Central's curling capital

CAROLINE GLADSTONE
Last updated 12:00 13/09/2012

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"Brooms up," comes the command from our coach. We smartly raise our tools of speed enhancement and watch as the stone slides along the shiny surface.

"It needs a good sweep!" comes a cry from an adjoining ice sheet.

"Nah, it's looking heavy," another expert interjects.

Some newcomers are sweeping like mad spring-cleaners, others have their brooms in the air; I'm smirking and trying to stifle a laugh.

This is curling and it's such good clean fun. The terminology alone is a hoot, not to mention trying to stand upright on ice while wearing strange slippers over your shoes and avoiding being hit in the shins by wayward domestic implements.

Kiwis excel at this sport. Here at Naseby, a seriously small town in the Central Otago region of New Zealand's South Island, I meet Sean Becker, a former Olympic curling representative and current member of the New Zealand men's team, his father, Peter Becker, and other keen curlers who are life members of the New Zealand Curling Association.

Curling is known as "lawn bowls on ice", but I think that description gravely undersells its charm as well as its competitiveness - something that gradually creeps up on me and my teammates, just as the chill seeps into my coat and through my beanie and gloves.

About 140 kilometres north of Dunedin and with a population of about 120, Naseby is the home of the sport as well as the International Curling Rink, the only indoor rink in the southern hemisphere.

Interestingly, the Australian team, which missed out on a berth at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games by just one half of a point, trains here, too.

Once a prosperous gold-rush town, these days Naseby styles itself as the ice capital of New Zealand. Apart from indoor curling, there's a 400-metre-long ice luge, a rink for ice hockey and ice-skating and the more traditional sport of outdoor curling. Our group divides into teams of four, with one of the New Zealand experts acting as the skip on each team.

Two teams compete on a lane of the rink called an ice sheet, with the aim to get the stone (a flat-bottomed, round granite puck weighing about 20 kilograms) as close to what's called the house, which looks like a bullseye and is at the other end of the ice sheet.

I'm sure there's more to it than that, but many of the rules are completely lost on me as I try not to fall over while attempting various delivery techniques.

Each player has two throws, or "deliveries", a game and when it's not their turn they are needed to sweep for their teammates. That means standing at the edge of the ice sheet, broom at the ready, waiting for the skip to give the command to sweep a path in front of the launched stone to reduce the friction on the ice. This allows the stone to slide faster and straighter - in fact reducing its curl.

The brooms must not touch the moving stone, or something terrible will happen. Actually, it's called "burning the stone" and in the gentlemanly tradition of the sport that dates back to mediaeval Scotland, the infraction must be reported and then the stone is taken out of play.

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I can't recall whether our team won or not, but it was a good hour of fun and watching the experts execute a slide delivery, where they almost do the splits when launching the stone, was top entertainment.

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