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12.04.2013

Pursuing The Platypus

The platypus is an animal that looks like it was designed in a pub, by a committee, the night before it was due. To make one at home, you'll need a duck bill, a small beaver, four webbed feet, a venomous spur, some spare parts (like five X chromosomes), and a watch battery to operate the electrosensitive bill. Place the platypus in a slow-moving stream with muddy banks where it can dig itself a little daytime burrow to rest in.

There are a few anatomical giveaways that the platypus was a rush job (for example, they forgot to give it nipples, so that it has to sweat milk through its skin), but for the most part it holds together well. The animal itself seems fat and happy, and it certainly thrives in Australia. Despite its famous oddness, the platypus is not an endangered species. It's not even particularly rare. The Australian name for the beast—water mole—gives you a sense of the excitement and child-like wonder it arouses in the local population.

I remember walking in Manhattan once and coming across a group of tourists who were taking pictures of a pigeon. I have no idea where they were from, but it was clear they had never seen such a bird before and were charmed by all the stupid pigeon things it was doing. New Yorkers had stopped to stare at them in rank amazement. I think of this little tableau often in Australia, whenever I am struck dumb with wonder by a native animal.

The local people try to be diplomatic. They agree it's nice to appreciate nature, and sporting of us to have come all this way to look at their fauna. But gush too long about the majesty of the kangaroo and their attention will wander. These animals are as captivating to the average Australian as a raccoon is to us: neat in principle, but you'd happily see it extinct after the second time it disembowels your garbage can. The only animal Australians reliably want to talk about is the grizzly bear. On a continent whose mightiest carnivore was the size of a German shepherd, and whose biggest existing one is no bigger than a beagle, the grizzly bear keeps a firm grip on the imagination.

But who needs bears when you can see a platypus?

The platypus inhabits Tasmania, most of the east coast of Australia, and the nightmares of the little worms and crustaceans that are its primary food. One of the many things distinguishing it from other mammals is a soft electrosensory bill, which can sense delectable muscle contractions in prey animals as they try to escape. To a platypus, fear is an appetizer. The creature's brain integrates these minute electrical currents with its equally acute sense of touch, giving it a vivid and unimaginably alien mental picture of the stream bottom. It dives with its eyes closed.

To try to spot a platypus, I've ventured into the Atherton Tableland, an upland plateau stretching from Innisfail to Port Douglas in the northern part of the animal's range. While the Northern Queensland coast is unabashedly tropical, with lush rain forest that runs directly onto postcard beaches, the Atherton Tableland looks more like Iowa, albeit an Iowa with a thriving banana industry. If the air conditioning is working, there's little to remind you how close you are to the Equator. The tableland is a sleepy and bucolic region of farms and old mining towns, one of which, Yungaburra, boasts a platypus viewing area.

On the map, Yungaburra looks like it should be easy drive from Townsville. This is a joke my map loves to play. Like the American West coast, the area is so thinly settled that you are constantly embarking on thirteen-hour drives to places you thought you'd visit for lunch. I'm dismayed but not particularly surprised to find myself still in the car at nightfall, climbing a series of switchbacks to the relatively high elevation of the tableland. Once on top, I pass through a series of one-horse towns that are boarded up for the night even though it's only eight o'clock. Between the towns, the darkness is Stygian.

Yungaburra is a tin mining town that's lately turned to bed-and-breakfast tourism. The platypus viewing area is just a little blind next to a spot where the road crosses a stream. You can stand behind it and aim your camera without spooking the platypus, although you can equally easily stand in the reeds and the platypus will still ignore you. The Yungaburra platypus have adapted to the paparazzi.

The biggest challenges in platypus photography are finding adequate light, predicting where the beasts will surface, and getting your shot before a fellow enthusiast elbows past you. The platypus rove along the bottom at a brisk clip, working their way back and forth along the river banks, and they don't stay on the surface for very long.

I make my first attempt at dawn, when the animals are supposed to be active, but I've underestimated how quickly the tropical sun pops into the sky. By the time I've had some tea and walked the half-mile to the creek, Old Scorchy is already well overhead, and it's broad daylight. I settle for a nice morning walk along the creekside trail, which slaloms through a typical thicket of informational placards. No one can touch Australians when it comes to stretching a thimbleful of local history into hundreds of board-feet of laminated prose.

