Pick From the Past
Natural History, January-February 1932
A Tenderfoot Explorer in New Guinea
FACED one of the biggest decisions of my life when, at the International Zoological Congress at Budapest in 1927, Lord Rothschild, of the Zoological Museum in Tring, the largest private collection in the world, asked me if I would undertake an expedition to New Guinea for him and Dr. L. C. Sanford, trustee of the American Museum of Natural History. I was barely twenty-three years old, had never been on an expedition before, and all that could be said in my favor was that I had had many years of experience in the study of European birds, and, what counts more, had the ambition and untiring enthusiasm of youth. My mind was therefore made up quickly. I said, Yes to Lord Rothschilds proposition and started immediately with my preparations.
Anyone about to undertake an expedition should possess a thorough knowledge of the animal-life occurring in the region he plans to visit. Thus, before starting for the field, I went to several of the large European museums and worked through their New Guinea collections, with the result that when I arrived in New Guinea, I knew not only the name of every bird I might collect, but also whether it was rare, or desirable for my collection, and whether it showed any peculiarities of particular interest to science. Equipped with this knowledge, I departed from Europe feeling a good deal more confident than when I had agreed to the expedition.
After a pleasant journey through the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean, I arrived in Java to make the final arrangements. The Zoological Museum, of the Department of Agriculture in Buitenzorg, Java, assisted me by the loan of two Javanese bird-skinners and one plant collector. These mantris were of invaluable service to me and proved themselves faithful and hardworking companions during the six months I stayed in Dutch New Guinea.
After a beautiful trip through the East Indian Archipelago, which gave me an opportunity to get acquainted with such interesting places as Bali, Celebes, and the Moluccas,
Manokwari, the largest settlement in northern Dutch New Guinea, has a white population of twelve, a fact that indicates somewhat the backwardness and wildness of the country. There are no railroads, no motor cars, not even horses and mules in this part of New Guinea. All the carrying is done by the natives.
In all tropical countries the mountains possess an animal-life strangely different from that which is to be found in the lowlands and hills. The lowland seems to be much more affected by the going and coming of forms from neighboring places, and we find many recent invaders, while the mountains are the homes or refuges of the primitive types and perhaps the original inhabitants of the wholes area. This is true of mankind as well as of animals. In the lowland of New Guinea we find the Melanesianstribes that are related in culture and language to the Malayans in the West and the Polynesians in the East. In the mountains we find the Papuans, a very primitive type of mankind, in my opinion inferior in their culture to any other human race, including even the aboriginals Australia.
The same is true of the bird-life. In the lowland we find mostly species and genera which are distributed over wide parts of the Indo-Australian region, while in the mountains we find endemic genera with no close relatives anywhere. It is here in the mountains that we meet the choicest of the birds of paradise. It is in the mountains that we find the most beautiful parrots and some of the most peculiarly developed members of the honey suckers. To make a thorough investigation of these mountain forms in the different ranges of northern New Guinea was the main object of my expedition.
I did not spend much time in the lowland, and after I had bought the necessary provisions, I said good-bye to the small white colony in Manokwari and sailed the bay to Momi on the southeastern foot of the Arfak Mountains. For several months thereafter I did not speak a European word, using Malay in all my conversations until my return from exploring the Arfak Mountains. In Momi I sent out word to the surrounding villages asking for carriers, and with the help of the Malayan district officer I succeeded, after several days, in assembling a caravan of about fifty.
No one who has traveled in Africa can imagine the carrier difficulties in New Guinea. The race is small and, considering the roughness of the country and the bad condition of the bush-trails, the carriers refuse to take loads weighing more than thirty pounds. Only in exceptional cases could they be persuaded to take two man loads. It required a good deal of figuring to cut down the outfit into such small loads.
After much hard and noisy gesticulation, the long string of carriers finally departed. We soon left the vicinity of Momi village with its secondary growth, its native gardens and open clearings, and entered the virgin forest that spreads over the alluvial plain of Momi River. The noise of the forest edge with its numerous parrots, starlings (Mino), leatherheads (Philemon), and New Guinea magpies (Cracticus), was exchanged for a deep silence only occasionally interrupted by the voice of a thickhead (Pachycephala) or a fly-catcher (Monarchal). From the tree tops we heard now and then the deep oo-oo-oo of forest pigeons, but suddenly all these voices were overpowered by a melodious whistling series of calls.
