"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 13, 1926 : Mamberamo River

July 13th

We were up at daybreak this morning and as soon as we broke camp we reloaded the canoes and continued up the river. The canoes are all unloaded as soon as camp is made in case of a sudden rise of the river during the night. All night in our camp we could hear the rapids opposite us roaring like a heavy surf. From this point on it is strenuous work all the way. About 9 o'clock in the morning we came to the Marine rapids. Here the river compresses into a narrow channel, widens again and is again compressed between a series of huge rocks which make a series of islets across the channel. The rapids are thus divided into two particularly bad places about a kilometer apart, although the entire stretch of about three kilometers is very bad water. As we were coming upstream the first bad stretch was passing the rock barrier. As we approached from below, the roar of the water grew louder and louder. From our canoes it was an awe inspiring sight to see the great white crests of water leaping high in the air ahead of us, seemingly all the way across the channel. Now and then there would be a moment that the great waves {p. 147} would be sucked down, then a froth-topped geyser of water would shoot up high above the rest and slowly slink down. After hugging the rocky shore and pulling and pushing our way inch by inch we reached the point where we had to pass the climax of the rapids between the rocky headland of the shore and the first inlet. A narrow surging stream no more than thirty feet wide tears through here and in a distance of about fifty feet, falls about six feet. The high water had loosened a huge tree on the shore which had fallen carrying a couple of smaller ones with it. The big tree had made a sort of bridge between the headland and the islet and the small trees had blocked the passage. By cutting away the nearer of one of the small trees which was hanging in a vertical position from the large one, the way could be opened sufficiently for the canoes to pass through. It was however an extremely dangerous task as when the tree would fall it would be most apt to drag down whoever was standing on the horizontal tree with it. After studying the situation a few minutes, Tomalinda walked out on the horizontal limb with his parang and started cutting the hanging tree. When it severed, it fell vertically, the water catching the branches and tearing it away. At the same instant as it fell towards him, Tomalinda leaped and catching a small bough close to the trunk, hung by one arm beneath the large tree as the falling trunk narrowly missed him. It was a perilous task, as to be knocked into the water would mean certain death. The canoes were then hauled one by {p. 148} one up the sloping water by means of a long rattan tow line, the Dyaks clinging like monkeys to the rocky cliff. Midway between the first and second parts of the Marine rapids, we stopped on a large gravel bar for lunch. This was the scene of two interesting incidents on the last expedition up the Mamberamo. Anji Ipoei who witnessed both described them to me graphically in Malay on the spot. One happened when five Papuans lay in ambush at this place the canoes were going upstream and shot an arrow through the heart of one of the Dyaks in the second canoe. Anji, who was in the 3rd canoe, explained what followed. Of course the Dyak was instantly killed. There was a rifle in the canoe where the Dyak was killed and one of the Dyaks picked it up and fired immediately, killing one of the Papuans as they started to flee into the jungle. The canoe ahead and the canoe behind at once pulled into shore and the Dyaks, armed only with their knives and shields, started in pursuit. The Papuans had counted upon an easy escape into the jungle, but it wasn't white men they were dealing with this time. They fled several miles into the mountains, the Dyaks following their trail like hounds. Two of the Dyaks, after a chase lasting almost two hours, caught up with them and a running fight started, the Papuans shooting their arrows and the Dyaks catching them on their shields. Then the Papuans separated, two going one way, two another. A Dyak followed each pair. Finally one of the Papuans had but three arrows left and the Dyak behind him closed in as he turned to make his last stand. From a distance of 5 yards the Dyak caught the 3 arrows on his shield then closed in and killed the Papuan with his knife. He {p. 149} continued in pursuit of the other, but the second Papuan had taken advantage of the delay to increase his lead and after following for another hour it was growing dark and realizing the futility of further pursuit, the Dyak abandoned the chase. The other Dyak had much the same experience. The two Papuans he was pursuing separated. He followed one and finally caught up with and killed him. One of the Dyaks caught 12 arrows on his shield. It is worthy of note that there has never been an attack on a canoe transport in this vicinity since this incident. The other event took place shortly after this when two canoes each manned by 8 Malays were sucked down by the whirlpool {*} just below the upper section of the Marine rapids and almost opposite the place we were standing. Incidentally, no canoe not manned by Dyaks has ever succeeded in making the trip through the rapids. Before this, the canoes that had tried it had met their doom either at Batavia rapids or Edi falls. Edi falls are much the worst on the river so these canoes were brought through by Dyaks and it was thought the Malays could bring them the rest of the way. They succeeded until they had successfully passed through the first section of the Marine rapids where the river narrows and then widens abruptly. Just below the narrows are two great whirlpools which travel slowly back and forth in this place, waiting to engulf whatever may be coming through the narrows above. The canoes came down the river about half a mile apart. Racing through the narrows at express speed the leading canoe was caught on the rim of one of the whirlpools. {p. 150} It circled around three or four times in decreasing circles until it reached the vortex, there it up-ended, more than half of the canoe standing for an instant vertically above the water, the Malays clinging frantically to the sides, then it dove down and disappeared for about thirty seconds when it again shot out vertically almost clear of the water - three men still clinging to it. Again it dove under and again reappeared, this time with a single man hanging on. A third time it disappeared into the vortex and this time did not reappear. The second canoe racing out of the narrows witnessed the fate of the first and bent all their energies to paddle their canoe away from the spot. They succeeded, only to be caught by the other whirlpool. They were sucked down in much the same manner - no trace of either men or canoes was ever found. After eating our lunch we continued upstream, passing through the upper Marine rapids, immediately after we had eaten. The water is very rough here and the canoes shipped some water in passing. About an hour later, we came to the Edi falls.

"At this point the Mamberamo breaks through the main range of the Van Rees mountains."

At this point the Mamberamo breaks through the main range of the Van Rees mountains. The river here becomes the narrowest of any point in its course. Towering white cliffs rise vertically on either side of the stream culminating in a needle-like peak flanking either side. Great up-ended strata project from the water here and there. The river makes a sharp angle at this point, the full force of the constricted current dashing against the east cliff and {p. 151} then being abruptly turned by the vertical wall, making an immense whirlpool just below the angle. Right at the angle itself there is a drop of probably 8 feet. The water along here races at terrific speed and rises in great white waves which are broken against the projecting rocks in the middle of the current. The noise of the water is like a surf in a storm along a rocky coast. From the shore one can see great depressions in the water where it is swirled down and huge boiling mounds of water where it surges up from the power of the water below. We spent probably a little more than an hour in passing the angle which constitutes the most difficult point on the stream. We made camp about a mile above the falls at the mouth of a little stream on the east bank. I walked up this stream and found a number of fossiliferous rocks, the first I have yet seen on the Mamberamo. There was a good deal of fossil coral and other marine forms. Earlier in the day when we stopped on a gravel bank between the Marine and Edi falls I found a piece of coal, so its occurrence must be fairly general in this region. The gorge of the Mamberamo is very picturesque in here and one is tempted to explore the many small streams which run into it.

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