Waiting for At Least One Platypus

My third-grade science paper concerned "The Duckbill Platypus." My classmates, who chose lions, tigers, pussycats, dogs, and canaries, did not believe in this - ridiculous - egg-laying mammal. Perhaps even the teacher suspected my imagination was again in overdrive.

I could find Australia on the globe, but if any of us had heard of Tasmania, we might have thought it was in East Africa, rather than off the southeast coast of Australia not too many miles from Antarctica.

Penguins, of course, we all knew.

But a creature with a bill like a duck, webbed feet like a goose, a tail like a beaver, and a pouch like a possum? One that lays eggs like a reptile or a bird and swims like an otter in ponds and streams on the farthest edge of the world? There, water swirls the opposite direction down a drain, seasons are likewise contrary, time out of whack.

How many years, how many miles to finally have a chance to see these creatures? To get this far has meant rush-push-dash perpetual motion, constantly on the road, in the air, or on, in, over water, glimpsing many marvelous sights but never allowed to linger.

My husband keeps walking, hates to stop, must hurry on; we'll never reach whatever interim goal. Today, on Kangaroo Island south of South Australia, ignoring bumps and jolts and rattles, he reads six newspapers in the back seat. I drive the last 100 miles over corrugated laterite earth roads in second gear and watch for wallabies, kangaroos, possums. Never know when one will dart from the forests of tall slender eucalyptus, branching red-gum eucalyptus, a scrub species called mallee, and feathery casuarinas.

But the animals are mostly nocturnal. We see only what looks like a young monitor lizard but is, in fact, a Rosenberg sand goanna. At a yard long from top of pointed toothy jaw to long tail, he's impressive enough.

There are few cars, but they careen past, careless of the rumpled rutted surface. Finally, the road ends with a barricade of dirt. Time to hike.

We reach a particular pool renowned for an occasional platypus. The pond is murky, unmoving - so still and reflective that every overhanging branch might be itself below it, every bird becomes its double.

We hear rosy gray galah cockatoos with their high-pitched chi-chi, scarlet-breasted birds that nostalgic English settlers dubbed "robins," wrenlike twittery birds called Superb Fairy-wrens, and tiny birds the size of a North American bushtit. Their calls, lyrical or raucous, echo around the edges.

One sounds like running a stick over a washboard.

Sometimes wind waters the silk surface of the pond, or a waterbug unvarnishes it. The platypuses must be lolling down in the mud, glistening unseen, or burrowed in right beneath the bank where we are sitting, a bank of muddy dust or dusty mud held together with tangled eucalyptus roots. The roots and shoots of reeds are like sharp green arrows pointed up as if to discourage.

We know they are there; they know we are here.

We've finished our picnic of sheep cheese, black bread, mangoes. I fold up my Swiss Army knife. Unable to sit still so long, my husband hikes back to the car to finish reading his newspapers. He says he doesn't mind if I am willing to wait it out. I always have a sheet of lined paper stuffed in my pocket, even a pencil. This is the first time in months I've sat so perfectly still. First time in months I've had time to write.

The water comes alive. Not waterbugs. Raindrops pock the pond.

The platypus does not emerge. My pencil point is worn as blunt as a duck's bill.

I COULD remain all night, or at least until dusk, when platypuses are meant to emerge. But back in the car, he may have finished even the last local tabloid, could begin to wonder if I've wandered off, gotten lost. This is, after all, almost jungle. It is, after all, raining.

I stand up quietly, stuff my paper inside my jacket, and leave, as they would wish, leaving no trace. Even of disappointment.

My husband thanks me for a lovely picnic, but now we must head home. It is raining hard, getting dark. He'll drive now.

On the long, washboard-jolty road home, we have no choice but to drive slowly. Every few moments a wallaby, kangaroo, or brush-tailed possum ambles, hops, darts across the road. For every platypus we missed, we see two of something else.

But some twilight we will return, camp here until dawn, wait for at least one platypus.

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