The Ascent of Mt. Suckling
Rev. Canon N. E. G. Cruttwell
Reprinted from "The Rhododendron" with permission of the Australian Rhododendron Society.
FIG. 18. Map of Papua, showing the location of two of
the mountains where new species Rhododendrons
have been discovered on recent explorations by
the Rev. Canon N. E. G. Cruttwell.
An account of the first part of a botanical expedition to the Mount Suckling Range of South East Papau, June 5th to 23rd, 1972.
This expedition arose out of a lecture which I gave to the Botanical Department of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands in 1970. Prof. C. G. J. Van Steenis, who is a leading authority on the Malesian Flora, decided to send an expedition in 1972 to Mt. Suckling, suggested by me as the most profitable area to investigate the mountain flora, since it had not been explored botanically before. Indeed, it had only been climbed once by a Mapping Team and geologically surveyed with the aid of a helicopter.
My proposal was to climb it from the east, starting at Biniguni, on the Mayu River, about ten miles inland from Moibiri Bay on the north coast. We would follow the River Mayu up to its source on Mt. Suckling. This would involve a day's walk along the base to the range, a climb up a long ridge to avoid the impenetrable lower Mayu gorge, and a descent into the upper Mayu valley. From there we would follow the river until it branched into many tributaries. We hoped to follow one of these, or one of the ridges between them, on to the extensive grasslands of Suckling itself. No one had tried this route before, but an aerial reconnaissance by Mission Cessna had convinced me that it was practicable. We had also spotted an extensive grass plain close to Mt. Seve, the southern ridge of Suckling, which would make an excellent camp site and air-dropping zone.
It seemed to me that this approach opened up a much larger area of high country than the western route from Safia, by which it had been climbed before. A further inducement was the keenness of the Daga people to help us, claiming that the Suckling area is their territory. Accordingly we sent up a team of Daga men early in 1972 to pioneer the route, and cut a track up the ridge over Mt. Gauru and down to the upper Mayu, where we had spotted an excellent camp site on a small clearing by the river. Unfortunately appalling weather, including a cyclone, frustrated their efforts and they returned without having linked up.
We therefore decided to establish two camps by helicopter, one at the base of the range, where the Mayu pours out of its gorge, designated "Mayu 1," and the other at the camp site we had spotted above, which we called "Mayu 2." One party would camp at Mayu 1 and another at Mayu 2, and they would try to link up.
The expedition was organized jointly by the University of Leiden (Rijksherbarium) and the Division of Botany, Lae, New Guinea. Dr. J. F. Veldkamp represented Leiden, and Mr. J. S. Womersley, Lae, who organized the whole thing from the New Guinea end. He came to the base camp at Biniguni and personally supervised all stores, collecting equipment and transport. He sent Mr. P. Stevens, with two New Guinean botanical assistants to collect for Lae and other institutions. Peter Stevens is an expert on Ericaceae. Mr. Roy Pullen from C.S.I.R.O. also joined the expedition, and Mr. Greg Leach looked after all camping and supply problems. Others also came from time to time to use the Expedition's facilities for collecting, some from the University of P.N.G. and some from the U.S.A. I was invited to join the Expedition as having primarily inspired it, and as being deeply interested in the flora myself. In fact it was for me the fulfilment of a 25 years' ambition, ever since I had first seen the remote and then unexplored peaks of Mt. Suckling.
I arrived by M.A.F. Cessna at Biniguni Strip on June 5th. The base camp had already been set up beside the little jungle strip, and my old friends, John Womersley and Mrs. Andree Millar, were already there. Mrs. Millar is the Curator of the new Botanic Gardens in Port Moresby, and had come to collect plants from the lower altitudes to take back to the gardens. Unfortunately she did not find much and returned to Moresby in a few days.
A bright yellow helicopter flew in at about 10 a.m. and started shuttling stores into the two camps. But it was not until the next morning that the rest of the party arrived from Lae. By now the mountain had clouded up and we were unable to get into Mayu 2, so the Mayu 1 party and their gear were flown into the lower camp.
