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CHAPTER V.


athletic sports; wrestling; ball playing; wotchwie racing; spearing at the running target; throwing the boomerang; the skipping rope.


In the matter of sports, games, and pastimes, the aborigines have no great diversity, but such as they have are enjoyed to the fullest. Indeed they frequently continue some of their rude play until fatigue culminates in exhaustion.

If they only displayed one half the zeal in procuring and conserving food for consumption during the cold wet months of winter that their various frames call forth, there would not be a tithe of the misery in their midst that now prevails, and which is principally due to the many privations of that inclement season. The conserving of food for hard times should be a duty of the highest moment to them, but being deemed an irksome task, it is consequently distasteful; whereas playing their games, however hard they may work in doing so, is merely recreation, and not at all imperative. Play is, therefore, held in high esteem, and enjoyed accordingly.

During summer, when food of all kinds is abundant, and procured with little labour, the friendly tribes have great gatherings together, at which wrestling and other games are the business of the season.

The natives are great wrestlers, and enter into the exercise with every zest. Their method is different from that which obtains in the wrestling counties of England, or as far as we know, in any other country where the exercise is indulged.

Their system is as follows:—A stalwart native goes out quietly from the camp, to the ground which has been carefully prepared, by the removal of all the inequalities, such as stumps, tufts of grass, etc. In short, the ground is made quite smooth and flat. He is perfectly nude, with the exception of his waist-belt and opossum skin armlets. When he reaches the arena, he walks round it after the fashion of a race horse getting his preliminary canter. During this walk or march, there is abundant opportunity for examining his finely-developed figure; the muscles down his back stand out as distinctly and hard as though they had been fashioned from straight clean saplings, and the biceps of his legs and arms looking like knotted ropes stretched to their fullest tension.

When he has satisfied himself as to the arena, he stalks majestically into its centre, gives one defiant shout, stoops forward, places his hands on his thighs just above the knees, and in that position remains perfectly still, as though he were merely a bronze statue, instead of a muscular savage full of life, with the excited blood coursing exultantly through his throbbing veins.

His patience is not tested very severely, however, as his challenge of defiance has scarcely ceased, when an equally muscular competitor starts out from the camp at a smart run, which he continues, until within about two yards of his opponent, when he stops as suddenly as though his progress had been stayed by a bullet. The position he assumes when he thus stops, is precisely similar to that of his adversary. For a few moments they remain in this statuesque attitude; then they begin to sway from side to side, glaring at each other the while, as though they were veritable enemies about to begin an encounter which could only terminate in the death of one or both. All at once, and without any signal, they make a simultaneous spring at each other, coiling their sinewy arms and legs round each other as opportunity offers, endeavouring by every ruse to gain the advantage in the first of the struggle. When closed in the struggle, they twist and screw their oily bodies into all kinds of contortions, raising each other from the ground. as opportunity offers by sheer force of muscle; the raised one, however, generally managing to get his legs firmly twisted round the body of his friendly competitor, and when in that position, no powers of muscle, however exerted, will put him to the ground; that is to say, unless his opponent goes with him, and then of course it is a drawn match, and this result they always endeavour to avoid, as defeat even is not greeted with so much derision as a climax of this nature.

The struggle continues with very equal success for a considerable time, neither gaining any perceptable advantage. A casual observer would be inclined to think it an interminable affair at first sight, but this idea would only be of limited duration, for as the struggle advances, the wind of one begins to fail more rapidly than that of the other; the end soon becomes apparent; the short-winded one is raised from the ground for the last time; he is not quick enough to grapple his weary legs round the body of his opponent, so with a huge and final effort, he is flung into the air, and comes down with a thud of sufficient force to shake the ground. The victor walks quietly to a little distance, and squats himself down in silence. The spectators, however, are more demonstrative, consequently the sleeping echoes are awakened with exultant shouts.

After a fairish interval has elapsed, the victor, nothing loth, shakes himself once more together, gives his waist-belt an extra twist, walks into the arena, and round it as before; only in this instance, he gesticulates violently with his arms, whilst he challenges another to meet him in the wrestle, letting it be well known at the same time, that if any man has the temerity to attempt his proved prowess, it would not be advantageous to that man's welfare. With this flourish of trumpets, he again pauses in the middle of the arena, with his hands on his thighs as before. And so the fun goes on, the victor meeting rival after rival, until he disposes of all who are courageous enough to try conclusions with him, or he himself is brought to grief by some one abler or fresher.

These muscular encounters generally end in many bruises, and not infrequently collar bones are broken, and shoulder joints dislocated. Still, these mishaps do not deter them from repetitions of the play whenever opportunity offers; said opportunities being comprised in a goodly muster of tribes, warm weather, and abundance of easily-procured food.

Ball playing is another game to which they are exceedingly partial. They make it much more boisterous and noisy than are the wrestling bouts, although it results in much fewer serious mishaps. The women participate in this game as well as the men. We have seen as many as two hundred—including sexes—engaged in it at one time.

The ball is composed of old opossum skins, tightly rolled up, and covered over with a fresh and strong piece of skin, nicely and firmly sewn together with opossum tail sinews. Before they begin to play they arrange sides, each side having a captain, whose place it is to guide his often times unruly squad.

