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PLATYPUS AND THE MOOSE MEESE MESS:

A CURE FOR HICCUPS AND TEN BILLION RABBITS

After a few repeated attempts, we put Canberra in our

rearview and headed on towards Bombola, a small town nestled in

the Snowy Mountains where the capital was originally slated to

be, but couldn’t find it. Instead, on our way back to the

Boomerang Coast we stumbled upon something much more exciting.

Monotremes.

Somewhere in the course of history ducks and beavers must

have cohabitated. There, 210 million years ago a beaver looked

across his tiny reservoir and saw the prettiest feathered foul

in the world. It was love at first sight. The two courted.

He showed her the forest--the different trees, how to build a

dam--she taught him how to fly. It was a simple time in the

forest, these things were kosher back then. Ducks and beavers

could express their love. Of course, they were married, and

soon they gave birth to the lovechild of the forest. The

platypus.

It’s that, or God has one crazy sense of humor.

I don’t know what was going on in the cosmos when the

platypus first made its appearance, but it must have been an odd

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time. It’s such an odd creature, in fact, that when a stuffed

version of the creature was sent back to Europe in 1799 English

scientists claimed the creature was a hoax pieced together from

a variety of creatures, a “high frolic practised on the

scientific community by some colonial prankster” were their

exact words. One scientist even tried to cut off the platypus’

bill. His scissor marks can still be seen on the creature in

London’s Museum of Natural History, though you can’t really

blame him. It takes some creative thinking to put the bill of a

duck and a few poisonous barbs on the body of a beaver, have it

lay eggs and then suckle its young (not to mention the curious

electro pulses this monotreme shoots out of its bill).

Mark Twain had an interesting theory on the platypus.

Firstly, he didn’t call them platypuses; he called them

Ornithorhyncuses (a complicated name for a complicated creature)

and proposed the theory of “e pluribus unum”.* Out of one, many,

that is. It’s a pretty neat idea--pity it doesn’t hold water--

but it’s still a neat idea. He theorized that the platypus was

the epitomy of Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest. With

the qualities of a duck, beaver, seal, carnivore, omnivore,

Volkswagen, and paper weight, the platypus is a jack of all

trades. Why he can handle water, muck, solid ground, any

*
Ornithorhynchus is the first part of the platypuses Latin name
Ornithorhynchus anatinus. I prefer to call them Platies.

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terrain at all: the platypus is the pinnacle of evolution.

Twain shot off about how the platypus made his rounds across the

globe and, a few million years later, a slew of creatures

evolved from him (the duck, seal, Rodney Dangerfield, stapler,

beaver, newt, etc.). Out of one, many. There you go.

Scientists are nearly as baffled today as they were back

then about the platypus’ orgins. Granted, we’re no longer

trying to cut off their duck bills, and we’re fairly sure the

platypus isn’t the Alpha and Omega of evolution, but we seem to

be coming up with more questions than answers. We’ve given the

creature it’s own sub-division of the mammalian family--it

doesn’t have much of anything to do with a mammal, but we were

willing to ignore the egg-laying and duck-bill for scientific

purposes (not to mention it’s the only mammal that secretes

poison)--but it’s only gotten more complicated since. Now

scientists say the platypus is closer to a bird than anything on

account it has sex chromosomes more similar to a dodo than say,

well, you and me. But then a recent find in South America

revealed the platypus once had teeth, which would make it closer

to a mammal than a bird. Hell, before discovering a toothed,

South American platypus we thought the platypus never left

Australia. My point is that we really don’t know diddly about

the mammal . . . or was it a bird?

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As we now know, our ignorance of Australiana extends well

beyond the platypus. Not only did the Western World fail to

discover the entire southern continent until the 18th century,

but when we did we started referring to it as the antipodes on

account that we thought the aborigines had their legs on

backwards. We still use the name today. You see my point.

Even accepting all of the unexplained oddities of Australia, the

platypus rises to the top as the most dizzying creature to ever

evolve.

And so, when Kate and I passed a sign for the Bombala

Platypus Reserve a few hours south of Canberra, our hearts

fluttered. Not only we were grateful to see a road sign (it had

been an hour or two) but we were more excited to see the

evolutionary enigma in its own habitat. We turned down the

appropriate dirt road for a few minutes, passed a sheep farm and

a race track of all things, and found ourselves overlooking a

docile creek surrounded by reeds.

