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No. 70 (1972)
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A Strange Contest

Long, long ago there lived in the Maunga-tahi valley two Maori chiefs and all their people. The pas stood almost opposite each other, about three quarters of a mile apart, on the banks of the Maungatahi creek, Fern and tutu, flax and toetoe grew thickly all around.

One pa was named Nga Tore Atu, the other Patangata, and each was fortified on its own sugar-loaf hill.

The two chiefs lived in harmony for many years. Then one day came exciting news; there was to be a great gathering of many tribes from many distant places and the meeting point chosen was… their own valley.

At once the two chiefs began to argue, Each wanted the honour of playing host and providing food for the visitors, each claimed his was the right — the first chief because he was the higher-born, he said. but the other would not agree. Soon voices were raised with everyone taking sides and

it seemed as if the expected visitors were going to be the cause of trouble in the quiet valley.

But at this point the elders spoke. These wise men, seeing the danger ahead in all this disagreement, caled a halt, and after talking the matter over they told of their decision. There was to be a contest — a rather strange contest — and it was this: each chief must set his people to work collecting a supply of food. Whichever gathered the most should be declared winner and to him would go the honour of being host.

Would they agree to compete against each other? Yes. said the two chiefs, this seemed a fair and reasonable way to avoid further quarrelling. It was a good way to solve the problem, even though such generous hospitality as they planned to offer was quite likely to make the winning chief a poor man for the rest of his life.

Eager to begin the contest, each immediately set his men digging a number of

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large holes in the flat part of the valley. These holes, it was agreed, were to be all the same size — two feet across and one and a half feet deep.

Meanwhile, those most skilful as hunters foraged in the bush and along the river. Theirs was the task of filling the holes with as much game and stock as they could find.

Every man was anxious to do the best for his own chief and worked with a will so that very soon all the holes began to overflow with supplies. Hastily, the diggers scraped out more storage space as the hunters' kits unloaded tuna and pukeko, kukupa and kaka. And yet there was still nothing to choose between the two sides, neither was ahead. Finally, although bush and stream near and far had been cleared of livestock, hole for overflowing hole the contest was a dead heat. Now the hunters were returning empty-handed, there was only one thing left to do. The elders declared a tie.

Again they sought a way of keeping the peace, and at last after many hours of talk they announced a second contest.

Pointing at two huge blocks of limestone hanging just below the Nga Tore Atua pa, they declared that these must be pulled out of the ground and then rolled down the hill. The block rolling the farthest would win the prize for one side or the other.

Again the chiefs agreed to take part in the contest and soon each had picked out his strongest warrior. Then they stood back, watching eagerly.

Both blocks were eight feet square and firmly embedded in the ground. Nothing daunted, the first competitor got his arms round one, gave a mighty heave, and sent it thundering down the hill. Even on reaching the flat floor of the valley it still tumbled on over and over before stopping at last by the river's edge.

A great cheer rose, for such an effort, everyone was sure, could hardly be beaten.

But in this they were mistaken. The contest was by no means over yet. Now came the second strong man's turn. Slowly he climbed up to the single remaining boulder as everyone waited, hardly breathing. He paused, then with a hearty push he helped it on its way. Would it pass the other boulder or not? At last it came to rest — exactly level with the other boulder.

Two contests, two dead heats. What was to be done now? No wonder the wise men of both sides scratched their heads.

The two chiefs looked at each other and thought how foolish they had been to quarrel over such a matter.

‘Why not join forces?’ said one.

‘Yes,’ said the other. ‘Why not play joint hosts to the visitors who are coming? Now we have so much food — thanks to the first contest — we can put it all together for a great feast of welcome.’

This they agreed upon. And so peace returned to the Maungatahi valley.

All this happened many, many years ago. Fire destroyed the two old pas, and nothing is left of them but a deep trench round the ruins of one and a few heart of totara poles in the other.

And the limestone boulders? They are there still at the bottom of the valley, embedded by the edge of the creek. The paths by which they rolled down the hill can still be traced. As for the big holes that were especially dug for the contest, you can find them there too — if you look.