When all is in order, a Lyoore starts off with the ball in her hand. She walks a little way out from her own side, and towards that of her opponents, drops the ball with seeming carelessness, but ere it has time to reach the ground, she gives a dexterous, and by no means gentle kick, which being correctly aimed, sends the ball spinning high into the air. Thereupon the fun begins in downright earnest. Such screaming, jumping, and frothing at the mouth, we are certain was never seen at any other game outside the walls of Bedlam; and then again such intermingling of bronze limbs, nude and glossy; or such outre groupings was never yet beheld under any circumstances other than those attendant upon an aboriginal ball match. They have not any goal to which the ball has to be driven, the whole of the play is merely to keep the ball in motion, and to prevent its coming to the ground; whilst the struggles of the game consist in trying which side can retain the ball longest in possession. Those holding the ball throw it from one to another, and it is during such nights that the opposing side vigorously run and jump with the view to its capture. As the eyes of the players are never by any chance bent on the ground, tumbles during a game are numerous, and in many cases indecorous enough, more especially when one goes down, and so becoming a stumbling block, over which a dozen or more come toppling in a heap. These incidents, however, add mirth to the game, without creating the least ill temper.

These games are frequently kept up from noon until dark, and even at that late hour they are given up with reluctance.

The many laughable incidents which occur during these games, provide ample matter for consideration round the camp fire, besides affording abundant opportunity for boasting, to which they are addicted pretty much, old and young. In fact it is a trait characteristic of the people.

Another of their games at which they spend considerable time is Wotchwie; that being both the name of the game and the toy with which it is played.

The toy is made of an elongated oval piece of wood; its extreme length being five inches, and its greatest diameter an inch and a half to one of the long points. A slender wand two feet and a half long, made tough by means of fire, is firmly attached by gum and twine, and the toy is complete.

The game can be played by any number above one. Both sexes, from eight years of age and upwards, join in it. When they start from their camps to commence the game, they select a stretch of three or four hundred yards of flat smooth ground, at one end of which a mark is made by way of a start point. Then the game begins after this fashion:—One takes a short run up to the starting mark, throws his Wotchwie from him, so that it strikes the ground in a particular manner (an awkward cast is certain to result in a broken toy), when the tiny thing bounds away very quickly, the long tail-like wand being visible all the time that the momentum continues, twirling and twining above the grass like the tail of a kangaroo mouse[1] when running away in a hurry. These toys sometimes go as much as four hundred yards in their eccentric running bounds. The game merely consists in each striving to make his Wotchwie pass that of his fellows. As the breakages during the progress of a game are numerous, each player supplies himself with several of the toys before the game commences.

No doubt but what this Wotchwie racing seems a simple enough kind of pastime when thus described on paper, still we have seen as much excited enthusiasm engendered bywatching the fluctuating of the tiny hoppers as ere a rink of curling gave rise to on a well-frozen Scottish loch.

Spear-throwing also induces much good-natured rivalry whenever the tribal chivalry may chance to meet for pastime. All the males, from those on the confines of pubescence, up to the hoaryest sage in the tribe, put forth their skill on these occasions, and proud is the victor who walks off the triumphant master of the field after one of those friendly spear-throwing tournaments. These matches are conducted as follows:—A thickish disc of gum bark is procured, a foot or so in diameter, which is taken by a stalwart youth forty or fifty paces from where the competitors are drawn up in line, with their spears all ready shipped[2]. He stands with the disc in his hand opposite the extreme right-hand man in the line, and at the word of command (which is usually given by one of the old men who is not competing) he hurls the disc from him, giving it at the same time sufficient impetus to make it roll swiftly from one end of the line to the other, and it is during this rapid progression that the competitors launch their spears at it as it passes their respective line of vision. By the time the disc ceases rolling it presents the appearance of a gigantic shuttlecock, the spears sticking therein representing the feathers, and the bark the cork. When one makes a bull's eye (as riflemen have it) he is greeted with loud applause, and it is farcical to see how modest he endeavours to appear under the praise, as though the performance were a very commonplace result; therefore not worth boasting of, although, perhaps, he never came even near doing such a thing in his life before.

Throwing the boomerang[3] is another of their amusements. They do not, however, compete in this exercise, nor have they any object or mark at which to throw. It is merely thrown because of the whizzing noise it makes, and to witness its eccentric gyrations during flight, and notwithstanding the seemingly aimlessness of the pastime, many hours at a time are spent in the exercise.

Another favourite amusement of theirs is the skipping-rope—not the tiny clothes-line affair, with two handles of wood, which schoolgirls so much affect. No, indeed, their skipping-rope is from twenty to thirty feet long. It is usually made of a long duck net loosely twisted. It is worked by two young men, one at each end, and just far enough apart to allow of the rope to touch the ground. As it is being swung round and round the skippers jump in one after another, until there will be as many as a dozen skipping away at once. As they get tired they jump out, but the vacancies thus caused are always filled up as soon as made by fresh muscle and wind, abundance of which are generally waiting, in the shape of stalwart young men and vigorous girls. Thus the rope is kept going until those swinging it become tired, when two fresh hands take their places, and so the fun continues, until they are one and all pretty well fatigued by the violent though pleasing exercise.

They do not award any trophies for superiority in their various trials of skill. Even the historical "pickle parsley for their pains" is not given; therefore the victors must content themselves with a consciousness of their own superior skill, and doubtless this sense of premiership lends considerable self-importance to the deportment of the successful ones during these tribal gatherings as we have frequently seen demonstrated; yes, even to the very verge of the ludicrous.

  1. Kangaroo mouse. Serboa.
  2. Spears all ready shipped: That is. having the hook of the Womerra (throwing stick) placed in the small cavity made for that purpose in the end of the spear, with both raised in readiness for launching at the object.
  3. Boomerang: A thin piece of wood, having the shape cf a parabola, about eighteen inches or two feet long from point to point, the curve being on the thin side. Of the broad sides of the missile one is slightly convex, the other is flat. The thin sides are worked down finely to blunt edges. The peculiar curve of the missile gives it the property of returning to the feet of the thrower. It is. a. dangerous instrument in a melee. Of course the wood from which it is made is highly seasoned by fire. It is therefore nearly as hard as flint.