Platypus spotted!

Towards the end of a recent post I wrote “It’s gonna be a lovely day,” a line from a Bill Withers song.  How prophetic, today’s been a lovely day.  Today’s been a great day!

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We begin the day in the Battery Point area of Hobart. This neighbourhood has some of the oldest surviving buildings in the city, including a few with the distinctive wrought ironwork that we first admired in the historic district of Sydney.  Here’s a good example; the two semi-detached dwellings are named Mafeking and Pretoria, so we can hazard a guess as to when they were built:

Next, the Female Factory, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Cascades neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city. A ‘female factory’ was how penal establishments for transported female convicts were known in the early nineteenth century.  Tasmania had five in total, with the one at the Cascades operating between 1828 and 1856.  Here women served sentences of at least seven years for the most insignificant – by today’s standards – of crimes committed back in Britain.  The regime was harsh, with the women put to work for long hours every day and punished brutally for the most trivial of misdemeanours.

Initially the Female Factory appears a disappointing place to visit.  Although the house of the woman running the establishment (“the matron”) is intact, the rest of the site comprises just the compound walls and the floorplan of the buildings inside those walls which is picked out in low level brick and stone.  What brings the place to life is an hour-long performance by two actors, who dramatise the experiences of one real-life convict from the early days of the Factory.  The audience follow the actors around the prison yard and interact with them as they describe and act out in character what happened to the unfortunate inmate in each of the rooms that line the inner walls of the yard.

The play, for that is what it is, is called simply Her Story. It is shocking and moving in equal measure, and a great way to bring history to life.  Without this dramatisation the Female Factory would soon be forgotten, but thanks to Her Story I’m sure it will remain in the memory as one of the highlights of the trip.

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A few hundred metres uphill from the Female Factory is the Cascade Brewery, which claims to be the oldest brewery in Australia:

We plan to get lunch and a beer at the brewery before catching the bus downtown, and start walking towards it along the side of a narrow stream. After a short distance we find the river has been dammed to create a concrete-lined pool perhaps 30 metres square.  This, we learn later, is the Hobart Rivulet Boulder Trap.

Just as we are approaching the Boulder Trap we hear a man say to his young son “Shall we look for the platypus?”

Our ears prick up. A platypus?  Here?  Surely not.  But we scan the water anyway, and to our amazement we see a critter swimming at the surface of the pool, then diving for a while before surfacing again.  It’s brown, a little less than half a metre in length.  It has a wide, flat tail like a beaver’s and … we can hardly believe it – a bill like a duck’s.  And when we look more closely there’s not just one, but two platypus in the pool, apparently diving to search for food.

Of all the critters we could see in Tassie, the platypus is the one I’m most desperate to encounter. Incredibly, within just over 24 hours of landing in Hobart we see two.  Not only that, we get a brilliant view as we look down from a bank raised a few metres above the pool.  The platypus swim towards us and are so close it seems as if we can reach down and touch them.  Julie doesn’t have her long lens camera with her – we didn’t think she’d need it – but even with her all-purpose short lens she takes some brilliant shots, like this one:

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She even manages to get a shot of a platypus under water:

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What a day! We are dazed, stunned even by the sighting of the platypus.  There are two or three places on our Tassie schedule where we thought we had a reasonable chance of seeing a platypus.  The Hobart Rivulet Boulder Trap isn’t one of them.  On the face of it, there should be no chance of seeing platypus in a man-made, concrete lined pool in the suburbs of the Tasmanian state capital.  Which just goes to prove that being in the right place at the right time, and keeping your eyes and ears open, is an essential part of wildlife watching.

I wonder what surprises the rest of our trip will bring?

[7 November]

Welcome to Tasmania

We arrive mid-morning at Hobart airport. A sniffer dog inspects baggage on the conveyor, searching for illegally imported apples (apple smuggling is a serious crime round these parts: it’s a bio-security thing).   He detects something suspicious in a large black suitcase and paws at it eagerly.  A cop takes the case away for further inspection.  Meanwhile the dog poses for a lady’s photo, nose pressed up against her camera lens.  He’s as cute as hell and knows it, accepting her tribute as his right.

We pick up our car and head towards the city. The first thing that strikes us about Tasmania is the colour: it’s green, so green we could be in the UK.  Dark clouds scurry over distant mountains, urged on by an insistent wind.  Tasmania lies in the Roaring Forties, and my god does the wind roar, like a tiger with terminal toothache.

Our first stop is the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens, which date back to the very early days of the colony in 1818. We are greeted by a friendly volunteer, who tells us what to look out for.  He asks where we are from and when we say Derbyshire he replies “Ah yes, Derbyshire, didn’t Elizabeth describe it as ‘God’s own county?’ ”  We look at him blankly for a second until it sinks in: we’re talking Elizabeth Bennett here, of Pride and Prejudice fame.  He looks pleased with himself: one-nil to the Aussies, I think.

The gardens are superb. We particularly like the lily pond:

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And the conservatory is also very attractive:

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We are surprised to see familiar British blackbirds all over the gardens, grubbing in the leaf litter for lunch or sitting in the trees belting out their melodious songs. OK, technically they’re illegal immigrants who don’t belong here, but it’s great to see them just the same.

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Masked Lapwings definitely do belong here. There are several pairs, some with chicks, wandering the gardens.  One time, while in pursuit of the perfect photo, we get too close to some chicks and an adult launches a furious assault, hurling abuse and flying at my head in a kamikaze dive only to pull out at the last second, bank sharply to the right and return for another attack.  We beat a hasty retreat and the perfect photograph remains untaken, but this one’s not at all bad in the circumstances.

We leave the gardens and drive on into central Hobart. Our accommodation is in the historic waterfront district, so parking space is at a premium.  The desk clerk explains that the hotel has Tasmania’s first car park stacking system.  I freak out for a while, life’s stressful enough without playing sardines with $20,000+ of car that I don’t own and have only been driving for about an hour.  I have to manoeuvre to find the exact spot from which I can safely reverse into a pod-like garage that is barely a car’s width.  Having exited the car and garage I push a button on the nearby control panel, a door slides silently closed and the pod, together with our car, is shunted off into the bowels of the building.  I wonder if we’ll ever see it again?