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"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 15, 1926 : Albatross Camp (Base Camp) ; Airplane Flights ; Mamberamo River


May 15th

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"Prince stood on the wing and cranked her and when the motor started jumped into the motor boat and let us go."
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This morning started with a fog. I woke listening to the drip from the trees on our oil cloth roof. About 8 o'clock it began to clear and Hans and Prince put a hundred gallons of gas in the plane and tried taking the plane off the float for the first time by removing the barrels from beneath it. The launching was successfully accomplished and will be still easier when the convicts and Dyaks learn more of what they are supposed to do in handling it. We then fastened a motor boat on her tail and hauled her out into the stream. I was alone in the front cockpit with about 250 kilos of food and other baggage. Prince stood on the wing and cranked her and when the motor started jumped into the motor boat and let us go. Hans taxied to the front of camp, gave her the gun and we took off over Havik Island, rather heavily owing to the heavy load. We went up the gorge of the Mamberamo gaining altitude slowly. Owing to the drop in the water level, the rocks in the rapids, which were covered on our last trip over, were now sticking their teeth above the water. The whirlpools were still whirling. The river compresses into a surprising narrow channel at places and all the way through the mountains is quite narrow. In 35 minutes we were through the gorge and out on the lake plain. Hans cut across the angle formed by the Van der Willigen and the Mamberamo and we were quickly at the place where Hans, Dick and I turned back on our first flight. At this time the lake plain seemed to stretch indefinitely in all directions, the central mountains being lost in haze. The route is very confusing {p. 65} {sic, = p. 66} at this place because of the meandering junction of 3 rivers and the old cut-off channels which give the impression of rivers of equal size running in all directions. We noticed several tributary streams, which are not indicated on the map, as from here on the country is practically unmapped, only Doorman's brief trip having been previously made in 1912 up the Rouffar. We eventually came to the junction of the Rouffar and Van Daalen {*} rivers. The van Daalen {*} appears to be considerably smaller than the Rouffar. The country below us was largely sago swamp with here and there patches of jungle or tall palms or another sort. Almost any time, flocks of white cockatoos could be seen flashing over the trees below us, bright white against the dark green. There were also frequently larger flocks of a slate blue bird which I took to be wild pigeons. Just above the junction of the Rouffar and Van Daalen {*} is a good sized village on an island, one large structure with steep sloping roof, surrounded by a semi-circle of small houses. From here on houses and villages were very numerous and we saw quite a number of canoes out in the stream. Usually when they sighted us, they made for shore as rapidly as possible. In front of the villages were frequently a dozen or more canoes tied to the bank. By this time the central mountains were plainly visible on our left excepting for the higher summits which were obscured by clouds. The lake plain seems to have a slight slope from the Van Rees mountains towards the Central mountains as the south side of the plain appears to be more swampy than the north side. Finally the course of the river turns almost due south with a nearby right angled bend towards {p. 67} the Central mountains. Ahead of us we could see a gap in the mountains with ragged little hills all around, into which the river disappeared. Finally after two hours in the air, we came to the tributary river "A" which seems to have about the same amount of water as the Rouffar above the junction. Here the Rouffar becomes swifter and the channel much less; A winding mountain stream through a wide sandy bed. We continued upstream into the mountains coming to the tributary river "B" which flows in from the west. Here again the volume of water is halved. We still continued into the mountains up to the point where the Rouffar becomes a mountain torrent. Then, having already used more gas than was safe for our return, we turned back. Hans circled at River "B" and came down, touching his pontoons on the water, but the stream was shallow and very swift and the straightaway not very long so he gave her the gun without landing. Just below river "B" there are two lakes not far from the river on the west side, among the hills, large enough to land on. On the east side, two or three miles from the river is another good sized lake. Hans kept on downstream until we again reached River "A". Here the stream is quite broad and, circling around, we landed, Hans heading in for a low bank with a few yards of clearing behind it. He taxied the pontoons into the bank. I got out on the wing with the anchor rope but it was so long and had gotten so badly snarled it could not be taken ashore. As the motor now stopped we had to act quickly. Hans got out of the cockpit and out on a pontoon to shore, where {p. 68} he held the plane in until I unsnarled enough line to make her fast. We then had a chance to look around us. To our surprise we saw we were moored alongside a rather crudely made dugout canoe with rounded ends. It was obviously made with stone tools at the cost of considerable labor and was fastened to a post on shore with a strip of rattan. In the muddy silt on the bank were fresh, bare foot tracks. Leading into the jungle and up and down the river bank were three or four old trails, which probably owing to the recent high water did not seem to have been used much lately. We then began to hear curious bird like calls in the jungle around us. These calls became louder and more frequent as we searched through the jungle for a good hiding place for our cache of tins and baggage. It was soon evident that these calls were of human origin and it was not pleasant walking through the jungle and feeling prying eyes upon one. Finally we heard voices excitedly talking quite close to us. Then suddenly no more talking, but the calls continued. Therefore we chose a spot about a hundred yards above the plane, into the jungle where there was a clump of tall sawgrass and went back to the plane to unload our cargo of a dozen or so heavy tins of rice and canned goods.

