In 1933, six teams played in Rotorua's first Kurangaituku tournament. Eighty-five years later there are more than 350 teams playing over three weekends at the Westbrook netball courts.

The end-of-season celebration of netball, run by a hard-working group of organisers and volunteers, starts this weekend with the senior C, D, E and F grades in action today and tomorrow. There are 143 teams entered.

Next weekend 148 teams will contest the A, B, C, D and masters grades, and on the third weekend 63 secondary school teams will take to the courts.

Rotorua Netball secretary Mary Thompson said the tournament was unique in that it catered for such a wide range of skill levels.

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"What makes all three tournaments popular is these days there are very few netball centres who run tournaments for the everyday people, they're all for representative teams. This gives the ordinary netballer the opportunity to play in a tournament situation.

"Most of the teams that come are regulars. We have one club called Toa, from Wellington, who are here for the 38th time. They won the goal average and were runner-up in the F grade last year. They've put themselves up to D grade this year.

"With the secondary schools, because they have the Upper North Island tournament at the same time, the top teams are there, which means this tournament really gives the second level of teams an opportunity to play in a tournament. It's always well supported by our local teams as well."

Netball Rotorua's Mary Thompson with the impressive Kurangaituku trophy. Photo/File
Netball Rotorua's Mary Thompson with the impressive Kurangaituku trophy. Photo/File

When asked how the tournament had continued to thrive after 85 years, Thompson said it came down to being organised.

"It's well run, you hear of teams going to other tournaments and there's a lot of waiting around. We do run to time here - we have to because there are so many games to get through. This weekend there are 143 teams playing about nine games each.

"We start planning in April for this, a lot of people think it just happens, but a lot of work goes into organising it."

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Draw steward Pat Wyatt said the number of teams involved had to be cut down slightly this year because the upgrade of the Westbrook courts meant there were now 16 courts, rather than 20. However, each draw has the maximum number of teams and such is the popularity of the tournament there are even teams on standby.

"We've got teams on standby as well, ready to jump in if someone pulls out. Some had already paid their accommodation and are coming regardless, but they forgot to get their entries in on time."

Wyatt said the tournament always had a "festival atmosphere" and brought a lot of money into the local economy.

The legend of Kurangaituku

The bird woman Kurangaituku was a famous huntress.

In her cave on Puhaturoa (the lofty rock) she kept many tame animals and beautiful birds as pets.

She was gifted with the speed of the swiftest athlete and her winged arms enabled
her to skim across the mountains and valleys of her domain.

One day, while on a hunting expedition, she became incensed when Hatupatu, a young Arawa chief, accidentally impaled her lips with his spear. She captured and imprisoned him.

When Kurangaituku was away hunting one day, Hatupatu escaped, but not before using her sword to kill her tame animals and birds — all but one tiny riroriro (grey warbler). The bird flew to its mistress and told her of Hatupatu's escape.

With three giant strides, Kurangaituku reached her home, saw the damage Hatupatu had caused and pursued him towards Rotorua.

By this time, Hatupatu had reached Atiamuri, and using his powers of enchantment, commanded a rock to open so he could hide.

After she had passed by the rock, the young chief followed her to Rotorua. She saw him and chased him again.

Hatupatu's only escape was through the cauldrons of Whakarewarewa.

The huntress, not knowing the ground was treacherous, fell through the thin crust and was scalded to death.