A Tenderfoot Explorer in New Guinea

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

Dr. Mayr

Doctor Mayr (right) with his Malay mantri: Arriving at Kofo, Anggi Lakes, after two months in the wild interior of New Guinea

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 which—I shall never forget this exciting moment—I 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.

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New Guinea
Natives of the Arfak Mountains: These natives never leave their huts without carrying their bows and arrows. Hunting is one of the favorite occupations of the men.
New Guinea
The Wandammen Mountains from the coast: For the most part the coast of northern New Guinea is lined with mountains that rise abruptly from the sea.
New Guinea
The hut of a mountain chief: The houses are erected on poles with the floor ten feet or more above the ground. The left side of the house is reserved for women and the right side for men.
New Guinea
A group of native “boys” at Momi: These natives acted as carriers for Doctor Mayr on his journey from the interior back to the coast. there are many things in the New Guinea forest to arouse the interest of the naturalist.

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 o’clock 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.

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