Port Moresby to the hunting camp at Vei Maori, 19 June 1893

We again used the Basilisk Passage to leave the harbor of Port Moresby to reach the open sea at the same time as ,the governor’s yacht „Merrie England“ who would join our party. Then „Elisabeth“ steamed about 10 to 15 miles off the coast in a North-western direction always  keep out of the way of small islands and coral reefs, past Caution Bay until Redscar Bay came into view. The small islands are the favorite resting places of numerous pigeons. During the night giant tortoises visit the sandy beaches too to lay their eggs , while the dugong (Halicore dugong), also called sea cow, a herbivorous mammal  similar to the dolphin is to be frequently found in the shallow water overgrown with seaweed (Sargassum). Unfortunately we lacked the time to pay these interesting islands a visit. The entrance into Redscar Bay is quite difficult as there are reefs there that had not been mapped but are only incidentally known to the pilots themselves. Opposite the mouth of the Vanapa river „Elisabeth“ anchored at half past 11 o’clock.

As the governor had in the meantime already set out in his steam barge with a number of native guides, our expedition was also set up and made ready for that steam barge drawing two dinghies in tow. In the barge which was loaded with coal for two days we sat together with Bedford as river pilot and Bourguignon as convoy commander who also steered the barge himself. In the dinghies were our servants, Hodek with two assistants and a cadet with eight sailors. Here too were loaded the photographic apparatus, the provisions and the ammunition. Soon after we had set off from „Elisabeth“, the ship hoisted its anchor and disappeared from view taking course on Yule Harbour.

We first passed a barrier at the mouth of the river and then drove upstream the Vanapa river into the Vei Maori river, past the large Papuan settlement Manumanu hidden under tall trees out of which our guide had been recruited.

Understandably we were highly interested in navigating on an almost unknown waterway. Dense forests covered the shores whose edges preferably featured low palm trees that grow so close to the river that their broad leaves hang into the water. The journey offered new picturesque views at any moment. Soon on the right, soon on the right bays became visible that cut deep into the land and were sprinkled with tiny islands on which high above the water level rise proud nipa palm and ironwood trees. The background of this river picture was provided by the high Owen Stanley range in a dull blue color.

The turns in the river became ever sharper and more twisted so that the barge which was also towing two boats had a rather difficult trip. To evade the numerous mud and sand banks that almost reached the open air the middle of the river had again and again to be left and steered from one shore to the other. The river’s width decreased quickly and was finally hardly more than 20 m. Here the vegetation became even more luxurious, the shore trees hanging even more frequently into the river so that we glided forward in a densely overgrown under a leafy balcony.

Suddenly there was a heavy blow — we were stuck against a submerged tree trunk. The largest obstacle for navigation here are such mighty perpendicular trunks hidden in the opaque water. Formally turned into stone, this hard wood forcefully resisted the attempts to grab it with hooks and move it out of the way. We had the machine of the barge run at full speed in reverse but in vain, as the vehicle started to move a bit a thick branch blocked the screw. As multiple persons who had jumped into the water were unable to move the barge and also our rocking the boat proved futile, I decided to leave the barge to its fate as it was already 3 o’clock and thus quite late and row a boat in order to start the afternoon hunt. Thus said and done. But we had not advanced far when we encountered a new obstacle, a perfect river barrier made out of interlocked tree trunks which stopped all further progress. Here lay also the small barge and the boats of the governor which had also been stopped by the barrier. As our camp was still a sea mile further upstream and the governor had already departed there with his people, we were left without good council as the guards on the boat, some Papuans, also couldn’t give any advice. They grilled fishes in total calmness. Finally Bedford resolved the confusion by proposing to lead me on a hunt while my companions would try to reach the camp on foot. As soon as they would reach it, they could send people out to get the provisions and the baggage and transport them to the camp.

Just as I had developed this plan, the steam barge arrived which had managed to break free again and anchored downstream from the wooden barrier. Balancing over a tree trunk I went to the other shore and entered into the dense jungle to use as much time as possible for hunting, accompanied only by Bedford and Janaczek. The jungle was almost of the same type as the one at the Laroki. The only difference was in the almost impenetrable thickets here that consisted of trees and bushes armed with thorns and barbs through which we could only slowly advance thanks to the machetes which slashed a path for us.

