Friday, September 4, 2009

Behold, the Platypus

Well, our email has gone unchecked lately. The blog has been quiet. Op-ed writers on the Times web site have opinioned away without reaching us. For the last two weeks or more we have been blissfully out of range of the internet, doing some great traveling in tropical Queensland. More on that soon, but for now I'll catch up with past doings.


Alisa needed a quick visit to the doctor on our sail up the coast, so we pulled into the town of Mackay ("muh-KAI"), a regional hub in sugarcane growing country. There is no anchorage in Mackay, just a marina sitting inside an artificial harbor. Normally we would just do a hit and run in such a place, but our visit to Mackay also gave us the chance to fulfill a quest we've been discussing ever since we came to Oz. So we spent three nights in the marina, and hired a car to boot.

Elias catching a ride in a marina cart. Yes, he is sitting on two cartons of beer.

Once we had taken care of our errands, we spent a day at Eungella National Park, an hour from Mackay. Like every other foreigner who comes to Eungella, we came with the goal of seeing a platypus in the wild. Before staking out the platypus habitat at dusk, we spent a few hours rambling around the upland rainforest of the Finch Hatton Gorge.

Elias taking an apple break in the rainforest.

The "Wheel of Fire" waterhole, at the end of the track. The day was very hot. The water was perfectly cold.

Alisa shamed Elias and me into submerging in the chilly water. Then we kicked it on a sun-warmed rock, ate another apple, and watched the big flock of swifts high overhead.

Along the way, we did some birding, and saw three species we'd never seen before. We didn't get pictures, of course, but I got pics of all three off the web:

Wompoo fruit dove.

Azure kingfisher.

Red-headed honeyeater.

I'm not much of a birder back home, but I love to bird when I travel. Birds are the easiest part of a foreign natural history to learn, and looking for new birds gives you something to do in those odd travel moments when you're waiting for something else to happen. Plus, in the tropics, the there are just so many bird species, and they are so beautiful.

The real quarry, though, was the platypus, which as everyone knows is a monotreme, or an egg-laying mammal, and one of the marquee stars of Australian natural history. Platypus are typically retiring and difficult to see in the wild, but there are one or two spots in the country, like the Broken River in Eungella National Park, where they've become habituated to observers.

And, to break the suspense, we did see one. Most of the people who were at the viewing platform with us had already given up, and it was starting to get dark, when a platypus came paddling down the river below us, diving to the bottom to forage and stirring up mud clouds in the clear water as it probed for food. We watched for ten minutes as it went about its business with no concern for us, and for those ten minutes we were able to behold one of the true curiosities of the world, a sleek little water beast with a duck's beak (a great example of convergent evolution, by the way) that is the only mammal to produce venom (in spurs on the males' hind legs, and strong enough to kill a dog). They're such odd bods of the living world that European naturalists examining the first stuffed specimens to be transported back from Oz immediately assumed they were fakes. And we got to just stand there and watch one do its thing. We even got a pic:

Not bad, considering the light.

It was, in addition to the happy event of seeing a wild platypus, a great all-around day, a reminder of how fun it can be to get away from Pelagic every now and then to do some exploring ashore.
And, now that we have ticked this must-do of our "while in Australia" list, we have been prompted to consider what other items should be on that list. For while we're at that point where our Australian stay seems to stretch unbroken to the time horizons before us and behind, we know that the end will come suddenly, and we'll have the chance then to regret anything that we left undone.


  1. They are indeed very lovely to see. We went looking for them shortly before our wedding, while searching for a suitable place for the ceremony. Along the river in Berrima NSW they gave us a great show; Funny ol' critters...