An early start is imperative because we have a 2pm tour at Platypus House in the town of Beauty Point all the way across the island on the north coast. We take the main highway which tracks through green grazing land and wooded hills, a landscape unlike anything we encountered on the mainland. More water here in Tasmania, that’s obvious. Midway, in a town called Campbelltown, we stop for a lunch of excellence. For once, we’re not going to eat on the fly. We pass through Launceston, where we’ll sleep eventually, and make it to Beauty Point with fifteen minutes to spare. Platypus House and its companion, Seahorse World, are two former fish processing plants occupying a wharf on the wide Tamar River, which drains into the Bass Strait (Cape Otway Lightstation lies directly across the Bass Strait from here). We are doubly ‘in’ because we have printouts and our names are on the list.
Platypuses and echidnas are monotremes (‘single opening’ in Greek). Simply put, they have a single duct through which all their waste travels and, in females, this tract also serves a reproductive function. In this respect, they resemble reptiles. Males have a simple penis that doesn’t serve any excretory purpose. But, most intriguingly, they are the world’s only egg-laying mammals; little, leathery, grape-sized eggs. These creatures are preposterous and found exclusively in Australia; rarely, if ever, in captivity. Platypuses are nearly invisible in the wild due to the watery environment and the nocturnal hours they favor, while echidnas are more common, visible, and adaptable. Neither species is threatened.
We have a guide, Ben, a large young man with an enthusiastic, open demeanor. First, he lets us handle taxidermied specimens of both echidnas and platypuses. God, that’s creepy, but we do get a sense of their coats. Our initiation to the platypuses is in the room of the tanks of the females. It is damp and burbling. One tank belongs to Dawn, the girlfriend of the male in the tank in the next room, while the neighboring tank belongs to four rejected females. Jupiter, the alpha (only) male merits his own room, where his tank has a bridge/tunnel connecting with Dawn’s tank for that occasional conjugal visit. In the wild, males tend to have multiple honeys. In Platypus House, not so much. Ali and I are wide-eyed.
These platypuses are rescue monotremes, as are the echidnas. None of the animals had been plucked from the wild for our amusement. The platypuses of Platypus House subsist on a diet of kibble and worms. Their physical weirdness is uncontestable. Those bills. Those tails. But watch out for the males, though, for they possess a venomous spur on their hind legs. The poison, rarely fatal, is extraordinarily painful and long-lasting. No anti-venom is possible because each individual’s poison is chemically different. Stay away from the guys: you could end up in a world of hurt.
Here come the echidnas. Words will just have to suffice. Ben asks our group of ten to stand in a circle and he places three bowls of insect parts in chicken broth at three points on the floor. Enter Thomas (a male) and Eddie (a female). They wobble slowly and distractedly inside the circle, but when they discover the yummy bug feast, their impossibly slender, four-inch, pink tongues go crazy. There’s a third echidna, but where is she? Where’s Edwina? Ah, there she is. Always late for dinner, eh, Edwina. And, just so you know, male echidnas have a four-headed penis. Should you wish more detailed information, I suggest Google. Also, echidna young are called puggles.
These animals are fantastic and fantastically appealing. Formerly called Spiny Anteaters, they’re tops on the adorability spectrum, yet near the bottom of the IQ scale. About the size of a quokka (semi-deflated basketball), they have a coat of fur and quills / spines and a nozzle-like proboscis. Their rear feet attach backwards, which explains the loopy gait, but this adaptation enables them to bury themselves in the sand in fifteen seconds should they perceive a threat. We have been beguiled by monotremes.
After scouring the gift shop of non-bogus items, we cross over to Seahorse World. It’s necessary to wait twenty minutes for the next seahorse experience. The World of Seahorses is the source for many of the world’s aquarium seahorses. The building contains many, many tanks of these creatures at various stages of seahorse existence, from ovoid to grandpa. Compared to the monotremes, they’re dull and we depart midway through the tour.
It’s a short drive back to Launceston. On the way, we pass a sign pointing to two neighboring villages, Flowery Gully and Winkleigh. I can offer no photographic documentation, but, trust me, I can’t make this up. We find lodging in Cap’n Stirling’s House, a two-bedroom cottage and cozy. At dusk, we amble a quarter mile to Stillwater, a lovely restaurant on the river. Tasting menu once again. So fuckin’ good.