NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
15 Jul 1999
District of Columbia
- Washington, D.C.; National Public Radio
- 38.90213 -77.02079
Stereo=1; Dual-Channel Mono
Show: Geographic Century
Log of DAT #: Larry Lake
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Just tell me who you are. Identify yourself as regards Richard Archbold.
My name is Larry Lake and I¿m a professor of writing at Messiah College in Pennsylvania and in my early years, back when I was 6 up through the time I was 13, I lived in the valley that Richard Archbold had discovered in 1938. In those years that I was living in the Balim Valley, my parents were missionaries there and early in my time there, I began hearing the name Richard Archbold and learning that he had been an explorer from the United States who had done the first exploration in that area and so I got interested in learning more about him.
And you¿re working on a biography?
I¿m writing a book that is going to be a study of the scientific contributions of Richard Archbold¿s three New Guinea expeditions. His organization actually led a number of expeditions to New Guinea, but the first three were totally financed and led by Richard Archbold. The first of those was in 1933, the second started in 1936 and ran early into 1937, and both of those early ones had been in what¿s now Papua New Guinea. Then in 1938-39 he cooperated with the Dutch government, which at that time was in charge of the western half of the island of New Guinea, it was called Netherlands New Guinea at the time, and they mounted a very large expedition, about 197 individuals, including a large military contingent, to do exploration in the largely unexplored highlands of West New Guinea.
If you¿re working on a book about the scientific contributions, can you just briefly say what they were? I mean, how could you sum them up?
The contributions that Archbold¿s contributions made are not only in terms of materials that they collected but also in terms of setting a standard for later operations of this sort. The expeditions was what¿s basically referred to as a multidisciplinary expedition. There were ornithologists, that is, people who specialize in birds, there were botanists, people dealing with plants, there were mammologists, and also at least one person who was dealing with fish and someone else with reptiles on this expedition. And each of those people had an assistant and then they employed local people to help them in collecting. They collected specimens, birds, plants, whatever, and then prepared them for shipment to the United States. Those materials would be identified in many cases on site and in other cases would have to be identified after they arrived back in the United States, or in the case of this expedition in Holland, where half of the material is being sent for study by Dutch scientists. Another thing, and during that time, the expedition just in botany alone, collected a great number of specimens, 5,331 botanical items of which 631 were later identified to be new species and there were five new genera that were also discovered as part of that study. This was the first time that a large expedition equipped for the study of lots of different kinds of material was able to get into the interior of New Guinea and stay for any length of time. There had been a number of Dutch military expeditions going on in the early years of the 20th century, but most of those followed the main rivers upstream, and then once their craft couldn¿t go any further, they would then turn around and go back down the river. Earlier in, from 1909 until 1926, there had been a series of six expeditions to try top climb some of the mountains. Most of those had come in from the south coast. Two of them had been supplied by aircraft but only in terms of airdrops to rather remote places just for basic supplies, but it was Archbold¿s people that basically showed how one with a well-equipped, powerful airplane could land on the highland lakes and rivers, use that as a way of transporting people both in and out, and also use it as a way to get materials to the expedition, which, if you have 197 people on it, that¿s a lot of mouths to feed, and so you have to have a pretty constant supply of food. The return flights to their base on the coast were then used for shipping out the botanical specimens and the animal specimens and so on, and of course when the expedition was ready to wrap up in a particular area, they would take the personnel out either to the coastal base or to another base that they were going to work from.
How was it that, in your studies, have you managed to figure out how it was that Archbold got interested in New Guinea in the first place?
Yes, actually, his first expedition had been to Madagascar in 1929 and as he was developing his interests, especially in mammals and getting a little bit of extra training on that in Germany, he ran into a biologist who has later become very well known, Dr. Ernst Meyer, who is retired now from Harvard University, and Dr. Meyer and Richard Archbold talked extensively about some of the areas of the world that had not been adequately explored for their biological materials. And it was sometime in 1929, and I¿m still tracking through some of the correspondence, that a couple of letters between the two of them helped Archbold decide that New Guinea would be an important area to explore. Ernst Meyer had collected birds on the north coast of New Guinea back in 1927 and that later became the basis for one of his first major books which is called Birds of New Guinea. As Archbold and Meyer corresponded, it seems that Meyer¿s big concern was that he was hoping for a place where Archbold could make a very important contribution and knew that someone wit Archbold¿s financing would be able to use aircraft and other means of transport and setting up a good infrastructure and so apparently, Meyer recommended that Archbold concentrate on New Guinea.
When he decided to do that, the first expedition was on foot, right, the early 30s expedition. How did he do that?
