CONTINUED FROM LAST WEEK

 

“Go away, possum!” Lisa clapped her hands emphatically. “Go ‘way!”

 

It was late – I don’t know how late. The birds were silent. We were alone in the campground. We’d gone to sleep soon after dusk, crawling, sorely, into our one-and-a-half-man tent following a long day’s hike. After the customary tossing, turning and grumbling, we’d fallen into the usual uneasy slumber.

 

It was soon disturbed. In the vestibule outside Lisa’s door, where we’d stashed our food and garbage, there came a rustling – at first tentative, then more deliberate. It woke Lisa. She waited for the sound to repeat. It might have been the wind. It repeated. It wasn’t the wind. She clapped her hands as she would when addressing a dog and shouted:

 

“Go ‘way, possum!”

 

Her shout had one immediate effect: it cleared the drowse from my head instantly. It did not, however, disturb in the slightest the snooping of our marsupial marauder.

 

Then, on my side of the tent (where there was no food) came a brushing sound, much like a hairy rodent moving past the rain-fly. Very much like it. And another. And, at our feet, another.

 

We were surrounded.

 

It was a Blair Witch moment. All our food was imperiled. We were alone, the sole target of a hungry possum army. We had to save the victuals. (All that oatmeal, that precious, precious oatmeal … ) And stop our garbage from being spread all over the campground. But that meant leaving the safety of the tent.

 

Before the full weight of our situation had sunk in, Lisa had unzipped her mummy bag, unzipped her door and pulled the food inside. But the garbage had been seized.

 

I barely had a chance to register what was happening and she was gone. Then I heard the screams.

 

“What is it?”

 

No answer.

 

“Are you all right?”

 

Another scream. Or rather, a startledcry. “Oh!”

 

Lisa had gathered up our garbage, which was strewn about the camp, bits of banana peel, a salmon tin, crumpled noodle packages and granola bar wrappers. She scared the chief offender up a tree. Then she turned around.

 

Beady red eyes stared at her out of the darkness. Two, four, six, eight of them, shining menacingly in the dim light of her headlamp. Suddenly one of the fuzzy reprobates charged. Really it was just going for a stray wrapper, but it looked like a charge. And Lisa yelped.

 

Before I could get out of my sleeping bag she was back in the tent, panting, her face pale in the faint moonlight. “They’re everywhere,” she confirmed. “Possums everywhere. Big as cats.”

 

“If they try to take the tent, we’re doomed,” I said, marshaling my thoughts for a plan of action. None emerged. (I have no head for strategy.) All we could do was wait out the night, hoping these nocturnal nasties weren’t advanced enough to attack en masse.

 

It was the least restful night of our hike, possibly of our trip so far. A few hours before dawn we lapsed into sleep. By 7:30 we had to be up to prepare breakfast, pack up and hit the trail: We had to reach our first tidal crossing by low tide, at 9 a.m.

 

On our way out of the Bark Bay camp we ran into Lew one last time. I mentioned our experience of the night before, expecting some sort of surprise, as there were no signs warning campers to protect their food from four-legged bandits.

 

“Oh sure,” Lew said matter-of-factly. “Possums. You would see lots of them hereabouts. Lots of possum trouble around here.” He gave us a big toothy smile to send us on our way.

 

***

 

The rest of our hike was blessed by unseasonably warm weather, without a drop of rain. Not until we were in the process of boarding the water taxi that took us back to Melba at the trailhead in Marahau did we see any kind of inclemency, any high winds, any dark clouds. It was a perfect hike.

 

We were lucky in more than just the weather. Our third night, at the campground in Awaroa, was also spent in uninterrupted privacy – besides the nonstop pelt of sandflies on our tent roof, a sound like sprinkling rain. We had no further possum trouble after our Bark Bay night of terror.

 

Our last tidal crossing, at the often-tricky Awaroa Inlet, went flawlessly. We tramped over muddy forest tracks and serene beaches, beaches without footprints beside sun-smeared bays, twinkling with whitecaps, sprays of mist hovering across the water’s surface. (Greene, describing Africa: “The long fingers of the palm leaves quite still which in the smallest suspicion of a breeze begin to play like fingers on a piano.” Here it was the same, until the last day, when the winds picked up, threatening gale.) Then, suddenly, we were done. Totaranui loomed up abruptly, just as we got into the Day Four rhythm.

 

A day after we left the track the big storm came down off the highlands and lashed the coast with whipping curtains of rain.

 

So ended the first of our three Great Walks. Up next, after some 10 days moving south along the west coast of the South Island: the Milford and Routeburn tracks, back-to-back. Eight days of cold, probably wet, wilderness, some of the best in the world. It will be early in the season. We can hardly expect the kind of good fortune we had on Abel Tasman.