Sunday, May 21, 2017

Stalking the Dewey-Eyed Platypus

When I told a friend that one of the main reasons I was going to Australia was to try to find a platypus, he said, “Aren’t they mythological or extinct or something?” They are not. In fact, platypuses are surprisingly abundant, though the odd, duck-billed creatures are also a shy, elusive evolutionary anomaly that few Australians – to say nothing of foreigners – have ever laid eyes upon. Some consider seeing one in the wilderness tantamount to bumping into a mermaid or a unicorn. When the first platypus skin arrived in London in 1798, many thought it was a hoax, and the poor thing has never entirely shaken the stigma. What could it expect given its looks?

The platypus safari commences with a flight out of Brisbane’s Archer Field in a blue and white, 10-seat, twin-engine airplane cruising over a parquet of flat green farmland and eucalypt forests. It is early fall – that is, April – in Queensland, warm and a little humid.

After an hour and a half, and an in-flight picnic of cheesecake and orange juice, we land on a grassy airstrip near Carnarvon National Park. Once I’m out of the plane, dozens of grasshoppers – the kangaroos of the insect world – hurdle over my feet and crash into my ankles as three yellow and blue pale-headed rosellas – small parrots – slalom between the polished trunks of the nearby gum trees. Within a few minutes the hot weight of the outback sun has caused my bald scalp to get as overheated as my prose, and I’m thankful that I’ve brought along an old tan Borsalino and a pair of cheap sunglasses. I put both on my head, where they stay for the remainder of the expedition, and we drive off toward Carnarvon Gorge, home of the platypus.

The man driving is John Stoddart, who, along with Linda Stoddart, his wife, manages the Oasis Lodge adjacent to Carnarvon National Park. They are both former high school teachers, and like many Australians, they seem to find wry humor in both the nature of reality and the reality of nature. Stoddart, I find out, knows a lot about platypuses. During the next few days’ conversations he gives me a short course in Beginning Platypusology 1A.

To start with, he says, they’re smaller than most people assume. The average adult is a foot to 18 inches long. The heaviest one on record weighed less than 5½ pounds. They have a birdlike snout that resembles a duck’s, but the grayish bill is soft, not hard. They are mammals of the order called Monotremata (the only other member is the equally bizarre, hedgehog-like echidna, also a native of Australia), characterized by their egg-laying and the cloaca, a single orifice for excretion and reproduction.

Monotremes are also the only mammals known to react to electrical fields. Platypuses have electrosensitive pores in their bills used to detect the electrical currents generated by the muscle activity of their prey – shrimps and insect larvae. (They have a tremendous appetite complemented by “a metabolic rate like a blast furnace,” according to “The Fatal Shore,” Robert Hughes’ definitive history of Australia’s founding.) It is believed that they may also use their electrosensitivity – a true “sixth sense” – for “seeing” stationary objects under water.

The platypus has beautiful, thick, waterproof fur and a plump tail something like a beaver’s, the top of which is covered with fur. They were hunted for their luxuriant pelts until 1912, when legislation was enacted to protect them nationwide.

Much like birds, they have a single functioning ovary, the second one being poorly developed. The females lay eggs but suckle their young with extraordinarily rich milk. Platypuses have webbed feet and the males have a venomous spur on each rear leg that can deliver a nasty sting. Stoddart tells me the story of a man he knew who managed to get spurred in the finger by a male platypus. “The poor bloke’s finger was no good after that,” he says. “It turned blood red and shriveled to a point like an old carrot.”

Aborigines knew the platypus as Mallangong, Boonaburra or Tambreet, and it figures in some of their myths. In one – a moral tale – the platypus’s origin is attributed to a wayward duck who disobeys its elders, wanders away from its pond and is imprisoned and raped by a randy old water rat. The child this coupling produces is a platypus. This is no less solid an explanation of the platypus’s beginnings than most modern researchers have provided.

Platypuses are found in deep burrows along the muddy banks or feeding among the shoreline reeds of rivers, streams and ponds in eastern Australia, on Kangaroo Island off the coast of South Australia (where they were introduced by a naturalist in 1940) and in Tasmania. Just one pair – named Jack and Jill – successfully bred in captivity, and that was 50 years ago. On the official Australian wildlife cuteness scale the platypus rates second only to the koala and just slightly ahead of the wombat. The palm-size baby platypus is too cute to discuss in rational terms.

While Carnarvon Gorge is a platypus stronghold, John Stoddart tells me, I shouldn’t get my hopes up about actually seeing one, but if I want to try, dawn or dusk are the best times to seek out Australia’s duck-billed irregularity.

