Majors Creek (Australia) (AFP) – A flash of metal glinted in the Sydney sunshine as Curtis Bennett took one last swing of his axe and brought it down hard on the log at his feet.
The wood split with a loud crack, triggering cheers and thunderous applause for the teenage sensation.
Curtis, 18, is one of the rising stars of Australia’s centuries-old sport of wood-chopping, which is enjoying a renaissance, with more women and children competing in the male-dominated activity.
His proud father Simon Bennett, 52, is revelling in the new-found appeal of the highly physical pastime, which is attracting more women competitors including his 25-year-old daughter Madii.
“It’s probably never been as popular as it is at the moment,” he tells AFP at his home in Majors Creek, a small village some 300 kilometres (around 200 miles) south of Sydney.
“We have probably one of the best group of young axemen that’s been about for many years… The sport is in a really good spot.”
– From survival to sport –
The roots of the tradition stem from European settlement of the vast island continent some two centuries ago.
Faced with the challenge of having to live in the heavily timbered Australian bush on the east coast, the settlers realised they had to become apt at wood-chopping to clear land for farming and to build homes.
The knowledge of how to wield axes and cross-cut saws was handed down from generation to generation, and it was not long before the survival skill became a competitive game in the young, sporting-mad nation.
As the tale goes, the first recorded wood-chopping contest took place on the southern island state of Tasmania in 1870 when two men in a bar made a £25 bet to see who could fell a tree the fastest.
The sport caught on like wildfire and as contests sprung up across the country, Sydney’s Royal Easter Show — an annual extravaganza showcasing Australia’s rural lifestyle — introduced wood-chopping in 1899.
The events, attracting hundreds of contestants from across the globe and thousands of spectators annually, became the “Wimbledon of wood-chopping”, says Sydney show judge Don Brown, a veteran axeman himself.
“We have all the world champions here because we run the world titles here, and so it attracts all the top competitors,” Brown tells AFP as his cowboy hat shielded him from the scorching sun at the show.
The sport is still mostly family-based, and the Bennetts criss-cross Australia to take part in contests, travelling with some of their 120 axes, several engraved with their surname.
“We design our lives around our sport,” adds Simon — who like Curtis works in the timber industry having followed his father Len into the trade — on how the family fits the many competitions into their calendars.
Pure brute strength is essential for a woodchopper and Len Bennett, 78, who won the world championship in 1975, is more than two metres tall (around six foot seven) and weighs 150 kilograms (330 pounds).
Simon and Curtis are just under two metres tall, with both towering over Madii.
Even for these seasoned lumberjacks, every swing is a major effort.
“It’s bloody hard,” Curtis says, as Madii chimes in: “Even now when I pick up an axe I want to start crying because I know how hard it is and just everything hurts in your body when you’re doing it.”
– ‘More technical than golf’ –
But athleticism is also key, Simon says, adding that wood-chopping is “more technical than golf”.
“It is a craft. You can’t just stand up there and chop a piece of wood.
“You are swinging an axe on the end of a handle that is 65 centimetres long and weighs 3.5 kilos and that’s absolutely razor sharp — sharp beyond most people’s belief.”
The sport’s boom has been helped by increased sponsorship of both male and female competitions worldwide. At this year’s Easter show, there were 69 separate events with Aus$230,000 (US$176,800) in prize money on offer.
Scooping up some of the cash was Madii, who came second in the Jack and Jill Double Handed Sawing competition despite partnering with joint contestant Brayden Myer for the first time.
“I think there’s more women who are sick of sitting on the sidelines so they are getting involved,” Madii says of the rise in the number of “lumberjills”.
“I think they just enjoy it, doing something different, it’s a unique sport. You don’t see many other girls walking down a street with an axe.”