Of Platypus and Echidna

My father, Voitto Pokela
My father, Voitto Pokela

Shortly after arriving in Tasmania, Dad went on a hunting and fishing trip into the Tasmanian wilderness with a group of Finnish men. It was his first experience in the Australian bush.These are a couple of excerpts about that trip. I am in the process of translating  his book ‘Footprints in Australian Sand‘ into English.

We continued on. The river had water barely up to the toes of our boots in parts of the creek. We were just about to turn back when we came to a  50 – 60 metre long  lake some three metres wide. The water came up to mid calf. Amongst the fish in the crystal clear water swam two platypuses! Now we could inspect the strange looking animal a bit closer. We threw our excess gear on to the rocks and went into the water to chase after them.


Antti followed the larger one and I was left to track the smaller one. After leaving the snake killing place we both carried sticks with which we had been poking the bushes ahead of us as we walked. The bottom of the creek was pretty smooth sand apart from the occasional pebbles. There would be no opportunity for the platypuses  to escape. We could probably catch them both.

However, we soon noticed that they were masters at evading us. It wouldn’t be as easy as we had thought after all. Soon our boots were full of water which was a distinct advantage for the platypus which already had home ground advantage as well. After I  fell on my back side in the water, I was ready to admit defeat. While I was searching for my glasses on the creek bed the platypus disappeared into a hole somewhere. After that there was no sign of the animal let alone the hole into which it had disappeared in fear of its life. It obviously didn’t know we had no intention of harming it. We just wanted to get to know it a bit better and then let it go.

Antti seemed to be faring much better. He had succeeded in keeping walking stick contact with the platypus and was trying to force it to dry land. I joined in a counter attack and after quite a struggle it finally decided to climb onto land. It only had time to take a few hesitant steps on his webbed feet when Antti threw himself after it and got a hold of its tail.

I’m not sure how it managed to tackle him, but Antti’s foot slipped. He fell on his back into the water, lost his hold on the tail and the animal didn’t stay to wait for the next round but disappeared into a hole somewhere under  the bank of the creek. We were like drowned rats. Fortunately it was a warm day even though the water was cold. We wrung out every bit of clothing and hung it on the bushes and rocks to dry. It wouldn’t have got away from me except for the fact that its got poisonous spikes on its back feet Antti explained, rubbing a long dark scar on his left shoulder. I got this as a lad when I fell out of a tree looking for sparrows’ nests. Even now any bump makes it ache sighed Antti painfully.

The platypus (Ornitorhynchus anatinus) is a  primitive mammal which only lives in Tasmania and the east coast of Australia. It lives in fresh water creeks and eats worms, grubs, insects and small crustaceans. Males can grow as large as sixty centimetres. The females are markedly smaller. Their fur is greyish brown and grows all the way to the tip of its beaver like tale. All four feet have webs on them similar to that of water birds. It can live on land but is happiest in the water. The males have spurs attached to sacs containing poison on their back feet. It can either inject or scratch small prey with the poison spurs. The poison does not kill humans but can make them very sick. The female lays two  leather skinned eggs hatching them at the end of a burrow. Unlike other mammals, she has no nipples, instead secreting the milk from skin glands. Its young pound the mother’s stomach with their paws and lick the milk from the skin….

The billy tea tasted good. The billy can dates back to the goldfields in Western Australia. It was brought there from France. French traders brought huge volumes of beef preserved in tin cans to the fortune hunters struck by gold fever. The gold prospectors quickly invented all sorts of uses for the empty meat cans. They were  made from good quality metal.

The French ‘Boeuf Bouili’ (cooked beef) quickly became known as the ‘billy can’ and its modern name remains ‘billy’. The Australian camper has all sorts of cans in his gear, but the billy is recognisable by its handle from which it hangs over the camp fire. The smell of the billy is probably familiar to all sorts of wild animals as well. As we reached the tasty dessert of apricots picked from the local farmer’s tree we heard some rustling nearby. A strange looking animal was sniffing at the food scraps by a hole we had dug to bury them in.

We left it in peace to smell around the small pile of our  left overs. It didn’t seem to be in a hurry. Neither were we. Undoubtedly our uninvited guest was quite shy even though it had come within ten metres of us. Neither of us had ever seen anything like it. It seemed to be 30 – 40 centimetres long. Both the hairless snout and tail seemed about 7 – 9 centimetres long and its body was covered in a thick fur from which poked out  lots of long sharp spikes somewhat like a porcupine. But it wasn’t a porcupine.

Finally we decided to have a closer look at our visitor. Carefully we crept closer. We’d hardly taken more than two or three steps when our visitor fled. We were no sprinters but its short legs meant it came off second best. Discovering itself to be outmanoeuvred our friend showed more of its talents and left us off second best. It rolled itself into a ball, its long sharp spikes poking out everywhere. Dirt and gravel flew all over the place as the spiny ball dug itself quickly underground. Had that been the size of a horse even mad Jussi  would lose the contest  in hole digging, Antti mused. But as the animal in the hole was barely the size of a cat we decided to lift it out and inspect it a bit closer.

After quarter of an hour we had to give up. We both had several bleeding cuts on our hands and the stubborn beast was even more firmly embedded. It could be that its defensive spikes might even be loaded with poison. Because we didn’t wish to harm the animal which defended itself as courageously as any winter war soldier, we admitted defeat and retreated.

By the evening campfire the others explained we had encountered an echidna (Tachglossus aculeatus). Apparently it was a jolly chap which quite liked to be near campfires. Its spikes weren’t poisonous but the scratches often healed slowly because there could be all kinds of dirt on them. The echidna lays eggs which it hatches in its stomach pouch. One at a time, the young mature over a long time.

Dingoes and foxes are its main enemy in the wild. The fox or dingo simply digs a hole next to the one the echidna is in and then flips it onto its back. Attacking the echidna via its stomach makes it  easy for the hunter to kill and then enjoys its meal.

© Raili Tanska

22 thoughts on “Of Platypus and Echidna

    1. I just wish he had had time to write the sequel before he descended into the valleys of dementia. He had started it. My sister has it. When I visit her next month I’ll take a look and see if there is anything in it that is worth translating. By the time he was working on it his cognition had deteriorated. But this book is a treasure 🙂

  1. Australia has such fascinating wildlife, and it’s great to read the experiences of someone who was even less unfamiliar with it than I am.
    Your father’s book is a treasure for you to… treasure!

  2. Your dad had the best name! I think Australians are more cowboy than Americans and Harriet than most. Interesting how we know some Australian stories and animals I don’t even know how I ever heard of a platypus but the idea of milk produced from skin glands is incredible and a bit ick! Strange but lovely creatures. Was Australia once connected with Asia and broke off?

    1. You’re right, the platypus is totally weird the way it feeds its babies. And right again about Australia being connected to Asia. It was indeed ! One theory is that the original Aussies walked across land to get here.

      1. I had VERY odd dreams involving milk glands last night! ha ha ha! Do you think they walked across? I have read something along those lines, the Aboriginals look quite different to anyone else except some of the Malays.

      2. Really? I must read more on that. I always thought Aboriginals were the most striking because they really are unusual looking I hope that never gets lost.

      3. There are still groups of pure blood indigenous around I think, but a lot of mixed race blood too. Some of them it’s impossible to see any visual evidence of their aboriginality

      4. Yes I notice that when I watch Oz films. I feel sad to think many native tribes or old tribes are almost extinct, that’s true of Native American’s here.

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