When I was at school in the UK we learned about the Australian platypus. I thought it was big, like a beaver. It was mythical – like a pterodactyl or unicorn. Most people will never see one in their lifetimes – in the wild or in captivity. And contrary to my expectation and early education, they are small, only about a foot long, in the old measurement.
I was so excited when my Kangaroo Valley neighbour, Neil, said he had spotted one on his early morning run. I couldn’t wait to get down to the spot at 7 the next morning to spy the monotreme for myself. I stood on the timber walking bridge in the early morning chill and mist and waited. Just when I was sure that he wouldn’t show, up popped a small, sleek creature who paddled around for a moment before duck diving back down to the depths.
Mesmerised, I returned again and again to witness what seemed like a miracle. Little did I know that only a few years later I would have the privilege to live on a large farm, bounded by pristine river, populated with hundreds of these amazing little creatures. They are creatures of habit and I can often set my clock by them. Mummy keeps saying I should get a dishwasher but then when would I get to gaze, from my kitchen window, at the peaceful flow and playful platypus in the pool below the house?
They have a reputation for being shy and I never understood why as they don’t mind us, the current custodians of this beautiful oasis, until we started having visitors and trying to point out a platypus to them. Suddenly our platypus friends are in hiding!
I have swum with them a couple of times in the summer. There are three main pools I swim in and I have come face to face with a platypus in each. They look at me calmly and curiously with their small eyes in the white skin surround and then disappear beneath the surface to steer clear of the giant in their water world.
In the first big flood Ged and I experienced on ANZAC day 2008, we walked around the riverscape, marvelling at the force and flow. When we went down to where our concrete bridge normally is, there was a huge expanse of brown muddy water and we stood in our wellies in the first 6 inches or so. I looked down and saw a platypus inches away from my feet for one brief instant, I bent down to pick it up, but it was already gone. I hope he or she survived.
In the last flood we took Benno down to the end of the flat where normally there is a big dipper into the river that we drive down. The flood water was up to the height of the flat and there was a platypus ducking and diving in the murky depths. They are easiest to see when the river is thick and red-brown with mud, as the contrast shows them up more clearly. In the clear crystal pools they can be hard to see for the untrained eye when the rings in the water show only where they were, not where they will pop up next!
Benno has (or had, until the last two floods ripped away some of the riverbank) his special ‘Platypus Walk’ which he would take newcomers to the property on, to show them the places where the platypus eat freshwater mussels on the bank, overlooking their feeding grounds.
We delight in being able to watch them every day. Sometimes we have seen as many as 5 at once in the main pool beneath the house, and once we witnessed (and videoed) what we could only assume to be a courtship and subsequent mating which looked like platypus synchronised swimming and involved lots of fun, frolicking and splashing – what a treat!
My most amazing moment to date came when we were recently down in Kangaroo Valley for the annual show (in which I came last in the over 45 iron woman event!) Late one afternoon, when it finally stopped raining, I went for a run down to Flat Rock. This consists of a beautiful natural bedrock pool which the Aborigines used for birthing and women’s business, and then a causeway of stones worn smooth by the water over millennia. It was twilight as I rounded the final corner and stepped onto the concrete causeway forming part of the road. In the dusk I saw a flash of movement to my left where Gibson Creek murmurs down to meet the Kangaroo. And there in the half light was a platypus aqua planing across the rock in a centimetre of water. He steered himself down through one of the pipes under the road and plopped out into the little pool below where he swam to the debris and roots which hid his home from view. He was only a toddler and clearly having fun – he looked pretty pleased with himself. Platypus have given me many moments of pure, unadulterated, natural magic.