In this forest my first catch was again a large hornbill and this time it was a female that I shot down from a ficus tree. It differed from the male only by the coloring of its neck feathers which are rust brown in case of the male and a dark black for the female. Continuing we suddenly heard the voices of multiple large red Raggiana birds of paradise and soon we had reached at the tree in whose top there was great activity. Everywhere there was swarming an fluttering. In between one could hear the loud cries of the birds. First we could see only females and young birds that chased one another from branch to branch until Bedford suddenly pointed upwards and I discovered a splendid male with a large bushy ornamental tail feather that was glittering in the sun and jumping around a female and was courting it by comic turns and twists. A lucky shot bagged me a beautiful catch. We had by accident found one of the famous dance trees of the birds of paradise. These animals namely select certain very tall trees where they congregate in the afternoon hours to perform their dances which they do with great crying and fluttering. Without pause the birds rush from branch to branch until the females all congregated and the males then produce a real dance spreading wings and ornamental feathers like blackcocks by jumping nearly in step into the air, turn and act like crazy.

The shot I fired did not disturb the birds much in their lust for dancing. The sound stopped for a moment,, some males flew to neighboring trees, the others hid a bit deeper in the dark leaves. But only a few minutes later they all returned and the noise resumed. The picture of the dancing birds of paradise is very attractive especially if the sun is shining on their colored feathers and illuminates their flashy colors. Most frequently to be seen are the young birds, still unornamented males and the females while the old males are more timid. Still I bagged during an hour four of the most beautiful specimens and shot another four that however flew away wounded and disappeared into the dense jungle. These eight males had always returned to dance again in short intervals to the top of the tree where they had hidden. The height of the tree is enormous and the birds of paradise so hard that only the toughest parts of grain makes them fal while otherwise they will fly away despite being hit.

Finally there were no longer any small old males to be seen and and we thus sneaked forward as Bedford had heard the voice of birds of paradise of another species out of the noise created by cockatoo and parrots. But unfortunately these birds of paradise rested on a tree surrounded by an almost impenetrable thicket of thorns so that we crept along only extremely slowly despite our knives. Arriving at the tree I saw to my great anger the birds take off without me having a chance to have discovered them earlier.

In the hunting fever Bedford ignored that the sun had set so that I had to remind him that it was high time to return to the camp. I noticed that he seemed to not know which direction to take and I asked him again and again in which direction the camp lay. He always replied that he did know it exactly. It was getting darker and darker, the thickets become more and more difficult to penetrate so that we stumbled over fallen tree trunks or lianas we could not see at any moments and had our skin pierced by thorns. Night had come and we could not see anything and now Bedford confessed what I had known all along that we were lost as he did not know the path and did not know where we were.  They weren’t exactly the most kind words I said to him. But all swearing and moaning was futile and we had at least try to inform the camp that we had lost our bearing. To this purpose we fired our rifles in fixed intervals. As there was still no reply after about 25 shots I resigned myself to my fate and was just looking out to find a semi-dry space on the humid ground in order to spend the night in the company with all the vermin that was crawling around when Bedford implored me to undertake a final attempt.

I was in fact actually against it as those lost in the woods at night tend to walk in circles but I relented and thus we crept forward slashing with the knives in this labyrinth of branches and lianas and creating a tunnel. while protecting the eyes with the hands against thorns. In this manner we advanced barely twenty paces in half an hour and had to stop exhausted and wounded by thorns.

Another war council with Bedford was suddenly interrupted by a rifle volley whose barely perceptible noise came from afar to us — in any case a sign of the people in the camp. I immediately answered. By and by we perceived the signal shots more clearly, after half an hour we also heard the shouts of the search party and finally the sound of axes with which our saviors cut their way to us. Finally stood the governor in front of me leading a native corps armed with axes and lanterns and expressed his joy to have found me. I was understandably not unhappy about not having to spend the night in the wilderness and moved to the governor’s camp which was around 2 km distant. On the way I met other members of the expedition who had also joined in on the search for me.

The camp at the river had been built around the small hut of a Samoan who had settled here many years ago to trade with the natives. The hut actually only consisted of a covered platform to which our hammocks were tightened using the surrounding palm trees.  Provisions and supplies had been successfully brought up in a boat of the governor as some of the trunks of the wooden barrier had been successfully moved out of the way. Our boats, however, could not get past the barrier and had to stay and anchor below it. After the small adventure I had participated in the evening meal and sleep were outstanding only myriads of mosquitoes swarmed around us which were so mean that we were bitten all over the body. Some of the gentlemen were unable to close their eyes all night.

Links

  • Location: Port Moresby, New Guinea
  • ANNO – on 19.06.1893 in Austria’s newspapers.
  • The k.u.k. Hof-Burgtheater is playing „Der Sohn der Wildnis“. The k.u.k. Hof-Operntheater is closed from 1 June to 19 July.

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