The orange wanderer landed lightly on the corner of my notebook, its delicate wings wafting up and down like silken scarfs.
"Don't move," a low voice said. "There are two on your back. We're taking pictures."
And so I froze, there in the Butterfly House of the Melbourne Zoo, where the temperature is kept in the 80s and the humidity is 90%.
When the camera clicks stopped, I turned to look. Perched on my shoulders, like fringed epaulets, were two black-and-white butterflies called tigers. On the wooden walkway beyond was a clutch of schoolchildren who seemed as enchanted as I.
"I know just what I want for Christmas," one youngster said, with a hunter's gleam in his eye. "A butterfly net."
About 800 butterflies live in this glass-walled sanctuary, which is lush with tropical plants and ribbons of waterfalls. It is a favorite corner of Australia's oldest zoo, a royal park that is home to such natives as koalas and wombats and gray kangaroos, who sprawl on their sides like proud, pregnant women on the beach.
Color and Motion
The Butterfly House is a kaleidoscope of bold color and motion. Among the northern Australia species are orange cruisers that seem to fancy camera straps and hair bows in a playful game of hide-and-seek. Leafwings and lacewings share this hothouse garden with common moonbeams and Australian rustics.
Mostly they are shy, these creatures of stained-glass beauty that breeze through the filtered sun to perch on curling fronds and cups of red lantana.
And they are silent, as they flit daintily from trays of nectar to the tops of tree ferns.
The most vivid butterflies in the house were the electric blue Ulysses--dramatic stars of the rain forests of Queensland and native to Dunk Island, not far from the Great Barrier Reef.
Snorkeling Off Dunk
The Ulysses blues, in fact, are the emblem of the lovely Dunk Island resort where I spent blissful days. Besides strolling at sundown on coarse golden sands and falling asleep to the whir of a ceiling fan, there were catamaran trips to the reef, where I snorkeled over blue-lipped coral and indigo starfish and giant clams that opened like treasure chests.
But it had not rained on the island for weeks, so the fabled butterflies remained elusive. The only ones I had seen were emblazoned on the bottom of the pool, and on mugs and beach towels and T-shirts.
On my last afternoon, as I waited in the shade of a thatched hut for a flight back to Townsville, a low voice behind me said: "Don't move. There's a butterfly on your hat. I'm taking a picture." With glee, I held my breath.
At that moment the Air Queensland pilot brushed back her long ponytail and waved for us to board the twin-propeller craft. I glanced around and saw no butterflies, only a photographer with a charming smile who promised that the proof would be in the mail.