Last year I happened to watch a webinar about platypi, their place in Melbourne's waterways, and how we can help protect their populations. It planted the seed that culminated in a 4 day trip in my mate's Forester with the goal of spotting one of the elusive creatures.
Most Australians have never seen a platypus in the wild. Though they've been spotted in the Yarra River within 5km of Melbourne's CBD, a sighting is a rare thing no matter where you go. They're small, they're usually only active at dawn and dusk, and they spend most of their time either underwater or in waterside burrows. They aren't technically endangered but they are considered a vulnerable species in Victoria. Fish nets pose a significant threat to them, as does the concreting of waterways which destroys the muddy river habitat in which they forage for food.
But 2 hours from the city there's a lake that's known for its platypus sightings, so sometime around September 2020 a friend and I begun to formulate a plan. We have tents and the lake has a campground, but we don't own any kind of water vessel, nor a trailer, tow hook or roof racks that might be used to transport one. My MR2 isn't up to the task, so we needed to figure out the right combination of vehicle and extraneous bits that could us out on lake with the platypus. And we had to get it done in the warmer months, since camping in the forests of western Victoria is a whole different kettle of fish once a southern Winter arrives.
Enter my mate's Forester.
The Subaru Forester is not the most capable or rugged vehicle ever produced. But it has some clearance, low-range 4WD and ample space. This one is a 2006 model, a lifestyle vehicle from an era long before every car sold itself as such, when SUVs were cool. It just feels like the right tool for the job, in the same way that an MX-5 is very much the right tool for a twisty road, even if it's not necessarily the best one. And it looks so right with roof racks on top, and a Canadian Canoe mounted to them. My mate is a bit of a Subaru tragic having owned an early 90s Liberty before this, and an 80s Leone before that (all three of them manual), and I'm all about Japanese cars so we were both happy.
The plan came together as follows: install roof racks Thursday morning, Saturday we pick up the canoe and head down the Great Ocean Road to camp at Cape Otway, with Sunday and Monday nights camping at Lake Elizabeth, canoeing around looking for platypus. We were unable to book Saturday at Lake Elizabeth since the Great Ocean Road is close and is damn popular, so Cape Otway will do.
But Parker Hill Campground at Cape Otway is not a bad compromise. It's in an isolated spot out West, after the ocean road turns inland through the forest towards the Twelve Apostles. It's down a pleasingly twisty road, overlooks an inlet with a secluded beach, and is part of the Great Ocean Walk giving it some fantastic hiking trails through a variety of terrain. After camping Saturday night we hiked 22km on the Sunday, including a few hours checking out the Cape Otway Lightstation and historic artifacts. This included an old radar bunker from WW2 times, when the Germans came through in a captured Norwegian ship and laid 110 sea mines between Tasmania and the mainland, sinking a number of vessels including the first American ship of the war. It was a great day of walking, but Lake Elizabeth was calling.
Sunday afternoon we packed up the Forry and hustled it back through the Great Otway National Park to the coast, along the coast past Apollo Bay, up a twisty inland road towards the small township of Forrest, and then downhill along the gravel switchbacks that lead to Lake Elizabeth campground. We'd had a big day but were keen to get the canoe out before the platypus all went to bed, so there was some enthusiastic driving that day. If you've never seen a Forester with a canoe on top slide through a dirt hairpin, I'm here to tell you it can be done. We arrived at the campground just after 5pm with a few hours of daylight left, and proceeded to carry 40kg of canoe for 1 kilometre toward the lake. It was hell on our hands, shoulders and backs, but we made it.
Lake Elizabeth is pretty new as far as lakes go, formed in 1952 by a landslide that dammed a river. The trees that used to grow in the valley are now dead logs reaching out of a lake, and the surrounding hills, low cloud cover, and seemingly endless misty rain all combine to give the lake a ghostly, surreal feel. After all the planning and canoe hauling we did to get this far, we felt like kings as we launched our canoe from the bank and tried to figure out the right paddling technique.
Within an hour we were a coordinated team, working together to navigate the trees both above and just below the lake's surface, or taking solo control of the boat while the other takes photos. The lake isn't huge and can be covered in the canoe in 15 minutes or so, so we soon finished exploring and set our eyes to platypus hunting. We didn't really know what to look for - whether they'd be on the surface or just under, on the bank, near it or away from it, whether they'd prefer water sheltered by an overhanging tree, thick reeds or nothing at all. We saw another canoe, a guided tour group also out looking for platypus, so we watched them intently and tried to copy what they did. It was deathly silent on the lake, us and the tour grip holding our breath and scrutinizing every surfaced bubble in hopes of a sighting. But as it got late the tour group departed, and though we stayed out until full dark, we saw only birds. The lake was beautiful, but it was devoid of platypi. We tied up the boat and headed back to eat dinner and set up camp in the dark.
We awoke at 6am the next day, intent on getting back in the canoe during that ideal dawn period, before it became late in the day and all the platypi went home for lunch. We heated coffee and had a quick breakfast on the small launching ramp and set out again. This time we were accomplished paddlers, so after skirting the edge of the lake we headed up a narrow river on the East side, confident we could navigate it without capsizing. Not far up the river we hit some impassable vegetation, but we glimpsed movement in the water ahead - possibly one of the sneaky little creatures evading us. Enthused, we waited 5 minutes in silence, then disembarked the boat to investigate, but to no avail. We turned the boat around and headed back to the main lake.
We'd spent 2 hours on the water that morning (4 hours total) and were easing back down the northern perimeter of the lake when it happened - we spotted a platypus swimming along in front of us, casual as you like, before diving. Neither of us could believe our luck, nor the brazen manner in which it turned. This was not a glimpse from far across the lake, he was straight ahead and no more than 10 metres away. We waited eagerly, and he soon resurfaced towards the lake's centre. We got the camera out and gave chase.
The next 70 minutes was a game of cat and mouse. Platypi hunt by foraging along the lake bottom with their bills, but they have to surface every minute or so for air. We'd wait, watching for the appearance of bubbles on the surface from him foraging down below, and try to pick where he'd show up next. He never stayed in one place and could move surprisingly far in those 60 seconds, but we weren't far behind. Occasionally we'd lose him - he'd resurface somewhere unexpected and we'd miss it. But then we'd spot in the distance - a low, gliding shape on the top of the water, followed by the distinctive platypus dive, and we'd give chase again. They don't spend much time on the surface making photography difficult, but we managed once to position the canoe right near where he surfaced, and to stay still enough to avoid alerting him and get a few quality shots.
After chasing him for more than an hour, we left the lake, satisfied that we'd achieved our goal. We spent rest of Monday in Forrest, drinking some incredible hot chocolate and a paddle of some very local craft beer. We spent another hour on the lake that evening spotting a few more platypi, before hauling the canoe back to the car. Tuesday we packed up and headed back into the city, joining the late morning work-day traffic in a dirty Forester with a canoe on the roof.