I learn that Ron Darvis used to amuse himself by dropping rocks into the creek from the bridge, which washed away in the mid-sixties, leaving only memories. Ivan Johns recounts how, in his youth, he used to cross the bridge to get to the other side of the creek. How he effected the crossing in later years is not revealed. Billy Duplock once minded the pump across the stream, which is also gone, but back in the day it was powered by coal. You may spot a lump of coal by the stream, if you're lucky. And over here lies the concrete slab the pump used to stand on. They say that late at night, you could hear old Billy playing his cornet from all the way back in the village. How we laughed!

Feeling a little overwhelmed, I turn my attention to the creek. Decades of minutely-recorded history may be flowing before me, but there's no sign of platypus. The only animals visible are water striders, skating energetically back and forth across the coffee-colored surface. Their ripples make pretty interlocking patterns on the water.

I stand quietly for a few minutes, hoping that a shy platypus will relent and poke out its bill. Then I hear a rustling and a scratching behind me, back on the trail. I turn around as slowly as I can, and my heart catches in my throat. A gorgeous big bird, resembling a wild turkey but with a bright red head and yellow wattle, has wandered onto the footpath and started raking at the leaf litter. It clearly doesn't know I'm here. Every few seconds it stops to look around, or to tug at an itchy spot in its feathers, and then goes back to its task.

I try not to breathe, elated by my good luck. By keeping still to see the platypus, I've given myself a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see this beautiful mystery bird instead.

But I don't get to savor the moment for long. A jogger is crashing along the trail, heading inexorably towards us. He emerges in a cacophony of broken twigs and crunching leaves, nearly knocking the bird over with his foot. I expect to see it disappear in a flurry of alarm calls and feathers. But the bird doesn't even look up. It just keeps on raking, intent on its task and clucking softly to itself. I take a tentative step forward—nothing. I walk right up to it—still nothing. The only reaction I can get from the thing is an annoyed glance if I stand too close to the leaf pile.

This is the problem with Australia. As a visitor, you lack a frame of reference. I have just met my first brush turkey, a native whose fearless single-mindedness has earned it the enmity of every suburban gardener in Queensland. The brush turkey roams the lawns and gardens of decent folk during breeding season determined to cover any available surface with a tall pyramid of rotting vegetation. The male tends the mound to keep it at the right temperature for incubating eggs in. His incessant raking, combined with laws that make it a crime to touch or even speak harsh words to a native animal, drive homeowners to despair.

The Wildlife Queensland website puts it best:

Favorable conditions provided by this tree-canopy and high available feeding resources replicate their preferred closed forest habitat. This has changed the micro-climate of otherwise “turkey-unfriendly suburbs” into turkey utopia.

The sight of your backyard bush-landscape being converted into an unattractive pile of decomposing compost matter is enough to infuriate any proud home owner. With his powerful legs and insatiable desire to mound and breed, the suburban backyard is no match for these industrious birds. A single male is capable of raking material into the mound from not only yours, but also surrounding neighbours’ yards, when required.

That desire to breed is bad news for local domesticated chickens, particularly black-feathered chickens, who go on to hatch a generation of hideous and distressingly vital turkey-chicken hybrids. "It really is what you’d expect a half chicken, half turkey to look like – just this weird little thing".

The only legal way to get rid of a brush turkey is to call a professional. But it's hardly worth the bother, or the money, since the brush turkey is not easily deterred. The bird has a work ethic that, if it weren't being used against them, suburbanites would envy. Illegal ways of getting rid of brush turkeys (short of murder, which really brings down the hammer of Australian environmental law) are equally futile. Spray them with a hose, chase them with dogs, fence in your garden—you will struggle in vain. These birds must rake.

The bush turkey fits a pattern where Australian animals in contact with people either head straight for extinction or flourish beyond all reason. The Wildlife Queensland website lists a whole menagerie of other misery-inflicting birds. While the brush turkey is destroying your garden, you'll be busy fending off swooping birds that dive-bomb you if you get within a hundred meters of the nest they've built on top of your house.

There are several species of swoopers, but the Australian magpie is the most notorious. For most of the year, this sweet-voiced bird is the ornament of any garden. But when his eggs hatch, the air war begins. The male bird will aggressively defend his territory, and takes a particularly dim view of cyclists. There is all kinds of helpful advice for dealing with magpies, including upbeat, crafty ideas like affixing googly eyes and pipe cleaners to your bike helmet. How well this self-abasement works in practice is another matter.

