National Geographic : 1962 May
"Our only aim," Director of Native Affairs John Keith McCarthy told me, "is to advance these people socially, economically, and po litically to the point that they can determine their future for themselves." "Within the Australian Commonwealth?" I asked. "Within or without," he said bluntly, and it was obviously an answer to which the ter ritory's Australian administrators have given much thought. "We only hope the Papuans will carry with them a memory of what we have done and be our friends." AUSTRALIAN NEW GUINEA's storied LSepik River, which threads what was head-hunter country within the memory of most of its inhabitants, made me think of the lower Mississippi. Like Old Man River, the broad, twisting ribbon of gray water writhes and turns upon itself as it meanders seaward through the swamps, leaving behind oxbow lakes and barads- narrow, canal-like chan nels (map, opposite). At Kanganaman, 200 miles up the river, two natives rushed up to me, waving yellowed firearms permits and treasured copies of the gold-bordered GEOGRAPHIC. They were Ma va and Rambur, noted ornithologist E. Thom as Gilliard's "shoot boys" on previous expedi tions to New Guinea and New Britain.* Would I be offering rewards, as Masta Tom had done, for bird-of-paradise nesting sites? They were crestfallen when I explained that I wanted only to photograph their village. A few minutes later a flashing stainless steel bracelet on another villager's wrist an nounced a second surprise. Inscribed "6TH WORLD VOYAGE/BRIGANTINE YANKEE/1953 1955," it had been left behind by one of the young crew members of famed voyager Irving Johnson's globe-girdling Yankee.t I found the once impressive village only a ghost of its old self. Nowadays the villagers are mostly women, children, and older men; the younger men spend their time as contract laborers on coastal plantations. Kanganaman's magnificent haus tambaran, or spirit house, which soars 65 feet and has a nave 112 feet long, has been shorn by collec tors of primitive art of its old wealth of carv ings; practically nothing movable remains ex cept one boldly carved debating chair that Kanganaman's elders stubbornly refused to sell (page 608). But beauty remains along the Sepik. At Kanganaman early one morning the villagers 606 roused themselves long enough to dedicate two new houses in the old manner, and for a few magical hours I watched as they re-en acted the legend of their ancestor Mwaim. Eight-foot bamboo flutes, capped with superb little carvings made only a few weeks before, moaned pompously from inside one of the houses; women may hear their sounds but are never permitted to look upon these sacred instruments (page 609). I remember falling asleep that night to the melancholy thumping of the huge garamuts, slit drums whose sounds link a dozen middle Sepik villages in a practical jungle telegraph. Now and then the queer cry of a flying fox punctuated the rhythm. And in the morning I awoke to the absurd tootlings of jungle birds filtering through the mists. If nothing of the old Sepik had survived but the birds, it would still have been worth the trouble of getting there. Along the river were jeweled kingfishers darting from one island of floating vegetation to another. Ma jestic white herons waited until the 50-foot log canoe I shared with Australian Patrol Officer John Quinn was only a few yards away before flapping a dignified retreat. And there were ducks, more ducks than I had ever seen before - not even excepting the rafts of wildfowl I remember from 30 years ago when I was 17 and visited the coastal marshes of North Carolina. But, despite all that is left in this most hauntingly beautiful of New Guinea's hidden places, I could not suppress a twinge of re gret that so much must change. I HAD VISITED Australian New Guinea once before. The urge to return had been irresistible, and now I had looked forward to another, longer stay in the center of the island -the jumbled ranges and lofty green valleys lumped together as "the Highlands," which still beckon as one of earth's last pioneer lands. Where the western United States was a century and more ago, this hidden fastness stands today. Here, in the age of the atom, pockets exist where stone axes still flash and no white face has ever been seen. *See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC: "New Guinea's Paradise of Birds," November, 1951; "New Guinea's Rare Birds and Stone Age Men," April, 1953; "To the Land of the Head-hunters," October, 1955; and "Exploring New Britain's Land of Fire," February, 1961, all by E. Thomas Gilliard. TIrving and Electa Johnson describe a voyage along the Sepik River in "New Guinea to Bali in Yankee," NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, December, 1959.