There’s a Mary Oliver poem dear to my heart that describes a memorable encounter with alligators in Florida. A line in the poem goes something like, “and that’s how I almost died/of foolishness/ in beautiful Florida”. Oliver often speaks to my own observations and experience– but, this time, even more fittingly than usual.
A few weeks ago, I found myself in Queenstown for just one night, an extended layover between the buses that would take me from my meanders through the New Zealand Southlands back towards Christchurch. Queenstown is in a beautiful place, ringed by mountains on the edge of Lake Wakatipu. It’s also a resort town, billed as “adrenaline capital of the world”, and appropriately swarming with 20-somethings that like hooking up and talking about bungee jumping. All fine, in theory, but not what I was looking for– so I bowed out of my hostel just before the pub crawl kicked off, and headed precisely the opposite direction: away from town, towards the mountains. The main streets of town lead straight toward a hilltop popular for the gondola ride you can take to a view at the top, but there’s also a track that zigs and zags its way up the other side of the slope. This is where I headed at 9 pm, my ballet flat-clad feet beating a hasty escape from the resort town below. When I left, there was still plenty of light to see by, and I figured I’d head uphill as far as I could, then turn and make it back down before long summer twilight deepened into night.
The climb was steep but enjoyable. I popped in my iPod, and met just a few others on the path (all dressed responsibly in proper hiking boots, and all heading downhill. I scoffed at them, internally, as I shimmied past.). A few times, I passed through dark stands of pine trees and thought, “Yep, it’s getting on the darkish side”– but still carried on until 9:30. Then I turned in my tracks and headed downhill, responsibly.
I wasn’t a quarter of the way back before I’d lost decent light to see with– and somehow the track I’d envisioned zipping down much faster than I’d toiled up took, in fact, more care to descend (especially in ballet flats, which, while incredibly stylish, are a bit lacking in the traction department). But it was okay– I figured my eyes would adjust, and anyways I was unlikely to get lost with the gleaming lights of Queenstown below me. All I had to do was just keep going downhill, and do try not to skid off the side of the mountain– easy enough, even in the dark. I kept listening to music and kept descending, slipping every so often on the steep trail but bopping along just fine.
Until, that is, I saw a dark shape leap into a tree just in front of me.
I stopped, skid a bit on the dusty track, and yanked the headphones out of my ears. I could hear scrabbling coming from the dark shape, now, and could just see a long tail hanging from the tree branch– a feral cat, or….a possum! The long-discussed, bird-mangling, scourge-to-all-kiwis, possum! I’d heard, endlessly, about their massive populations, but hadn’t expected to actually see one. I flashed on my iPhone’s flashlight, and the possum’s eyes shone back at me. Excited, I snapped a picture– then yelped as it began to move back down the tree in my direction. I leapt uphill from the trail, scrambling behind the paltry protection of a tiny sapling, convinced that the possum was coming for me. “Can possums carry rabies?” I wondered. “They’re marsupials– so no? Or is it rodents that can’t carry rabies?” Clearly a relatively useless train of thought, and much less helpful than grabbing a stick to fend off he possum if it went rogue– but luckily, the creature changed its course and scurried away up another tree.
Cautiously, I left my sapling and continued down the trail. I kept my flashlight on, and every shadow looming from the rocky track became a possum in my head. Every clatter of a rock falling down the hillside became the sound of claws on tree trunk. I flung myself from the track a few more times in full-on escape mode, coming close to rolling right down the mountainside in the process. It was during this time that I began to reflect, even as I kept my ears pricked for more voracious possums, that perhaps it was a tad stupid to go for a night hike on an unfamiliar mountain at a 45 degree slope without telling anyone or wearing proper shoes. But what can I say, except–that’s how I almost died/ Of foolishness / An eighth of a mile away from Queenstown.
But, happily, the conclusion’s evident: I didn’t really come close to death, and eventually made it down the mountain in one dusty, paranoid piece.
And on reflection, I’m glad to have come face-to-face with the infamous possum. Maybe my level of alarm was not entirely warranted for a 10 pound predator best known for attacking defenseless birds’ eggs– but I think it means I’m really starting to identify with the Kiwi (bird or person, I’ll let you decide)…
And I’m taking that as a good sign.
Until next time,
PS: Oh. Does this post need some natural history? The brushtail possum, Trichosurus vulpecula, was introduced to New Zealand in 1837 for fur-hunting, and subsequently exploded in population thanks to the abundance of easy-pickings eggs from naive native birds. Current population estimates stand somewhere near 70 million, which means they outnumber human New Zealanders about 15-to-1.