A Tenderfoot Explorer in New Guinea

Reminiscences of an Expedition for Birds in the Primeval Forests of the Arfak Mountains


A jungle waterfall: The luxuriant vegetation of the interior of New Guinea makes photography difficult. Here the opening in the jungle about the waterfall permitted enough light to enter to make a clear picture possible.

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, there are many things in the New Guinea forest to arouse the interest of the naturalist. There are the cassowaries, large ostrich-like birds, that run along the mountain slopes with an amazing agility. The male is less brightly colored than his mate, and apparently hatches the eggs as well as rears the young, rather unusual for birds, although this reversal is common to several other species. There are the megapodes or brush turkeys which bury their eggs in large heaps of leaves where the fermentation of the organic material incubates them, and the pigmy parrots (Micropsitta), not longer than one’s thumb, which climb on trees as woodpeckers do and feed on termites. There are a score of beautiful doves and splendidly colored parrots. Once in a while I found a flowering tree where dozens of birds were feeding on the nectars. Here I found some of the rarest birds—birds that I had never seen before nor saw again. Exquisite colors are found not only on the birds, but all the orders of animals seem to compete for the prize of beauty. Butterflies and beetles show unsurpassed splendor of coloration, and the plants also deserve mention. There is no place on the earth where so many species of orchids have been found in a given area as in New Guinea. However, all this beauty is hidden away in the luxury of plant growth, and the real loveliness of these creations of this strange island continent becomes apparent only when in the hand of the collector.

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.

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