Hitch-Hikers and Possum Hunters

 

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Our driver and native New Zealand possum hunter, Chris

Today we decided to hitch-hike to Nugget Point because it was raining, the 7 km long dead-end road was muddy and hilly and the idea of seeing a lighthouse (not unique) and the VERY slight possibility of seeing penguins (not the season) did not seem worth the effort on bikes. Plus we’d been assured that hitch-hiking in NZ is perfectly safe.

After locking our bikes to the road sign for the only place to go on this road, Nugget Point, we stuck out our thumbs.

The first vehicle was a large camper van. The grey-haired driver and his spouse avoided making eye contact and sped by.

Next came another retired couple in a camper van who mouthed “no room” as they sped by. The joke was on them, though, because they’d left the curtains open and we could see the pristine counter tops, beds and chairs that would have easily given us a lift to the light house.

I turned to Eric and said, “Take off your hat. Show them your grey hair and I’ll do the same. Then the cars will feel safe to pick us up.”

The next truck to drive by was the postman and I’m pretty sure he’s not allowed to pick up strays so we smiled, waved, and kept our thumbs tucked in our gloves for warmth.

By now the sun was peeking through and the rain had stopped. It seemed like we’d been waiting for hours – It was probably only 10 minutes – but I was getting antsy.

(I don’t have enough patience to be a hitch-hiker I thought.)

“Let’s go ahead and ride our bikes “ I said to Eric.

Just as we were giving up on our thumbs, and older model, low-riding, steamed up window, well-used Subaru wagon packed to the roof with back packs, canvas totes of food, electronics, tents, sleeping bags and three millennials (two guys sporting shaggy backpacker beards and one girl with wavy brown hair and a kind smile) pulled up beside us.

Nugget Point light house. The end of the road and our hitch-hiking destination.
Nugget Point light house. The end of the road and our hitch-hiking destination.

“Where are you going?” the girl asked rolling down the window.
“Nugget Point, “ we replied.

(We were standing under the sign for Nugget Point, the only destination on this road but I know when to keep my mouth shut and not point out the obvious.)

“You can ride with us if you don’t mind that it will be really crowded.”

“We don’t mind,” as we hopped in and pulled our knees up to our chins.

After the usual NZ traveler pleasantries were exchanged “Where are you from? How long have you been here? How long will you stay?” the fun began.

“What do you do?” I asked the driver Chris and his partner Gracie.

“We’re possum hunters,” they replied simultaneously.

This was too good to be true. I’ve never met possum hunters before. In fact, I didn’t know there was any such thing as a possum hunter.

While cycling NZ we have learned that possums are a real nuisance. We’ve seen lots of “road kill” possums splattered on the highways. We’ve actually covered our wheels in possum guts when traffic prohibited us from swerving to avoid the carcasses. We’ve seen possum/merino wool gloves for sale at the tourist traps. And, we’ve heard what we though was the urban myth that NZ pays money for dead possums. But, until today, never met real, live possum hunters.

“So, how do you kill possums? Traps… snares… guns? ” Eric asked.

“Traps and guns,” replied Gracie in the sweetest, most innocent voice of twenty-something youth.

“What kind of gun? Eric asks.

“Oh, a 22,” Gracie replied.” Well, Chris can shoot. I’m not that good. He can shoot a possum 50 to 100 meters away.”

(I’m imagining the illusive possum completing his 100 yard dash and then being shot at the finish)

“How many possums have the two of you killed this season?” I asked.

“About 1000, “ Gracie says in the same matter-of-fact voice.

“1000!” I exclaim imagining being burring in piles of dead vermin needing to be skinned or de-furred.

“Well, we’ve had a good season. During one 8-day hunting trip we killed 500. (That’s like 250 possum per person or 40 per night or 5 per hour or 1 every 12 minutes…Wow) Chris knows where the good places are, “ she continued in the same dead pan monotone.

(I’m thinking about the “Beverly Hillbillies” but changing it to a reality TV show. “Real Live Possum Hunters in Oz”.)

The conversation gets even better. Every question I ask has an answer better than I could imagine.

Gracie and me after the ride to Nugget Point and the possum conversation.
Gracie and me after the ride to Nugget Point and the possum conversation.

Chris and Gracie have a friend fly them by helicopter or plane to the good possum stashes. They start their hunting about 8 pm and chase possum up and down hills, scrambling over rocky cliffs and up and down gullies until about 4 am. After each kill they skin the possums or pluck out the fur depending upon the quality, leaving the entrails for the scavengers.(Gracie described in detailed how important it is to skin the possum within 15 minute while it’s still warm). They don’t usually eat the possum unless they run out of food but they can eat possum even though it’s a little gamey tasting. They hunt possum during the NZ summers. Then they go to Alaska and fish for salmon during the Alaskan summers.

No penguins but lots of baby seals playing in the tidal pools and waiting for mom to bring home lunch.
No penguins but lots of baby seals playing in the tidal pools and waiting for mom to bring home lunch.

Even though the light house was pretty but I didn’t see any penguins, today’s hitch-hiking experience, being picked up by real live possum hunters, has made me curious to stick out my thumb again real soon.