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Taking flight – the disc golf pioneer of Queenstown

Queenstown might be considered a rural town, but it’s cultural make-up is as cosmopolitan as a big city.

You might also say that finding a New Zealander here is rare, much less a Maori. But among the many foreigners who call Queenstown home, there are a definitely a few locals, including Hemi Te Awhitu, a proud member of the Tainui Iwi [tribe], but probably better known as the chair of the Queenstown Disc Golf Club, and one of the country’s top players of a rather obscure sport. Disc Golf it turns out is a lot like Queenstown – it’s welcoming of all ages, genders and walks of life, is high energy, fun and something the whole family can do! Hemi tell us more.

Lisa and I are both from Auckland. We moved here in 2002. Lisa’s sister and brother in law were living in Arrowtown, and about to get married. We were living in the US in Arizona at the time, after a couple of years living in Edinburgh, and off the back of a winter in Vermont on the ski fields. Since I had never been to Queenstown, and we wanted to come home for a bit, the plan was to come here for six months.

Of course, once we got here, we never left. After the 6 months, we said, “Winter is just around the corner, so let’s just hang around for a winter.” We had all our snowboarding gear. Lisa and I were enjoying our jobs, so we just stayed. And stayed.

I’ve always been competitive and sporty, and aside from the snowboarding, but got into golf, indoor netball and field hockey. One of the guys I was playing hockey with invited me to try “this frisbee game”, and that was that. I was hooked on disc golf.

What started as a hobby, grew. My first tournament was the annual Queenstown Classic. I now compete across New Zealand in multiple tournaments. I’m the only sponsored athlete in the Southern Hemisphere by Innova, the world’s biggest disc golf brand, based out of the U.S. My best position has been second in New Zealand, and I am pretty happy with that, considering how many men compete. Before we had Tiaki, Lisa did too, and she has been the national women’s champion. We’ve also been New Zealand’s mixed doubles champs.

The main course is out at the Botanic Gardens. It’s the first permanently marked course in NZ, set up in 1996. People have been playing disc golf in Queenstown since the mid-80s. When you consider that the game was only started in the US in the 70s, that’s pretty early days. Queenstown always adopts quickly. That give it a go attitude is typical Kiwi, and even more so in Queenstown.

the Queenstown Disc Golf club was set up in 2012, and this is my third year as chair. Our aim is to grow the sport, and maintain the two courses. The sport just keeps growing. Recently the International Olympic Committee granted full recognition to Disc Sports.

Queenstown is the mecca of disc golf in the country. Not only do we have 2 courses, but the botanic garden one gets more visitors per year than all the combined courses in New Zealand. It’s rated the top free thing to do here, and last year in April we celebrated the 1 millionth person using the course. It’s so close to town, and all you do is hire the disc. As Lisa says, its the ‘paradise factor.’

We also have a course in Tucker’s Beach reserve, which we almost lost. The reserve was never used, so the council was happy for us to build a course there. But as soon as we did, a couple of nearby residents complained – it was a recreation reserve that we were using for recreation!! Even though we got 4,000 petitions to retain the course, we modified it slightly for those residents. Sometimes you just have to bend with the wind.

Other than the politics, it’s just great fun. I love this idea of creating flight, of watching the discs fly. The club members are great. We’re all just passionate about it. But it’s also something Lisa and I (and now our growing son, Tiaki) can do together. A round of disc golf takes an hour. It’s a lot more casual, and it’s not as age dependent as other sports.

My one-and-a-half-year-old son, Tiaki, makes all the right throwing movements, but can’t yet throw the disc. But he’s not far off, and a learning a lot earlier than I did. Maybe he’ll make it to the Olympics?

I’m probably down at the course every day, playing golf, doing a bit of maintenance. I see lots of families, groups of friends enjoying the course. It’s so accessible in terms of location, price and skill set. We’re so lucky to live here in Queenstown, where it’s an easy way of life, where I can visit the course every day, summer or winter. It really is paradise.

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This is the story of us, and of the people in Queenstown that inspire us. It’s about keeping it real, slowing down, and stopping to talk to strangers. It’s about trying new things, great food, skis on snow and on the water, athletes, architects and entrepreneurs. It’s about living in paradise every day. Click here to read our stories and be inspired.

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