June 7 dawned perfectly clear. This was the day. I went in on the first flight. We flew low over the forest, parallel to the River Mayu, which flows along right under the escarpment, until we reached the place where it disappears into the deep cleft of its gorge. Here we turned inland, flying right over Camp Mayu 1, a little square brown clearing chopped out of the forest. Soon we were in the gorge with steep forested slopes on either hand, the river a dark slit beneath us, with gleams of foaming white water. On our right hand rose the steep ridge with its three ascending humps - Mt. Peori (4,500 ft.), Mt. Gauru (5,800 ft.) and Mt. Ontap (about 9,000 ft.). Somewhere between Gauru and Ontap, it looked possible to get down to the river, and so link up with Mayu 2. This in fact was done later, and was the route by which I returned to Biniguni.
After a few minutes in the helicopter the gorge took a sharp bend to the right and we were out into the upper Mayu valley. Mt. Suckling lay right ahead of us, its grasslands pale and shining in the sun, contrasting with the dark pine forests be1ow. Large areas of pink rocks and screes showed up here and there. The lefthand part of the mountain formed the long ridge of Seve (South Suckling) while on the right rose the triple peak of Goe with a tiny beacon on the furthest and highest peak. The estimated altitude of Seve is 10,500 ft. and of Goe 11,500 ft. Below was a jumble of jagged pine-spiked ridges with the white ribbon of the Mayu winding in its deep groove far beneath us. The helicopter blades slackened as we fell down, down on to the tiny triangular patch which was our camp site.
Very chilly it was in the morning shadow of the ridge at 5,500 ft. as we dropped off the machine with its fan blades still whirling, and carried the gear to our camping ground under the trees. The whole of that day and part of the next was spent setting up camp. Dr. Veldkamp, Peter Stevens and Mr. Yakass (New Guinean), botanists and camp assistants, and carriers were also flown in. At 10 o'clock the next morning the helicopter rose for the last time, and we were left half-way up Mt. Suckling with no link with the outer world.
The small clearing was really old river bed, a stony scree colonized by small trees, shrubs and a large variety of attractive flowering plants. Saurauia, with white rose-like flowers and red calyces, and Fagraea, with shiny scarlet fruits, dominated the area. Yellow Hypericum and blue Cynoglossum were the most attractive flowers in the natural rock garden.
Among the shrubs there were some very beautiful Ericaceae. Dimorphanthera kempteriana is perhaps the finest of this genus, with large deep pink lampshade flowers in great profusion. Agapetes stenantha is also abundant and although its tubular flowers are normally greenish, we found forms in which crimson red predominated, which were very ornamental.
FIG.19. R. sp. 'Suckling' (1)
Shrub about 6-8 feet high. Densely
branched, forming a thick bush.
Leaves obovate, shining, spreading
to rather ascending, shortly petiolate,
leathery, mid to dark green, rather
dull in color. Flowers in terminal
inflorescences or in the middle of
a whorl of two or three branches,
in bud a long egg-shaped golden
brown involucre. From this bursts
eight to ten tubular curved flowers,
pure white, opening at the top into a
zygomorphic flower with ten
copper colored stamens. Strongly
carnation scented, on river flats or
grassland or epiphytic in open pine
forest, 6/7,000 feet.
There were three Rhododendrons here. The most abundant here and all over the mountain was R. inconspicuum. This unjustly named species has small delicate flowers which make up for their size by their bright crimson color. The other Rhododendrons were unknown to me, and both very beautiful plants. The first which I will call "Suckling No. 1" is common on the river flats and on ridges, sometimes epiphytic. We saw it from 5,000 to 7,000 feet, all over the place. It is a man-high shrub with rather pale green obovate leaves in whorls. When we first arrived it was covered with pale brown egg-shaped buds, but as time went on more and more of these burst into white shuttlecocks of tubular zygomorphic flowers. Their carnation scent was overwhelming. I put this in the top rank of the tubular (Solenovireya) Rhododendrons.
The second new species (to me) was much more scarce. I saw only about four plants. It was smaller, about 3 to 4 ft., with closely applied leaves, darker and narrower than the last, and lepidote when young. The rather small shortly tubular flowers are a vivid pink, and born abundantly at the end of the branches, giving an effect rather similar to a small polyantha rose. It is altogether a charming species. I have called it "Suckling 2." There seem to be two slightly different forms.