As intent as I am on satiating my desire to meet a platypus, like every other first-time visitor to Australia, I also hope to see a wild kangaroo as soon as possible, and shortly after arriving at the Oasis Lodge I get to – they’re all over the place.

The lodge consists of a central reception building, which houses the dining room, a library where gatherings and nature talks are held, and a number of luxurious “tent cabins” that evoke camping without actually immersing you in its often romanticized but typically uncomfortable specifics. The buildings are scattered over several acres of lawn, with palms and gum trees to provide shade. Scattered over the lawn are kangaroos, looking so much like giant prehistoric mice I’m inclined to offer them a piece of cheese.

When they aren’t lollygagging around on the lawns – their usual midday activity – they are grazing or bounding or battling with each other, or staring at the guests. The lodge asks guests not to feed the kangaroos, which has kept them untamed, so you can’t approach any closer than about 10 feet. That’s good, because the rebounding beasts can get to be a nuisance.

Indeed, in some places tourists find that they must apply popular aerosol kangaroo repellents, such as “Roo-quat” and “Roo-Be-Gone” as frequently as sunscreen. And if you absent-mindedly leave your door open, making it possible for one of the large marsupials to sneak in and jump on the bed (they’re worse than young Homo sapiens when it comes to this activity), they can destroy a box spring in mere minutes, play hell with a goose down comforter and make an expensive duvet history in a matter of seconds. It is no coincidence, then, that neither pogo sticks nor trampolines have ever been marketed in Australia.

At one point I ask Stoddart what the word “kangaroo” means. “Joseph Banks,” he replies, “was the naturalist that sailed to Australia with Capt. Cook. The story’s told that when Banks came ashore and first glimpsed the hopping creature, he asked a native what it was, and the aboriginal said something that sounded like ‘kangaroo.’ Later Banks asked another aboriginal what the word meant. ‘Kangaroo,’ the native told him, means ‘Hell if I know.’”

Curiously, I find no verification of this report in the literature. But in “The Fatal Impact,” Alan Moorehead’s elegant account of Cook’s “invasion” of the South Pacific, Banks is quoted and he does sound perplexed. The naturalist accurately describes the gray kangaroo as “of a mouse-colour and very swift,” and then remarks, “What to liken him to I cannot tell.”

Fortunately for Joseph Banks, his powers or description were not further taxed by the platypus. It would be another 27 years before a European (not Banks) first stumbled upon the fur-bearing duckoid, foolishly sending the hide off to London where he was ridiculed mercilessly. (There are certain discoveries it’s best not to reveal.)

Carnarvon Gorge itself looks like a smaller version of the Grand Canyon with forest poured into it. The massive rock cliffs are composed mostly of sandstone capped by a layer of basalt. The forest below is light and airy, home to a variety of tall eucalypts – the slick-barked Sydney bluegum is the most prevalent – with macrozamia and other palms, native hibiscus and the sandpaper fig growing beneath the silver-green foliage of the gum trees.

Extravagantly painted parrots (splashed with crimson, chartreuse, deep yellow, electric blue), large white cockatoos with an ear-splitting shriek, and jug-headed kookaburras (like our kingfisher, but with a taunting cackle as their song) are plentiful. The wealth of butterflies is a poignant reminder of how scarce they’ve become in much of the United States.

The sun-mottled forest floor is carpeted with high grass and bracken ferns. It is common to see eastern gray kangaroos, wallabies (a smaller kangaroo) and the occasional dark-coated rock wallabies (a shy kangaroo that behaves like a mountain goat) either nibbling at the ground cover or bounding through the brush. There are also ibis, heron, blue-faced honeyeaters and pied cormorants. And a smallish python known as a carpet snake – because of the pattern of its scales – in addition to bearded dragon lizards, turtles and monitor lizards, called goannas, that can reach 4 feet in length.

At night the Carnarvon sky is ink-black felt speckled with white paint. Nocturnal animals are ubiquitous, including an assortment of possums and a sweet-faced, big-eyed creature known as the sugar glider – so called because, like a flying squirrel, it uses the webbing between its front and rear legs to sail from tree to tree where it feeds on the eucalypt’s sugary sap.

At the bottom of the gorge runs Carnarvon Creek. Along its banks grow wispy Casuarina trees and the weeping red bottlebrush. Near the water’s edge are found green tree-frogs, which are preyed on by the creek’s freshwater keelback snakes. And if you’re extremely quiet and very still (and don’t wear bright-colored clothing) and patiently watch for the telltale shivering of the reeds, you may catch sight of a platypus. But, as I’m often told, “It ain’t too bloody likely.”