Boeroeng goening, whispered the interpreter excitedly, and, leaving the trail, we began cutting our way through the vines and shrubs with bush knives. Soon we reached the foot of a medium-sized tree on whichI shall never forget this exciting momentI saw for the first time in my life the display of the yellow bird of paradise (Paradisaea minor). Two males in full plumage and a few immature males displayed and went through all the eccentric and acrobatic movements of this performance. I had no time on this day to study any details, but full of joy and satisfaction at this impressive sight I continued the march.
In order to get more opportunities to collect data on the vertical distribution of birds in different altitudes, I had chosen a route into the mountain which had been used by but few parties before me, but which led through a well populated district with villages at all altitudes between sea level and 6000 feet. The powerful chief Basi, of the Manikion district, and I were in the lead as we penetrated deeper and deeper inland, following the Momi River.
In Momi I had been told many stories about the treachery of the mountain tribes, and I was somewhat worried about what might happen during the coming weeks. Occupied with these thoughts I was suddenly startled by a noise that began at the end of my caravan and ran along the string of carriers toward me, increasing rapidly until it became a blood-curdling series of screams and yells. I was frightened, feeling certain that this was a signal to attack, and I expected every moment to feel the knives of the carriers in my back. I looked cautiously back to Basi, but he, apparently guessing my worries, assured me there was no danger. As it turned out, it was really the war-cry of the Manikion tribe, but on this occasion it was uttered only to inspire the energy of the carriers. With increasing experience I grew surer of myself, but on this first occasion I showed that I was a thorough greenhorn.
Late in the afternoon, after long and strenuous wading in a rocky river-bed, we arrived at the first camping place at the foot of the real ascent. My tent was set up, my carriers built their leaf-houses, and the regular camp life developed. The few birds collected during the march had to be prepared, and soon darkness fell on my first night in the tropical forest. What this means only the man who has witnessed a tropical night himself, can appreciate. No words can describe the concerts produced by the cicadas, locusts, tree-frogs, and night birds, a symphony of peculiar and deeply impressive harmony. Listening and dreaming, I lay awake for a long time in spite of the fatigue caused by the march and all the exciting experiences of the day.
When I awoke the next morning, camp life was in swing again. Breakfast was served quickly, and soon the loads were packed, and we started on a long and strenuous climb toward the summit of the Taikbo Mountain, 4000 feet above us.
The trails of these mountain tribes have no similarity to those familiar to us in civilized countries. There are no zig-zags, but the trails go straight up the slopes, steep as they may be. Only when the crest is reached does the road become somewhat easier. I had plenty of occasion to admire the stamina of these mountain people who, although inferior to the white man in their physique, are superior in heart and lungs. Despite their loads they could set a pace that I was hardly able to follow.
Before we had climbed a thousand feet the appearance of the forest had begun to change. The number of forest giants began to decrease, the undergrowth that was rather open in the lowland forest grew thicker. Thorny rotan palms entangled the shrubs with their long vines, and a few tree-ferns and epiphytes were in evidence. Above two thousand feet this change of formation was quite obvious.
The bird-life also showed a change. Many of the species leading the concert in the lowland forest disappeared and new voices could be heard. The weather likewise began to change. The temperature was lower and soon we reached the zone that is enveloped in clouds after ten oclock in the morning. The wind blew the fog through the forest, moisture collected on leaves and twigs, and big, heavy drops fell to the ground. No wonder that moss and lichens grow luxuriously in this atmosphere, and, although the true moss forest is decidedly higher up, moss was quite abundant on the trees and on the ground even at less than three thousand feet altitude. The moist fog gradually changed into rain and, at the request of my carriers, I decided to camp at the highest water-place, which was still considerably below the summit. Big fires were built to warm my carriers. I could imagine how cold they felt, being entirely naked but for a narrow strip of cloth around their loins. The temperature went down to 19° C. but singing and talking, and with very little sleep, the carriers sat around their fires during the night.
