought out his partners to create a refuge for the Tui bird. “He read that unprotected, 95 per cent of the bird’s eggs are eaten in the wild. He didn’t like the thought of chicks being eaten on his golf course, so he thought he would put a fence around it, get rid of all the predators and employ a game keeper,” Park explains. “He had the money and the facility to do it, so he did.”
The enclosure created by Lane is so impenetrable that New Zealand’s Department of Conservation now uses it as a crèche for the Western North Island Brown Kiwi bird. With the chicks flourishing, Wairakei is a success story not only for the nurturing role it fulfils, but also for the quality of the golf course it operates. And with green fees set at NZ$185, who wouldn’t like a round of golf in a bone fide wildlife sanctuary?
HOME FROM HOME Like its wildlife, culture in New Zealand is revered. From Maori place names to silhouettes of Kiwi birds, traditions and folklore are prominent and respected. This could be because the country is relatively young, but more likely as a result of the diverse ancestry of those who call this place home and the desire to maintain this diversity.
Te Puia is New Zealand’s living Maori cultural centre and is located five minutes from central Rotorua, situated in the Whakarewarewa Geothermal Valley. Here, the Maori way of life is distilled into talks, displays and performances. It also introduces you to hot pools and geysers, which can be found across the country. This, along with the prehistoric landscape and a topsy- turvy climate (the height of their summer is the depths of our winter), you could image New Zealand feeling strange and unfamiliar. But it isn’t.
Because of the culture, I have felt more isolated in parts of Europe than I did while in New Zealand. The climate, landscape, people and golf made it a home from home, despite the epic trail around the globe to get there.
Good to know
Most international flights arrive at Auckland Airport, which is located on the North Island. There is a free shuttle bus that connects the international and domestic terminals, which aids onward travel around New Zealand’s numerous regional airports.
Where to play
Rapid 164 McDonnell Road,
Arrowtown, New Zealand
T: +643 409 8290
Arrowtown Golf Club
166 Centennial Avenue
Arrowtown, New Zealand
T: +64 3 442 1719
Paraparaumu Beach Golf Club
376 Kapiti Road
T: +64 4 902 8200
Wairakei Golf Course and Sanctuary
PO Box 377
State Highway One
Taupo, New Zealand
T: +64 7 374 8152
For more information visit www.newzealand.com/uk/golf