King Country

Kirsty Gunn

When the news came in about the shootings in New Zealand on 15 March my first thought was: Taihape. Or Pahiatua. Or Bulls. One of those small, dark-shadowed towns that sit alone in the interior of the country, surrounded by hills dense with bush and acres of paddocky grass that gets scraped back to the bone of dry earth in the summer heat. It’s been a long summer, there, New Zealand friends have been telling me, high, high temperatures, and no break in the weather. And yes, I thought, straight away: I can see someone opening fire in one of those places. Having grown up in New Zealand, though a long time ago, and knowing a bit about those remote communities – with their corrugated-iron shopfronts and pub doors flung upon into the evening with the sounds of men’s voices like a raging tide inside in the darkness, the smell of DB and Tui beer and cigarettes, and the utes parked up waiting for them with farm gear baled on the back, a few dogs scrabbling on the trailer – well, I remember guns.

Everybody in the country, it seemed to me, had guns. Farmers. Contractors. Kids. They had guns for killing animals and guns for fun. Teenagers practised rifle shooting out the back of their parents’ properties. Men went into the bush in gangs on shooting parties, and took rifles with them when they drove across their farms to inspect stock. My uncle, who lived in the middle of the Wairarapa on a big sheep station he farmed with his three bothers, had rifles in the basement of his house. While my aunt baked six different kinds of yellow cake for the shearing gangs that would come in for tea, my little cousins, three boys under the age of six, went down to their father’s den and touched and held the guns and played with them. ‘There are no bullets in them, dummy,’ they told me. So they were perfectly safe.

I had to be a ‘dummy’ because I didn’t – my father didn’t – have guns. My brother got one though, when he turned, I think, 15. He needed it for his Duke of Edinburgh and Outward Bound courses, he said. Was it one of my uncles who taught him to shoot? Or something he did at his boarding school? All I can remember is his telling us how he was dropped off in the middle of the night somewhere, in the bush, with a tarp, a fishhook, something else, and a gun, and the test was to manage three days on his own before the guy organising the expedition came to pick him up. It was the 1970s and boys were to be men, and men, well, they had to behave like men or they would just be sissies. I saw for myself how once boys got guns they shot everything. Rabbits. Possums. Deer. All these animals were ‘pests’ I was told, New Zealand was ‘over-run’ with them, and if they didn’t shoot them, the boys said, someone else would, you dummy. Those animals were vermin.

Boys I knew had fathers who would go deep into the Tararua Ranges and the Kaimanawas – King Country it’s called – and come back laden with ‘kill’ or ‘beasts’. These were the terrifying words, straight out of my Grimms’ Fairy Tales, that were used. The Kaimanawas and the Tararuas are densely forested and near impenetrable in places, people said. There might be little townships, scattered, or a few people ‘living bush’, who’d gone in there and were staying on, or were on some sort of government contract with the forestry and lands people. How many guns were in there, I couldn’t imagine. My brother, returning from a shooting expedition, said the King Country was ‘unreal’. I think he meant the bush, the isolation, but he might also have meant what went on in there. New Zealand is a place of sunshine and beaches and tourist destinations – ‘Godzone’ they used to call it when I was growing up – but it is also a place of gothic stories and psychotropic drugs and madness. My brother knew a boy who, many years later, opened fire on his family one evening after supper. I think I may have said hello to that boy once, though he didn’t go to my brother’s school. I think my sister and I met him.

What happened in Christchurch is very different from the kind of killing I am talking about here, I know, and Christchurch is no Kaimanawa Ranges. But the guns lend to both locations a dark common denominator. Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister, announced that New Zealand would be reforming its gun laws 72 hours after the terror attack in Christchurch. Australia, she felt compelled to compare, after a similar event, had taken 12 days. But the bullets, dummy, have been in the guns for a long time.


  • 27 March 2019 at 7:13pm
    nztab says:
    I'm confused. The 'dummy' in the final sentence of this piece is the reader? Or does it refer back to the previous sentence, Jacinda Ardern is the dummy? Either way, there is no link between the hunting and fishing fraternity in this country and the mosque massacres in Christchurch; no more than you could connect a terrorist attack in the UK with the grouse shooters in Scotland

    • 27 March 2019 at 9:59pm
      Amateur Emigrant says: @ nztab
      I think the dummy is anyone who thought that ease of access to guns in NZ was not a potential problem. I am a recent immigrant, but I have often been unsettled by the full page gun ads in the press, selling semi automatic rifles and the like. Why would hunters need guns like that? Last time I looked pigs didn't shoot back. A few years ago the (albeit somewhat loony) TV journalist Heather Duplessis Allen got herself into bother by obtaining a mail order rifle without a licence simply by lying to the retailer. Rather than coming down on the retailer the police went for the reporter. Louder alarm bells should have rung then, dummy.

    • 27 March 2019 at 11:37pm
      Amateur Emigrant says: @ nztab
      PS That 'dummy' wasn't aimed at you!

  • 28 March 2019 at 9:15am
    rncgray says:
    You've been away too long, Kirsty. While it's a bit of a stretch to include the Kaimanawas in the King Country the Tararuas are no where near there.

  • 28 March 2019 at 8:50pm
    Rod Miller says:
    Many localities on this Earth are "places of gothic stories and psychotropic drugs and madness". Hey, we're homo sapiens.

    I was impressed by the prompt action of the NZ government (which had perhaps been waiting for the right moment). It contrasts admirably with the US: there were no thoughts or prayers -- they moved straight to gun regulation.

  • 2 April 2019 at 10:49pm
    Michael Cosgrove says:
    One person in twenty has a gun license in New Zealand and I know maybe one or two of them.
    Apart from the police in the last few weeks I don’t remember the last time I saw someone with a gun.
    Times have changed since the writer’s day.

    • 4 April 2019 at 12:14am
      Harikoa says: @ Michael Cosgrove
      After more than 60 years living in New Zealand, the first time that I saw a real gun here was on Monday 18 April 2019. I was going past the Islamic Centre which is about 100 metres from our home and two police officers armed with high powered rifles were standing on the footpath. It was a traumatic experience.

  • 2 April 2019 at 10:57pm
    Benita Kape says:
    The good thing is that though Kirsty shares with us the ghastly story of a boy turning the gun on his family, New Zealand has few such stories for the retelling. I have one which still leaves me astounded. We had a pond (we call them damns). And on that damn we had a quite large number of ducks. One afternoon when, as a teenager, and this was at the end of WW11, I was sunbathing under our kitchen window. Suddenly, probably from a nearby gorse hedge, a bullet whizzed by me into the kitchen wall. A very bad shot indeed. I'd had other frights though. My grandparents had come out from Germany in the 1800, my surname was German, my Christian name (for my Dad). But my Christian name is what singled me out more than my siblings.

    No way was that single shot that day meant for the ducks on the pond. I'm reasonably sure of who had fired that shot. I felt so sad for him. Those dam guns. The more we can limit them the better.

  • 7 April 2019 at 10:16pm
    Graeme Siddle says:
    Neither Taihape nor Bulls nor Pahiatua is a dark-shadowed place - Kirsty have you ever looked at the green hills which surround and enfold Taihape? Have you really looked at this land of ours - this whenua?

    I went to secondary school in Taumarunui (in the King Country) and yes some of the boys had .22 rifles to shoot rabbits but I didn't know any others.

    Pity about your experience of guns in New Zealand - it certainly wasn't mine.

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