When I heard the birds of paradise calling I knew it was time to get up. As I stumbled out of my tent it was still dark in the forest, but I could see that Wandi was ready to start hiking. After ingesting a pack of noodles we started quickly making our way along the salt trail. Wandi was just as keen as I was to make it to the higher peaks of the Cyclops Mountains and our pace began to feel like a slow jog.
This time we discovered where we had lost the salt trail the day before and were able to continue walking along the ancient path. This made the walk a little easier as we were able to navigate the endless ridges. However, we were subjected to more swampy areas and had to wade through large pools of stagnant mud.
At this pace I was certain that we would be near the top well before noon. We knew there were no water sources in the higher peaks, so we made sure to fill all our water bottles before it was too late.
By 8:30 we were already at the ridge of the mountain overlooking Ormu. Here we found more signs of where an echidna had been foraging (1,250 m). We followed the ridge toward the peak, just as Van Royan, the Dutch Botanist who discovered Attenborough’s echidna, must have done 46 years ago. Along this ridge at about 1,300 m was the last sighting of any human disturbance. All the smaller trees had been chopped down and it looked as though the area had been cleared for a small hunting camp.
The ridge then became very narrow and steep and the trees were mostly covered in a light layer of moss. We now had to cut our way through the foliage with a machete and often had to pull ourselves up vertical inclines by grabbing onto the base of small tress, often covered in small spines. We were moving quickly and I could feel my adrenalin rushing as I knew we were within an hour of being at the site I had read about so long ago and had been desperately trying to reach for the past month.
When we finally reached 1,600 m we stopped to eat some food and searched the area for any signs of echidnas. We were drenched in sweat as we had been hiking in the hot tropical forest since 5:30 in the morning, but now with the cool breeze moving through the cloud forest I began to feel very cold and realized that a night in the clouds would be less than comfortable. The trees were now covered in thick moss and everything was cold and dripping wet.
As I searched the forest floor for signs of echidnas I was surprised to find that caterpillars and moths were happily surviving in this damp environment.
I pulled up a matt of moss and was able to find a number of earthworms that would be an excellent food source for Attenborough’s echidna. Their long beaks and jagged tongues likely make them expert worm hunters. I realised that finding nose pokes in this environment would be extremely difficult as the ground was either covered in dense moss or deep layers of leaf litter. I found many crevasses, hollow logs and small borrows that would provide echidnas with perfect hiding spots to wait out the day. One group of species that were noticeably absent were leeches. I found this entertaining as the villagers had told me to expect three species of terrible leech.
We then continued up the narrow ridge manoeuvring between damp trees and hopping across large slippery moss covered bolder with hundreds of meters free fall on either side. The orchids were numerous and beautiful and unlike any I had seen before. It now made perfect sense that Van Royan had ventured to this remote ecological island.
I found it interesting that Wandi knew that the plant shown below, which has a symbiotic relationship with ants, was being used in cancer research. I only wish people in the western world had the same understanding of the importance of genetic resources in the rainforest.
Every time we thought we had reached the summit the clouds would thin and we would see that we had to keep going. At one point we stopped and climbed out to a rocky outcrop to see if we could identify Santani. It was only for a second, but my stomach sank as the white cloudy abyss suddenly morphed into a deep green vertical drop. We sat silently for a while and listened and other then the odd bird chirp it was deathly quite. The moss appears to absorb the sound much as the snow does in winter. The birds were extremely tame, almost curious and came within meters of us to get a very good look at the strange looking primates. Even cassowary droppings could be found in this unlikely location. Half an hour later we were at the top of this part of the Cyclops mountain range which was about 1,700 m. Wandi was more than pleased with himself for having successfully guided us here.
He insisted on taking a picture of me on the summit so I handed him my camera, but forgot to explain the focus bit.
After about an hour at the top searching for signs of echidnas we began to get cold and knew we had to head back if there was any chance of us returning before dark. No nose pokes were found at the summit, but it would have been pretty hard to identify them given the ground cover. After circling the summit a number of times we quickly descended. I was in another world, thinking about how to best conserve Attenborough’s echidna when suddenly I clued in to the fact that Wandi was not following the cutting marks we had made on the way up. He indicated that he did not need to because it was impossible to get lost on such a small ridge. Something felt strange and I pulled out my compass only to find that Santani was on the opposite side of where it should be if we were heading back the way we came. Wandi put his palm on his forehead and shook his head. The mystical cloudy mountains had deceived him and we had descended about 250 m on the wrong side of the mountain.
Feeling rather far from camp we retraced our steps to the top and after a few circles and a bit of confusion (Wandi tried to take us down the wrong side again) we headed back in the direction from which we had come. With the thick clouds and multiple ridges it was really disorienting and even I began to wonder about the deceptive mystical nature of the mountain. I insisted that we follow the trail that we had cut on the way up the mountain, but after descending into endless valleys crossing countless rivers and climbing up ever steeper ridges it became clear that following a cut trail was not Wandi’s greatest forte. With the GPS we were able to get periodic readings which guided us in the general direction of camp. After 18 hours of challenging hiking, many of which were spent stumbling in the dark, we knew we were close to our camp when we smelt smoke in the warm night air. We called into the forest and were ecstatic to hear the welcoming hollers of the Forestry guys. Once I could see the comforting lantern in the distance my body began to feel tired.
When we came out of the mountains I met with the EDGE fellow that will be developing a monitoring and education programme with the different tribes at the base of the Cyclops Mountains. She will also be responsible for developing a basic management plan for Attenborough’s echidna in the Cyclops Mountains. This work is being carried out with the assistance of our local partner, Conservation International.
When I got on the plane to fly home I look at my seat and it said smile ‘n care.
I had a hard time mustering up a smile as every muscle in my body hurt, but I could not have been happier with the knowledge that Attenborough’s echidna was still inhabiting the Cyclops Mountains, that its distribution is probably larger then we previously thought, that all the descriptions were consistent with it being a distinct species, an EDGE fellow was now in place and that the local tribes were keen to conserve the culturally important species that they fondly know as the Payangko.