When the first sketch of a platypus was sent to England from Sydney in 1798 the animal seemed so strange it was dismissed by many as a hoax.* When a platypus skin accompanying the drawing arrived zoologists of the day tried to prise its bill away from the pelt, believing it had been attached by Chinese taxidermists and in order to fool gullible seamen. +
Forty years later Charles Darwin came to New South Wales during his famous voyage aboard H.M.S. Beagle. He saw several platypus one evening while staying at a property near Lithgow and the creature became an enduring presence in his writings. The platypus has fur and suckles its young like a mammal, lays eggs like a reptile and has a bill like a duck. On top of all that males have a poisonous spur on each hind leg. No wonder Darwin was intrigued. Of all the unique and exotic wildlife Australia has, the platypus is the strangest. It also has to be the most difficult to find in the bush.
I have been searching for platypus, on and off and not very scientifically, for years. Lots of places claim either to be 'the platypus capital of Australia' or 'the best place in the world to see platypus in the bush'.
A colleague in the world of travel bloggers claimed she had seen one at Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve near Canberra. That was enough for me. David and I had been talking about visiting Canberra for Floriade, the tulip festival. David didn't know it, but I was far more interested in platypus hunting.
The day after we went to Floriade we headed out to Tidbinbilla. It was freezing! The forecast maximum was 13 degrees Celsius and I'm not at all sure it got that high. David, normally quite resilient in the cold, was shivering and whingeing. I didn't care. I was on the trail of a duck-billed curiosity.
I asked the ranger at the visitor centre where we had the best chance of seeing a platypus. I didn't want to sound like a twit so I couched my question in terms like -'I know they are really hard to find and we probably won't see one, but ....'
He cut me off quickly with, 'This is the best place in the world to see a platypus.'
I didn't want to be rude but sceptical me was thinking - ' Yeah right! We've heard that before.'
He went on to explain that the only times he hadn't seen platypus in many years working at Tidbinbilla was when he just walked past the ponds and weir where they lived and didn't stop to spend ten minutes or so looking for them. He gave us directions and told us what I had hoped - that the cold weather meant they would be more likely to be active during the middle of the day.
Down at the weir, we stood and watched. Within a couple of minutes we spotted something which I hoped was a platypus - but maybe it was a duck. It was a fair distance away and I didn't want to get my hopes up. David said he was certain it was a platypus - he didn't really know or care. He just figured his chances of getting back to the warmth of the car depended on me seeing a platypus sooner rather than later - or worse not at all. He knew the next stop on my platypus hunting check-list was Bombala, a town in central New South Wales completely bereft of decent accommodation. He really didn't want to have to spend a night or two at Bombala.
The 'duck' swam toward us, then another appeared on the other side of the weir. Stupidly I had left the binoculars in our hotel room but I was pretty sure by now they were platypus. They kept diving down, disappearing and re-appearing. We could see their backs but not much else until finally one of them headed straight for the view point where we were standing. We got a beautiful close-up view while he swam in and out of the reeds, diving and re-appearing again and again. In all we watched him and his friend for half an hour or so until eventually we had had enough and turned for home.
As it turned out, the ranger was right, Tidbinbilla is the 'best place in the world to see a platypus'.
|I am pretty sure this is not a duck!|
Kangaroos, wallabies, emus, koalas, wombats, echidnas and more.
Tidbinbilla is not just about platypus. We arrived about 11.30 a.m and saw a flock of emus and a few kangaroos as we drove in. By 3 p.m there were kangaroos everywhere, many of them with joeys in their pouches. Even koalas whose small local native population was wiped out in the 2003 bushfires have their own area. A few are kept on display in a large enclosure just in case you can't find them in the surrounding trees. There are also wombats, echidnas cockatoos, black swans and more.
|Like so many kangaroos and wallabies this little guy seemed as curious about us as we were about him.|
|Our koala friend had just had lunch and was settling down for an afternoon nap. When you sleep 20 hours a day there isn't a lot of time for anything else.|
|This was just one of many large mobs of kangaroos we saw.|
|Lots of the kangaroos had joeys in their pouches.|
|I was pretty pleased with this shot.|
|Aren't black swans magnificent creatures?|
|We get sulphur-crested cockatoos in the back garden at home but we found this one in a tree at Tidbinbilla.|
|Our wombat was wandering along a path at The Cotter Dam on the way home. He stopped and posed for us, so I could make him famous on Facebook - lol.|
|We see echidnas all the time but I never get over how cute they are.|
Tips and tricks and things to know -
- Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve is about 40 minutes drive from Canberra's city centre. You can get to it by taking Paddy's River Rd, via Cotter Rd.
- The reserve is open in summer from 7.30 a.m to 8 p.m and in winter from 7.30 a.m to 6 p.m. The visitor centre is open between 9 a.m and 5 p.m year round.
- The entry fee is $8.50 per car for a private vehicle of up to 8 people.
- Pick up a map at the Visitor Centre as you drive in for information on walks and where to find the platypus dams and koala area.
- The platypus ponds are located in an area called the Sanctuary. The best two spots are the weir, which is where we saw several platypus, and Black Flats Dam. The platypus live there naturally. They have not been re-located there.
- If you want to maximise your chances of seeing animals, including platypus, don't visit in the heat of the day during summer. Try to arrive first thing in the morning or later in the afternoon. We saw platypus during the middle of the day but it was an unusually cold and overcast day.
- Why is Tidbinbilla such a great place to see platypus? The ranger we spoke to explained that almost everywhere else you might look for them they live in a river or large stretch of water. Being in the right place at the right time is a question of luck and lots of persistence, but at Tidbinbilla the weir they like to live in is quite small so you need a lot less luck to spot them.
- And finally; does anybody out there have any idea what the plural of platypus is?
*The Miraculous Platypus, Roger Short, University of Melbourne, Vic http://www.publish.csiro.au/?act=view_file&file_id=RDv21n8_FO.pdf
+The Platypus Terrorizes Evolution - http://www.darwinthenandnow.com/2011/06/the-platypus-terrorizes-evolution/