Thursday, 12 November 2009

Well, *that* was weird

So I'm just back from three days of platypus spotting in Eungella National Park, and it was a truly surreal experience! I'd been feeling pretty smug on the Greyhound, when all the backpackers got off at Airlie Beach and I was the only traveller to carry on to Mackay - I've beaten the crowds, I thought; I'm not being a sheep, I thought; how original, I thought... And all of this was true - but possibly for a good reason. Mackay is not exactly set up for tourism, and on Monday it was teeming with rain (my curse is back - Queensland is being flooded at the moment). Once I'd fended off the advances of a teenager literally young enough to be my son and found the hostel, that was about my lot for the day. Apparently there's a nice art gallery here, but no time for that - we were up at 4am the next day to drive up to the rainforest to spot platypus.

And that was superb: first off, they're so much smaller than you expect. The male grows up to 50cm long, and the female only 40cm. They're also so at home in the water they don't look as odd as they should - they swim along with their bills scenting the air, then dive like ducks, leaving barely a ripple. It was another magical experience to see such shy creatures in the wild, ignoring all of us on the riverbank and carrying on with their daily lives.

However, you can't look at platypus forever, particularly in the rain, and we soon headed off to the next stop - the historic Eungella Chalet (est. 1934). There, at 8.30am, Barbara and Karin (Swiss sisters) and I were left, bereft, to amuse ourselves for two days. Not what we were expecting at all - we'd been thinking there would be three days of bush walks and camping, guided walks and so on. And though the Chalet was a lovely place to stay - we had an ensuite in the room, and I got a double bed to myself; the luxury was indescribable - it was so empty it really did have a definite air of The Shining hotel. Thank God there were no lifts or I'd have had conniptions.

The horror movie feel only continued when we went out after lunch to explore the area. The place was surrounded by mist (I now know that Eungella translates as "Land of Cloud") and we could barely see 10m in front of us. Certainly the advertised beautiful view down to the coast was completely obscured! Still, we thought, the rainforest would be good, and we found a promising looking path up to Sky Window and Broken River. All was well for the first few kilometres, but then Karin noticed something attached to her ankle... and pretty soon we were overrun with leeches. Those bloodsuckers just kept on coming, faster than we could peel them off us. I've still got the bloodstains on my trousers from where one of the little bastards had a good munch. We were out of that forest so fast we must have set a record (another event in the backpacker Olympics, along with luggage weightlifting and speed eating?), and that was the end of the bush walking for the rest of the visit. There was something so disgusting about the way one end of a leech attaches itself to you, while the other end waves around blindly looking for something to hang on to - perhaps you had to be there, but I'm not keen to try that again! It wasn't the sort of wildlife we were looking for.

We got some more unexpected wildlife that evening, when three pissed-up Queenslanders on a work jolly (the only other people in the hotel apart from a Swiss couple and their son) decided to chat us up. Or, rather, not to - because they were married, they reassured us, "we're not trying to shag yous"; however, they couldn't promise not to "kill you and eat you, like in Wolf Creek". Actually, they turned out not to be such bad blokes when they were sober, even though Wolf Creek continued to be something of a theme. And they weren't even the most eccentric ones in the place - that was Susanna of the Hideaway Cafe, where we had breakfast on the second day after walking 10km to see the platypus again (along the road, naturally). She's a German woman who came to Eungella some years ago, and - judging by the newspaper clippings about her on the walls - was once a very beautiful woman. Now, however, she's held back the ravages of time with way, way too much plastic surgery - she is actually shiny and slightly misshapen, and I was so startled by her appearance I took a moment to remember my order. She's also got collections of woolly hats, and coloured button sculptures of peacocks and kookaburras in her garden. Her apple strudel is sensational, though - well worth the morning's hike.

And that was that. We'd seen all that Eungella had to offer (apart from the Natural Therapies Centre, which we didn't dare go in) by 9am. The rest of the time, we played cards in front of the fire and tried to get warm and dry. On the plus side, I have seen a wonderful creature in the wild (the platypus, not the Queenslanders); learnt the rules of poker; spent two days with a pair of great women; and had an experience that very few other backpackers will ever have had. Surreal, but rather wonderful. Jokes aside, the owners of the hotel were fantastically friendly, and we had some great chats with them - Tony used to be a farmer and had a whole different perspective on the country - not to mention that when the mist rose on the last morning the scenery truly was amazing! I wouldn't have changed the last couple of days for anything else. And now it's back to the major routes - overnight on the Greyhound down to Fraser Island.

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