"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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May 9, 1926 : Albatross Camp (Base Camp) ; Airplane Flights ; Mamberamo River

May 9th

This morning at a little after nine o'clock the Fomalhout entered the mouth of the Mamberamo. Here the plane was lowered over the side with the boom. As soon as she was about a foot above the water the Fomalhout dropped anchor and her stern with the plane fastened to it, swung around down stream. As it is a 6 mile an hour current we did not know how it would act on the plane. After the plane was in the water, we filled her with gas and oil for a long trip, put in an emergency food supply of rice, tinned meat, etc., a large box of quinine pills, a Springfield rifle and side arms for each of us. Then Dick, Hans and I put on our flying togs and boarded the plane. Hans climbed into the pilot's seat and Dick and I each climbed out on front of a pontoon with a knife. The Ern was straining at the leash with the current pulling on her. At a signal we both cut the rope fastened to each pontoon at the same instant so she would not swing into the Fomalhout and the current then carried her rapidly away from the Fomalhout. Dick and I then got on the lower wing and worked on the crank starter. {p. 55} It did not start at once and we were worried for fear the current would dash us into the trees along the shore. Meanwhile we worked up a sweat on the crank and were rapidly drifting towards the sea. Finally, the first bark the motor gave, she started, and Dick and I climbed into the front seat. Hans ran around in circles a few times to warm up the motor and to see how the plane handled in the stream. Finally, we headed around toward the sea and Hans gave her the gun. We took off, with 120 gallons of gas and a full load of oil. We rose and circled over the Fomalhout far below us on the river, where we could see them waving to us. The air near the coast was very rough and the plane jerked around like a small boat on a stormy sea. We then turned up the river and for the first time in history a plane headed into Netherlands New Guinea. Below us the great coast[al] plain extended, level as a floor, jungle clad, as far as the eye could reach. Here and there old river courses could be seen. Otherwise, there was little to break up the monotony of the level plain. Far to the East a large river could be seen. Dim in the distance, ahead of us to the south, could be seen the Van Rees mountains stretching from east to west. About half way to the mountains on the east side of the river is a large lake plain, the "Romebebi [sic, = Rombebai] Meer"; it is curiously separated from the river by a narrow strip of jungle not more than thirty yards wide and extending for a mile and a half. One narrow channel connects the lake with the river. From the eastern end of the lake a low series of hills arise[s]. On the west side of the river opposite the lake is a large area of very swampy {p. 56} land. Rising from this, a single low narrow ridge extends in a western direction as far as the eye can see. The Mamberamo meanders through this low plain in a series of loops and cut-offs with here and there an old section of the river bed visible in the jungle. Past here the mountains began, low ranges running east and west with almost geometric parallel precision. The ridges gradually become higher as we progress farther south. Here and there along the river below us we could see the little houses of the Papuans along the river banks. Who can tell what thoughts they had, as our 400 H.P. Liberty roared above them? After 45 minutes of flying with [an] average altitude of between 2000 and 3000 feet[,] we sighted Scholten Island and then old Pioneer Camp, with Albatross Camp across the way. We were able to save much distance by cutting across the necks of the bends in the river. As we passed over Albatross camp we saw a hundred yards to the north the tomb of the Dyak whom we later learned died the same day we sailed on the Albatross.

"...we passed over Albatross camp..."

By the boat landing we could see the boom stretching from the shore, which Prince had rigged after we had left, and Prince himself standing on the end of it, waving. The Dyaks, working on their large community house[,] and the Madoerese convicts, stopped work to gaze in astonishment. We circled the camp but did not land, continuing south. Here stretch the higher ranges of the Van Rees mountains through which the Mamberamo breaks in its wild course from the lake plain to the coast {p. 57} plain. Here the native inhabitants are much more numerous than on the coast plain. There are a number of creeks running into the river from either side, and most of them had clearings and houses about 3 miles up them from the river. The houses here are round in shape instead of rectangular as they are on the lower Mamberamo. The settlements are small, two or three houses usually. Some were on the Mamberamo itself at the mouth of these creeks. We passed over the Marine and the Edi cataracts, the rushing waters and great whirlpools being easily distinguished from the air. The river through here is very narrow and swift and with the immense volume of water it carries, must be very deep. About 2/3 of the distance from Albatross camp to the lake plain we discovered two small lakes, one fairly large shallow lake on the east side, with houses and clearings near it; another five miles upstream on the west side was particularly interesting. It is high in the mountains and almost a perfect circle in form and appears to be very deep. Its surface area however is less than that of the other lake. Finally the mountains merge into the great central lake plain. This plain was overhung with rather low clouds which obscure the view of the central mountains. Here the Mamberamo becomes wider, more crooked and its current sluggish. Ahead of us we could see the junction of the Idenburg and Vanderwilligen rivers - the beginning of the Mamberamo. Both of these streams are very wide, sluggish and meander in complicated loops and {p. 58} bends, with old crescent shaped lagoons representing cut-offs making the water vista still more complicated. Cutting off the bends we continued up the Van der Willigen until we could see the junction of the Rouffar and the Van Daalen {*} rivers. Here, the clouds thickening, we turned back and after 2 hours and 20 minutes in the air, landed at Albatross camp, before a highly interested group of Dyaks and Malays. With the motor boat to assist it is very easy to bring the plane to land. Perhaps the most interesting thing we saw from the air was a large elevated plain, west of the Mamberamo, beginning about twenty miles above Albatross camp. This plain which must be about thirty miles long in an east-west direction and twenty miles wide in a north-south direction could be easily reached by any one of the three rocky creeks which flow from it, through the mountains into the Mamberamo. From its elevated position and being as it is quite level, it would probably be healthy and favorable for agriculture.

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