(Jen, this is one of those you may not wish to read…)
I’ve just had one of my most memorable NZ experiences. As I’ve often found myself reflecting on lately, New Zealanders are a pioneer people. The cultural residue of the “early years” still retains a measure of potency, and it manifests in such activities as many Kiwis regularly partake—fishing, hunting, “tramping “(= hiking) in the “bush” (= backwoods), etc.
Julie and Lisa informed me the other day of a practice long held by potential fathers-in-law. It goes like this:
Take your potential son-in-law out into the bush for a few days, away from the conveniences of cell phones and indoor plumbing, and watch how he handles adversity. Does he share when you are low on food? Does he let you cross a high river first (signifying a lack of leadership) or does he ford it himself (signifying a willingness to put oneself in danger to ensure the safety of others)?
Many a father-in-law has learned much about their daughter’s suitor via this method.
Sound neurotic? Well, it kind of is. But it’s part and parcel of the Kiwi soul. It’s taken me a long time to appreciate this aspect of NZ, but now that I’m seeing more of it I’m all the more attracted to it.
Alright—enough introduction. The real reason I’m writing is to tell you what I’ve been doing for the past few hours.
It’s 12:26am on Saturday morning. At 7:30pm, I got a call from Hamish, Julie’s youngest son who lives down the road, asking me if I wanted to go pighunting in 30 minutes. It was raining and getting dark; I naturally said yes.
Isaac, one of Hamish’s childhood friends, and Jayce, another friend, show up at Hamish’s around 8:15pm with the dogs. Now, these guys are quintessential Kiwis. Isaac is wearing an old button-up dress shirt (with the collar popped), rugby shorts, canvas chaps, tramping boots and a belt carrying a knife and leather sheath (these type of knives are all-purpose: they look like Bowies and are just as likely to be used in the kitchen as around the farm or out hunting). Jayce is wearing a merino base layer under a mink’s oil vest (a NZ icon), chinos, tramping boots and gaiters.
Here’s how pighunting traditionally works.
You usually have three kinds of well-trained pigdog.
First, the spotters. These are smaller dogs trained to find the pigs. They lead the way, making zigzags in the bush to pick up the scent. Once they find the pig(s), they bark loudly to signal to the other dogs and the hunters.
Second, you send in the balers. These are larger dogs trained to trap (“bale”) the pig, but not necessarily to attack it.
Last, the holders. These are the biggest dogs (you generally only have one or two), sent in once the balers have cornered the pig to latch on to its ears. This allows the hunter to get in close, flip the pig over on its back, and stick it in the heart with his knife (or, alternatively, slit its throat).
Hence the expression: “Bleeding like a stuck pig.”
Most folks don’t have the capital to purchase and train three sets of dogs, but their cadres are variations on this three-tiered theme. The two hunting parties I’ve gone out with now have had only a few dogs trained in multiple tasks—Phil had three spotters/balers and one holder; Isaac had only two spotter/baler/holder crossovers—and both outfitted their dogs electronic collars linked to a GPS tracking device. (This enables the hunter to locate the dogs if they defect into the bush at a pace the hunter cannot match—but the ideal is wading through the bush together, cooperatively tracking down the pig.)
So at half past 8pm, after shotgunning some Weka Lager in Isaac’s truck, we leap into the bush, tracking the rooting sites of wild pigs uphill. By now it’s pretty dark, but I can still make out the undersides of punga leaves when Isaac—ahead of me—rustles them with his thick swagger. (Maori hunters used to fold these leaves to mark their return path: they’re surprisingly noticeable, even in the dimmest moonlight.) We wade through folds and folds of nasty gorse—a Scottish import—swinging on the flakey skeletons of kanuka trunks. Occasionally, the dogs will dart off ahead of us, their noses raised high, their regal bodies bouncing over fallen limbs.
We walk almost straight uphill, about 150m, and come out on a service road for the telephone company. We start back downhill along the now moonlit road, thinking our expedition is concluded.
But as we round a bend, we notice that one of the dogs, Jen, is not with us. Isaac stops and checks the GPS screen.
“She’s in there”: he points to the woods ahead of us. “Eighty.”
“Yards or meters?” I joke.
“Doesn’t much matter, mate—take another step and a half!” Jayce retorts.
We wait and listen. Then we hear a few distant barks. Isaac sends Rodney, the other dog, in after Jen. After about forty-five seconds we hear more barking, then silence.
We all look at each other, knowing what we hope to hear next.
The pig squeals—a sharp, terrified cry. And we take off.
I’m following Jayce, my tired legs full of blood and adrenaline, knowing that the coming moment is all worth it—the rain, the uphill trudge, the whacks in the face by prickly gorse.
The barks and the squeals are getting louder now, almost within eyesight (my instincts tell me). I catch up with Jayce, whose headlamp (I didn’t bring one) is shining on the scene: the dogs, not being holders, haven’t pinned the pig, but are rather chasing it round in circles in order to trap it. It comes bolting off toward the light (I’m told they do this for some reason)—which means toward us.
Now, by this point I can see it’s not a large pig—and, more importantly, it doesn’t have tusks. So Jayce moves in on it, he and the others behind me encouraging me to “grab it by the ears!”
What happened next wasn’t quite like this, but it will give you a good picture of the frenetic atmosphere.
Before I know it, my knee is next to Jayce’s, pinning the pig to the ground, and Isaac is handing me his knife. He tells me to slit its throat.
So I do.
But it’s still squirming, so Isaac pierces its heart to quicken its death.
I’ll spare you the details of its on-the-spot gutting (the honors of which I was awarded), but when we flipped it over, Isaac cried ironically “Aww, it’s a sow! I can’t believe you killed a sow! C’mon!”
The rest of the evening consisted in my conveying the (still warm) deceased boar on my shoulders through 4.5k of bush back toward the truck. This photo gives a hint toward the color and texture of my neck and the back of my head by the time I got home:
My head is still reeling with the smells and feel of the whole night, even 20 minutes after a scalding shower that has left my skin infinitely less lice-filled, albeit lobster red. I don’t have any profound thoughts to share about this experience, other than the ambiguity I feel having just penned the foregoing account.
Anyone who has read Part Four of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma will understand this ambiguity. I don’t consider myself bloodthirsty, but there is something undoubtedly invigorating about this carnal activity—and New Zealand pighunting must be one of the most carnal forms of hunting modern man practices.
Nevertheless, I am proud of myself. I’m proud of fulfilling that primordial role of man-as-provider, bringing home to my hosts the fabled Christmas ham, locally sourced.