The scene outside of the car was breathtaking. Kate and I

followed a path along the water, surrounded by land peppered

with sheep and barren, pale eucalypts. There was a flock of

birds playing the rapids downstream and the cool, clean air felt

refreshing. We walked the length of the river slowly. I had

the calming feeling that I could just as easily spend the rest

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of my life here and happily disappear into the landscape of

Australia. Kate and I stared into the water for platypus,

searched in the reeds--supposedly that is where they usually

are--but couldn’t find anything but a bit of relaxation. So, we

sat down on the edge of the river, enjoyed the scenery and

started counting the wildlife that we could spot. There were

ducks, turtles, a cow on the opposite bank, and an army of

rabbits, which was to be expected.

Rabbits made their first introduction to Australia in 1859

when a man named Thomas Austin brought twenty four of them to

his Victorian home so that he could have something to shoot at

from his porch--a move which now costs the Australian government

an estimated one billion dollars in production and commercial

losses every single year (whoops!).

Australia, Austin soon found out, was a perfect habitat for

rabbits: there was a lack of predators, an abundance of

greenery, and, thanks to Austin, an abundance of female rabbits.

Orgies ensued. By 1866, a paltry seven years after their

introduction, 14,253 rabbits were shot for sport on Austin’s

property, which, considering all those carcasses, probably began

to smell awful.

In his book on pests in Australia (you know there’s a

problem if an entire book exists on the subject) E.C. Rolls

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mentions a number of terrific stories involving properties being

overrun with rabbits. He writes:

Sometime in the 1850’s a man was charged at the Colac

(Victoria) Police Court with having shot a rabbit, the

property of John Robertson of Glen Alvie. He was

fined 10 pounds. A few years later, Robertson’s son

spent 5,000 pounds a year in an attempt to control

rabbits.

English sportsmen of the time couldn’t have been happier.

In one three-and-a-half hour block it wasn’t unheard of to shoot

1,200 rabbits--not a bad boost to the ego. It was the farmers

that were understandably quite pissed. Thanks to their

neighboring sporting Englishmen, farmers were witnessing the

fastest rate of spread of any mammal in the world before or

since, a mammal that, it so happened, could eat a country into

extinction.

It’s difficult to understand just how bad the problem

became. In the 1880s farmers in South Australia abandoned their

farms, driven off the land by rabbits that had killed their

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crops and ruined the soil.* According to a paper issued by the

State of Victoria, in 1926, seventy five years after their

introduction, there were ten billion rabbits in Australia, or

about 1,666 rabbits per Australian.

Nearly every control measure has been taken to eradicate

the species since, including the ambitious attempt to fence them

in, the result of which was a 1,139 mile long fence that

stretches from the south to north across the entire continent.

But even fences could not stop them. In particularly bad years

the rabbits piled up against the fences in such numbers that the

creatures literally walked on top of each other to get to the

other side. The most successful attempt at eradicating rabbits

occurred in the 1950s when Myxomatosis killed 99.8% of the

rabbits, which was music to farmer’s ears until the rabbits

developed immunity to the disease and continue to plague the

nation up to this day. Much easier to understand Australia’s

tough immigration laws now, hmm? And all because Mr. Austin

needed something to shoot at.

For some reason, and I’m not sure why, Victoria has a knack

for drawing epidemic proportions of creatures, not just rabbits.

*
Rabbits graze far closer to the ground and particularly enjoy
eating seeds, both practices which will destroy a habitat,
especially in consideration of the fact that about sixteen
rabbits eat as much each day as one sheep. This would make the
10 billion rabbits in 1926 equal to an extra 625,000,000 sheep
that the ecosystem had to support.

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Recently a set of divers were filming off the coast of Port

Phillip Bay near Melbourne when they stumbled, quite literally,

onto a gathering of 50,000 spider crabs that spanned the length

and breadth of a football field and were stacked up to ten crabs

deep in spots. No one knows why they were there. The best

excuse scientist can come up with is that the gathering is part

of some unknown breeding ritual (isn’t that always the case?),

or, I love this, that the spiders are involved in a very

elaborate game of stacks-on-the-mill.t The footage alone is

enough to give you nightmares, but if it’s not, then I’ll tell

you something else: the scientists won’t reveal the crab’s

location other than to say it’s “near a beach.”

