Matt's Mind

Saturday, August 11, 2007

A close encounter of the spiny kind

Yesterday I had an encounter with a very rare creature, an encounter which I suspect will be hard to top. It was effectively right in my backyard, for one of the advantages of living where I am in Adelaide is that getting out of the city into the (semi) wild is only a 20 drive up into the Adelaide Hills.

While the hills are certainly not an unspoilt wilderness, and have been changed quite a bit by introduced species and marauding ape-descendants, large areas are protected as National Park, and some of the more tolerant Australian wildlife still calls it come. This includes increasingly-ridiculous numbers of Koalas in some places: a group of us walkers once counted 21 Koalas in 1.5 hour walk.

Koalas are common as muck, and it's only interesting if you see one actually moving, which they seem to do about three times a day [1]. Kangaroos are more rare, but there are at least two groups that live in the areas run and walk in so it's interesting, but not a major event, to see them on the occasions that they are out, usually in the evening in open grassy areas.

But a real rarity and treat is seeing an Echidna [2], small spiny little buggers that are right up there with Platypuses in the weird stakes. Classifying them gave taxonomists some trouble, since they're basically mammals, except they lay eggs. They are small, secretive and roam widely, characteristics guaranteed to make sure you won't see one often.

I was out running starting from a place called Chamber's Gully up to a ridge, which is imaginatively named Long Ridge, cos it's quite long, you see? I went up the nice easy tourist trail to the ridge, and when I got to the top, with some spectacular 360ยบ views, I found that the sun was setting and decided I needed to cut the run short.

So I watched the sun go down over the ocean and then headed down what is basically the opposite of the nice track I came up, basically part-time stream masquerading as a track, cutting vertically down the side of the hill. But it has the virtue of halving the time needed to get back to the bottom. [3]

I was on my way down this track in twilight, with an evening breeze from the plains pushing back on me, when I saw, shuffling up towards me on the same track, an Echidna. I stopped dead immediately; the wind direction had obviously worked in my favour since it showed no sign it had seen me and kept right on shuffling. So I squatted down and watched it come towards me. And keep on coming, until it nearly bumped into a running shoe, which it carefully sniffed with a pointy snout. It then sniffed the other shoe, looked around myopically with little black beady eyes, and then, with me trying not to laugh out loud, it started to work it's way between my feet and got stuck with me squatting on it.

Now this is not a situation I had anticipated being in that evening and, if there had been any reasonable prospect of someone coming down the trail and seeing me squatting on a protected native species, I would have been inclined to get out there immediately. But there wasn't anyone else, and the Echidna seemed to have decided that this wasn't a bad place for a break, even if it did smell slightly like ape-descendant. So I felt I could take my time working out the best way to deal with this.

It was when the spines started to make themselves felt that I started imagining what a suddenly-startled Echidna, wedged in what must be admitted is a fairly sensitive area, might do to my chances of producing any of my own personal ape-descendants. So, I quickly devised an executed a cunning plan, which involved suddenly leaping up and forwards, and thus simply dealing with a steep rocky path and gravity, rather than have an angry monotreme wedged in my crotch.

Amazingly, the plan worked and this turn of events didn't seem to faze the little bugger. What it had previously judged as a warm, dark hole to rest in for a bit had just leaped out of the way, but no worries, these things happen. It shuffled off in silence, while I continued to try not to wee myself laughing at the utter ridiculousness of what had just happened.

  1. I once saw one jump between two trees and miss, which may also be hard to top.

  2. See wikipedia entry. This article is also worth a read.

  3. See long ridge between Greenhill and Waterfall Gully Road on this map. If you zoom in on the head of the ridge, you can see the vertical track heading off in the direction of 3 o'clock down to Chamber's Gully.