The next few days were spent trying to find a way to the alpine grasslands of Mt. Seve, which we hoped would finally lead us to Goe. It was a frustrating process. The first day we tried following the Mayu itself. This soon entered a narrow gorge again which involved repeated crossings of the cold rushing water and clambering up rocky slopes or cutting through dense undergrowth. We did not get nearly as far as we hoped and the climb out the other end looked as though it would be very steep. The next day we tried a left-hand tributary, which we named Pumpuniwa (Daga for "black") because of its dark brown color. We could see from the aerial photographs that it comes down from the great grass plain we had marked as the best approach to Seve. However the Pumpuniwa almost immediately entered a vertical-sided narrow gorge which could not be penetrated except by swimming. We then tried climbing over the near vertical ridge to the left. After a 1,500 ft. climb we reached the top and could see the plain far away, but the route was too arduous for carriers. So we returned frustrated, to Mayu 2, where we spent a quiet Sunday recuperating and reviewing our plans.
On Monday we split up, Peter and I trying a small creek branching off just opposite the camp. After circumventing a waterfall and climbing another high ridge we reached another small grassland, where we found our first blue gentians. But miles of forest and another ridge still separated us from the grass plain and we had to return again unsuccessful. However the other Papuan party won through by a long and devious route, finding an excellent short way back. Meanwhile a party from the lower camp Mayu 1, had also got through up the gorge and had arrived at Mayu 2, thus ensuring our way out to the coast.
On the strength of these two successes Dr. Veldkamp and I with a team of helpers set out for Seve. Peter Stevens decided to go down to Mayu 1 to confirm the link-up and test the route. Our party followed the "short" track which yesterday's pioneers had cut, over and along a narrow pine-clad ridge full of Bower-birds' playgrounds. These were of the "maypole" type, with a central tower of twigs built round a sapling surrounded by a circular moss walled enclosure. After traversing the mountain above the Pumpuniwa, which we had ascended before, we dropped straight down to the foot of the great grass plain, which we named the Pumpunipon ("Pon" means grass plain).
Unfortunately the Pumpunipon was not just a flat grassy meadow, as it appeared from the air, but a tussocky swamp. If one walked on the tussocks one fell into the bog. If one walked in the bog one could squelch along reasonably well but had to zigzag all over the place to avoid the tussocks. In other words progress was slow and exhausting. The scenery however was magnificent and the bog was full of small flowering plants of temperate genera. In the middle of the valley there was a narrow winding canyon, where we had to cross the brown river many times on slippery moss-covered rocks. The upper part of the plain was drier in parts, but here progress was impeded by dense waist-high "heather" (Styphelia suaveolens) which scratched one's legs to bits.
After about five miles of this we reached the head of the plain where the advance party had already put up flies for our camp. It is a beautiful spot. The silvery plain was dotted with a rigid-leaved tree fern which gave it an almost prehistoric appearance. To the left close at hand, rose the great mass of Seve, pine-clad below but grassy and rock-strewn above. All around the plain rose dark ridges, jagged with Araucaria trees. Close to the camp flowed the peaty Pumpunpwa, lined with deep blue forget-me-not (Cynoglossum) and tiny yellow buttercups (Ranunculus). Starry blue gentians were dotted over the turf all round the camp. We were 6,500 feet above the sea.
That night it froze. We awoke to frost on the heather and ice on our plastic bags. It was the first time our Papuans had ever seen ice, except perhaps from a refrigerator. The next day we sent two men ahead to pioneer a track up on to Seve, while the rest of us explored the grass plain for flora. Though we found many interesting plants in the swamps and on the edge of the forest, there were no rhododendrons except a little poor R. macgregoriae. However the two men returned from Seve in the evening with flowering sprays of R. macgregoriae, R. rhodoleucum and a similar one with long straight white tubular flowers (the same?). They had a hard time cutting the track owing to the dense climbing bamboo which fills the upper forests. Orchids were poorly developed on Mt. Suckling, probably due to its comparatively dry climate. In the forests above Pumpunipon we did find a few attractive ones, including the bright purple miniature D. dicbaeoides, a beautiful pink "oxyglossum" and some attractive small Bulbophyllums.
Game, on the other hand, was abundant. It must be emphasized that this country is almost untouched by man. There were signs of burning some time ago on the grass plain, and it is possible that an occasional indigene has hunted up here from the south coast. But, apart from that, no one except a geological team about five years ago has been here. There are no tracks or signs of shelters. The animals have the place to themselves. They had little fear of us, and the people were able to catch some of them with their hands. We saw wallabies in abundance, (black) tree kangaroo (Dendrologus), Echidna (from 4 to 10,000 ft.) cuscus and cassowary. The birds were so tame that they would come and sit on a branch within a yard of us, until some idiot had to throw a stone at them. The only unwelcome fauna were Marsh flies and leeches, who found an unaccustomed blood supply.
