Recently I read about a 20,000 won ($20) bounty that the Korean government is offering for carcasses of river rats, which have invaded the Nakdong River basin near my home in Busan. This reminded me of a passage cut from my book, “Dispatches from the Peninsula,” where, on a motorcycle trip, we come face to face with these a few of these beasties. I make no claims that this is fantastic writing, and there is a reason this was sliced from the manuscript, but it still pleases me that it finally has managed to find an audience. Enjoy.
Often the most satisfying – or at least the most memorable moments of a motorcycle trip – are those which are unplanned, those impromptu decisions to follow a small road sign and see what it is actually pointing you towards. We never know what the destination will have to offer, but often we are surprised. Such was the case with our last pit stop at Upo Wetland.
Real wetlands are few and far between in overly-built up Korea, where habitat preservation has taken a back seat to progress, so when we took the spur road that lead to the huge swamp that makes up Upo, we were suitably impressed. The place sits in a massive bowl, ringed by steep embankments. It is host to a huge bird population, both year-round and migratory species. Upo is quiet, with just the whispers of hikers, photographers, and birders, along with the slow crunch of cars winding along the gravel road. We dismounted our bikes and took in the swamp from the main viewing area. A whole day could be spent at Upo, hiking any one of the trails that rings the marsh, but we were short on time and just took in what we could.
We noticed a man in a small boat which he propelled with a long pole. He slowly made his way into the swamp and jumped out on a small island made from dirt and bushes. He produced a snare from his boat and lowered it into the brush, hooking what sounded like a moaning animal. The thing wailed and screamed like an infant as he wrested it from what seemed to a trap and then lifted the thrashing creature into the boat.
“What the fuck is that?” I asked. “A cat?”
“Yeah,” said Sir David. “They may trap cats out here to protect the native birds.”
“Cats, in swamp? I thought cats hated water.” BC was more than skeptical.
“There’s no fucking way that’s a cat,” Sam chimed in. “Maybe it’s a nutria.”
“A what?” said BC
“Or a bagder,” Will opined.
We watched enraptured, as the man moved to a second island, and extracted a second creature. It too screamed and moaned as he plucked it from the mud and into the boat. For a couple of seconds we got a glimpse of the beast, but it was too far away to make out clearly. Once in the boat, the man went about to stuffing the creatures in what appeared to be large, empty rice bags.
“I don’t think they’re badgers. I think they’re some kind of otters. Yeah, that’s an otter.” I was sure. “They’re probably eating the bird eggs.”
“Why ain’t he killing it right then and there? Why bother taking it in?” David was confused.
“Maybe they eat them in the village over there. Might be a delicacy,” Will thought.
“Could be a big ‘ol swamp rat.” said Sam.
“I don’t know… did you see the size of that thing? Rats don’t get that big,” said BC.
“Swamp rats do,” Sam replied.
The trapper now poled the boat back towards shore, and we, along with a handful of Koreans, headed down to the embankment to see the creatures in person. Before he reached the shore, the man reached into the water and grabbed a few handfuls of aquatic plants. Food for the beasties.
I addressed the old man as he drifted in on boat. “Ajosshi, what kind of animals are those?”
“I was right!” Sam was vindicated. Nutrias are an invasive species from South America, a kind of semi-aquatic rodent.
When he reached the shore the trapper lifted one of the creatures out of the bag by the snare and set it on the ground, in front of us and a few gawking, photo snapping Korean tourists. The varmint hissed and gnashed its frighteningly long, yellow front teeth. The thing looked more like a beaver than anything else, though a very ratty beaver. The old man poked at it with the stick for effect, and the critter at once gnawed at the poker.
“Wouldn’t want to stick your finger in there,” Sir David remarked.
The trapper put the nutria back into its bag and hauled both of them down a trail, with the group of us in tow. The trail ended at a large cage, in which the trapped animals were deposited, along with their “feed” that was extracted from the swamp.
“Why are you saving them?” Sir David asked.
“Food.” The old man implied.
Sir David continued: “Are your going to eat them?”
“No!” He shook his head in disgust. “They’re for the lions! The lions in the Seoul Zoo!” He smiled, lit a thin cigarette, and marched off proudly.
“Wow. Lion food. Not a bad idea, really,” remarked BC.
With that, he hiked back to our bikes, fired them up, and made off towards the unfortunate town of Miryang.