New Zealand cycle trek, Chapter 6: The terrible trouble with possums

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman February 16, 2016 07:49

Bateman’s Blog

Journalist Chris Bateman, 69, and son Ben, 28, continue their 500-mile ride across New Zealand, from Christchurch to Queenstown.

Friday, Feb. 5: Hari Hari (Pop. 348) to Okarito (Pop. 30)

Distance: 32 miles

Elevation loss: 164 

Back to the Tasman Sea we went, slowly, surely and easily.

“So what’s your lead? What’s going to grab the reader?” my imaginary editor asks as I start to write my story about the day’s ride.

Usually what grabs the reader, at least in my previous travel adventures, is misfortune: terrible weather, theft, cons, bike breakdowns, crashes, all manner of embarrassment.

Any journalist who knows his or her stuff realize that readers like nothing better than the misfortune of others – particularly if said misery befalls the reporter.

We journalists, repeated surveys have shown, rank right down there with car salesmen and politicians. People like it when bad things happen to them.

“So anything bad happen to you?” my editor asks, ever hopeful.

“Well, Ben and I got rained on,” I answer. On the slopes of Mt. Hercules. First time on the New Zealand trip. We even put on our rain jackets.”

“Was it a deluge? Were there landslides?” the editor asks. “Was the road washed away? And how steep is this Mt. Hercules? Is that like the Everest of New Zealand? Did people die?”

“Hercules is hardly a mountain at all,” I say. “It isn’t even on the map. We climbed it in 15 minutes. And it rained kind of hard for 10 minutes and then off and on for about two hours. Most cars didn’t even have their wipers on. No one died. Heck, no one was even inconvenienced.”

“What about that Okarito place you went?” my imaginary boss continues. “Is it terrible? Is there ebola or something there? Is it maybe a war zone?”

“Not really,” I respond. “It has a lot of herons, but its lagoon is a sanctuary and everyone likes those birds. The proprietor at the Okarito Beach House said the place has absolutely no crime. The rooms there don’t even have locks.”

Sunlight filters into cozy room with a view

Sunlight filters into cozy room with a view

By now my editor was getting testy. “Just think about it,” he orders. “There must be something wrong with the place.”

“Well, once we got there we found it had no restaurant and no store,” I say, now encouraged. “And we had nothing left to eat in our panniers.”

“Did you starve? Did you have to kill one of those herons? Did you steal stuff from the locals?” he says, sniffing a story.

Well, first Art and Marlene, fellow Beach House guests from Michigan, offered to share a rice dish they were cooking. Then Paula, who booked us on a lagoon cruise the next morning, said we could pick vegetables from her garden. And finally, we found that the kayak rental guy also serves coffee, latte, chocolate-chip cookies, sausage rolls and really good fruit and nut bread.

“Great Caesar’s ghost,” my editor thunders, channeling Perry White. “Well, the map says you guys passed through a place called Whataroa. What’s Whataroa? Anything happen there?”

“Well, we had lunch at a place called On The Spot, which is New Zealand’s answer to 7-Eleven,” I recount. “So I order up a sandwich with fries, but it comes with no ketchup. Then I go to the counter and there’s a bunch of these little Hunts packets, and I grab three. Then lady behind the counter says ‘That’s $1.50 – 50 cents apiece. I was outraged. I said ‘no way.’­ ”

“Well, stop the damn presses,” my editor fumes. “You call that news?”

“In New Zealand it is,” I say. “Everybody is so nice and so fair. This is the first time anything this petty and offensive had happened.”

“Well hell,” my editor shoots back. “I would have charged a buck a packet if I could get away with it. That’s no story. Did you get any good photos? We can blow ‘em up big so you don’t have to write so much — because it sure sounds like you don’t have much to write.”

“Well, Ben took a nice shot through our window at the beach house,” I answer. “Then he went for a walk after dinner and took some great pictures of the lagoon and of the Southern Alps in the distance.”

