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Mind Me Platypus Duck, Bill
“Ugh!” sighs Annie as she comes in from the balcony after checking the weather.
It’s a gray, dark, overcast, rainy and windy day.
“I was thinking...” I start to say.
Annie’s head snaps up, “Road trip?” she asks brightly.
I nod ‘yes’, and Annie says “Let’s go – uh, where to?”
My favorite animals are generally marine mammals, but I do have few other ‘favs’ that I must admit to. One of them is that mysterious, exotic, secretive aquatic mammal—the platypus, sometimes called the duck-billed platypus.
They are the only egg laying aquatic mammal (the other egg laying mammal is the echidna), they are endemic to Australia, and they are extremely hard to find in the wild.
It turns out, however, that we are only a mere 186 km (about 100 miles) away from a high coastal mountain range that is home to these wonderful creatures.
We head south towards Mackay and then turn west towards the mist-shrouded mountains that make up the stunning Clarke Range. We are headed to Broken River, near the summit of Mount Damrymple, some 3,900 feet above sea level.
More specifically we are looking for Eungella (pronounced yun-galah) National Park, one of Queensland's most ecologically diverse parks with over 860 plant species including the Eungella honeyeater, one of five new Australian bird species discovered during the past 50 years. And home to the Ornithorhynchus anatinus – the platypus.
“I don’t know much about platypus,” said Annie “but I can’t wait to see one”
“They are fascinating creatures, that look like a mix between a duck (their bill), a beaver (their tail) and an otter (their feet), and they are covered with a soft fur,” I said “and the males have venomous spur near their hind foot.”
To tell you the truth I think I first learned of platypus from a song that was a popular hit in the US in 1963, “Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport”, sung by Rolf Harris. It turns out this song also taught me that the acoustic board is likely the only instrument I could ever play. (See the original youtube video of the song below)
We head through Pioneer Valley past some of Australia’s richest sugar cane growing areas, towards the Clarke Range and Australia's longest and oldest stretch of sub-tropical rainforest, ranging over 110,0 00 acres.
We arrive Broken River and it is cool, misty and cloud enshrouded. As we move quickly to the banks of the river we encounter a sign: ‘The best time to view platypus is from 4 am – 8 am and 3 pm – 7 pm.’ It is 10 am, ‘Argh!’
But it is overcast and they are known to forage on overcast days. Platypuses are bottom feeders. They scoop up insects and larvae, shellfish, and worms in their bill along with bits of gravel and mud from the bottom. They do not have teeth, so the bits of gravel help them to \"chew\" their meal.
Suddenly we see bubbles, then a shape emerge from the bottom. Annie quickly pulls out the camera. A longneck turtle emerges. Exciting, but no platypus. Over the course of the next two hours we see dozens of turtles, but nary a glimpse of our duck-billed friend.
We decide to cruise the park, and head to the Eungella Dam. This is a depressing sight seeing bush land flooded to capture water for humanity.
We head back for lunch and wander through the rainforest.
At 4 pm we arrive back at Broken River. “I’m feeling lucky,” says a confident Annie.
As we watch and wait, three kookaburra shout out their laugh-like cry in unison.
“Even the locals are laughing at us standing in the rain,” I say.
Overhead, seeds fall, as a large noisy, colorful red and blue parrot enjoys an afternoon snack.
“Kerplunk!” goes the delicate and wonderfully colored kingfisher as he dives into the river at our feet.
I feel like its groundhog day and we are waiting for Punxsutawney Phil to emerge.
Then a small, steady ripple appears near the opposite bank. A platypus has just emerged from its muddy burrow. It slowly circles the area for about a minute. Annie is clicking away. And then it disappears.
“A platypus! I saw one!” she exclaims.
We wait a couple more hours and seeing nothing more we head for home through the fog and mist.
It is winter, and the breeding season. The females don’t come out much once they have laid their eggs, and the males don’t wander too far from the females. We were lucky to have seen one.
Like watching whales, seeing just one platypus is not enough – we’ll be back -- next time at the crack of dawn.