Platypus spotting is one of the most popular and potentially rewarding of all tropical ecotourism activities.
But it's tricky. Just knowing where to look is not an art that can be learned from a textbook. And if you are lucky enough to spot one of these bizarre, little creatures, the moment it spots you, chances are it will dive, disappear and not re-surface for you. That is, unless you have a wildlife expert of the calibre of Wildscapes Safaris Alberto Vale to escort you into the platypus habitat.
Alberto runs daylight and nocturnal tours, each, of about eight hours duration. The "Platypus in the Tropics" tour (by day) is the better one for those whose main interest is Australia's elusive, duck-billed enigma. This starts with a 6am pick up from your accommodation in Cairns. Alberto who hailed from Portugal 20 years ago, has operated wildlife Ecotours for four years, during which he has devoted every moment of is spare time to his favourite passion -- the study of tropical platypuses. There are several advantages to taking one of these escorted tours over trying to do it yourself.
Firstly, an expert guide knows which streams, in the region support platypus and which of these streams are accessible. He also understands the habits of the creatures that lives in these waters. In Alberto's case, he has a permit to enter otherwise restricted territory, which just happens to be home to at least a dozen of these timid, furry mammals. The tour I joined took our group of four for an hour or so into the Atherton Tableland before setting out cross-country for a couple kilometres. We halted 50m from a wide, slow-flowing water-way. On one side, the banks were steeped in luxuriant, impenetrable rainforest from which the call of whipbirds and the brilliantly-coloured rainforest kingfisher could be seen and heard. We had been warned not to wear bright coloured clothes so it was a sombre-looking group that cautiously approached the stream.
It wasn't until our guide said: "Fatty has a burrow that extends underneath where we are now standing" that we realised Alberto actually knew the various inhabitants of the waterway by name. We were then instructed to freeze the moment a platypus surfaced and to refrain from taking pictures until told.
Moments later, a mere ripple on the surface saw Alberto motioning us to become statues. No one moved, I don't think anyone breathed.
The animal that suddenly appeared, 20m distance, was darker than I expected. Twisting and turning, it dived and vanished after about 10 seconds. "Quick, follow me". Our guide beckoned as we ran to keep up with him. "Hes heading this way. Once he's beneath the water he swims with his eyes, ears and nose closed. But soon as he surfaces, all his censes are acute."
Alberto stopped abruptly. Lifting his arm like an Indian chief, to signal us to stop, all movement, he said: " Have your cameras ready. He'll come up for air right beneath us." And that's precisely where, to the whirr and click of cameras, he did.
During the next three hours, focused on watching, stalking and photographing this unique Australian mammal, we recorded 11 sightings of seven platypuses. We had to take Alberto's word on this latter fact as telling one platypus from another was obviously a job for the experts.
Now was time for morning tea. A small but beautiful riverside beach became the setting for a wood fire and the chance to discuss our sightings. The two biologists in our group could barely contain their excitement. So many close sightings in such pristine environment had virtually blown them away. As we sipped billy tea and munched on home made muffins, we learned more about the reticent, web-footed object of our search.
"There has been some quite intensive studies completed on platypus in regions south of here," Alberto said. " But not in the tropics. While it appears to be much the same creature, its habits in North Queensland are very different to those elsewhere and possibly so to are its habits." Surprisingly, I learned no one has witnessed a platypus laying eggs. The species lives as far north as Cooktown and in streams in the very south of Tasmania. Having experienced little change in it's make up for 50,000 years, the platypus is very much a living fossil. It's not easy to find in the wild and is so timid, it's almost impossible to photograph close up.
But few creatures, even in this country of so many, weird, endemic species, deserve as much interest and fascination as the platypus.