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Marcia Ehinger, MD, a native Californian, is a retired pediatrician and genetic specialist. She is the California Writers Club Sacramento Branch newsletter content editor.

For quite some time, I had promised my two children an ecotour of Australia. We flew into Cairns, the jumping off point for visiting the Great Barrier Reef, and saw that only seven people had signed up for the trip, including us. The other travelers were all avid birders — an older couple and two singles in their thirties. Our assigned guide showed up outside the terminal and informed us that he was a marine biologist and had just accepted his dream job on a dive boat. He had asked his friend Michael to take over for him.

"I'll work hard to show you the rare creatures of Australia," Michael told us, as we walked across from the airport to a boardwalk nature exhibit. There we learned about tiny wonders of the continent. Leaf-cutter ants glided down a branch with their tiny green sails. They didn't eat the leaves but would use them to feed a special fungus they farmed as their food. We also saw honey ants. Certain members of the colony swallow a sugary syrup until their abdomens fill to nearly bursting. They become living storage pots for their fellow workers in times of food scarcity. Aboriginal children relish honey ants as pieces of candy.

The birdwatchers weren't convinced they had the right guide for their needs. However, they felt a bit better when Michael stopped the van at the beach to talk with a friend. We piled out and saw flocks of shorebirds on the sand. An older man approached the birders when he noticed their excitement and the binoculars clutched in their hands.

"Are you birdwatchers?"

"Yes," they all replied.

"For the price of a lunch, I'd gladly go with your group and show you some local birds."

"Sorry, but we already have a guide," said Gary.

"You mean that bloke over there? Good on ya. He's the number two bird man in Australia."

Reassured, the smiling birders returned to the van and asked Michael if he recognized the old man.

"Of course," he replied. "He's the number one bird man in Australia."

The next few days, we explored the Atherton Tablelands, using a local campsite as our base. It was home to small kangaroos called rock wallabies, since they lived among boulders, kookaburra birds sitting in gum trees, and a fascinating composting toilet — or so the sign in the outhouse said. At night, we went in search of opossums, owls and bats.



In addition to all the amazing creatures we had already seen, our guide said he had a farmer friend who sometimes saw platypus in his pond. That night, Michael knocked on the cabin door.

"We need to be up and out by 6 o'clock tomorrow."

"In the morning?"

"Yes, my mate Dave says we can look for platypus. We need to get there before work starts on the farm. Noise scares them and they hide."

At 5:30, we dragged ourselves out of our warm sleeping bags. It was light enough to see, but foggy, chilly and damp. The whole group loved to take photos, but we weren't allowed to bring our cameras because they might make noise or flashes which would scare the platypus.

Near the farm gate, we pushed aside some low bushes and tiptoed through the wet grass. We had brought small tarps to keep our bottoms dry and we sat in stony silence at the edge of the water.

Michael went off to find Dave and we were shivering and wishing we had warm drinks in our hands. It felt like we'd been there forever, but was probably half an hour when something happened.

Mid pond, a little brown head with a duck bill popped out of the water. Our mouths hung open and we elbowed each other and pointed while trying to stay very still. The little platypus looked around and seemed satisfied that all was well because he spread out on top of the water — four tiny webbed feet and a plump tail. It was much smaller than I had expected, but terribly cute. After lying there for a bit, the platypus flipped over and dove under the water before swimming in circles around the pond. We thought it was taking a look at all of us. Then, as quickly as it had come, it disappeared into the depths.

A few minutes later, Michael returned. We could barely hold in our excitement.

"Platypus!" We all shouted and pointed at the pond.

Michael didn't share our enthusiasm. He looked sad. "You can stop pulling my leg. I'm sorry. Dave says he hasn't seen a platypus here for a while."

We were unable to convince him otherwise, and we had no photographs to prove our sighting.

~ Marcia Ehinger




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