Hunting the rare platypus
When you spot a rare animal in the wild it's an 'oo-ah' moment.
Like seeing a pride of lions while on safari in Africa, or a lone tiger appearing out of an Indian jungle, it is an awesome experience.
So, here we are in Eungella National Park, 80kms west of Mackay in Queensland, waiting in the fading afternoon light and hoping to spot a rare platypus. (These shy creatures are best seen in early morning or late afternoon.)
We know they are in the peaceful Broken River – it is one of the best places in Australia to sight the animal. We just want one or two to show up.
The platypus belongs to a unique group of animals called `monotremes'. They are warm-blooded, have a covering of hair and suckle their young. But you don't often see them in the wild. Except here.
Queensland Parks & Wildlife have thoughtfully provided a viewing platform on the riverbank. We have our instructions. Stand still. Watch quietly. Look for circular ripples in the water and a small wave created in front of the platypus as it paddles.
We should see the bill, the top of its head, back and tail. About 20 of us are craning our necks. We see plenty of slow-moving turtles.
And, yes, finally there's a platypus. It surfaces and paddles across the river. Then dives. Then surfaces again. It is feeding.
Another appears. Wow, we have seen not just one platypus, but two.
Our guide is Col Adamson, operator of Reeforest Adventure Tours. We had begun in Mackay earlier in the day and driven along the Pioneer River valley, through a green sea of ripening sugarcane. (Mackay produces more than one-third of Australia's sugar crop.)
Col has brought us here by way of the Eungella park which includes the largest continuous stretch of rainforest in Australia. We have enjoyed damper and billy tea in his private bush camp at Finch Hatton before an easy 2.8km walk along a track to Araluen Cascades.
After recent rain the water rushes off the mountain into the deep Araluen rock pool – in summer, a tempting place for a swim.
Eungella Park protects many unusual rainforest plants, such as the Mackay tulip oak, and animals, such as the Eungella dayfrog and honeyeater.
Col points out the plants along the way. We've worked up an appetite for Col's barbecue back at his bush camp. A row of kookaburras waits in a tree for picnickers to feed them. In the meantime, they pose for our overseas visitors.
Lunch enjoyed, we drive up the mountain, past a huge mango factory which produces fruit juices and slices, to The Chalet, at Eungella township.
Built in 1934 as a guest house for people needing `clear mountain air' at 800 metres, the Chalet enjoys a grand view of the valley back to the coast. It's also a popular spot for hang-gliders to take off.
On the way home to Mackay we'll stop at a classic outback Queensland pub, the Pinnacle Hotel, to taste one of Wendy's famous homemade meat pies.
My seven-day Traveltrain Mackay Tropical Tour had begun with a comfortable overnight journey on the Sunlander train (alternatively, you can take the Tilt train) from Brisbane.
In the Queenslander class twinette room we were welcomed by our maitre d'hotel, Sarena, with a lavish afternoon tea. We journeyed north under cottonball clouds, past green hills and thick stands of trees; backyards and farmyards.
Overfull dams are everywhere – this land is no longer thirsty. As the sun sets, the clouds are now dusted with pink. Soon it is dark and the train lights wash the trackside.
We head for the lounge car and pre-dinner drinks. Dinner is sumptuous. We begin with smoked salmon and follow up with grilled eye fillet steak. Just perfect. And so to bed.
Dawn is breaking as we pull into Mackay where Col is waiting to take us on our first day's sightseeing – to the cattle town of Nebo, south of Mackay. Cattle and coal rule this part of the world.
We're taken to a photo gallery in Nebo where an excellent display of well-preserved black and white photos show the period of the local goldrush around 1881. More history in the Nebo museum and out at historic Mt Britton which once was home to around 1,500 souls.
On another day we visit Cape Hillsborough National Park to walk the bush tracks and learn about the early pioneering days and how Aboriginal people lived off the land; about their bush tucker and hear some of the legends associated with them.
A day is spent in and around the city of Mackay and its historic buildings, including many colourful art deco buildings.
We go inside the old Pine Islet Lighthouse, now moved to the Mackay Marina. The lighthouse once shone its kerosene-powered light 25kms out to sea.
During the sugarcane crushing season, between June and December, guests on this Reeforest tour will also visit a sugar mill.
* The writer travelled as a guest of Queensland Rail's Traveltrain and Reeforest Adventure Tours.