“That’s a start,” says the boss. “But how about animals? If all else fails, a good critter yarn can save the day.”

“Well, the cats here are pretty friendly,” I say, pointing out that one had joined Ben on a picnic table as he was eating breakfast in Hari Hari this morning.

 “Oh for God’s sake,” goes the editor. “Save that cute cat stuff for the Internet. Didn’t you say something about possums last time? When you going to get to them?”

“It was going to be today’s Kiwi Notes,” I say.

“Good,” snarls my editor, “because it’s way too late to save this story.”

Kiwi Notes   

Tracey and friend

Tracey and friend Red

 I do a double-take when I look into the cage on Tracey’s porch.

“Why would you keep a cat in there?” I ask the proprietor of the Flaxbush Motel, our digs in Hari Hari.

“It’s not a cat,” she answers.

“Then what is it?” I say, and Tracey gets tentative – like I was going to blow the whistle on her if I learn the truth.

Then she comes clean: “A possum,” she says. “It’s a possum. In fact it’s two of them – Red and Monkeybum.”

Tracey’s has had the pair for four months. They were pulled from a dead mama possum’s pouch by the trapper who had just killed her.

“Sometimes the trappers just can’t bring themselves to kill the babies,” said Tracey. “That’s how I got these two.”

On inspection, it was obvious Red and Monkeybum were no cats. Nor were they opossums like you see crossing Mother Lode roads at night. Instead, they are wide-eyed, furry, long-clawed creatures.

Creatures that the government of New Zealand considers a noxious, dangerous pest and has killed by the tens of thousands – mostly with a chemical some believe is poisoning the domestic water supply in forested areas of the South Island.

So Tracey seems a little uncomfortable having these public enemies as pets. It doesn’t help that a shopkeeper less than a block down the road in Hari Hari has posted a sign that reads “Possum Fur Buyer – Top Prices Paid.”

Can you imagine, for instance, the guy down your street in Sonora offering to pay for Golden Retriever pelts?

The “common brushtail possum” was imported from Australia to New Zealand in the 1850s. This newcomer, logic went at the time, would be good for the fur trade. To say that the experiment backfired is a gross understatement.

By 1880, the possum population — with no natural enemies – had burgeoned to nearly 80 million. And the animals carried bovine tuberculosis, putting cattle in high danger. Not only that, but possums ate the eggs and chicks of native birds, which had no defenses against the new mammal.

Want more bad news? Possums are voracious herbivores, demolishing entire forest canopies and the habitat that goes with them.

The government realized early on that it had a problem. It  commissioned trappers and launched “ground-baiting” programs to kill possums with poison. Drivers did their share, often swerving to hit the slow-moving nocturnal creatures.

Possum meat was imported to Taiwan, Malaysia and Hong Kong, renamed “kiwi bear” and sold for human consumption. It’s also the main ingredient in a dog food called Possyum.

And, yes, the Puke Pub in Pukekua (see Chapter 5) serves up possum pie.

Also, possum pelts are sought after, and Kiwi gift shops offer possum hats, gloves and jackets.

These efforts have together reduced the nation’s possum count to 30,000 – but the war is hardly over.

And the current government’s chief weapon, an aerially dropped poison called 1080, really got the political pot boiling. Although the drops are highly effective (90-percent kill rate), opponents insist that the poison can contaminate water and sicken or kill humans.

The Parliamentary Commission on the Environment in 2011 issued a report finding the 1080 drops effective and largely safe. Most political parties and media outlets now endorse the drops, but there are still vehement opponents.

Exhibit A might be the roadside guillotine outside the Puke Pub, which promises cutting-edge retribution against the government and corporate fat cats behind the alleged 1080 cover-up.

None of which makes it easy to keep possums as pets.

As for Red and Monkeybum? They’re just happy not to be fur hats.

Read previous chapters, and read cycling updates in the coming days, at Bateman’s Blog.

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman February 16, 2016 07:49
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