In the beautiful, clear sunlight that greeted us the next morning, the forest looked entirely changed. The birds were much more active and were singing all about, and, knowing that I would reach my first real permanent station on that day, I started collecting. One of the first birds shot was the superb bird of paradise, one of the most beautiful creatures of the New Guinea mountains. The breast is covered by a shield, composed of little, glossy, green scales. On the neck is a large, black, velvety crest, which can be spread out during the display as are the tail-coverts of a peacock. Another welcome addition to my collection was Drepanornis, another bird of paradise with an extraordinary, long, sickle-shape bill. After a short climb I reached the top of Taikbo Mountain, but here, as in most cases in New Guinea, reaching the summit was a disappointment, for the heavy forest did not permit any view.
The path that led down to the Siwi Valley was just as steep as the one that led from the coast up to the summit, and after a hurried descent we reached a little creek in the Siwi Valley. Now signs of population became apparent, the forest became lighter, and soon we entered a large clearing, the area of Siwi village. These Arfak Mountain villages do not quite come up to our ideas of a village. Siwi, like other places I visited afterward, consisted of single houses, 200 to 500 feet above the bottom of the valley and located on both sides. It covered an area of several square miles. Most of the houses are within calling distance of one another, and whenever there is any news to tell, the valley is filled with shouts. The arrival of a white man was occasion enough to make this signal service work full blast, and soon the natives began to come down from their houses to help in establishing my camp. In order to have water handy, I decided to camp on the shore of the little creek, on a place high enough to be safe from floods. I was warned against these floods and before long I had an opportunity to witness such a spectacle.
I was very glad that we had finally reached the camping place, for I had a bad infection on my leg and was hardly able to walk. When swimming in Manokwari, I had hurt my foot on a coral reef, and such coral wounds heal very slowly, even if properly attended. I, however, had had no time to attend to the wound, and the marching in river-beds on the previous days and constantly wet shoes had done their part to make the infection really dangerous. My whole leg was swollen and weeks passed before I could do any strenuous collecting.
While I paid off my carriers (they received 25 cents a day), the natives started to clear away the secondary growth, to erect my tent, and to build houses for my baggage and my Javanese mantris.
The arrival of my party was like a big festival, for the natives made little huts for themselves all around my camp, sang and danced, and the boys and younger men especially stayed in my camp even over night and for several days afterward.
The river bottom, where the camp was situated, was at an altitude of 2400 feet, but all around mountains rose steeply to 4800 feet; The real forest had been destroyed by the natives in the valley and on the lower slopes, and had been replaced by native gardens, savanna-grass (alang-alang) and open secondary growth. There I found grass finches (Munia) and parrot finches (Erythrura), wren-warblers (Malurus), and even (in winter quarters) a Siberian sedge-warbler (Locustella fasciolata), a bird that puzzled me considerably and which I regarded as a new species for a long time, knowing that it was none of the known New Guinea birds.
The Arfakers are hunters rather than farmers. Most of the field work is done by the women, while the task of the men is to cut down the forest. But they prefer to take bow and arrow and wander about and hunt birds or, if luck is favorable, even big game,cassowaries and pigs. Except for some phalangers and other marsupials, a few small rodents and bats are the only indigenous mammals on this island. Pigs have been introduced, but are in a more or less wild state all over the island. To get the desired meat, the New Guinea hunter has to look for smaller game, so he devotes his attention to the abundant bird-life. From his early youth he has learned to know the voices and habits of the birds, and I was amazed at the exact knowledge of the life-histories of the birds these natives possessed. Almost every species had its own name, and they even distinguished some species which have been confused with others by some systematists on account of their similarity.
The natives are wonderful shots with bow and arrow; and soon learned to handle the several small shotguns which I had brought with me. After I had acquired the vocabulary of their bird names I had only to send out my hunters with orders to secure certain species and I was sure to get them. I thus succeeded in obtaining a collection of unusual quality, consisting of the rare and desirable species and lacking the great number of common birds so often found in the collections of inexperienced travelers.
