We were hot, sweaty, and exhausted. Sand and dirt coated our arms and legs. My skin that had been browning was beginning to look suspiciously red. We were miles along the Abel Tasman trail on the northern tip of the south island of New Zealand at the end of November. It was paradise with gorgeous tropical beaches falling into the turquoise waters of the channel between the two islands. Palm trees and ferns dotted the trail as we wove over the hills and along the beaches, never too far from the picturesque view of the water. The aches in our backs had long ago gone numb and we moved with the hunched postures of those with perhaps a little too much weight on their backs.
But despite the beauty and the freedom, it was hard not to feel homesick as we finally dropped our packs at the end of the day. It was Thanksgiving back home, and it was hard not to think of houses packed with friends, family, food, and football. Brittney and I knew this day would come when we had put together our three month trip to New Zealand. That we would be, first the first time, away from everything that made the holiday memorable. We sat on the beach watching hikers trudge up and down the beach and kayakers scooting back and forth at the mouth of the bay.
Digging through our packs we debated what should do the honor of being Thanksgiving dinner. There was a couple packages of some pre cooked pasta, and two boxes of curry; one red, one yellow, complete with compressed zip-locks of chicken and the smallest servings of rice I’d ever seen. We decided nothing could be more traditional than pre cooked curry as we had sadly polished off the macaroni and cheese two nights before. Unceremoniously we dropped our dinner into water suspended perilously on top of the camp stove and watched dinner roar to a boil.
We stretched out in the shade of the trees and polished off Thanksgiving dinner in about five minutes. Slowly the sun began to fade, and the stars, devoid of artificial lights began to creep out, the trees casting shadows from the full moon rising over the ocean. Exhausted with another 15-miles on our legs we crawled into our tent, putting an end to our first southern hemisphere Thanksgiving. Or at least, so we thought.
I was asleep before my head hit the canvas floor of the tent, my eyes felt like they had just closed when I felt Brittney shaking me awake again.
“Did you hear that?” She asked sitting upright in the tent, her head grazing the roof. “It sounded like an animal screaming outside.”
Groggily I listened for maybe half a second, muttered, “no,” and promptly fell back asleep. Minutes later something pulled me out of my sleep again, but this time it wasn’t my wife’s hand on my shoulder, but something outside, rustling around our tent. Our tent had an extended fly, allowing you to be outside the interior while staying out of the elements. It was in these small gaps that we’d been keeping our backpacks with our food, wallets, clothes, and everything else vital to our survival in this unexplored frontier that was New Zealand.
Just on the outside of the fly on my side, was the rustling. A million worst case scenarios begin rushing through my sleep addled brain. Was it the gruesome threesome from The Strangers? The aliens from Signs that had terrified me since I saw the movie when I was 11? Or just your typical escaped lunatic dead set on murdering innocent Alaskan raised hikers in there sleep? No, it had to be that German quartet that had set up there tent across the clearing from us. As my mind slowly slogged through the possibilities, the sound grew closer until the fly moved, whatever it was, it was inside the fly. I’d propped my pack upright, leaning against the tent, its’ silhouette dark against the light background of the fly. As I stared at the outline, it suddenly fell away from me toward the opening, the collision muffled by the grass.
I could hear the pack being rummaged through as I’d left the top open. Camping in a land devoid of bears, my packing had become plenty lazy. This was beyond fear now though. My trail mix, the elixir of life was in the top of the bag, it must be saved. I sat upright, my fingers fumbling for the zipper, and bellowed with as much intimidation as I could muster, “hey!” In a spasm Brittney came awake, flailing her arms and legs as she threw the sleeping bag from her.
I finally locate the zipper only to realize my legs are still pinned within my own bag, I kick, trying to free myself. In the moonlight I can see my bag of trail mix, seemingly pulled by an invisible hand free of the back pack.
“What is it?” Brittney asks, her voice filled with terror.
I search for words of comfort to reassure her, to let her know that I had the situation under control, that her husband was here to protect her. “I… I don’t know!” So much for bed side manner.
I break free of the sleeping bag and spring from the tent. A small shadow was dragging the bag of food toward the forest, with another yelp, the creature dropped the trail mix and retreated to the woods. Brittney was clambering over my shoulder trying to see, unsure if she should fight, run, or laugh at me. “It’s ok,” I say, searching for something reassuring “it’s… it’s kinda cute,” still with no idea what the heck it was.
Trail mix securely back in the backpack we dug out head lamps and looked into the trees to find at least seven pairs of glowing orange eyes emitting from the forest. We stare at each other, “what are they?”
“They don’t have lemurs here do they?” (Hey we were still basically still asleep).
Whatever they were, they were clearly not aliens, masked murderers, or lunatics. Food securely at our feet behind the impenetrable zipper we crawled back into our bags and tried to fall asleep to the pitter patter of the, “lemurs” (ok they were opossums).