The next day we set out for Seve. Half an hour across the swamp into dense forest, and then up and up the long ridge, which we had marked as leading straight to the summit of Seve. In two hours we had exceeded the cut road and had to cut our own way onward. In addition to the two species brought down yesterday we found a lot of R. nummatum, growing in clearings and on the edge of landslides. It is a little vaccinioid shrub with boxlike leaves and very small tubular salmon flowers. An attractive miniature, which kept company with us right to the top of Seve. At 1 p.m. and 8,500 ft. we reached a flat place in the forest suitable for a camp. So we stopped and set up our moth-eaten fly. After a rest and a snack we decided to save time by cutting some more track for tomorrow's ascent.
Time was running out for me, so we were determined to reach the summit of Seve next day, and then return to camp. We climbed another thousand feet, but darkness then overtook us, and we had to descend hastily. We spent a comfortable and comparatively warmer night on our soft humus bed, being woken punctually at 6 a.m. by nature's incredible alarm clock, the shrieking mountain cicada.
The next day was the climax for me of the whole expedition. As we ascended the ridge the forest began to thin, the trees becoming stunted and the sunlight streaming in. R. rhodoleucum and another species which had joined it about a thousand feet lower down, began to abound. R. rhodoleucum here had very long flowers, the tube deep pink, swelling upwards until just below the spreading white petals, where it narrows again. At about 9,000 feet we found another new Rhododendron, which is really the characteristic species of the upper reaches of Mt. Suckling. I call it "Suckling 3". It is a compact shrub with oblong revolute leaves of a grayish green strongly lepidote when young. The flowers are in terminal umbels and are curved over and zygomorphic like R. leptanthum. But their color is a really brilliant scarlet red. Only scattered flowers were left, but the abundant capsules showed how profuse the flowering had been. A truly gorgeous Rhododendron.
Nor was this all. The unknown non-flowering species which had been following us up for a thousand feet or so, at last deigned to show us a sample of its flowers. There were only two of them, but they were half as large again as No. 3, and of a bright but deep crimson red - very fine indeed. This is, of course, "Suckling 4." I found no fruit or seedlings whatever, and my only hope is that its cuttings will strike. Above 9,500 ft. we did not see it again. It does not appear to grow beyond the forest. The flowers of this species are not zygomorphic but straight and horn shaped, and the leaves are smooth and glabrous, not revolute, and bright-green.
There were Vacciniums here too, but we only saw one in flower, a very fine red-flowered species of the amplifolium type. There was also Dimorphanthera in bud only, probably not D. kempteriana. Another curiosity was a Primus with pendulous racemes of white flowers and small blue-black cherries, rather tart but unmistakable in taste.
At 9,500 ft. we burst from the elfin wood into sunlit grassland and shrubbery. We had reached the tree limit, which on Mt. Suckling is unusually high, probably due to the lack of interference by humanity. The view was tremendous. The south coast was clear, Dayman's grasslands spread out below us, and perhaps twenty miles away, Simpson looked like a half-submerged submarine in a sea of cloud. Milne Bay was lost under cumulus, and the views to north and south hidden by the great bulk of Mts. Seve and Goe. At our feet shone a deep blue star of Gentiana cruttwellii. We had arrived.
We were soon clambering about on the tumbled red rocks and heathery slopes of Seve itself, slowly working our way up towards the summit ridge, about a thousand feet above us. The atmosphere is very thin at this altitude and I had to keep stopping to recover my breath. The red Rhododendron, "Suckling 3", was everywhere, much more of it in flower. It must have been a marvelous sight a month earlier, and have painted the mountain red. The old people say that everything on Goe is red. They are not far wrong. Red are the rocks, the moss on the tree fern trunks, the Rhododendrons and the young foliage of many of the shrubs.
Between the rocks and shrubs are patches of bare peat and short alpine turf, containing a wealth of tiny alpine plants. We saw no less than five species of Gentiana, little violets, daisies, Euphrasia, Trachymene, Trigonotis, Ranunculus, Potentilla, Geranium, etc. There is the little blue iris, Patersonia, and dwarf shrubs like Trochocarpa, Drapetes ericoides, Vacciniums and Myrtles. On the very top of the ridge was a mysterious shrub with purple tubular flowers.
