National Geographic : 1920 May
HURDLE RACING IN CANOES A Thrilling and Spectacular Sport Among the Maoris of New Zealand BY WALTER BURKE HE title of this article sounds like a fairy tale; yet hurdle racing in canoes is a highly developed sport among the New Zealand Maoris. Two or three things are necessary for the sport: First, the canoes must be dug outs. The dainty canoes so popular on the American lakes and rivers and the beautiful birch-barks of the Canadian voyageurs would be too fragile, crump ling up like matchwood at the first hurdle. A swift-running river is also desirable, in order that the crews may have the help of the increased speed given by the cur rent to carry the centers of the canoes over the hurdle. This is an important consideration, as can be seen from the photographs. And the contestants must be good swimmers. As every Maori man, woman, or child-is, there is no risk of drowning, even in the roughest water. One sees the game at its very best at Ngaruawahia, a village in the North Island, a little south of Auckland, on the seventeenth of March in any year-St. Patrick's Day. At this point the Waikato. one of the finest rivers in the Dominion, widens out and sweeps round a bend to meet another branch. The river carries a great volume of water, draining an enormous water shed in the center of the island, including Lake Taupo, into which some thirty streams discharge. The Waikato plunges over the Huka Falls, a miniature Ni agara, below which are the Aratiatia Rapids, quite impassable for any boat. It is at this point that it is proposed to generate sufficient electricity to run the railway system of the North Island. Prior to the day, the Maoris collect from all the adjacent territory, bringing with them their prize canoes, each dug out of the trunk of a tree. Some of these boats are large enough to carry a crew of from thirty to more than forty paddlers. These are not for hurdling, however! The secret-more or less-trials pro ceed; training is keen and hard: the bet ting heavy, for most Maoris are well-to do and are keen sportsmen, willing to gamble on anything, from "fly loo" to a horse-race! The excitement progresses till the eventful day, when special trains bring immense numbers of Maoris and Pakehas (white people) from far and near. The program includes many and varied events, but the great attraction is the hurdle racing, just as the steeplechase attracts the eager crowd at a turf event. Of course, in saying this, I am not belit tling the excitement over the big canoe races. There is not the fun in these, however, as there are no accidents, while the hurdle racing is one continuous series of them-a spill at practically each hur dle, of which there are usually three or four. Unless the bow of the canoe is well out of the water, it cannot take the hurdle. which is from twelve to eighteen inches above the surface. The object is to get up such speed that when the bow slides on to the hurdle the smooth and well greased bottom will continue to glide till past the center of gravity, when the mem bers of the crew run forward and their weight causes the bow to go down with a "flop" and the stern slides off. The bow usually dips under and partly fills the canoe with water, which is removed by rocking or is splashed out with the aid of the flat of the paddle. This is the program when all goes well! And it will probably happen when one canoe can shoot away from the others and negotiate the first hurdle alone. But usually about four or five canoes come down almost simultaneously, the crews yelling like fiends, and there is a thrilling mix up, from which the brainiest crew. with the best of luck, gets out of the ruck and away.