National Geographic : 1945 Dec
New Guinea's Mountain and Swampland Dwellers BY COL. RAY T. ELSMORE * C OLONEL, if we slip over that ridge, we'll enter the canyon-that winds into Hidden Valley." The words came to me over the intercom munication system as I patrolled a zigzag course with my C-60, twin-engined Lockheed Lodestar, at 10,000 feet over the mountainous interior of Netherlands New Guinea. Here and there I could see a hole in the billowing cumulus clouds. The voice was that of my co-pilot, Maj. Myron J. Grimes. A week before he had lo cated New Guinea's Hidden Valley while probing back and forth, seeking a lower pass through the rugged and towering peaks of the Oranje Mountains (Oranje Gebergte). The valley's existence had been revealed to the world in 1938 by the Richard Archbold American Museum of Natural History Expe dition.t Now, for a second time, white men were to penetrate this mile-high, walled-in fastness which the Archbold Expedition, we later learned, had named Grand Valley (Color Plate IV-V). Searching for a Landing Strip Instead of American and Dutch scientists, this time the invaders of this remote "Shangri la" were American soldiers. Our men were looking for possible landing fields to use against the Japs. When General of the Army Douglas Mac Arthur began his leapfrog military campaign up the New Guinea coast, our only air route for flying supplies to him lay over the Owen -Stanley Range in the southeastern end of the 1,500-mile-long island. When Hollandia was taken, a shorter route became imperative, to keep air transport abreast of MacArthur's advances. Lt. Gen. (now Gen.) George C. Kenney, commander of the Allied Air Forces in the Southwest Pacific, ordered the opening of an air route from the base at Merauke to Hol landia. At least one intermediate landing strip had to be located, built, and put to use. Major Grimes had been sent to reconnoiter and had charted two tentative routes. He was enthusiastic about Grand Valley and its possi bilities as a landing strip. The second route lay through Ifitamin, about 200 miles south east of the valley. So we started on our tour of inspection. Grand Valley, a mile high, nestles deep in the Oranje Mountains,.a part of the Snow Range explored by Mr. Archbold. Within steep walls of these mountains dwell strange, isolated tribes, sequestered from the world and often cut off from each other. Two hundred miles of swampland and a cloud-bathed canyon shut off Grand Valley's entrance from the south. Steep cliffs, punc tuated with 14,000-foot peaks, wall it in on the east and west. The only practicable entrance is from the north (map, page 674). At dawn the silver Lodestar took off from Merauke, with fourteen aboard. At 500 feet we ran into solid overcast. Tops of the clouds were at 8,000 feet. Land of Head-hunters and Crocodiles Between Merauke and the foothills of the Oranjes we flew across the 200 miles of swampland, level as a billiard table. The scattered tribesmen who inhabit it are head hunters. They are as menacing to man as the fierce crocodiles that abound here. It was easy to see why the Netherlands penal colony at Tanahmerah is one of the most effectively guarded in the world. The only way of escape for a prisoner is down a well-policed river. If he flees into the swamps he has a Hobson's choice of being beheaded or devoured by crocodiles! Cloud ceilings rose as we neared the Oranjes, but an overhanging bank shrouded most of the range. Above Grand Valley floats a sel dom-lifted cover of white, fleecy clouds. We could see an occasional rift, but we knew that peaks lurked in its innocent white walls. Higher peaks extended above the clouds. We had to fly over the Oranje Mountains' to find a way down into the valley from the north. We climbed to 17,000 feet before it seemed safe to level out and fly through or around the gigantic cloud banks. We saw the white-capped peak of 15,584-foot Wilhel mina. What a strange sight-snow close to the Equator! We flew for 30 minutes and then started letting down. Successive ranges, with peaks diminishing from about 13,000 to 6,000 feet, * Colonel Elsmore served as Director of Air Trans port, Allied Air Forces, in the Southwest Pacific, under Gen. George C. Kenney. He was a flying instruc tor in World War I. He has flown nearly 15,000 hours. t See "Unknown New Guinea," by Richard Arch bold, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, March, 1941.