The joy over the success of my collecting activity was a great help to me in overcoming the many difficulties that sometimes almost crushed my energy and will-power. The rainy season was not yet quite over and on some days the fog and rainstorms prevented collecting completely. The drying of the skins was also quite a task, as the air was saturated with moisture and the sun was not seen very often. Half-starved native dogs broke into my tent during the night and managed to get away unharmed with a few skins, thoroughly poisoned with arsenic. I never saw anything so thin and shabby as these dogs, which are related to the Australian dingo and do not bark. All these things, however, were only minor difficulties. What was much worse was that most of my boys fell sick, and all at the same time. One developed arsenic poisoning on his hand, and his whole arm swelled so that he could not work. The other of my mantris had malaria and alarmed me by his fantastic speeches in his delirium, while another helper fell sick with pneumonia. His life was saved only by the most careful nursing day and night. My sore foot had not healed and my plant collector was also laid up with a big tropical sore, so that my camp really resembled a hospital more than a collecting station.
Few people can realize what a strain it was for me to have to overcome alone all these difficulties, with no companion to talk to. Every situation was new to me and required careful consideration, especially the handling of the natives, who are very touchy and have many taboos that must be respected. On the other hand, they showed amazingly little imagination. I remember a little incident that happened during an eclipse of the moon. The moon became more and more covered by shadow, it grew darker and darker, but the natives showed no signs of interest or excitement. I asked them if they had no myth about it. I told them the myths of our own country and the myths believed by the Chinese and Javanese, and asked them what they considered as the cause of the sudden darkness. Not getting any response to my questions, I really became quite excited in my efforts to get some information about their belief.
Suddenly one of the men slapped my shoulder in a fatherly fashion and said soothingly:
Dont worry, master, it will become light again very soon.
That cured me and I never again tried to acquire any information that was not given willingly. Their realism toward the mysteries of nature was sometimes quite appalling.
After my foot was better I started out again on excursions, but did not do much collecting. My main interest was to get some data on the habits of the New Guinea birds. Aside from the marvellous displays of the birds of paradise, which have been described in NATURAL HISTORY by H. H. Beck and Lee S. Crandall,
After many weeks of hard work that continued until a late hour every night, I succeeded in getting a fair representation of the fauna and flora of this hill region, and the desire grew to penetrate farther into the interior, higher up in the mountains. To accomplish this was no easy task, and I was not yet sure what dangers and difficulties would await me. In this region, more than in any other place in New Guinea where I collected afterward, there were many rumors in circulation about the dangerous mountain people who are quiet and peaceful during the daytime but go out to kill during the night. Even in recent years several police boys had been killed during government expeditions, and I had been most earnestly warned not to go too far inland. I personally did not take much notice of these warnings, but it was a difficult task to persuade my companions to follow me.
I arranged with Basi to call carriers from the Misemi district, but just after the messengers had gone, I fell ill with influenza and was in bed for several days with high fever The carriers finally arrived and we broke up our camp, but after I had gone a few steps, I fainted, weakened by the fever. I was in a rather desperate situation, as my carriers wanted to go ahead, and I did not know if I ever could get them again if I let them go to their villages now. We finally agreed to a two-days rest and I departed on the 25th of May. On the first day we had to climb the 4200-foot high divide between the Siwi and Ninei valley, and every step was a struggle for me, my heart being very weak. I arrived in Ninei (2800 feet), more dead than alive.
The next day we followed the Duga River up to the foot of Mt. Moendi, and then I camped, not being able to climb that mountain the same day. On both banks of the river were signs of former floods and I therefore decided to establish my camp not less than fifteen feet above the river. Some of my carriers laughed about my caution and made their camp closer to the water, only about ten feet above its normal level. In the late afternoon it began to rain, and after darkness the rain increased to a downpour of such violence as I had never witnessed before. The river had a very strong fall, and at low water fell in cascades over the bowlders and rocks. But this rain changed the peaceful creek into a boiling torrent.
With the thundering noise of cannon tremendous rocks were torn away from their foundations and carried down stream. The night was pitch dark. Suddenly I heard a terrific yelling and screaming, and then a score of trembling and soaking wet natives rushed shouting into my tent.