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"...went back to the plane to unload our cargo of a dozen or so heavy tins of rice and canned goods."
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In the meanwhile the calls had been increasing alarmingly, not only in the jungle by us but up the river, and down the river, and on the opposite bank. It was evident that we were being surrounded. When we left the ship we had on our cartridge belts and pistols but now when unloading {p. 69} the plane, we each held a loaded "45" in one hand and handled the tins with the other, Hans lifting them out of the plane to me on the pontoon and I then putting them on shore from the pontoon. We then brought them one by one to our hiding place, covered the pile with a big oilcloth canvas roll to protect them from rain and then gathered a lot of big dead leaves to cover the canvas. After hiding our cache as well as we could, we returned to the plane. The air was fairly ringing now with shouts and war whoops and five or six canoes with about 25 men were paddling into the river about 400 yards above us, armed with bows and arrows and gesticulating wildly. In a couple of minutes we saw an equal number of canoes paddling vigorously upstream towards us on the river below, on our side of the river. We decided that it was high time to evacuate. At this crucial juncture we saw that the radiator was leaking badly, so I filled a 5 gallon kerosine tin with water while Hans climbed up on the engine and poured it into the radiator. We did not dare to put in any more as the shouting was drawing nearer every moment and the canoes were slowly working nearer to us. The shouting now was continuous; long, high pitched quavering cries, sounding something like a thousand or more turkey gobblers all working at once, and they were coming from all sides. After closing the radiator cap, Hans started priming the motor and in his haste burned his arm rather badly on the exhaust. We then let loose our line and threw it with the anchor into the cockpit. Now the problem came up of how to take off. With the line off, someone had to hold the wing of the {p. 70} plane inshore. As I was on shore I did that, while Hans got on the wing to crank the motor. As the Liberty was still hot from her long pull, this was no simple task, and as is usual when you are in the biggest hurry, the motor refused to start. It is heavy work and Hans, already tired, was soon almost exhausted. I could not let go of the wing to relieve him as the current would have swept the plane into a tree below us, if I had. It was probably between five and ten minutes tho it seemed an hour, when the motor caught. The welcome roar of the Liberty at that moment was one of the sweetest sounds I ever heard in my life. I swung her nose into the stream as Hans gave her the gun and made a dive for the end of the wing as she started into the stream, her tail barely clearing the tree below us. As we taxied out into midstream I gave a wing walking exhibition and got into the cockpit where I put on my goggles and took off my shirt which was wringing wet.

The canoes above us put into a sand bar in midstream and their occupants got out and ran on the sand. Those below turned into the overhanging trees along the bank as the motor roared into the take-off. With the biggest part of her gas used up and the load of tins on shore for better or for worse the plane took off quickly and so we left our recent near visitors and headed back downstream. The first thing we did when we got some altitude was to take each a long pull from the canteen. Then we had time to start wondering if we had enough gas to get us back to camp. We each figured out that she would probably run out somewhere in the middle of the rapids. While engaged in {p. 71} this mental arithmetic we still had time to look around. On our up trip [sic, = trip up] the clouds hung low over the lake plain and we flew a good part of the way as low as 800 feet, now and then disappearing in a thick cloud. On the return trip, the clouds had cleared away over the lake plain but were gathering in fleecy patches in the low places on the Van Rees mountains. The map of the Rouffar river made by Doorman is only approximate although as good as it is possible to make from the stream. There are many tributary streams entering from both sides which are not indicated on the map. The river itself has changed its channel considerably since 1912. Eventually we passed over the Edi falls with a rain squall on either side of us and another ahead, finally to our relief we were over the Marine falls and we each heaved an inward sigh of relief, saying to ourselves "Now let her quit". However the motor fooled us by continuing to function beautifully all the way to camp. Just before we reached camp we ran into some rain and it was raining when we landed. The motor boat was out to receive us and we tied on and in a short time the plane was once more on her float. And so ended what will probably be our most hazardous flight. We found that it is impossible to land beyond tributary river "A". The future is still a problem as the large Papuan population of the Upper Rouffar who (excepting now for Hans and I) have never seen a white man, have to be reckoned with. We do not know even if our food cache will remain, and the attitude of the natives is, to say the least, uncertain. {p. 72}




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