Take me to the river

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - NEWS - KA­T­RINA LOBLEY

The first time I hit Warburton, the heat shim­mered and my shirt and jeans, better suited to a cooler sea­son, stuck to my skin. The Yarra, not at all a mighty river this far from Mel­bourne, glit­tered in the sun­shine. Peals of laugh­ter reached my ears. Lo and be­hold, peo­ple were jump­ing on li­los to drift with the cur­rent be­fore scram­bling back to the river­bank to do it all again. I vowed to re­turn with a swim­suit next visit.

So a trip to Warburton rolls around again but there’s a snag as cold, rainy weather is fore­cast. I brush aside that news, put a wet­suit in my bag and ar­range for a lilo to be at Os­car’s on the Yarra (formerly Best Western Yarra Val­ley), a 22-room ho­tel just out of town with a glo­ri­ous stretch of river frontage.

Dat­ing from the 1920s, the place feels like a quaint guest­house with its com­mu­nal lounges, four fire­places, bil­liard ta­ble, cov­etable art deco geo­met­ric mir­rors, ram­bling grounds com­plete with three cows and gue­strooms with di­rect out­door ac­cess.

A Mel­bourne friend thinks I’m crazy to jump in the Yarra, given the tem­per­a­ture. “It was snow­ing on Mt Donna Buang last week,” she says as I march down to the river­bank en­cased in neo­prene, edge around the arum lilies and dip a toe in the water.

Ouch, cold as snowmelt. By now, a small crowd has gath­ered so I can’t back out.

I inch into the water wear­ing flip-flops to pro­tect my feet from rocks and launch on to the lilo, pad­dling as fast as a hun­gry duck that’s spied bread­crumbs. I cover only the dis­tance of the ho­tel’s bound­aries but it’s enough to tick that lit­tle ad­ven­ture off my to-do list.

The Yarra Val­ley is home to an­other crea­ture that floated down a river — and is lucky to still be alive.

As a ju­ve­nile, Yami the platy­pus was found in the Gipp­s­land Lakes area in 2011 in a crit­i­cal condition after drink­ing salt­wa­ter. She was nursed back to health at Healesville Sanc­tu­ary but couldn’t be re­turned to where she was found.

The lit­tle ex­tro­vert stars in the zoo’s platy­pus en­coun­ters, where she’s been known to clam­ber on to a vis­i­tor’s shoul­der be­fore swan-div­ing back into the water.

Se­nior platy­pus keeper Jessica Thomas, who’s com­plet­ing a PhD on platy­puses, says, “I’ve been hooked ever since I met my first one — they al­ways chal­lenge me.”

Thomas is not the only one en­am­oured by the egglay­ing, duck-billed mam­mals, which bam­boo­zled Euro- peans in the late 18th cen­tury. “There’s one cou­ple from Can­berra who love our [Wade with the Platy­pus] ex­pe­ri­ence and buy it for each other’s birthdays and an­niver­sary so they come to do the en­counter at least twice a year,” Thomas says.

I’m granted a be­hind-the-scenes peek. After clam­ber­ing into waders, I pop into a train­ing tank with Alooka the platy­pus. She zips around at speed and frol­ics among sub­merged tree fern trunks but doesn’t ap­proach, even though I’m swish­ing a hand­ful of worms through the water. Yami, in a neigh­bour­ing tank, hoovers up the treat, vi­brat­ing her rub­bery bill against my palm.

Platy­puses and peo­ple aren’t the only things to travel down rivers. Be­fore con­struc­tion of the Up­per Yarra Reser­voir, the river car­ried logs to far-off mills, some­thing I dis­cover after cy­cling from Warburton to Launch­ing Place where trees bound for Mel­bourne mills were once dis­patched into the water.

With e-bikes from Warburton’s Cog Bike Cafe, it’s easy to explore a lit­tle or a lot of the 38km Li­ly­dale-Warburton Rail Trail (nick­named the Warby Trail) that winds through the scenic val­ley.

I cy­cle past maremma sheep­dogs zeal­ously guard­ing free-range chick­ens (OK, OK — I’m go­ing now) and lean­ing tim­ber barns that look as if they could tip over in a light breeze. King par­rots set­tle into eu­ca­lypt branches, a red-browed finch flits from a gre­vil­lea and I in­hale forests­cented air that’s as restora­tive as any quick dip in brisk waters.

Ka­t­rina Lobley was a guest of Zoos Vic­to­ria.

Com­fort­able lounge at Os­car’s on the Yarra, above; an e-bike from Warburton’s Cog Bike Cafe, be­low

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