The dark truth is that magpies are crafty, unpredictable, individualistic, and really smart. And they really seem to hate bike helmets. You can sense the undernote of despair running through the chirpy official advice on how to cope with them:

Do not return after an encounter. Australian magpies have an incredible memory (as with all members of the Corvid family, they are very intelligent) and will attack the same people again and again. It is also too bad if you happen to look like someone they attacked before...

Be aware that very aggressive magpies can attack from the ground, aiming for the face and eyes. These are problem birds and you should alert the Parks or Environment Department in your State or Territory immediately. If you encounter a bird in this situation, cover and protect your eyes no matter what else and move yourself out of the situation.

So to summarize: if a magpie harasses you, remain calm, walk quickly out of its territory, and start a new life.

While swooping magpies, butcher birds, and plovers harass your person, other species specialize in destroying property. The kookaburra is notorious for becoming obsessed with windows, and will peck relentlessly at its reflection until every human being within fifty meters has been rendered insane. A corvid called the Little Raven will "occasionally develop the habit of pulling windscreen wiper blades and windscreen rubbers from cars. These articles are then discarded." The site charitably suggests that wiper blades contain a chemical similar to the smell of a rotting carcass, confusing the birds. Another theory is that Little Ravens are just big jerks.

And your children aren't safe, either. The Australian White Ibis has their number. "In some schools, the teachers train children how not to be intimidated by ibis. Otherwise the birds have been known to run up to the little kids and snatch their sandwiches out of their hands."

The latest in the catalogue of animal miseries to hit Brisbane has been the flying fox, a large and highly social kind of bat. This gregarious, nocturnal, and very vocal animal roosts in trees and makes an unearthly amount of noise in the pre-dawn hours. At least one pair of homeowners has been driven to the despair of using an air horn to try to scare them off their new home in a tree right by the couple's window. Their lawyer makes a plaintive appeal to lovers of order everywhere. "Clearly, these noisy, defecating, Hendra virus and lyssavirus-carrying creatures are not meant to be in suburbia, especially in such large numbers"

But it's really suburbia that's not meant to be in Brisbane.

I can't empathize with Queenslanders' attempt to impose one of the world's dullest landscapes on their incredible corner of the planet. Australian animals get few victories, and should be allowed to relish the ones they're given. From their perspective, we're the noisy, defecating, virus-carrying creatures that ruined their neighborhood a long time ago.

If the brush turkey were afraid of people, tourists like me would pay hundreds of dollars and endure great discomfort and hardship to travel into its territory, lying in blinds for half the day in hope of catching a glimpse of his magnificent compost heap. But since the brush turkey doesn't hide from people, no one gives him a second look. There are no bird watchers stalking the Noisy Miner or posting an excited Facebook status because they've just lost an eye to a magpie.

Before the day is out, I find myself shooing brush turkeys off the footpath so they don't interfere with my search for the platypus. The bird is just as striking as when I first saw it, but now it's just a pretty pest, because it's not afraid of me.

Failing to find a platypus at sunrise, I drive back a few days later to try my luck at dusk. On the way I stop at the Marreba Wetlands nature reserve.

You can't tell just by looking what is primeval and what is recent in Australia. The climate here is weird, aperiodic, and prone to abrupt shifts. Places that look like Mars today may have been lush and green just a few decades back. Other areas, like the Daintree rain forest, have not changed in tens of millions of years.

The Mareeba wetlands are a good example. On their face, they look like a slice of real Australia that somehow escaped being turned into sugar cane plantation like the surrounding country. But twenty years ago, Mareeba was bare, a piece of nuisance wasteland that a far-thinking developer decided to restock with local plants. The new marsh attracted birds, fast-growing eucalypts grew along its edges, the termites came in to deal with the fallen leaves, and today the park looks like it's been here forever.

