Gardener’s world (plus bonus platypus!)

One of the surprises of this trip has been the gardens. Tasmanians are clearly into gardens.  Often when we are on the road we pass a stunning example of a domestic garden, a well laid out and lovingly tended riot of colour.

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But there are also larger gardens, belonging to institutions or to individuals who have opened them to inform and give pleasure to locals and tourists alike. The very first place we visited in Tasmania, just an hour or so after picking up the car was the excellent Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens, which I wrote about at the time and have been described as a national treasure.  And the day we left Hobart to go Bruny Island we dropped in on the way at Inverawe Native Gardens, Tasmania’s largest landscaped native garden.  Here the owners have created a “sustainable, waterwise, low chemical and low maintenance garden” on a plot of some 22 acres, and have planted over 10,000 Australian native trees and shrubs:

The main reason for visiting Mountain Valley was of course to see the Tasmanian Devils, but as all the action takes place after dark this left the daylight hours to explore the area. During this time we were able to have a look at two other, very different gardens.

The spectacular Kaydale Lodge Gardens, just a few kilometres up the road from Mountain Valley, are set in about 5 acres of grounds:

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However unlike Inverawe the focus is European rather than Tasmanian flora. The couple who created the gardens have spent most of their married lives on the project and now, increasingly, their daughters are taking over the mantle.  The results are outstanding:

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It would be great (though sadly impossible for us) to see the gardens in the different seasons to see what new splendours they have to offer.

The next day we took a longer drive to the Tasmanian Arboretum, which covers around 150 acres and features Tasmanian plants, southern hemisphere conifers and deciduous trees from temperate areas across the world. This volunteer-led project is in its infancy, and it will presumably be many years before the trees reach full maturity.  Already, however, it was looking good with some great vistas to be enjoyed around the lake:

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As an added bonus, the lake at the Tasmanian Arboretum provided us with good views of two platypus. They were close enough for Julie to get some good shots:

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This makes eight platypus we have seen during the trip, which far exceeds my wildest dreams. Despite Susie’s assurances I was afraid I wouldn’t see any so it feels like all my birthdays have come at once.  Thanks, Susie!

[24 November]

Reflections of a Platypus Man (part 2)

Our accommodation in Geeveston is a fine period building. It’s one of the oldest buildings in town, and dates from around 1870:

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img_0507We didn’t know when we first booked our trip that the B&B is only a few metres from a small river that boasts plenty of platypus.  The locals are justly proud of this and have even built a special platypus viewing platform, overlooking the river, which can be seen in this photo:

This morning, before breakfast, we pull on our clothes and hurry down to the river to try our luck.  Almost immediately we spot a familiar brown shape with what looks like a duck’s bill, on the surface of the water and paddling fast downstream.  We scan around carefully and spot a second platypus a little further away, emerging from a burrow in the bank and disappearing into the water.  They continue to entertain us for the next 30 minutes, giving Julie some great photo opportunities such as this:
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Our close encounters of the platypus kind move me to poetry.  The haiku is a strictly disciplined verse structure from Japan.  The poet has at his disposal just 17 syllables split between three lines: the first and third lines must contain just five syllables each, while the second line has seven.  His challenge is to use these three lines and 17 syllables to capture a single moment in time, to distil the essence of an event by stripping out all unnecessary detail.  Simple yet profound is the aim.  Here’s my attempt at condensing our experience today:

Swimming fast downstream

Improbable platypus

Hunting water-bugs

Brief and to the point, I think.  Very Zen.

[13 November]

 

 

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]

The hoax that never was

The annals of history are full of hoaxes.  They come in all shapes and sizes, Piltdown Man, the Cottingley fairies and the Hitler Diaries to name but a few.  Less well known are the occasions when people thought they were being hoaxed but weren’t, occasions when reality had the last laugh.  The platypus falls into this category: it is the hoax that never was.

When British scientist George Shaw received from Australia the desiccated skin of an unknown creature in 1798 he examined it and then wrote:

‘Of all the Mammalia yet known it seems the most extra-ordinary in its conformation; exhibiting the perfect resemblance of the beak of a Duck engrafted on the head of a quadruped.  So accurate is the similitude, that, at first view, it naturally excites the idea of some deceptive preparation by artificial means; … nor is it without the most minute and rigid examination that we can persuade ourselves of its being the real beak or snout of a quadruped.’

In other words, Shaw suspected that some mischievous soul might be pulling his leg.

The surgeon Robert Knox argued in 1823 that because the specimens arrived in England via the Indian Ocean, naturalists suspected that Chinese sailors, who were well known for their skill at stitching together hybrid creatures, might have been playing some kind of joke upon them:

‘They reached England by vessels which had navigated the Indian seas, a circumstance in itself sufficient to rouse the suspicions of the scientific naturalist, aware of the monstrous impostures which the artful Chinese had so frequently practised on European adventurers; in short, the scientific felt inclined to class this rare production of nature with eastern mermaids and other works of art; but these conjectures were immediately dispelled by an appeal to anatomy.’

In all fairness it’s little wonder that British naturalists had their doubts: the platypus is seriously weird.  With a bill like a duck, skin and feet like an otter and a tail like a beaver its appearance suggests it was created from bits and pieces found gathering dust in a bankrupt taxidermist’s workshop.

To add to his oddball qualities Mr Platypus has special spurs on his hind feet that he can use to defend himself by injecting poison into a predator.  And then, or course, there’s the small matter of being a montreme.  This means that like the echidna, but unlike anything else in existence anywhere, Mrs Platypus is a mammal who lays eggs rather than giving birth to live young.

If ever there was an odd couple, Mr and Mrs P are that couple.

And the weirdness doesn’t stop there.  This film courtesy of National Geographic describes another oddball platypus feature, an electro-location system in its bill that enables it to hunt underwater in zero visibility. Useful.  What a pity I can’t have a similar adaptation to my snout that would enable me to find my car keys when I’m late for work.

The platypus is no hoax … nobody with an ounce of sense could make it up and hope to get away with it.  Despite that, or perhaps because of it, seeing is believing and I badly need to see one.  Thanks to Susie from Tasmanian Odyssey, who kindly pointed out in our final itinerary all the platypus hotspots we’ll be visiting, our chances appear good.  I’ll keep you posted.