I’d just finished a delicious four-course dinner at Kauri Cliffs, a windblown New Zealand lodge surrounded by 6,000 acres of forest and rolling coastal farmland in the North Island’s Northland region. Now, I could sit back with a tumbler of single malt Scotch, thumb through glossy magazines in my cosy bungalow or queue up a movie – all more-than-suitable comedowns from a day spent strolling and taking a horseback ride to the beach.
On the other hand, I could go shooting possums.
I saw this activity listed – alongside golf and tennis – on the Kauri Cliffs website when I first booked. Not quite believing it, I checked with the front desk when I arrived. Yes, they assured me: a nocturnal possum hunt was definitely on offer.
After dinner, I found Darcy Rhodes, the gamekeeper and resident possum expert, waiting in the hotel’s pebbled drive. My hunting guide for the evening was a 30-something local guy in jeans. His left arm was in a cast. “Motorbike accident,” he shrugged, and we hopped into his mud-spattered pickup.
- An unlikely-looking place to start a hunt. (Kauri Cliffs)
Our first stop was the spacious shed that is the closest thing Rhodes has to an office. We picked our way through seed bags and farm machinery to a freezer in the back – out of which he pulled a stiff, black object the size of a large housecat. It was a possum, teeth bared, petrified into a pose of snarling fury. “Look at those claws,” Rhodes told me. “You can’t treat ‘em like a teddy bear, see? They’ll take your fingers off.”
I don’t own a gun. I had never hunted before, unless you count clay pigeons and tin cans. I wasn’t particularly comfortable shooting wild animals – never mind at night and in a place about as far from home as I could possibly get.
On the other hand, I was up for an adventure. Particularly for one that, according to the hotel, actually helped the environment: New Zealand’s possums are one of the several armies of non-native creatures that have decimated the country’s indigenous plants and animals, including entire canopies of indigenous totara and kohekohe trees, the kiwi and the blue-wattled kokako bird.
- New Zealand's endangered, endemic kokako bird. (Oliver Strewe/Getty)
Rhodes armed me with a .22 and – his grin widening – a 12-gauge shotgun. “That one takes no prisoners,” he quipped.
I think we both knew I’d end up using the shotgun.
Rhodes’s official title is not gamekeeper; it is “pest-control manager”. And when he’s not taking guests out for night shoots – which he only gets to do about once a week – he is trapping and baiting all sorts of unwanted critters at Kauri Cliffs. Possums are the main enemy, but so are stoats, weasels and hares, as well as feral cats and pigs – all of which were introduced when Europeans arrived in New Zealand in the late 18th Century.
Exclusive of these invasive species, New Zealand is a naturalist’s dream, with primeval trees that look like scenery from the movie Jurassic Park and a shrinking panoply of charmingly old-fashioned birds, including the kiwi and a flightless parrot known as the kakapo. And since many of these endemic species evolved in isolation on the islands for millions of years, they are particularly vulnerable to imported predators.
- A naturalist's dream: North Island's Waiaua Bay, as seen from Kauri Cliffs. (Kauri Cliffs)
Brush-tailed possums arrived from Australia in 1837, brought by British colonists hoping to use their pelts to launch a fur trade; the colonists ended up launching an animal invasion instead. Today, possums feast on bird eggs and chicks, and eat up to half a pound of new growth foliage a day. At Kauri Cliffs and elsewhere, possums also compete with birds for food, a contest in which their size and ferocity give them a distinct advantage.
Unlike Australia, meanwhile, New Zealand has no deadly natural predators. “Here, they only got me to fear,” as Rhodes put it. “And you.”