Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 21, 2021
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A chip off the old rock

New Zealand’s Central Otago is a little piece of Scotland — right down to the passion for curling

The venerable sport of curling has been called many things over the years, including “a really good excuse to drink” — and that’s by the people who love it.

But, historically, curling was known as “the roaring game” for the sound the polished granite stones made as they rumbled over the ice on the frozen lakes of Scotland, their echoes bouncing off the barren hillsides and sending vibrations up through your soles.

It was a raw game, for hardy people. And, yes, a good excuse to drink — to keep warm during the short winter days in the company of friends.

Over the years, the sport moved inside, onto specially designed ice, and the roar died down to a mumble. But someone forgot to tell the New Zealanders. At least here, it really does roar.

The game came to New Zealand with the Scots in the 1870s. Though much of the country is too warm to curl, the rugged highlands of Central Otago, on the Southern Island, are the mirror image of the Scottish highlands, down to the sheep on the snow-capped hillsides and wryly self-deprecating farmers.

For over a century, the local curling clubs shared stones, tartans, stories and grudges. And curled only in the winter, when it was too cold to farm, but just right to drink toasts of hot toddies when nice rocks were thrown.

In the same way remote islands can sometimes provide refuge for near-extinct flightless birds, while the rest of the world’s curlers set up club houses and indoor sheets, the Kiwis stayed outside, blissfully stoically throwing stones on frozen reservoirs in the depth of their July winters.

According to Peter Becker, one of the great New Zealand curlers, “It was only in the early 1970s that we discovered how the game had evolved elsewhere. Scottish curlers came and brought films. They showed us how to slide and what the game was like. Watching them, my eyes were wide open. They quite enjoyed playing us because we were quite easy to beat. We didn’t know any strategy.”

Some Kiwis were intrigued by this indoor incarnation of their beloved game. But they had a problem, they had to — gasp! — share the indoor rinks with hockey players. The horror.

A rink of their own

So Becker and some liked-minded souls managed to wrangle everything from funding courtesy of the World Curling Federation to over 6000 local volunteers and they built the Maniototo Indoor Curling Rink in Naseby, Central Otago.

Opened in 2006, it is the only all-season, dedicated curling rink in the Southern Hemisphere. Says Becker, with a big smile, “I always wanted a lounge.” And now he and his fellow curlers have one. Along with four sheets of Canadian-made ice and a lot of visitors.

The New Zealand national teams train here, and many members live nearby (and a surprising number are related to Becker, including long-time skip of the men’s national team, Sean Becker, who runs a farm in the region, and two members of the women’s teams). The Australian team also often trains here, being such regulars, they sometimes call themselves the West Island Curling Club.

The amazing thing is that all this is in a town of, on a good day, a few hundred. The rink has become a major tourist attraction and economic draw for the region. And the majority of people who use the rink are complete beginners.

According to Sean Becker: “A lot of people come in just to have a go. Most New Zealanders still don’t have an understanding of curling. They think, ‘Oh, that’s the thing with the brooms and the yelling’. It’s getting better though. During the Nagano Olympics, the skiing was snowed out for a while so there was lots of curling on TV here. That helped.”

The roar of the game

Curling in Naseby is unique. On any given day, you’ll be sharing the rink with some of the best in the world, and some of the worst. And then all retiring to the lounge together to relive what could have been if only that stone had curled a bit more to the left. It is the most democratic sports experience I’ve ever had.

And, best of all, because of the way it was built, when the rocks glide, they roar. You can feel it up your spine.

Now, there are still some Kiwis who won’t come in from the cold, and who insist that only the outside game is real curling. They patiently wait, sometimes year after year, until the ice on the reservoir is 15 centimetres thick.

Then, in a frenzy, a national bonspiel is called and teams have 48 hours to make it from all corners of New Zealand to the outdoor rink for the competition. Rules date back to the times of the founding of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club. And games can run for hours.

Out here, in the wind and whips of snow, the game roars at its loudest.

The rink in Naseby is bringing the joy of family-friendly curling to the masses. And that is a good thing. But the heart of the New Zealand curler is still wonderfully untamed. The Beckers may be great indoor players, but they will harken to the call of an outdoor bonspiel like a wolf howls at the moon. Well, maybe not quite, but you get the idea.

In all the glitz and high tech of the Olympics, we sometimes lose sight of what it’s all about. So, when watching the games in Vancouver this year, remember the outdoor curlers of New Zealand — freezing, grumbling, tippling and curling. The way sports should be.

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