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November 2013 Issue
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Playing possum

Just to be clear, possums don’t belong in huts, OK?
An usual hut guest overstays his welcome, by Martin Jones

The first thing we noticed as we walked through the door of the hut was the possum. In broad daylight, inside a hut full of people. It was something of a shock and it was probably our surprise that saved it. Our first instinct was to extinguish the little perisher, the agent of destruction of our native forests. But this wholly unexpected encounter gave us pause to think. A possum, in a hut, in day time? With people?

Our bemused expressions elicited friendly laughter from the gathered trampers, before they explained this particular possum was a pet. Orphaned at birth by a sensible and accurate farmer, it had come into the care of Max, a young bloke living in Tauranga. As a wild bush dweller, this possum was rather a failure and Max was in the monthly habit of carrying his young charge into the Kaimai bush for a few days to “enculturate” it – to make it bush-competent.

Our unspoken recommendation was to make it extinction-competent right then and there, but such a suggestion would have made us highly unpopular so we bit our tongues. It was a case of live and let live.

This possum was only a pup, somewhat helpless and pathetic, and as with most babies it easily endeared itself to the other (urban dwelling) trampers.

As the evening drew in we got to playing cards by candlelight. Tonight in backcountry huts all over New Zealand there will be people doing the same. Not a particularly memorable evening, although what does stick in my mind is the sight of the young possum sitting like a Davy Crockett hat on someone’s head, claws entwined in her hair, fast asleep in the light of the hurricane lamp while its perch played cards.

The hut, like many backcountry huts, consisted of one large room, one end of which was given over to two large communal ‘bunks’; a lower wooden surface and an upper, each wide enough for about 10 sleeping bags side by side.

Three of us settled into the upper bunk, myself centre, Max the possum-owner and his pet at one side, Shawn at the other. The more popular lower bunk contained the other seven. After a strenuous day’s tramp, a hearty meal and a couple of hours of cards, it was easy to fall asleep – indeed, we all needed to, particularly as the following day promised more of the same.

So a peaceful calm settled on the hut. No sounds of traffic, sirens, aeroplanes, humming refrigerators or dripping taps, just the night-sounds of the bush:  a distant morepork’s call, the faint gurgle of a stream over rocks, the occasional rustle as the breeze stirred the treetops. All very soothing.

It must have been about three in the morning when I was woken by something small, wet and rubbery moving over my face, accompanied by little snuffling noises. Possums are nocturnal animals and our furry friend was on his nightly roam – at least that instinct was intact.

I lay rigidly wide awake, deliberately not making a fuss for fear of waking the others, while the possum investigated my face, chewed my hair (I’m being eaten in my sleep by this creature!), clambered onto my chest, snuffled at my fingers and nibbled at the very tips of them. It then moved down my legs, one paw at a time, slipping a little on the sheer sleeping bag fabric. A little more snuffling down near my toes, then silence.

I lay there with my eyes wide open, straining to hear what it was up to, intensely alert to sounds or tiny movements.

After a few moments I heard, felt, or sensed in my ultra-alert state the little possum on the move again – apparently making its way towards Shawn. I waited to feel the nibbling again or hear the snuffling as it returned to its owner.

I lay there like that, waiting for hours. In fact, the grey light of dawn crept in to find me rigid, staring at the ceiling, ears alert to any sound, carefully keeping quiet for the sake of the other sleepers in the hut. It really was very, very quiet. That deathly quiet of the pre-dawn when all nocturnal creatures have returned to their lairs, diurnal ones have not yet stirred and all snores have long since petered out.

Actually, now that I thought about it there had been very little snoring in the hut that night.

We reluctantly and groggily arose, one by one, from our sleeping bag huddles, one to light a fire, another struggling into boots and stamping off to the long-drop while another started up a hissing stove and someone staggered off with a billy towards the stream.

I chatted with Shawn, complaining of my lack of sleep due to the possum, and the fact that I had remained motionless and silent throughout its ramblings so as not to wake anyone else.

A silent pause.

Then he told me that exactly the same thing had happened to him. He too had lain awake for a good portion of the night. It transpired that everyone in the hut – excluding Max, who had slept soundly for a solid eight hours – had had the same experience. Awoken by a cold, wet snuffling, amused by a tickling exploration, then lying quietly awake until the dawn, thinking that everyone else was fast asleep.

One scrawny little possum had kept nine people awake all night.

For a few dangerous seconds, there was murder in everyone’s heart but when the blood posse turned towards the corner where the oblivious Max still lay, a tiny bundle of fur perched asleep on his chest, we all saw the humour and indulged in a communal chuckle. A city possum had got the better of city people.

And so we chatted through breakfast, shaking our heads at the irony of it all; we giggled as we packed up for the day’s hike, tut-tutting at how the little critter had put one over on us; we all gave hearty laughs as we hoisted our packs and farewelled Max who strolled off, possum perched on top of his head.

Then, as one, the nine of us bent down, each hoisted a clod of earth and hurled it towards their departing figures.