But there are other swarms, too. Just last year Melbourne

declared itself as the home of a sizable ant super-colony that

stretches some 100 kilometers (62 miles) throughout the city.

The Melbourne ants are actually native to Argentina, and no one

knows how they got there in the first place. In Argentina the

ants make a fair game of inter-colony warfare that conveniently

pits them against one another and keeps their numbers in check.

Unfortunately for Australia, their tango dancing insects have

turned their aggressions outward, and are now eradicating every

t
This is a British or Aussie invention (at least I’ve never
heard anyone use it) and is a game where you sit on the ground
and stack stuff (anything, really) onto your lap as high as you
can and sing “stacks-on-the-mill, more on still”.

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other ant species they can get a hold of. I became further

intrigued with this story (it really is a lot of ants) when I

returned back to the States and found myself perusing the World

Wide Web for information on the Argentine ant and discovered,

after stumbling onto a website entirely dedicated to ant colony

enthusiasts, that the Argentine ants are garnering global

interest. One Stanford University study is considering the fact

that the ants, or Linepithema humile, cover the entirety of

California (a length of 600 miles), though this pales in

comparison to the recent discovery of the world’s truly largest

super-colony that stretches 3,500 miles from Portugal to Italy.

I also happened upon an Internet forum where Australians were

sharing their experiences with the creatures, the most notable

of which came from a Perth man who explained that you could

identify an Argentine ant because they don’t leave behind that

“characteristic ‘ant’ smell” when they are crushed.

I’ve only got one more ant related story and then I promise

to leave the topic for good. This next bit doesn’t have

anything to do with the Argentine ants, and comes again from a

BBC report, this time on an affectionate little troublemaker

called the yellow crazy ant. These ants were originally from

India, but have made a nice home in Australia, as it seems, most

everything has (except regular coffee), and are distinct from

other species of ants in that they spray formic acid into the

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eyes of other animals--not other ants, animals. Since

scientists started studying the creatures on Christmas Island in

1989 the little buggers have killed around twenty million red

crabs along with a large quantity of birds and other creatures.

What’s slightly more unsettling is that their ant colonies

increase in size by about one kilometer a year (the Argentine

ant colonies barely make it two hundred meters a year). No

reports have yet been issued as to whether they have a distinct

“ant smell” when crushed.

I’m only mentioning an inordinate amount of information on

rabbits, crabs, and ants because very little was happening where

Kate and I were. It had been sometime since we arrived at the

Platypus reserve, and still no luck. If it’s any indication of

just how long we had been there waiting, our conversation had

turned quite dull.

Me: “Is it platypi or platypuses?”

Kate: “Platypuses.”

Me: “Are you sure?”

Kate: “I suppose it could be platipi,” she said far too

thoughtfully. This was followed by a long pause.

Me: “Maybe it’s just platypus, like moose are moose.”

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Kate: “I thought moose were meese.” This was followed by

another long pause for consideration. This was beginning to

sound like a bad Dr. Seuss poem: Platypi and the Moose Meese

Mess.

Me: “But hippopotamus are called hippopotami,” she

challenged. And so on.

Sadly, we decided to call it a day before our brains

completely atrophied and we started discussing the sexual

implications of a stack-on-the-mill and started walking back to

the car when we heard a small plip! and saw a ripple ring out

from the center of the creek. From our standpoint it looked

like a beaver had popped his head out of the water. But, upon

closer inspection, discovered it was nothing of the sort. It

was a platypus. This was followed by another plip! a few meters

away, and then another and another. Platypuses were everywhere!

Here was a group of the oddest creatures in the world playfully

swimming right before our eyes! How fantastic! Actually, and

to be plainly honest, while we knew we were witnessing something

rare the monotremes could have just as easily been bits of

driftwood from where we were standing (this is why I have to

fortify the excitement with an abundance of exclamation points.)

It was more the principle of the matter. It was a bit like

staring up at the stars: you know you’re looking at something

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far grander than just a few specks of twinkling lights, but

that’s all you ever see. We were astonished and satisfied;

knowing these were shy platypus doing whatever it is platypus

do, and that was just fine. For a good time we watched them

swim about diving and resurfacing a good distance downstream.

