"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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June 19, 1926 : Albatross Camp (Base Camp) ; Mamberamo River ; Airplane Flights

June 19th

This morning began with the usual low fog hanging over the hills across the river although it was patchy and broken to the south. Even at this early hour, Moon was crouched on the bank watching the sky. We ate a quiet breakfast and as our table is the best place to see the route on which the plane has been going, we did not leave the table until 10:30 by which time the fog had long lifted and we knew the plane had not been weather bound {p. 129} at Batavia camp, thus taking away our only hope that nothing had happened to the plane. As the Dyaks could not come back from Batavia camp until tomorrow afternoon, we set ourselves to wait. I climbed the high ridge back of camp and from a small cleared place on the top of the cliff I could command an immense sweep of the van Rees mountains in the direction of Batavia camp. I remained there until about 3:30 in the afternoon on the chance that there might be some smoke signals in the hills but the distances are so great the chances I knew were slight. At 3:30 Sally came up also and I returned to camp. I had scarcely returned to the house when Moon reported a Dyak canoe coming down the river. As the canoe came abreast I could see Anji Ipoei standing in the bow. We ran down to the landing and as the canoe drew closer we spotted Hans and Prince seated amidships, Hans with his bamboo hat, smoking his pipe and Prince with a handkerchief tied over his head in lieu of a hat. They also had a huge crowned pigeon as big as a turkey in the canoe which Ipoei had shot only a few miles up the river. Moon, who was all gleaming white teeth, gathered up the scanty baggage and we returned to the house to get the story. When the Ern left here there was a large storm in the south cutting across her course. Hans flew through the middle of it and had practically no visibility for fifteen minutes. This however, is an incident of almost daily occurrence when the plane is flying. They finally broke through the storm just before Batavia camp and Hans made his usual perfect landing. As the plane taxied along he saw a big piece of plywood float out from {p. 130} under the pontoon so instead of going to his usual landing place he picked the nearest point which happened to be on the opposite bank of the river from camp. He nosed her into the mud there close by the Papuan village probably much to the dismay of those people who always disappear in the jungle anyway while the plane is in sight. On inspection they found that the whole middle section of the bottom of one pontoon had come off and that the pontoon was floating on the front and rear compartments. They signalled to the motor boat which came over and towed them across to their regular landing and with the aid of all hands dragged the plane as high up on the bar as possible. It soon being dark they went to the motor boat to sleep but having no klambus, there was no sleep for them as mosquitoes at Batavia camp are beyond description in their numbers and aggressiveness. While they lay down to pass an uncomfortable night another drama was being enacted down the river. The canoe transport which had been laboring hard and with long hours for two days upstream was still a long day's trip from Batavia camp. They saw the plane pass over on her third trip and did not see her return. When they made camp at night Jordans gave Anji Ipoei a medical kit and bandages and an hour's instruction in first aid. Anji then called for volunteers and as all forty Dyaks stepped out he selected his eight best men. The whole cargo was then taken from one canoe and at 9 P.M. they started upstream. It was a black, starless night with intermittent rain storms; surely a more hazardous trip was never undertaken. To make the trip in daylight under the best of conditions is {p. 131} practically impossible to any excepting Dyaks, for between them and Batavia camp were the Batavia rapids, yet they went through. They had a gasoline lantern when they started but this soon went out and the only means of lighting they had was a candle. At 4 o'clock in the morning Hans and Prince, wearily fighting mosquitoes in the motor boat saw a flickering light out in the darkness over the river and heard the staccato "chunk"! {*} "chunk" of paddles that could only come from a Dyak crew. The guard on duty, dimly seen by the canoe landing looked like a Ku Klux Klansman with a huge white mosquito net over his head and his hands swathed in bandages. The canoe came up and Ipoei stepped out and Hans and Prince realized what it was they must have done. It was soon daylight, so after eating a little breakfast Hans and Prince got into the canoe and they started back downstream, accompanied by a canoe of Toma Linda's men to bring back the load taken from Ipoei's. Racing back through the rapids it was not long before they met with the transport again. Jordans was highly pleased to see Hans and Prince with whole skins and sorry that the plane will be out of commission for awhile. Van Leeuwen was suffering from fever and deaf from quinine. They stopped only a short time and continued on downstream, shooting the Edi and Marine falls en route. Hans and Prince, like all the rest, report the trip the thrill of a lifetime. Dashing over four and five foot falls in the water, sinking into depressions which hide the canoe from sight or skating sidewise off from great boiling mounds of water forced up by a tremendous force from below; skirting between great whirlpools which could suck down a {p. 132} canoe like a straw, rocking on curling waves like the sea, slipping between ragged rocks - all at express speed, brings out the highest qualities of judgment, courage and strength on the part of the crew. Once seeing these rapids, it is easy to see why every attempt to send through a canoe manned by other than Dyaks has been fatal. Ipoei pointed out the spot where on the last expedition, Papuans from ambush killed one of the Dyaks in a canoe with an arrow. There was one canoe ahead of the one in which the man was shot and two behind. Ipoei was in the third canoe. Immediately all canoes landed and the Dyaks got the Papuans between them. Armed only with their knives and shields they killed two of the Papuans and collected their heads. Spears and shields are the only weapons carried by the Dyaks here, as only a few brought their blowguns from Borneo. When the canoe arrived and the Dyaks had gone to their house, le Roux got the story of their trip from Ipoei. These nine Dyaks had paddled practically continuously for 36 hours in the most difficult of water, with no sleep and scanty food rations and this on top of two days of exhausting work up the rapids with the transport. Only one who has seen this stretch of water can adequately realize what this feat means. Yet on returning they busied themselves with various occupation until their regular sleeping time. It was a treat to hear Ipoei describe the night trip through the rapids. How they shouted at intervals as they went along, their narrow escape at the Batavia falls in the darkness, their pleasure at {p. 133} seeing the plane as it dimly appeared on shore at Batavia camp. "It was very dangerous[,]" said Anji, "and I would never have attempted it unless it was something of great importance [V1: crossed out: especially when it was to help our American friends."]

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