Night of the possum hunters

They called it the “Wild West Coast”. Wild beaches, wild weather, wild people.

For several years, this was my playground, but it could also easily have been my resting place. In just two years, I’d used up most of my nine lives, one being the night of the possum hunters.

‘There’s a barn dance in Karemea this weekend… Red Mole is playing.’ Back then, barn dances were the only adult entertainment going, well, apart from the pub, gold panning, and deer shooting. The television reception was reduced to nondescript shadowy figures in a haze of static, so most people didn’t bother. Kids were also part of the scene – the adults milled inside, drinking, talking, dancing – while the kids tore around outside – or could be found in the kitchen nicking food. It would be chaos until the witching hour – then young children would dribble back inside to find Mum or Dad – ‘I’m tired.’ Car backseats would hastily be turned into kids’ bedrooms – and the party would continue.

After a few days, the rumors were starting to get scrambled. ‘Nah, it’s White Rabbit – Red Mole split up’; ‘It’s gonna be huge – Pat’s bringing her lot down from Motueka’; ‘They’re moving it to Murray’s farm – the school hall’s gonna be too small.’ Whatever the truth, it didn’t matter; people would turn up whether invited or not – and hopefully at least one band – there’s no such thing as an organized gig on the Coast.

For some reason, Mum had to go to Westport. ‘I won’t be back until late – Nigel has offered to take you – I’ll see you there around midnight.’ Nigel was one of those blokes who’d wander off into the bush wearing a long bush-shirt and waders and carrying nothing but a rifle and rucksack. A few weeks later, he’d turn up carrying a pile of possum pelts and a few small glass bottles containing river water and flakes of gold. Once he came back with a nugget. ‘Here kid, check this out.’ I held up the bottle; a pea-sized nugget chinked the sides of the glass. ‘What’s it worth?’ ‘Four hundred, maybe five.’ ‘Wow…’ He smelled like a goat, and I don’t think he ever shaved. If he were clean-shaven, he’d be the spitting image of the ‘Southern Man’ you see in beer ads these days.

On the day of the dance, Mum headed off to Westport in her green Morris Minor. For a few hours, I kicked around lumps of coal and collected strips of old fuse wire. Nigel was at the pub. I could tell because his Bedford van had been parked there since lunchtime. I boldly entered. ‘Here he is, the little pool shark,’ winks the bartender (just last week I’d won a glass of raspberry lemonade by beating a local at pool). About a dozen men, mostly deer hunters, are sitting at the bar, smoking a large joint. ‘Cop’s outside,’ I whisper loudly. Nobody says a thing. Nigel casually wanders over to the door, then hurriedly flaps his right hand. Like lightning, the joint disappears, windows are opened, a newspaper materializes and is being furiously flapped, air freshener is raining down on us. Thirty seconds later, Constable Pete walks in. He stops, looks around, sniffs loudly and says, ‘Bit early in the day, isn’t it?’ The bartender looks stern, ‘Gidday Pete – the usual?’ ‘Yeah, yeah, righto. Heard about the barn dance in Karemea? They reckon Red Mole is going to turn up after all.’

It’s sunset; I’m in the Bedford with Nigel and his mate Stu – they’re riding in the front seats, so I’m relegated to the back, where there are no seats. I’m surrounded by oily rags, sacks, empty beer bottles, bullet shells, and two rifles. I’m flung against the inside of the van as Nigel sharply turns onto the Karemea gorge road – he’s driving one-handed, a beer in the other. Stu’s smoking pot. ‘Hey mate look up there!’ Stu points to a tree just ahead. Two glowing eyes shine in the headlights. ‘She’s a biggie!’ Nigel slams on the brakes, and the van skids to a halt. He reaches over the seat and picks up a rifle. He winds down the window, leans halfway out and ‘Bang!’. I hear a cracking of branches, then a soft thud. Stu jumps out, and seconds later opens the back doors. ‘Here kid, catch’ – he hurls the carcass over my head, and I feel drops of warm blood speckle my hair. The smell is overwhelming. ‘Urrgghhh…’ Nigel and Stu laugh loudly. ‘Do you eat possum kid? Makes a good stew.’ I screw up my face.

We’re off again, sliding all over the road. Mum would never drive that badly, and I’m getting scared. ‘There’s another…’ ‘Bang!’ – this time they didn’t even stop the van, but they do stop to pick up the trophy. This one is still breathing; I can hear it wheezing. I’m starting to feel sick and close my eyes – what a nightmare – surrounded by dying animals, beer, dope, and crazy drunk bearded Coasters – driving like maniacs. The possum tally just keeps on growing – I lose count at 16 – it doesn’t matter; I’m certain I’m going to die. Mum will be upset. I fall asleep to the sounds of gunshots, screeching tires, and gasping possums, then awaken to the sounds of a saxophone, guitars, and laughter. Nigel and Stu have already gone, so I let myself out. It’s pitch dark, but the barn is glowing, and I see the silhouettes of kids running outside. Moments later, I’m screaming around with them, and everything else is ancient history.