Eventually the sun reached the horizon and, as the temperature

dropped, we meandered back to our car and continued southward.

The remainder of the car ride that day was rather

uneventful, but a few moments are worth mentioning. The first

is that my paranoia of hitting a creature with our car nearly

doubled as it turned to night. The second is that we brave

travelers tried to find a campground advertised in our book when

it was dark out (a true adventure considering we couldn’t do

this in the daylight), and found ourselves somewhere near the

filming of Deliverance. The road we were on became smaller and

smaller, other cars were non-existent, and we had made enough

random turns to consider ourselves unequivocally and undeniably

lost. I’m certain the locals were friendly enough, but Kate and

I are disposed with wonderful imaginations corrupted by b-rated

horror films that make the tamest Australian back road look like

the scene of a double homicide.

After some praying and keen womanly intuition (Kate was

driving) we made our way back to a road that looked somewhat

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recognizable when--you could argue out of fear--I was struck

with a horrible case of the hiccups. Now, hiccups aren’t

usually much of an ailment for me, at least when I’m sober, but

when I do get them I get them in spades, enough that I can’t

speak a sentence or do much of anything, really. Fortunately

for me, I was in safe hands as Kate claimed to have the cure.

If there is any one universal truth about mankind though,

it is that every person both living and dead has their own

unique cure to the hiccups. No two solutions are alike and

every new one I hear seems more ridiculous than the last. Some

involve cups of water. Others require a dangerous amount of

acrobatics in which the patient is required to bend over and

force water to defy its own gravitational leanings. Kate’s cure

was more traditional though, thank god considering the confined

space and lack of drink, and required no shoulder dislocations,

hand stands or gravity-defying water tricks. All I had to do

according to her was breathe in and out a few times.

So I did. The entire ordeal went something like this:

“Breathe in,” Kate said, and breathed in with me. “Deep,

deeper, deeper.”

I followed like a faithful dog.

“Breathe out.”

No problems there.

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“Breathe in. Deeper, deeper, deeper.”

Okay, inhaling, I’ve done this before.

“Now, hold it and try to push out your chest!”

Which I did. And then the world went to a wonderful,

peaceful black.

I came to a few seconds later to discover that my nose had

started bleeding. I was shockingly confused by all of this, and

was convinced that I had simply drifted off to sleep for a few

minutes and had some very vivid dreams (one of which involved a

duck, another involved the Spruce Goose.)

Of course, I had passed out. Kate’s side of the story went

something like this: I breathed in and held my breath as hard

as I could and then crumpled into the passenger’s seat like a

sack of potatoes. Love of my life that she is, Kate thought I

was just playing dead (as opposed to losing consciousness from

suffocating my brain) and continued on driving. After the first

few seconds she got a bit concerned and called out my name.

When I did finally snap-to nose bleed and all she was convinced

I had a brain tumor, though I think this fear was only inspired

by our newfound knowledge of John Travolta and his role in the

movie Phenomenon. Maybe in a few days I could start moving

objects with my mind and learn Portuguese in a matter of

minutes. It wouldn’t be the worst way to go.

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However, it is months later and I still haven’t been able

to levitate bottles of whiskey from behind the bar into my hand

or shoot the breeze with any Portuguese. In fact, I’m still

having trouble with the Australian version of English, so it

looks like I might have to wait a while longer for linguistic

superpowers. Actually, the only real knowledge I acquired

though the whole endeavor was to never rush the departure of

hiccups. That, and to never trust Kate again. Granted, the

hiccups were cured so some appreciation is certainly due, but

I’m sure death would provide similar results at only a slightly

larger cost. From now on I’ll just stick to trying to drink

water upside down.

We were to move on to the small town of Eden to see a

Whaling Museum recommended by Roscoe, but time was not on our

side and we shortcut our trip by taking a different route. It

wasn’t until around ten or so that we arrived in the town of

Cann River where we planned to stop for the night. As we drove

through the small town we began having recollections of

Dargaville and every dark building looked to house more than a

few ghosts and ghouls. When we finally turned the ignition for

the last time we were parked inside a campground on the

outskirts of the town.