Master, they cried. Our camp is flooded, and all our belongings have been carried away by the water.
I was worried lest the flood should damage my expedition outfit, and rushed outside to inquire the state of affairs. When I reached the camp of my carriers, I found to my surprise that the water level was now about five feet below the camp. The only explanation I can think of is that the camp had been swept by a tidal wave caused by the breaking of some dam built by fallen trees farther up the river. Fortunately, nobody had been drowned.
The gang was the biggest I ever had. All counted there were about 120 natives and many more carriers than loads. This never happened to me again. A large percentage were women, who are much stronger than the men. They have to do all the carrying of the firewood and field-fruit and are therefore trained for this job. It was a strange experience for me until I got used to it, to see the women carry my loads while their husbands accompanied them with the babies in nets on their backs.
The next morning the difficult climb up Mt. Moendi began. The lower slopes are covered by alang-alang, growing on wide stretches from which the natives had burned the original mountain forest in order to make their fields. Higher up at an altitude of about 5000 feet the moist mountain-forest began. All trees, shrubs, and vines were covered by a stratum of moss several inches thick, and in places on the ground the moss was more than a foot thick. Most of the trees in this moss forest are rather small, but grow close together. Several birds not encountered on my former collecting stations were found here.
Approaching the summit, we found the trees gradually being replaced by shrubs and open grassland spots, a formation which I will describe in connection with the visit to Mt. Hoidjosera, where I found it much better developed. The summit of Mt. Moendi, at 6300 feet, is the watershed. The valley into which I was descending belonged to the system of rivers that flow into the McCluer Gulf on the south coast of New Guinea.
My path led gently down along a crest into the Ditchi Valley. This was not my original intention. I wanted to descend toward the northwest, but the natives claimed that there were no villages in that region, at least none occupied at that season of the year. So we turned southwest, and finally reached the bottom of the Ditchi Valley at about 3500 feet altitude. At 4000 feet altitude on the other slope of the valley was the village of Ditchi consisting of a few scattered houses, where I established camp on May 22.
This village had never before been visited by a white man. Behind the village two mountains (Mt. Wamma and Mt. Lehoema) rose to an altitude of approximately 6000 feet. These two mountains were my chief collecting grounds during the next weeks. As in Siwi, I wrote down a list of all the native names of the birds, and as soon as I received specimens I was able to identify them by their scientific names. By this method I was sure not to leave out any. At the same time I secured fine collections of plants.
In spite of all the intensive collecting I could not procure all the species in the Ditchi region that were known from the Arfak Mountains. I therefore desired to penetrate still farther inland and establish a collecting station in a higher place. The area that I fancied was the Anggi Lakes, which are situated at an altitude of more than 6000 feet and had been visited by several naturalists previously. But their bird-life had never been studied and I expected some interesting discoveries. The difficulty, however, was how to get there! All the previous parties were accompanied by a troop of soldiers, as the Anggi natives were reputed to be great warriors and anything but friendly toward whites. I heard many stories of murders that had been committed in late years, and I was trying to find a safe way to reach their villages, when chance finally came to my assistance. It turned out that one of the Siwi-men had a sister married to one of the Anggi chiefs. So I sent him up to get an invitation. I reckoned that their curiosity to see a white man would be greater than their suspicion and fright against me, the usual root of all fights. And I knew that I would be perfectly safe if I came to their village as a guest.
On the evening of the 8th of June, Wakil, my messenger, came back from the Anggi lakes and brought with him the chief and ten carriers. After an exchange of the usual formalities, we agreed to start for his village the next morning. As I had only ten carriers (except for Wakil and my fourteen-year-old interpreter Kapal, who spoke five languages, nobody from Siwi or Ditchi wanted to go with me), I had to cut down my luggage to the most necessary items. I left two of my Javanese behind me, but one of the bird skinners accompanied me.
The road was bad as always in New Guinea. First we had to climb down to the Ditchi River, then up again 1500 feet on the opposite slope, and as soon as we had reached the ridge we went down another valley. In all, we crossed about six or seven such valleys, tributaries of the Issim River, and when we finally reached the village (two houses) of Dohunsehik in the late afternoon, I was thoroughly tired from climbing, although the net gain of altitude was only about 600 feet.
