Wairakei Golf + Sanctuary: Beauty & Purpose Beyond the Tee Time
I think it would be fair to say that golf doesn’t have the friendliest reputation within environmentalist groups, and between excavating trees, taking over seaside land and dumping chemicals all over properties to maximize the ‘golfing experience’, it’s probably not an unfair stance to take. The development and maintenance of golf courses has progressively become more harmful to the environment, destroying entire ecosystems in the process. It’s concerning, sad and downright negligent.
There are however exceptions to every rule, and standing atop an elevated tee box, birds soaring above, deer prancing to my right and an expansive sea of thriving native trees below, it became imminently clear that Wairakei was a place that flew in the face of these generalizations.
Wairakei Golf + Sanctuary has placed unprecedented emphasis on the preservation of wildlife in the golfing world. Owner Gary Lane has set about creating a golf course which revolved around conservation, surrounding the property with a five kilometer long, two metre tall fence to maintain a predator-free environment to house ducks, pheasants, deer, takahe and even Kiwi. Gary’s endeavours have proved nothing but fruitful and as numbers have grown, Wairakei has evolved into a thriving hive of activity where birds and deer carry on their everyday life amongst a paradise of 25,000 native trees and eighteen excellent golf holes. It may well have started as a golf course with a sanctuary, but now it may well have evolved to a point of being a sanctuary with an elite golf course inside it, telling you everything you need to know about the environment that has been fostered.
You might look at Google Maps and be slightly confused about the location of Wairakei Golf + Sanctuary’s location- bordering State Highway 1, perhaps New Zealand’s busiest road, certainly isn’t a space that screams wildlife sanctuary, however as you slip off the motorway and into the carpark Wairakei begins to shed its layers and show its hand. Opening the car door, it was the sound that hit me first - a chorus of indistinguishable birds chirping in unison, a melody so sweet it was as if they knew they had it pretty good at Wairakei and wanted you to know all about it! Unbeknownst to me at the time, for the entirety of my round this tune was the soundtrack to my golf game, an audible reflection of Gary Lane’s dream served as a soothing contrast to the snap hooks I fought and the three putts I earned.
My walk to the first tee was unique to say the least, a huge sliding door separating paradise from the world rolled open, granting access to a corner of the world few have experienced and all have loved. It was in that moment that I was transported to a wonderland that felt so serene, so isolated and so beautifully peaceful. Walls of towering pines acted as guards, sheltering me from the outside world and easing my troubles, and the deeper I plunged into the belly of the property, the further I drifted from reality. It became immediately clear that the towering fence surrounding the property did wonders to protect wildlife and the sanity of humans alike, a barrier protecting its aura. From the outset, Wairakei had created a safe space for wildlife and golfers, an oasis amongst the chaos and an opportunity to escape reality, connect with the scenes and the sounds of nature and take a deep breath.
The golf course at Wairakei is routed across severely rolling and undulating land, traversing dramatic climbs and steep drop offs. This land movement is the greatest defence of the golf course and working hand in hand with some elite fairway and greenside bunkering, the course promotes exciting and creative shot making. At times I found myself hitting thrilling shots from tees 30 metres above the fairway, and others I had a wedge into a daunting green towering over me. This natural variety is only fitting given your surroundings and the course blends seamlessly into the environment it inhabits- surely the greatest complement you can pay to a golf/sanctuary crossover!
The greenkeeping team at Wairakei do an impeccable job and the conditioning of the greens and fairways are as pure as you will find anywhere in the country, providing for nothing but the best lies and the purest rolls. I could tell you all day about the exceptional variety in holes, the doglegs left and right, the strategic bunkering and the exciting green complexes, but truth be told, no matter how good it is, golf course architecture and conditioning will always be a sideshow in a setting like this and in all honesty I think that’s what Wairakei sought all along.
The course has been designed in a way to perfectly capture and maximize its beauty, each hole providing a smorgasboard of views which frame the overarching mountains and the intricacies of its finer details- gorgeous clusters of flowers, inch perfect mowing lines and ponga-lined bunkers. No matter where you find your golf ball there will be something incredible to meet your eyes. The wall of pines at Wairakei which conserves its serenity also provides a picture perfect backdrop to golf shots, and watching balls cut through fresh air in their direction is one of golf’s great joys- the most poetic collision of golf and its landscape, perhaps Wairakei’s imperial metaphor.
As I weaved in and out of the pines, negotiated the slopes, battled the bunkers and got caught up in a traffic jam of wildlife, I couldn’t help but smile, I knew I had never experienced a walk like this in my golfing lifetime. To the soundtrack of the birds I floated, I relaxed and I rejuvenated- Wairakei was the perfect tonic to a busy life and at that moment all I wanted to do was inject the feeling into my veins. It was so abundantly clear that Wairakei had struck the perfect cord in combining the needs of the ecosystem with the needs of the golfer to foster the most unlikely collaboration, birds soared, deer pranced and golfers smiled – what an incredible corner of the world.
In life we often find ourselves moving at speed, looking too far ahead and getting caught up in our own distractions. Wairakei is one of those special places that just finds ways to make you feel good, a place where without even knowing it you slow down, take in the fresh air and breathe in its beauty. Wairakei’s aura and vibe transcends the outside world and every step taken slowly is a step that is savoured, topping up your energy and flooding you with a rich sense of presence and place.
Wairakei satisfies nature’s needs hand in hand with the needs of golfers, its course serving a purpose above and beyond those with a tee time which may well be a standalone trait in the world of golf. This is what makes Wairakei special, the golf course is great, but their wider intentions surpass any golf hole.