Olvar Wood has a pretty little dam. Nothing grand, more of a permanent waterhole squatting in one of the seasonal creeks that run either side of the cottage. We often admire the pink and purple lillies that decorate its surface from the comfort of our loungeroom’s window seat, or the dam’s rickety pier, feet dangling in the water.
One evening, after preparing the Retreat for a writing group who would arrive the next day, I hurried home past the dam, my arms full of books. The slope up to the house is formidable at the best of times, so I was thinking of the climb, already tired from the day’s work. Something dark and low to the ground scuttled across the path in front of my feet before disappearing into the water with the familiar splash. Sans glasses in failing light over loaded-up arms, I hadn’t got a good look; it was just a grey or black-furred blur and considerably smaller than the Creature of the Dam that had come to dwell in my imagination. I stumbled up the hill wondering whether maybe we had… platypus.
The dam is below the cottage, on the way to and from the Writers Retreat. For several years, whenever passing by, we have heard a loud splash as some mysterious animal disappeared under the surface. It sounded large, especially when on your own, and while we always paused to try and see what had made the noise, we did not ever pause too long.
Platypus need fresh, running water, not neccessarily permanently running but usually something more substantial than our creeks. Still, the idea was far more appealing than the alternative: a native water rat. I told the tale at dinner and the children, too, latched onto the idea of our own platypus. All our wildlife books suggested water rats were more likely. One entry called the rat “our other platypus”, which made me feel somewhat better about not being able to distinguish between them immediately. The rat has a white tip to its tail and, obviously, no bill. But you would have to get a good look at the creature in order to make this distinction. It appeared that close analysis of their droppings was going to be required to get an answer.
Definitive evidence of native water rats, one book suggested, was fish skeletons around the edge of the dam. Unlike platypus, water rats apparently often emerge from the water to eat, sitting up and holding their meal in their forepaws. Their diet includes insects, spiders, yabbies, freshwater mussels, frogs and fish. We hear all manner of frogs calling from down there in the evening (including the endangered Green-thighed Frog, which I do not like the idea of being eaten) and they are welcome to all the spiders they can eat. Until a few months earlier, however, I would have laughed at the possibility of fish.
I was perched on the end of the pier one morning, focusing on a lotus flower through the camera lens, when I saw a flash of red-gold move beneath me as I took the shot. I was so startled I very nearly fell into the water. Goldfish. Enormous Goldfish. As someone who prides herself on close observation of nature, I was somewhat abashed. We had been living here for more than three years and, other than frogs, I hadn’t detected any life in the dam at all. We had been told that previous owners attempted a yabby operation, which explained a shed nearby and other paraphernalia. Having grown up on a property, I would have welcomed the opportunity to show off my yabby catching skills – and to cook them up for a tasty dinner. There had been no sign of them though, not even in a dry winter when the dam almost disappeared. How fish that size survived that period I don’t know.
Since there were fish to be eaten, a lack of skeletons would indicate the existance of Olvar Wood platypus, so it was with some enthusiasm that I inspected the dam’s waterline the next day. I had only to take two steps. We would not have to go to the trouble of poking at poop: there, in several pieces, was a fish skeleton. We have resident water rats: Hydromys chrysogaster.
A disappointing moment, of course. It turns out that water rats are interesting creatures though, and quite cute. They look a bit like a small otter, with a thick coat of soft fur, dense whiskers and partly webbed hind feet. They are, of course, nothing like Ratty from Wind in the Willows. ‘Our’ rat has teeth sharp enough to kill and eat tortoises and water birds, which doesn’t sound very friendly. And I have seen no evidence of lazy messing about in boats, or picnicking on the riverbank. Not that I have had a good look at one yet; they seem to practice the art of being invisible. They have some work to do on their dive though, to get that perfect soundless entry. Mind you, they had us fooled into thinking there were monsters in that water, which isn’t a bad strategy for ensuring your privacy.