Worlds Biggest Haka (almost)
To the wider world, the haka is one of the symbols of New Zealand, and especially the Ka Mate haka synonymous with the All Blacks. It was first performed just over 100 years ago and is still the gripping overture to most of their overseas games.
But the haka is more than just a spirited challenge of the sporting arena. Although its wartime origins are lost in myth and the mists of time, it’s now also performed at funerals, weddings and graduations. It is an acknowledgement and a celebration – not just a gauntlet thrown in the face of an opponent.
A solitary figure performing a haka can be a sight to behold, but when it’s backed up by 2,500 others on a bleak South Island beach, it becomes a spectacle. To help mark the ‘One Year To Go’ before the opening game of the 2011 Rugby World Cup, an attempt to perform the largest ever haka was planned.
A stiff north-easterly breeze has brought a dollop of rain for Nelson in the morning, and although it mercifully holds off for the practices and the main event, it’s enough to keep the numbers down to just the keenest. If only it was a sunny day…
As the multi-national mix of wrist-banded performers are led through the warm-up by the good-humoured and ever-optimistic organiser, Mike Elkington, a lean and fired-up figure stands out from the crowd. It isn’t his height or the Celtic tartan he’s wearing that draws the eye but the passion of this fifth-generation Kiwi. Radio presenter Kent Robertson’s giving it everything and his Scottish great-great-great-grandfather who arrived on the Whitby in 1841 would be proud.
Four rows back, Nic and Ian Marshall and their daughters Leah and Erin are putting the hours of practice into play. Two years after their move from England, veterinary nurse Nic is keen for the girls to understand the culture of their new country – and what could be more Kiwi than haka?
On the edge of the crowd stands Jim Cassidy, and he’s the real deal. The 40-year-old boilermaker is really a gentle giant, but a sudden turn of his tattooed head – eyes bulging and protruding tongue – and the hairs rise on the back of my neck. It’s proud tradition; a threat and a gesture of defiance all in a glance. The moko denotes his descent from the Ngapuhi iwi in Northland.
Mike Elkington has become a familiar face as a result of coordinating – in conjunction with a team from Nelson City Council – the attempt to break a record for the largest number of people to perform a haka. He and his fellow haka trainers – Geoff Mullens, Kerepoa Ratapu, Dayveen Stephens and Api Vaikai – travelled throughout the region to teach the haka to groups of all ages and backgrounds.
“I want to encourage the belief that all pakeha are part of the Land of the Long White Cloud; they belong here and this is what people do that belong here.” Mike’s a natural educator, who over an eight-week period patiently cajoled and gently humoured around 4,000 trainees through the words and moves.
He’s worked with challenging and challenged Maori youth, and spent 21 years with Kai Ngawari, a local group performing kapa haka, so he’s amply qualified to teach his people’s traditions.
A week earlier, standing in front of 50 members of the public at Neale Park on a sunny Sunday morning, the 42-year-old proved to have blacksmith’s bellows for lungs and kryptonite vocal chords when, for two hours, he recited the lines to the point of light-headedness. “We’re celebrating everything that’s good about Kiwi,” he told the panting group at the end, then quipped, “Spray-on tan vouchers will be available on the day!”
I ask him where inspiration for the record attempt came from. Mike laughs, “I was trying to think about how to make money! I thought maybe I could teach visitors for the Rugby World Cup how to do the haka.” The idea soon morphed into a record attempt, and the level of interest would hint at the possible success of a future haka-teaching business.
All the funds raised (through gold coin donations) are heading for the Women’s Refuge. Mike sees a connection: “All of their issues are because of men; angry men. And one of the things we’re suggesting is that the haka is a way to release that anger.”
Just before the 3.00pm start of the record attempt, a karakia is followed by an impeccably observed moment of silence to remember those killed in New York’s 9/11 attacks nine years previously. As two helicopters pass overhead with a film cameraman and photographers to record the attempt, the cry of “Ka mate, Ka mate!” pierces the air. To qualify for a Guinness record, the haka must be performed for a full five minutes.
“When a haka’s done properly, a ‘mauri’ is created,” says Mike. “It’s a life energy.”
A sense of community sweeps across the beach – power and unity in each move – and the cries of the crowd sound out stronger with each of the five renditions. The mauri is growing.
The 2,594 hardy souls finish their chanting, the helicopters spin away and there is jubilation all around. The buzz is electric with so many gathered together for one purpose, but it’s still not enough to break the record.
As the crowd filters away and the stage is quickly dismantled, the rain sets in again. Soon just one woman and her two small children digging in the sand are left alone on the beach. There may be another chance to claim a world record next year but it’ll depend on how much enthusiasm lingers.
And as for the World Cup visitors? “If people want to learn it, we’ll teach them,” says Mike. “If that’s the door to open and come into the Maori world, to have a look around and feel safe about doing it, then we’ll stand by that door and usher people through.”