There was absolutely no water on the mountain. Some damp hollows near the summit had a few moisture loving species, but there was always a rocky hole at the bottom through which all water drained away into the mountain. This is a great obstacle to camping up here, though this is essential if anyone is to reach Mt. Goe. This dryness is a great contrast to Mt. Dayman which has little rills and bogs almost to the summit.
The highest point on Mt. Seve seems to be about 10,500 feet. Here we sat on the top of the ridge and ate our lunch. The men caught a "tree" kangaroo and an echidna just below the top and roasted it on the mountain. By now cloud had rolled up, so we could not see the western view over the Musa valley. We got glimpses of the northern ridge of Seve running towards Goe, but the top of that peak was lost in the mist. We estimated it would take at least another day to reach Goe summit, involving perhaps two camps on the top of the mountain, without water. This was quite out of the question for us, though by now a better equipped team may have done it. At least we had pioneered the way.
After pottering around the top of Seve for another two hours, we descended as quickly as we could to our camp, reaching it just before dark. The next day I went on down to Pumpunipon, Dr. Veldkamp following a day later, after dealing with our enormous collection of plants. After a lunch break there, I continued right down over the tussocky plain to Mayu 2, exhausted but triumphant.
Sunday supervened again, a busy Sunday, packing and sorting in readiness for departure for the coast tomorrow. I did not have the carriers to bring out large quantities of plants, so I concentrated on Rhododendron cuttings, seedlings, and not too bulky orchids.
On Monday morning I reluctantly said goodbye to my companions (Peter had returned successfully from Mayu 1 and confirmed the feasibility of the route). What had taken us 20 minutes in the helicopter took us four strenuous days. Also, for the first time we struck heavy rain, which made the going down the gorge slippery and dangerous in places. Luckily the river did not rise appreciably or we could have been in serious trouble. The gorge took us a whole day and we camped at the foot of the Gauru climb out under an improvised tent of Dammaropsis leaves. The firewood was so wet that it took us half an hour and most of our matches to light a fire, and this was only achieved with the aid of yards of toilet paper.
Next day we toiled 2,000 ft. through steep leech-infested forest, coming out on the ridge between Mts. Gauru and Ontap. Near the top of the ridge we found the white scented blossoms of R. "Wayatense (my No. 1467) fallen on the ground beneath a plant of it far up on a Nothofagus (?) tree. We camped on the ridge, I under a leaky tent set up by Peter's party and the others under a shelter of Pandanus leaves. Next day we switch backed down over Mts. Gauru and Peori, after which we descended like the roof of a house to Mayu 1. On the way down we saw Rhododendron "Suckling 1" as an epiphyte. R. leptanthum, R. zoelleri (brilliant flame form) and another not flowering which may possibly be R. truncicolum though I rather doubt it (may well be a narrow-leafed form of R. leptanthum).
From Mayu 1 I walked back through the forest, following the broad and rushing Mayu river back to Biniguni. As a final bonus I found the most beautiful of all the Jewel orchids, Macodes sanderiana, glittering among the leaf mould. On June 23rd, on schedule, the Cessna picked me up and flew me back to Agaun. The others were up there another month, and will probably have even more fantastic tales to tell.
Regarding the name, Mt. Seve, we were misinformed; this great Massif of South Suckling should be correctly called Goe Dendeniwa, meaning "Red Goe." It is doubtless called this because of the red rock which predominates (not to mention the ubiquitous red rhododendrons). Seve is only the name of a river rising on Goe.
The higher point of the mountain which I did not attain, but Dr. Veldkamp and Peter Stevens later did, is called Manurep, and appears to be 12,060 feet above sea level, but altitudes have yet to be confirmed as altimeters are notoriously unreliable.
I am very sorry I did not get to the summit. If only I had another week I could have made it, but I think I did pretty well considering.
If I am in good fettle and the Lord permits, I am very anxious to do a thorough examination of Mt. Dayman next year. Although not so high as Mt. Suckling, it is far more accessible and has extensive areas over 9,000 feet, and many Rhododendrons. There are at least two spp. up there not seen by me (recorded by Brass). It would be a wonderful thing if I could tempt one or two Members of the Australian Rhododendron Society to join me, good walkers of course. I reckon two weeks would be ample, preferably in June.