They called him Possum


Every now and then I come across something really interesting and intriguing. This is one of those.
Last Sunday’s newspaper featured a two page spread  about David James ‘Possum’.  His is really  a most remarkable story.
Born in New Zealand’s South Island to a sheep farming couple in 1901. Possum  quit school at age 14 to work on the family farm.   He moved to Australia sometime in the  1920’s. Being unable to pay his union fees in 1929, he found himself out of work. Averse  to accepting or living on charity, Possum walked off into the bush. And that is where he stayed for the rest of his life.  He lived on his wits, skills and experience.  His body was found in August 1982 by a bush near the Murray River.
During hot summer nights he had a habit of sleeping in the fork of a tree, earning him the nickname he is remembered by.  Trapping wild animals such as rabbits, foxes and cats provided him with food. Most people living around where he roamed had heard of him. However, few ever met him let alone talked to him. Possum did not like to interact with society.  Murray River towns along the area where South Australia, Victoria and NSW intersect was his homeground.  Occassionally he would build a makeshift boat or use a floating log and venture further afield.  Max Jones, one of the few to talk to him, relates that Possum had once travelled as far south as the Murray River Mouth near Goolwa south of Adelaide.  By car that is a distance of well over 300 kilometres.  I have no idea how far it would be to travel by floating log! His main homeground was around Renmark and Wentworth, where a stature has been erected in his honour.
Possum didn’t need much from society, but he did rely on people supplying him with matches and salt. As he had no money to buy them, he repaid the kindness of strangers by doing odd jobs. Legend tells of people returning home to find firewood neatly chopped up and ready for use, a broken fence mended and other odd jobs done. Someone had once left a leg of roast lamb out with the matches and salt. He’d  been to collect it overnight taking everything else but the meat.
Possum had an affinity with animals and was known to crutch flyblown sheep, bend over mallee bushes during droughts so that the sheep would have food to eat until the drought broke. The tale is told in a book written about Possum by Max Jones that a river fisherman had  once found the skeleton of a dead pelican on the bank. It had at some stage had a broken leg. Splinted with two small pieces of bamboo and a piece of leather the leg had mended before the bird died.  Possum had been the one to tend to the injured bird.
Two men by the name of Paul Clancy and Tony Hersey had grown up hearing Possum stories. As lads they had even run across him once, but Possum had scooted away not wanting to talk. Paul and Tony met up again many years later. Both men were Vietnam vets. They got to talking and decided to go on an expedition together in Possum country. Starting in Wentworth, the objective was to experience the country through Possum’s eyes.  Eight days of  trekking, reminisicing, and retracing Possum’s footsteps turned out to be a memorable experience for them.
Along the way they found a lot of evidence of Possum’s haunts. Hides in hollow logs, axe heads, razor blades, natural shelters that kept him well hidden but able to observe everyone else.  It was hot. It was tough. Sometimes it was wet and soggy. In the eight days the pair travelled 250 kilometres. And gained a whole new understanding and respect for Possum and the country he chose to call home.
Possum was laid to rest in a small graveyard at Wangumma Station. 250 people attended his funeral. His life is commemorated by a life size statue in Wentworth.

©  Raili Tanska

Image – Advertiser Dec 11, 2016

Victorian Tourism



21 thoughts on “They called him Possum

  1. Reblogged this on Opher's World and commented:
    I loved this tale that Raili put out. There are many times when I feel I would have loved to have roamed wild without all the trappings of society. A natural life in tune with nature. Sounds great.

    1. He lived at the height of the depression in his youth here. When he lost his job he was not eligible for any government assistance. I guess he got disillusioned with the lot and took off. Did very well for himself. Apparently his only regret was how his Mum had fared with his going.

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