A new post at Idle Words is always an event. Maciej Cegłowski is the king of humorous, long-form travel blogging; my only complaint is that he rarely posts more than two or three times a year. But when he does, it’s worth the wait. This time, he’s exploring the Atherton Tableland region of Queensland, on the trail of one of Australia’s oddest, yet still quite common, species: the platypus.
The platypus inhabits Tasmania, most of the east coast of Australia, and the nightmares of the little worms and crustaceans that are its primary food. One of the many things distinguishing it from other mammals is a soft electrosensory bill, which can sense delectable muscle contractions in prey animals as they try to escape. To a platypus, fear is an appetizer. The creature’s brain integrates these minute electrical currents with its equally acute sense of touch, giving it a vivid and unimaginably alien mental picture of the stream bottom. It dives with its eyes closed.
To try to spot a platypus, I’ve ventured into the Atherton Tableland, an upland plateau stretching from Innisfail to Port Douglas in the northern part of the animal’s range. While the Northern Queensland coast is unabashedly tropical, with lush rain forest that runs directly onto postcard beaches, the Atherton Tableland looks more like Iowa, albeit an Iowa with a thriving banana industry. If the air conditioning is working, there’s little to remind you how close you are to the Equator. The tableland is a sleepy and bucolic region of farms and old mining towns, one of which, Yungaburra, boasts a platypus viewing area.
On the map, Yungaburra looks like it should be easy drive from Townsville. This is a joke my map loves to play. Like the American West coast, the area is so thinly settled that you are constantly embarking on thirteen-hour drives to places you thought you’d visit for lunch. I’m dismayed but not particularly surprised to find myself still in the car at nightfall, climbing a series of switchbacks to the relatively high elevation of the tableland. Once on top, I pass through a series of one-horse towns that are boarded up for the night even though it’s only eight o’clock. Between the towns, the darkness is Stygian.