Pulling into the parking lot, I see a young couple standing by their car, looking over their hood at an emu. The emu is trying to circle over to their side to ask them a question. They are circling in the same direction, skeptical of the bird's intentions. It's not clear how long this dance has been going on, but the couple seems happy to see me, while the emu is frankly delighted. He abandons his pursuit and heads over to my car with what I can't help but notice are very rapid strides. The couple is watching me with a mixture of relief and curiosity as I step out of the car, propelled by some kind of idiot bravado. They have been wondering for some time now what happens when you let the emu reach you, and I am about to demonstrate it for them. I feel a sudden longing to get inside the visitors' center.

It's hard not to quail when an emu stares you in the eye. The bird keeps its head absolutely level as it walks, which has a hypnotic effect. Its eye level is my eye level. The emu has big eyes, gorgeous eyelashes, and much too sharp a beak. I break eye contact for an instant to admire the three large claws, so similar in shape and purpose to those of the cassowary.

Articles that describe the emu call it "inquisitive", and I have little doubt that this bird's natural curiosity has been reinforced by a daily flow of treats, given perhaps less than willingly by a stream of visitors. I have nothing to give the bird, and the emu and I stand for a while digesting this fact. I can see the couple edging their way to the visitors' center, and I start backing towards it myself, with the emu matching my steps like a tango partner.

The visitors' center is cool and pleasant, with two rangers on duty. They roll their eyes at our close encounter. "Ah yeah, that's Steven. He's a bit of a pest." One of the rangers asks which path I'm going to follow, and hands me a photocopied sheet showing carefully drawn places of interest (a statue, a termite mound) along the trail. I must take great care not to crease this, and return it in the bin when I've completed my loop. And I should probably re-apply my sunscreen.

I take the loop trail around the central pond. Steven stays in the parking lot. The landscape here is red and sere, punctuated with termite mounds. They are sun-baked and very tall, and most betray no sign of activity on the outside. In places where fragments have broken off the mound, you can see that it's an intricate three-dimensional maze of tunnels. Here and there a thread of termites, which look just like ants, wends its way across the top of a termite mound. The structures are big, some upwards of two meters, and arrestingly alien. The termites, equipped with special gut bacteria to digest cellulose, are one of the few organisms that consume dead vegetation. The size of the mounds testifies to the fecundity of these fast-growing eucalypts, constantly shedding their leaves and branches in hopes of starting a fire.

It’s early afternoon as I start my walk, and it’s oppressively hot and still. I’m a little nervous about surprising a snake on the footpath, but the only reptiles around are tiny lizards that skitter away as I approach. The pond is surrounded by a thick bed of reeds, and as I get closer I can hear a number of animals shuffling around in there. A black boar steps out through a gap in the reeds, snorfling to himself, and nearly has a heart attack when he notices me. I have never seen a wild animal do a double take, but I see it now, and he is a cartoon mess of flailing limbs as he turns himself around, falls over, and sprints squealing back into cover. I hear the thunder of several other pigs running for their lives, and then everything gets quiet again.

Back at the ranger’s station the ranger gives me a careful, appraising look reserved for tourists who have been a long time in the sun. She pours me a big glass of water, and then immediately another. I ask her about the pigs.

“Ah, they’re a problem. They tear everything up.”

“How do you take care of them?”

She mimes firing a rifle.

"But we usually wait until the tourists are gone."

"What about… what about Steven?"

"Can't. He's native."

I get back in the car, but I can't resist stopping at the various orchards on the way down to Yungaburra, to see what is growing. Banana trees are easy enough to spot; they look like a kid's drawing of a palm tree and have their single bunch of fruit prominently wrapped in blue plastic. Australia is self-sufficient in bananas and prohibits imports, for fear of introducing exotic diseases that have so far spared the continent. This means Aussies eat three-dollar bananas whenever a major cyclone hits Queensland. If you want an exciting time at the airport, pull out a banana on your way through customs.

Beyond the banana plantation is a grove of broad, round lychee trees covered in nets. Flexible poles have been set up among them with fake soaring raptor outlines affixed at the top to deter lychee-loving birds. And just past the lychee orchard is an honest-to-goodness coffee plantation. I've never seen coffee growing before. The plants are set up in long, parallel hedges, but it's the wrong season to visit; the coffee hasn't even started to flower yet. There's a coffee museum nearby with informational placards, but I'm not falling for those again.

