Vagabond Tales: An Introduction To Possum Punting

If you want to anger a New Zealand local ask them if their accent is from somewhere in Australia. While this is sure to elicit a stern yet polite correction, if you REALLY want to enrage a New Zealand local ask them what they think about possums. Strangely enough, the two annoyances are intertwined as New Zealand actually places the blame for the possums firmly on Australia.

Why? Because the non-native possums are Australian, not Kiwi, and many New Zealanders would simply prefer to see them exist solely in the country from whence they came.

Officially known as the Australian Brushtail Possum, the noxious pest was introduced to New Zealand in 1837 in an effort to kick-start the fur industry. All this managed to do, however, was allow the possums to populate with reckless abandon and quickly spread to over 95 percent of the country. Whereas in Australia the possum has a litany of natural predators to keep their numbers in check, New Zealand lacks any form of land predator to naturally stem the flow of hyper-population. Flower gardens, native birds and farmers’ crops have never been the same ever since.

Even the cows in New Zealand are at odds with the possums, thanks to the possum’s innate ability to spread bovine tuberculosis and cripple New Zealand’s lucrative dairy industry.

So how much do the Kiwis actually hate the possums? Enough that a local school recently held a possum-throwing contest, which unsurprisingly sparked outrage amongst the nation’s animal rights activists. Shooting possums is a right of passage for children growing up in rural New Zealand, and I’ve personally witnessed drivers swerve cars towards possums in an effort to strike them as they attempt to cross a road.

I simply cannot make this statement in any plainer terms: people in New Zealand simply hate the possums.Given this unified level of hatred there really are few limits on what’s considered unacceptable in terms of their general treatment. The degree of discontent never really sank in, however, until an evening spent camping along the remote shores of Abel Tasman National Park.

Having sea-kayaked for most of the day past a string of postcard-perfect sandy coves, two mates and myself pulled into the welcomingly-named Mosquito Bay to pitch our tents just prior to dusk. With no rain clouds to be found anywhere on the red and orange horizon, the team opted to pitch the tents sans rain fly to provide maximum star viewing and feel the ocean breeze. A few beers and few shots of whiskey later, our haggard troupe of semi-drunk paddlers retired for the evening into our three-man tent amazed that we had the sliver of sub-tropical perfection all to ourselves – or so we thought.

Somewhere between the hours of 1-4 a.m., I awoke to the sound of my city-bred college roommate Ted repeatedly making a sound I can classify only as “shooshing.” Ted was obviously attempting to “shoosh” away some unforeseen creature, yet given the depth of the darkness his passive efforts were simply lost in the coastal night. Chalking his antics up to the cheap brand of whiskey, I attempted to roll over beneath my Patagonia sleeping-bag liner and drift back into a blissful outdoor sleep.

That was, of course, until I felt the evil red eyes staring straight into my soul. If you’ve never experienced a face-to-face encounter with a possum while in the throes of a whiskey haze, the furry rodents, which appear as cute marsupials by daytime, change by night into real life Chuck E. Cheese rats seemingly possessed by Satan.

Amazed that at one point I had failed to see our evening visitor, I now sat within a claw’s reach of the foraging rodent – the thin fabric of the tent a laughably meager form of protection.

Then, just when it seemed that the red eyes and scavenging claws of the nighttime lurker were going to tear their way through the tent walls, a rogue human leg appeared out of the darkness and laid a swift and powerful kick right into the gut of the mischievous prowler.

Not even knowing that there were other people camping in the confines of Mosquito Bay, at some point during our booze-induced slumber a native Kiwi couple had arrived late and pitched their tent right next to ours.

As the possum was apparently disrupting their slumber as well, the largest rugby-playing, Haka-dancing Kiwi of man you have ever seen had emerged from his tent wearing nothing except boxer shorts and a single hiking boot, no sock.

As Ted was “shooshing” and I was entranced by the red pupils of evil, the mostly-nude Kiwi bushman was instead preparing for a possum punt of dramatic proportions that nobody saw coming in the darkness. With a single drop step and a rotation of his right leg – which could nail a field-goal from 50 yards out – the possum-hating forest dweller laid the top of his right foot into the underbelly of the possum with such ferocity that it sent the shrieking marsupial on an aerial departure from which it never returned.

“Just gotta lay a firm foot into ’em mate!” exclaimed the freelance rodent destroyer. “Let the little bahstards know who’s in charge. Nothing like a good possum punt!”

With the tips of his boxer shorts waving in the evening breeze, the mysterious possum punter single-stomped his way back to his nylon fortress – his work here was dramatically through.

I was stunned by what had actually just occurred and the fact that the man’s tent was completely gone by morning only added to his mystique.

So here’s to you, Mr. Possum Punting vigilante. I want to thank you for your swift and thorough cleansing of our campsite and your public display of where you stand on New Zealand’s possums. Your nationalistic pride shines like a beacon through the night, and you have served your country well.

Looking back, I’m just glad I never called him Australian.

[Image courtesy of turtlemom4bacon on Flickr]