If you’re a Chatham Islander, it’s etched into your calendar. If you’re a wild boar, it’s an annual ordeal. It’s the Chatham Islands Pig Hunt, and by ten in the morning, the carpark at the Norman Kirk Memorial Reserve—barely four gears on a quad from Waitangi—is already brimming with battered, bucolic four-wheel-drives. This is bigger than race day; 14 pigs, 170 possums, two dozen eels and a freezer-load of pies.
Volunteers, seemingly indifferent to the pungent, testicular musk of male possum, are processing the entries in one of the hunt’s sideshows. There’s a muffled, morbid thump as marsupials hit the scales. “Two point three-four… One point eight-one…” But then a hitch: the macabre spectre of an orphaned joey crawling from its dead mother’s pouch. The judges stoically re-weigh the corpse, minus its live legacy, and a young girl takes up the infant and wraps it in her hoodie.
Size matters, but there’s been a recent innovation in the average-weight category. The total tonnage of flesh and fur is divided by 170 entries, and whoever’s possum is closest to the median wins a return flight to mainland New Zealand.
The corpses are unceremoniously dumped on the back of a ute. Eric Dix has paid $100 for the job lot, and reckons he’ll make $1600 from the fur he’ll spend the next couple of days plucking.
George Reremia, the local fishery officer, hangs up the entries in the eel competition. He eyes the scuffed, bloody creatures. “Where I come from,” he growls, “we’d never stand for this sort of disrespect for the tuna. What’s worse is that they used to dump all these at the tip,” he tells me as he tags the hunter’s details to a clear winner—the long-finned eel must be 80 years old if it’s a day. “At least now they smoke them and hand them round the old people.”
Kids, implausibly barefoot in this chill sou-wester, rifle through the serpentine corpses, looking for their entries, but the real attraction is the main billing.
By 11.30, battered utes begin to arrive, their trophies trussed across the bonnet, or rolling on the deck, still guarded by the curs that brought them down. Nobody shoots a pig round here; that’d be like fishing in a tank. Instead, islanders rely on the local predilection for packs of dogs bred—if breeding is an appropriate term—for the many and various talents required to bring a boar to ground. Finders—the term is plain enough—need a good nose, persistence and a plaintive voice. Their job is to wind the pig, then stick to it like glue, all the time barking its location to the hunter. When at last the pig has no place left to run, the finders will “bail” it, pending the arrival of the gladiators, the holders.
As I discovered on a fruitless hunt this morning, finders are worth their weight in wild pork. Bruce Tuanui farms some 800 ha of brown brackenland at Tuku, in the far south of the main island, Chatham. His name appears repeatedly on the winners’ trophy, and he recalls his best dogs with reverence. “I had one finder,” he tells me, “a sheepdog-cross bitch. She latched onto a pig one day—it was a Friday—but I lost her and the pig in the scrub. It got dark, and I had to go to New Zealand the next day. It was Tuesday before I got back, and I had a fair idea where to look for her. I got to this bushy gully and gave a whistle. She immediately started bailing again; she’d camped out with that pig for four days.”
Holders channel their wolf ancestors. Their job is to seize the pig by whatever appendage offers. (Ears are a common anchor point. Testicles are another—if the pig still has them. If it doesn’t, it’s called a barrow, and at some point in its youth it’s been captured by a hunter, castrated and released. The eunuch tastes much better on recapture). The skill set is obvious: tenacity, a good set of canines, and above all, courage.
Tuanui might well owe his life to the latter. Once, he was hunting with a visitor from neighbouring Pitt Island, and they’d subdued a boar. The visitor delivered the coup de grace, running his knife across the animal’s throat, but as the pair stood back, the boar regained its feet and charged straight at Tuanui. “It got me down, and I tried to draw my knees up,” he says. A boar keeps its tusks finely honed, and will use them like a tin opener.
“Fortunately, the dogs grabbed it again, and I was able to get up and stick it.”
Back at the reserve, the hunters are already breaking out the beers as the one o’clock deadline looms. One pair reckon they’ve got it won. All is braggadocio and bonhomie. Then, with barely ten minutes to go, a white Toyota pulls up, its springs groaning under the bristly bulk of the biggest pig I’ve ever seen. The smiles, the swaggers, of the vanquished ebb.
Darrell Fraser hops out, takes one look at the pig rack and dims the sun with his grin. The stewards hook the Hiab up to his prize, which defeats the official scales—they only go up to 100 kg. When someone returns with a more capacious set, the needle trembling at 117 kg, triggers a wave of awe in the gathered crowd.
Already, though, there are conspiratorial murmurings. “He’s farmed that pig,” accuses one islander. “See, his ears are clean as a whistle. He hasn’t been dogged.”
It’s true, Fraser tells me, that he knew of this monster’s lair, because he tried to catch it there last year. He gave up after it killed three of his best dogs. This year, the barrow gored three more before succumbing. Fraser’s prizes—biggest overall pig, biggest barrow, biggest jaw—have cost his dogs dearly.
As two small children wrestle the hindquarters of a pig around the obstacle course, it strikes me that a visiting alien would form a lopsided impression of humanity here. But these are the Chathams; leave your opprobrium on the mainland. Every lamb chop, every tin of beans, had to cross 800 km of ocean to get here. That’s a lot of fuel, and life here is breathtakingly expensive. Little wonder that the islanders look to the wild and see a larder. Eels, whitebait, weka and wild pork are the tokens of a relationship we all once had with Nature, a life we all lived.
On the Chathams, you live that life every day.