It's getting late in the afternoon. As I drive south, the orchards turn to pasture, and I pass large herds of cows. Ever since arriving in Queensland, I've been enjoying the delicious local yogurt, but I couldn't figure out where the dairy farms were. A cow down in Port Douglas or Cairns seemed as likely to spontaneously combust as to produce milk, but it appears the climate up on the tableland is survivable. With the sun low in the sky over broad pastures, the resemblance to the American Midwest grows more striking. All that's missing are grain silos and Jesus.

I arrive in Yungaburra with the sun just about to set, and this time I remember to move quickly. My progress up the creek trail is a semi-ridiculous combination of running fast (while the fading light lasts) and freezing in place to see if a platypus will surface. I see brief movement on a muddy flat spot on the other side of the creek. It's some kind of animal, grooming itself, just the right size to be a platypus. But it straightens itself out into a disappointing pigeon.

I can see other solitary figures nearby, walking or standing in the reeds, mostly white-haired men draped with cameras. A passing fellow reassures me that platypus have been spotted further upstream.

Finally, near some picnic tables, there's a gentle splashing, and the unmistakable figure of a platypus pops to the surface, comically buoyant and paddling energetically forward. The platypus doesn't stay on the surface too long, just a few seconds between dives, but I can track its progress on the bottom by following a trail of lighter-colored mud that its digging sends to the surface, and then a steady fusillade of little bubbles when it is almost ready to come to the surface. It is very fat and floats like a cork, but has no trouble disappearing in an instant when it's time to dive again.

There are platypus further upstream, too. They aren't hunting together, but they don't seem to resent one another's presence, or notice us at all. I watch the platypus supper club and take unusable photos until it gets too dark to see, and then try to find the way back to my car through a landscape that has suddenly started to look very strange. Over my head, flying foxes are streaming out of the forest, getting ready to make it a big night for Atherton’s fruit trees. I'm used to them making a big racket at nightfall as they hang out in a fruit tree, but here they are all business, hundreds and hundreds of cat-sized animals silhouetted against the dark-blue sky, flying very fast and without making a sound.

A few days earlier, in Daintree, I had stood in front of a basket of what appeared to be eucalyptus branches. Even after being prompted, it took several seconds of hard staring before I spotted the stick insect. Then I saw another, and a third, and that realized with a jolt that the bucket contained almost noting but stick insects. They were giants, some easily as long as my forearm, and they were utterly invisible. I could hear them munching on the few remaining real leaves. Some looked exactly like sticks, others just like live foliage, and the most baroquely shaped ones looked like dead leaves, complete with holes and gnawed edges, the creatures' own bodies mimicking the effect of their big appetites.

I had to be persuaded to hold one of these gentle monsters, but I'm glad I did it. The keeper showed me how to bring my hand up from below, pressing on the beast's legs until it detached from its branch and suspended itself from my fingers. The insect's feet felt like little velcro hooks. Up close, the animals were beautiful and their verisimilitude frankly amazing. The long abdomen felt warm against my hand, and I could see the sides of the beast moving, helping circulate air in and out of that enormous body. The leaf imitators even took pains to sway in time with the breeze.

I was not surprised to find such a marvel in the rain forest, but I learned later that the biggest giants live on the Atherton tableland. Just last year, an intrepid insect hunter named Jack Hasenpusch had found a single egg of ctenomorpha gargantua, a semi-mythical creature, clinging to some leaf litter. He and his wife are now raising the insect to adulthood. When fully grown, it will be over half a meter long. Since stick insects can reproduce asexually, Hasenpusch hopes to eventually raise a whole forest of them.

"They're very rarely seen as a species," he said. "There must be multitudes of them up there in the canopies but when you look at how high it is, how dense it is and the diversity of trees."

And so one of the most hopelessly domesticated corners of Queensland, a landscape full of dairy farms and sugar cane, is full of friendly monsters. There are platypus in the river banks, giant bats in the night sky, and God only knows what kinds of creatures in the tree canopy. It makes me wish I could be a kid in Australia, where magical creatures really do come out at night. And it makes me excited to think of what might still turn up in the wilder parts of this continent, or in someone's carefully tended garden.

The question of how to pluralize platypus is vexing. You can't say platypi, because the word has a Greek root, not a Latin one. But you also can't say platypodes because you will sound like a twat. Platypus seems the safest bet.

Brisbane comes up a lot in these tales of woe since it's the most sizable city in Queensland, and so has the most expansive belt of suburbs.

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