"By Aeroplane to Pygmyland" Accounts of the 1926 Smithsonian-Dutch Expedition to New Guinea

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Journal of Matthew Stirling
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July 19, 1926 : Van der Willigen River

July 19th

We continued upstream, starting about 6:30, eating a hasty breakfast owing to the mosquitoes who were still active. The contour of the banks of the river remain much the same. On the side of the turns where the river is cutting is usually a vertical bank about 12 to 15 feet high with old jungle back of it with big trees of innumerable kinds. On the side of the turn away from the current where the river is filling instead of cutting are gently sloping silt banks covered with a tall growth of saw grass - a tall plant something like sugar cane with a {p. 162} white plume-like blossom. This grows normally to a height of about 20 feet and makes a dense thicket. We again saw a number of crocodiles along the banks and Dick shot one that was lying on a large log. Mortally wounded, but with great tenacity to life, the crocodile (about 8 feet long) submerged. One of the Dyaks, with his knife in his hand, immediately dived in after him. He dived a half dozen times where the crocodile disappeared, but could not locate him. We saw one earlier in the morning which must have been fifteen feet long. The abundant and varied bird life is a never failing source of interest and the birds are very tame. Pigeons are particularly numerous and a number of them lit in the low trees over our camp so we had only to shoot them without leaving our tents. Dick also shot a beautiful black web-footed bird that lit in a tree at camp. It proved to be fairly good eating. I did not know that birds of this sort were accustomed to roosting in trees. The ground in and around camp was covered with pig tracks, many of very large size. Wild pig must be very numerous in this vicinity. The Dyaks cut down a tree with about a dozen small animals of a very curious appearance. They were marsupials and had webs of skin from their legs like flying squirrels. They were a sort of slate color with a whitish stripe back of the head. They had a fine soft fur. Each foot was equipped with 5 strong grasping toes with sharp curved nails. The tail was fairly long and rather flattened at the end and covered with a coarser hair than the body. Their most striking feature was the eyes which were black and enormously large in proportion to the size of the {p. 163} head from which they protrude like big black shoe buttons. From the size of the eyes I should judge them to be nocturnal in their habits. We passed a few Papuan houses during the course of the day but they all appeared to be deserted. This whole section of the river is apparently very sparsely populated. We made camp late in the evening on a rather muddy spot on the north bank of the river. We had from here a splendid view of the great central mountains. They were covered here and there with clinging mists and in the light of the setting sun made a glorious sight. Not far below our camp we saw thousands of kalongs, or flying foxes, flying slowly in a great circle just over the top of the saw grass covering a large morass. In camp at sunset they began flying north, first singly, then in ever increasing groups in almost unbelievable numbers. In the evening darkness, silhouetted against the light western sky, they look like great prehistoric pterydactyls [sic] with their huge bat wings. It grew dark before we had completed camp as we were late to begin with and the vertical bank made unloading a slow task. To add to our trouble it began to rain, and as if I were not already wet enough, one of the convicts dropped my roll of bedding in the river. Just as we landed Dick went back of camp with a rifle and in ten minutes returned with two crowned pigeons. These beautiful birds are as big as a small turkey and are finer eating. They are a bluish grey in color with a beautiful "peacock" crest on their head. Here they are very abundant and very tame. Because of this and their large size they are {p. 164} easy to kill. Here at this camp were also many tracks of wild pigs and cassowary. We saw here the largest track of a cassowary that any of us has seen. Wild game in the lake plain appears to be very abundant indeed. After we were in our klambus we discovered that we had a roll of leaky canvas over us. This did not matter much to me as my bed was already about as wet as it could get but the water dropping on my face made it difficult to sleep. There was one compensating feature about this camp - that was that the mosquitoes were comparatively few. Shorty and Oompah had a hard time with the fire, building it in the mud and rain with wet wood but we finally had a cup of hot tea.

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