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Search for Attenborough’s echidna (Part 5)

By on September 18, 2007 in Attenborough's echidna, EDGE Updates, Focal species, Uncategorized

We offered Wandi a place in the tent, but he preferred to sleep by the camp fire.  


I don’t think he slept much as the camp had been completely transformed by morning.  It looked like something out of Gilligan’s Island.


When I asked him how he slept he said it was great except for the snake that joined him on his wooden bed.


After a large Papuan style breakfast of rice and spam we began our search for the salt route which we hoped would take us to the mountain ridge overlooking Ormu.  The forestry guys were in good spirits, keen to find more signs of Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna and to be the first from their department to climb the Cyclops. 

Forestry guys

Within half an hour we found the salt route and were able to follow it by identifying old branches that had been cut.  I stopped to remove some leeches that were burrowing in my socks and crawling up my leg.  The forestry guys quickly pulled out a small bottle and eagerly plucked them off me and added them to the collection.  In sign language they made it clear that these leeches were somehow used as a local Viagra.  I still wonder exactly what they do with them. 


The forest looked extremely wild and untouched, but every so often we would come across branches that had recently been cut. 


We also found old hunting camps and wooden snares.  One camp at 800 m had about 40 unused sapling snares lying against a tree.  The Cyclops Mountains are surrounded by a number of different tribes, most of whom do not spend time in the higher peaks.  However, migrants from the highlands have begun to settle the base of the southern side of the Cyclops and these tribes, such as the Lani or Dani, are excellent hunters and think little of climbing what to them is a small mountain.  As we hiked further up, the forest began to look very prehistoric with a variety of ferns and moss dominating the landscape. 


The prominent dinosaur-like tracks of cassowaries (a large flightless bird) reinforced the feeling that we were entering a Jurassic forest.

Cassowary footprint

After some time, Wandi lost the salt trail and it was clear we were no longer heading for the ridge.  Instead, we had veered slightly west and were moving towards one of the peaks.  This was fine, but we had to slowly cut our way through the forest as the mountain continued to get ever steeper.  The team seemed tired and I began to come to terms with the fact that we were not going to reach the summit.  It was 2pm and we were at about 1,500 m.  If we kept going for much longer there was no way we would make it back before dark.  When we hit a cliff face and a large steep rock slide I decided it was time to start heading back.  This was very upsetting as I had been trying for weeks to get to the elevation of 1,600 m where Van Royen found the only known Attenborough’s echidna specimen.  Before turning back I scoured the forest floor for any signs of echidna’s and while the area looked like perfect echidna habitat and there were many potential borrows or hiding spots, I found no signs that I could confidently say were those of the echidnas.

Perfect echidna habitat

Wandi decided to try and take a shortcut back, but after encountering endless valleys, rivers and cliff faces it became clear we were completely lost. 


When the sun set everyone looked a little nervous but the evening calls of the frogs and scratching noises of the insects were comforting.  We all knew that if worse came to worse, we would be safe sleeping on the forest floor.


On the positive side, I knew that hiking at night would greatly increase our chances of seeing the nocturnal echidna.  In the dark we came across interesting bite marks in a tree which I think were caused by tree kangaroos

Tree kangaroo bite marks

The tree kangaroo species, known to live in the Cyclops, is the grizzled tree kangaroo which is grey in colour. 

It was difficult to use my GPS as there was thick cloud cover and the forest canopy was very dense.  However, by patiently waiting in the middle of an open stream, I could sometimes get a waypoint and it was possible to identify the general direction to the camp.

Lost in the dark 

In the dark we waded through large patches of plants that were very similar to nettles, but with a more painful and long lasting sting.  An entomologist working in the region in the 20s wrote that this plant would bring tears to the toughest of men. 

Nettle-like plant

I forgot all about the nettle-like plant when a swarm of black bees attacked me as I tried to cross a river.  I was a bit worried about the number of times I had been stung on my face, neck and hands, as I thought I might not be able to walk, but when the last bee had left or had been killed, I realized the stinging sensation was not that bad and it only stayed with me for a few minutes. 

I was able to then take a waypoint in the river and was relieved to discover that after 14 hours of hiking we were less than 0.25 km from the camp.  We climbed out of a steep, rocky valley onto a ridge where we found what seemed to be a path.  Wandi was overjoyed to be back on track and was impressed by the power of the GPS, which he called “machine”.  He was confidently walking along the path when suddenly he stopped and nervously smiled and said it was time for him to go home to his wooden house at the base of the mountain.  I could not understand as we were only minutes from the camp and it would have taken him another 6 hr to reach home.  He then pointed to a branch, hanging 8 feet off the ground, that had been cut by a machete.  He explained that it could have only been done by a forest giant.  He was getting ready to run for it, but waited to entertain our plausible explanation that it was indeed us that had cut the branch earlier that day.  Without the weight of the end of the branch it has risen.  Not entirely convinced, he agreed to continue with us in the direction of the camp.  After 14 and half hours of hiking we finally arrived at the camp.

Finally back at camp

I was less than unpopular when I suggested that the next day only Wandi and I would wake up at 5:30 and try and climb to the top of the Cyclops.

To be continued…