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Our plan was to pay in the morning so as not to disturb the

owner, and by that I mean to say our plan was to leave early

enough so that we wouldn’t have to pay, period. We pitched our

tent, got ready for bed and were soon trying to zip up our

sleeping bag with the both of us inside. It was de ja vu all

over again. I would wake up every twenty minutes from the cold,

find a way to stay warm which would make Kate cold and in turn

have her wake up every twenty minutes and find a way to stay

warm which would make me cold and so on and so forth. This

went on until around 2:30 when the both of us reached our

breaking point, threw the tent in the car and decided to just

drive until, well, we weren’t sure. Anything was better than

what we were doing.

We drove a good distance out of town and decided to try and

sleep in the car at one of the numerous “power nap” stations

along the highway. I’m not sure what the statistics are on

sleeping at the wheel in Australia--though Australia is fourth

in the world for number of cars per capita--but judging from the

amount of signs and precautionary measures it must be as bad of

an epidemic as in New Zealand. We pulled off onto the side of

the road, unzipped our sleeping bag into a blanket, reclined the

chairs and slept. This was indeed far better. Now, I was only

waking up every hour to turn on the heater, and that was

something I could deal with.

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I should probably explain why Kate and I had only now

decided to sleep in the car. There are two reasons, really.

The first is that I am fairly tall, 6’4” to be exact, and

sleeping in the back of a car or reclining the front seats is

like trying to understand a cartoon in the New Yorker. It can’t

be done. It is a flattering sign of affection that Kate chose

to sleep with me in the cold tent next to me than in the warm

car where she could rest. Our second reason was more

complicated and takes us back one spring prior in Nashville,

Tennessee.

We had decided to take a two week road trip through the

South, starting in Orlando, Florida and moving through Mobile,

New Orleans, Branson, Memphis, Nashville, and back down through

Montgomery and Savannah to Orlando. All went splendidly through

the trip except for one night in Nashville. We had somehow

arrived in Nashville on the weekend of a tremendous convention

about Herbalife, a supplement pill whose evangelical followers

will tell you is Jesus in pill form (though they probably won’t

tell you that it’s creator died, quite ironically, of a

prescription drug overdose and that the little green pills

contain the deadly chemical ephedrine), but I digress. Either

way, the Herbalife folks kept the mood on Broadway lively

throughout the night and the experience was entirely

unforgettable. The only real problem was that Nashville was

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full of 30,000 extra people who had all rented their own hotel

rooms. On the far side of the freeway we found a Motel 6 that

had rooms but we weren’t willing to pay the price. There were

only a few more hours left in the night, and the parking lot

really did look comfortable enough.

So the two of us put the backseat down, threw a blanket

over ourselves and tried to sleep. Immediately there were

problems. The first is that we were in a Volkswagen, a vehicle

brand designed for, I’m sure of this, lederhosen clad dwarves.

The second is that the trunk was in no way supposed to function

as sleeping quarters. Another problem was that the temperature

in balmy Tennessee dropped to 23 degrees that night. And the

third problem was that I fell asleep with the keys in my pocket

and, at some point in the night, managed to roll over the panic

button, which started the headlights flashing and the horn

blasting for a good five minutes until I realized what was going

on and shut the thing off. I had also pushed a second button on

the keychain, this time the button that pops the trunk, but this

remained undiscovered until morning, when I looked towards my

feet to see a woman sweeping the parking lot a small distance

away. The woman carried a rather concerned look on her face,

and I’m fairly certain that she had seen us and thought she was

witnessing a kidnapping in mid-stride.

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I wasn’t sure what to do and decided to pretend as if this

all was completely ordinary. I wrestled my way out of the

trunk, took a good stretch, said good morning to the woman and

cleared off the driver’s seat. It wasn’t until hours later

somewhere outside of Dollyland and the Grand Ole Opry that Kate

and I started to defrost and speak to each other again. It was

a miserable experience and since then our tolerance for cold and

discomfort while sleeping has lessened. Of course, not the

extent where we’re willing to pay for a hotel but enough that we

will exhaust any and all means before trying to sleep in a car.

Enough said.

It was seven in the morning when I finally started driving.

There were things to do along the way--Lakes Entrance, a second

and completely unrelated Ninety Mile Beach, and the ever famous

Giant Worm Museum to name a few--but we were too anxious to

finally find a stiff drink (in support of the ‘it’s five o’clock

somewhere’ cadence of all drinkers) a hefty non-citrus based

dinner, and a warm bed.

So, onto Melbourne.

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