We were now directly at the foot of Mt. Hoidjosera, which we had to climb before coming down to the lakes. I decided, therefore, the next morning, to give out cartridges to my hunters to secure some specimens in the alpine zone. But when I opened the cartridge-load I noticed to my horror that I had packed the wrong case and left all the small cartridges for my bird-guns in Ditchi. What to do? The only solution was to send back one native to fetch the cartridges and join me later on at Anggi. I would spend the first two days, until this boy arrived, in shooting large birds and collecting plants.
At 7:30 we started for Anggi, while one boy left for Ditchi. We gained altitude rapidly and the forest soon took on a very mossy character. Above 5000 feet we reached the ridge, and here there became evident a plant formation like that I had encountered already in a lesser degree on Mt. Moendi.
The forest opened up and was replaced by a brushy heather mixed with low conifers. Many of the shrubs, especially the rhododendron trees, were in flower and made this days walk a very pleasant experience. On the other hand, the bird-life was disappointing. I did not meet a single species of bird that I had not met already in lower altitudes. There is a decided change of faunal zones at 4500 feet altitude, and as I had collected in this higher zone on Mt. Lehoema and Mt. Wanna, it was perhaps only natural that I did not make any new discoveries on this mountain. About noon we reached the summit of Mt. Hoidjosera, which means in the Manikion language: The place where the pig fell. Despite much questioning, I was unable to learn the story on which this name is based.
From the summit I had a magnificent view, as it was unusually clear. In the west stood Mt. Lina (about 8600 feet), the highest summit of the Arfak region. To the south was the Issim Valley, which sends its waters to the south coast of New Guinea, and to the north were the two Anggi lakes, the male and the female, as the natives call them. The two lakes are separated by a ridge approximately 1400 feet in height, and are two entirely different basins: one is the origin of a river that flows to the north coast, and the other of a river that flows eastward to the Geelvink Bay.
After a quick descent I reached the shore of Anggi gidji (the male lake) about two oclock, and established camp in the village of Koffo. Shortly after five oclock the boy I had sent back for the cartridges arrived. I could hardly believe my eyes as he handed the cartridges to me. In one day he had made the three-days march, including at least 8000 feet of actual climbing. He said he had been running hard for most of the day. I cite this case as an example of the marvelous stamina and climbing ability of these mountain natives. In the lowland, however, I had no difficulty in keeping pace with them.
The five days I spent on the lake easily surpasses all my New Guinea memories, The beauty of the landscape, the splendid scientific success (I discovered in the reeds and grasslands on the edge of the lake several species of birds either new to science or at least new for New Guinea) and the hospitality of these primitive and supposedly savage natives made me very loath to leave. When my party departed, all the women and girls of the village were lined up along the road, shedding copious tears, according to a custom widely distributed over New Guinea. However, as it was the first time that I experienced this proof of hospitality, I was deeply touched, and felt almost like joining in.
We returned the way we had come and after a short stay in Dohunsehik, where I wanted to get a specimen of the rare long-tailed bird of paradise (Astrapia) I arrived in Ditchi. Here I found my Malayans in good health and spirits, much to my relief.
In order to meet the next mail steamer, I returned to the coast immediately, where I left my Malayans, while I took a canoe to Manokwari.
After thirty-five hours of continuous paddling I was back in civilization. Tired, unshaved, dirty, and sunburnt, I was invited immediately on my arrival to board the Dutch marine survey ship, the latest word in European luxury, to tell about my adventures. What a contrast!
Looking back on my first expedition, I value more than the discovery of many specimens and facts new to science, the education that it was for me. The daily fight with unknown difficulties, the need for initiative, the contact with the strange psychology of primitive people, and all the other odds and ends of such an expedition, accomplish a development of character that cannot be had in the routine of civilized life. And this combined with a treasury of memories, is ample pay for all the hardships, worries, and troubles that so often lead us to the verge of desperation in the scientific work that takes us into the field.