As we were landing in Jayapura I could see the Cyclops mountain range dramatically rising from the sea. Dense tropical forest covered a series of steep, almost vertical ridges. I wanted to assess how difficult the peaks were to climb, but they were constantly covered in cloud.
Upon landing we met our local partners from Conservation International who helped co-ordinate the expedition and navigate the various layers of bureaucracy, of which there are many. To enter the Cyclops mountain range we had to wait to have official documents signed by the Police and Forestry Departments, and receive verbal permission from various Onduafies (regional tribal chiefs). Failing at any one of these hurdles could mean the end of the expedition. The Forestry Department agreed to send along three of their staff: John, Daniel, and Seppy. Unlike the others, Seppy was from the forestry police department and I think was really sent along for our security. He stayed with us at all times and I soon discovered that he had been one of Indonesia’s greatest boxers. His English was limited, but he commonly said “if Mr. Jonathan goes, Mr Seppy goes”.
On the 11th we were finally given the official letters allowing us to visit the villages along the sea on the north side of the Cyclops Mountains. We immediately organized transport and drove all the way around the south side of the mountains along Lake Santani (see above) until we reached the town of Depapura. From there, we climbed into the back of a pick up and bounced along an old dirt road for half an hour until we reached the sleepy town of Wambena on the ocean side of the Cyclops.
The children were not accustomed to seeing westerners and rather enjoyed watching us talk to the older villagers about a strange creature they had never seen. They all had biblical names. Solomon, the boy in the centre, was the son of our guide.
It was not a great start. No-one had actually seen an echidna. Finally, an older man in his mid 70s, Mr Simon Ormuseray, told me he knew the name for the species in his local language. They call it Payangko. This was extremely encouraging, as an old local word for the species indicates that it once inhabited the area. In the afternoon we went for a hike in the mountains behind the village where we found at least four wood snares along the route and agricultural activity up to 200 meters. It was clear that the forest immediately around the village was heavily exploited. However, bushmeat is less important here than in the inland areas as more then half their diet comes from the sea.
The following morning came early (4:30). I can’t remember if it was the roosters or the children’s church choir that started first, and just in case anyone was not aware that it was time for prayer, our guide Yahoda walked through the village banging a large metal pot. The missionaries have been extremely successful at converting the tribes in the Cyclops region and a church dominates the centre of every village. I could not keep track of all the religious holidays and hiking on a Sunday appeared to be a non-starter.
The Wambena locals informed us the best place to climb to the high peaks of the Cyclops Mountains was to start from a village called little Yongsu (a village to the west), but no-one knew of anyone who had ever been to the higher peaks. Once church had ended we climbed into a pick up and drove through coastal rainforest and small plantations until we arrived in Dormena. Here we organized a local boat to take us to little Yongsu. While waiting, one of the locals said there was an old man who knew something about the echidna but that he was not currently in the village.
From the ocean we could see many areas where deforestation (for small plantations) had occurred to about 100 m and in some areas it was so steep that landslides were sure to follow. Three months earlier there had been heavy rains and massive landslides on the south side of the mountains. At higher elevations it was reassuring that echidna habitat did not appear to be seriously threatened by deforestation on the north side of the mountains.
Just off the coast of little Yongsu we tried to identify the best place to climb to the higher peaks, but the clouds were relentless.
As we made our way to shore I had a feeling that it would be in the village of little Yongsu that would begin to unravel the mystery of Attenborough’s echidna.
End of part two