Plans to expand the popular Taupō tourist attraction were scrapped after public outcry. Now, like a capricious tee shot, it’s all up in the air.
It was meant to be a huge upgrade, designed to make an already popular tourist destination even more appealing. A cafe would produce coffee and pastries, a covered ticket office would protect staff from the elements, public vantage points would provide unobstructed views of Lake Taupō. More people would hit golf balls on a pontoon in the slim hope of landing a miracle shot and joining the elite group of just eight people who have already claimed the $10,000 prize.
After that, a second stage upgrade would go even further, to include event space, an education and visitor center, and provide lakeside access, where trails and a floating dock would enhance “the ‘incredible waterfront and walkways that Taupō has to offer’. The architect’s designs show a structure protruding from the cliffside, all clean lines, woodwork, clean concrete, modern and minimalist.
It’s a million miles from the current incarnation of the Lake Taupō Hole in One challenge, where six fake grass tees have been laid on a cliff, next to a fence, an umbrella, some flags floats and an aging bus covered in marks. As for this pontoon that everyone is aiming for, it is so old that we don’t even know its age. The whole structure has hardly changed in the last 30 years.
Now, after a major public backlash, vast plans to upgrade the tourist attraction are in the air as a wayward parting shot. No one knows where they land.
A man named “Digger” first unearthed this dream. It was 1993, and he was drinking a beer in a local pub when he started sketching loose plans on the back of a beer coaster. These plans, for a hole-in-one competition starting from a Lake Taupō cliff and aiming for a grassy floating pontoon, quickly became one of the area’s most popular attractions, with a legacy almost as essential to the Taupo’s tourist attraction than the DeBretts Hot Pools. and the Huka falls.
When Taupō Mayor David Trewavas wanted to announce the town’s reopening after the recent Covid lockdowns, he did so from a Hole in One tee. “We’re back in action,” he said before hitting his shot straight into the drink.
These days, Hole in One Challenge “looks a little seedy,” admits the site’s business manager, Zane Kitchen. On weekends and summer, the attraction’s most popular hours, crowds spill onto the trail and queues block pedestrian access. “If four homies are walking down the road, then they’ll all have a crack,” says Kitchen. “They’re going to make it a challenge among themselves.”
It’s been that way since the mid-90s. Like thousands before them, everyone who pays $25 for a bucket of 30 balls is in for the ultimate challenge prize of $10,000. Land one of your balls on the pontoon 102 yards away and you’ll score another hit. Put it in the blue or white holes and you’ll get vouchers for fishing trips and bungee jumping experiences. This happens quite regularly: already this year about 40 of them have been offered.
But the hole everyone is aiming for is marked with a red flag. Thanks to the downward slope of the green around this hole, it is a much more difficult shot to hit. Kitchen says he didn’t even come close. “You have to get a direct shot,” he says. “The only way to get it in is all the way in, not bouncing or rolling. That’s what makes it so difficult.”
Only eight people have already done it. In the summer, some 7,000 balls are collected daily by divers from the water below the pontoon.
The last person to win $10,000 was in August 2020. Kitchen would like it to be won more often, at least once a year. “You have clients who are skeptical about whether it’s possible,” he says. “Having a more recent winner helps our cause on that front.”
Despite the degree of difficulty, Hole in One remains hugely popular, attracting locals, tourists, and anyone passing through Taupō who wants a quick break and a dose of dopamine. “We welcome good golfers and people who have never held a club before,” says Kitchen. Even closed borders and Covid-19 lockdowns couldn’t hurt its popularity. “In good weather, this is New Zealand’s most scenic golf hole.”
Why has Hole in One stood the test of time? “It’s pretty unique,” says Kitchen. “There’s nowhere else in New Zealand where you can go and hit a golf ball in a lake, I guess.”
“Hideous” is how one author described the plans. Vandalism is another. One of them read: “No. Just not.” When the Taupō District Council called for public submissions on Hole in One’s two-stage expansion plans, it caused an uproar rarely seen in the otherwise quiet tourist trap that is Taupō .
Almost all of the 178 submissions were negative. They said things like, “Don’t block the beautiful views of our lake!” and, “I find the proposal most odious”. It has been called “a black day in the history of Taupō”.
Even business owners were angry, despite the added patronage an improved golf experience could bring. Increased traffic and pollution were a concern. A nearby motel owner told Stuff it would “annihilate our view.” This sentiment was echoed by numerous public submissions. “No money is worth these views,” said one. “That’s what makes Taupō so special.”
Kitchen believes the plans have raised fears they will open the door to multiple lakeside expansions. “There was a bit of a backlash around the construction of a building near the lake,” he says. “I think there’s a bit of fear that if a building appears, where will it end?” Others thought it was too candlelight and didn’t stay true to Hole in One’s rustic origins. “There’s a bit of thinking there: ‘What’s wrong with that? “”
The outcry led to a rethink. Now, Taupō Moana Group Holdings, the owners of Hole in One, were forced to adapt their upgrade plans right away. Plans for the second stage were scrapped, as was the visitor center and event space. What is allowed is minimal: a small kiosk can sell snacks, with a toilet offering amenities. The plans will now go through a resource consent process. Will the updates happen before Hole in One’s 30th anniversary next year? Only time will tell.
But there is a bit of good news: a lease has been granted for another 15 years. That’s 15 more summers of budding golfers picking up a club and having fun, and, maybe, a few more people joining the elite eight who scored a $10,000 hole-in-one. “It’s a pretty fun place,” says Kitchen. He only started in December and loves the job so much he may not return to his old career as an accountant. “You never have a bad day there.”