From April through November, staff members of the Oasis Lodge lead daily hikes, some of them fairly arduous, throughout the gorge and up to its more spectacular vistas, like Boolimba Bluff. (I hiked to the bluff on a Sunday. As I stood at the top looking down to the camping area from hundreds of feet above, a hymn being sung by the small congregation attending an outdoor Anglican service – which I could not see – came wafting up out of the gum forest. The effect was reminiscent of a scene from “At Play in the Fields of the Lord.”)

You can go hiking on your own, of course, but the young, dauntingly vigorous staff members make good company. They’re also knowledgeable about the terrain and the gorge’s flora and fauna, not to mention the fact that they carry a big backpack full of tea and snacks, which they prepare and serve during a rest stop along the way. One of the least strenuous walks is geared specifically to those desperately seeking platypuses.

On the appointed day we get up before sunrise and drive a mile or two to the Carnarvon Gorge trailhead. I keep the window down as we drive through the dawn forest so I can listen to the bird songs and other noises – the archetypal “jungle sounds” we’ve heard all our lives in Hollywood movies. The caustic laugh of the kookaburra is especially familiar. (One of the many perverse satisfactions of living in the media-besotted world, I’m ashamed to admit, is visiting the real thing and finding it exactly as depicted in a motion picture or on television – the twisted pleasure of having reality validated by illusion.)

As instructed, our small group has worn dull-hued clothing. The platypus has keen vision (and conservative taste in apparel), and it is put off by loud outfits. We’re also told not to speak, which certain of us find particularly onerous.

We enter the forest and walk over the creek on stones to reach the start of the Nature Trail. We follow the creekside path with nothing but cackling kookaburras and beeping Nikons to puncture the primeval silence. Across the creek, a wallaby and its offspring are having breakfast, which gets me to thinking: When God created Australia’s animals, perhaps he somewhat overestimated his abilities. At the very least the deity exhibited peculiar taste, if not a perverse sense of humor.

First of all, most of the beasts’ proportions are screwy; they look like a design experiment gone wrong or a rough sketch for an animated character that should have been canceled by the cartoon committee before it could see the light of day.

Consider the kangaroo – it is essentially a fur-upholstered pear with spring-loaded rear legs. Its creator apparently ran out of steam about waist level because, except for its well-developed biceps, the upper trunk, arms and head of the venerable kangaroo don’t amount to much when compared to its substantial lower body. Fortunately, the beasts seem to have little or no self-consciousness about having such a preposterous appearance, as that could only generate complex neurosis that would be no help whatsoever to a creature that must focus most of its attention on dodging boomerangs, bullets and dingoes in a natural environment that can be harsh on the best of days.

The Australian people, on the other hand, are quick and funny, gregarious and natural-born raconteurs. As testament to their bountiful good humor, they have courageously put the kangaroo, and the equally illogical emu, on their national crest, and the platypus on their 20-cent piece. A race less comfortable with irony might have downplayed such a collection of ridiculous faunae, but the Australians are proud of their continent’s curious beasts, and on average, more knowledgeable about them than we are about our more banal assortment.

When you ask Australians a question, they’ll often give a well-informed answer or, if they don’t know the answer, they’ll make up something that either sounds like the truth or actually improves on the truth. In either case you come away satisfied.

The Nikons are beeping excitedly as we approach the platypus viewing overlook. We make a few detours to the creek bank, but the guide shakes her head and motions us onward. Finally she stops at a clearing atop a small embankment and indicates that we should form a line. It’s about 20 feet to the other side of the creek where tall reeds wander into the slow-moving water, creating a perfect feeding area for the platypus.

The sun hasn’t yet ascended above the walls of the gorge, but the sky is the color of a morning glory blossom and the sandstone cliffs are either changing from orange to pink or from pink to orange. We stare intently at the reeds and the nearly still, black water. Nothing. A Nikon beeps. Nothing. A couple of people move off down the trail, impatient. Nothing. Then the guide points emphatically and whispers, “There.”

Something is moving through the reeds, jostling them as it goes, something underwater. And then, just clear of the reeds and out in the open, no more than 4 yards away, it comes to the surface. First the legendary bill, followed by a slick, furry back. It’s a great brute of a platypus, easily 12 inches long, maybe 14. It takes a breath, quickly glances at us with its small, dewy eyes, and disappears into the dark creek with a kick of its back feet. The reeds jiggle a little. And again nothing. And a Nikon beeps as the morning sun drools through the eucalyptus leaves. And we walk on.

Later, back at the lodge, I tell John Stoddart of our luck. “Was it a good-size one then?” he asks.

“Probably about 8 feet,” I say. And for a brief moment his eyes widen before he explodes with a kookaburra chortle, which makes me think that for a second or two, I just may have had him going.

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