In 1933, when Archbold made his first New Guinea expedition, he did a trip on the south coast of what¿s now Papua New Guinea, and used a few pack animals and a large number of native carriers to help support the relatively small exploration party. There were basically seven scientists in that first expedition. And they worked their way up from Port Morsby on the coast and went about 20 miles inland to some of the high mountains in that area. One of the principles that Archbold¿s expeditions and others who gather biological materials followed, is the idea of trying to collect material from different altitudes and also from different habitat areas, so that you look for whether it¿s grassland or rain forest or savannah or other vegetation patters, you¿ll have a variety of different habitat areas, and also then you look for some of those same habitat areas at different altitudes, and that gives you a cross-section of a particular area. The second expedition then returned¿
What did they find on that first expedition? Did Archbold write about that first expedition or did he come back and was he sort of fired up to go back again, or what is his reaction to being there?
He wrote a very interesting little article which was published in the Natural History magazine, which is part of the American Museum of Natural History, and at that time, he had gotten connected to the American Museum of Natural History as a research associate. At that time, the museum tended to organize groups, collecting groups and expedition groups, around the interests of particular people, often they were wealthy men, who would be associated with the museum and would be responsbile financially for the operations of their particular expeditions. So early on, probably about 1932, Archbold got connected with the American Museum of Natural History, and it was largely through the museum that he let people know about his exploration and about his interests in working in New Guinea. Also, he spoke pretty frequently at the Explorers Club, of which he was a member, and some of the people that he met and knew there, also then would let people know about the interesting work that Richard Archbold was doing. That first expedition in New Guinea totally done with ground transportation or a little bit of boat traffic was basically the seed for the later kinds of exploration he would do. As he left New Guinea after that 33, 34 expedition, he vowed that the next time he would come back and use an airplane, because he had realized that the transportation problems that they kept running into, not having enough food, having difficulty supporting an expedition at any great length from a supply base could be easily solved by having an airplane, even if the airplane were just a small one that could be simply dropping supplies at strategic points along the trail.
How common was it back then for people to have these sea planes, `cause he didn¿t just get an airplane, he got a seaplane.
It was not very common at that time for people, especially individuals like this, to own seaplanes. The early exploration in New Guinea that had dealt with the gold fields had in some cases used land planes such as the old Ford Trimotor or the German equivalent of that and in those days, airplanes were not nearly as common as they are now. Richard Archbold, in fact, wrote to a number of different manufacturers and tried to interest them in building a seaplane that he could use in these particular rivers and lakes that he had spotted in New Guinea. One of the, a number of companies then let him know either that they had airplanes on the drawing board or they had some in production already and the one that he was, that he finally used for his ¿36, ¿37 expedition was a model that had been built by the Fairchild Corporation and was originally designed, it was even called the Jungle Clipper, and had been designed mostly for the use of Panamerican Airways. It was a rather small airplane, it could seat probably about twelve people. But it was developed as a flying boat and had only one engine, which was mounted up on top of the fuselage.
So he goes back in ¿36. So he goes back in ¿36 and he takes with him a party of scientists and he tries out this approach to expeditioning, but it doesn¿t quite work out the way he planned, does it?
That¿s right. Just a few months into the expedition, as they¿re beginning their work up on the slopes of the higher mountains and as he is heavily using the airplane for supplying that ground party, the, there is one night at which the airplane is at anchor in the bay in Port Morsby and a sudden storm comes up. The natives refer to that kind of a storm as a goobah and some time around midnight, apparently, the storm flipped the airplane over and it sank in probably about eight feet of water. Since it was sea water, the airplane¿s materials began to corrode rather rapidly and it was very clear in the morning that the airplane was a total loss. Now Archbold is faced with the problem of having a rather large group of scientists far away up in the highlands without any good means of continuing to supply them and without any way to fly them out from the other reaches of some of the rivers as he had planned. He¿s able to get word to them by airdropping notes from a airplane that was quickly chartered from another organization, I believe one of the gold mining companies, and is able to explain the tragedy and then the expedition on the ground decides to finish their collection very quickly. They basically turn around at that point and wrap up whatever materials they¿ve already collected and then they build rafts on the banks of the river. Then after they¿ve finished building those with the help of local people who know a little bit about what woods float and which ones don¿t, they are able to work their way down the river. It took a great deal of time, I believe it¿s about six weeks `til they finally were able to work their way down those swift rivers¿
Since you¿ve actually been there, what would it be like to try rafting those rivers back in the 30s with homemade rafts which, of course, you hadn¿t actually been setting out to build or planning on having to¿
Right. And probably the wood lashed together by native vines and maybe not even without nylon ropes or other things you could depend on a little more. These would be, I would say it would be an incredibly exciting whitewater journey, but probably not one that you would expect to come out with all of your limbs intact. I have, in fact, tried innertubing on a couple of rivers in the highlands of New Guinea and found that after just a few minutes, I got so worried about what rock I was going to be into dashed into, that I had to work my way over to the side. And that wasn¿t even a big, swift river, it wasn¿t one of the larger rivers, and in working your way down a river like that, usually an uncharted river, which if they had normally, their way of getting up there may have followed native trails which are sometimes back far from the rivers. They may not have seen much of the river before, and so imagine yourself working your way out of the highlands in a whitewater river on a raft that is something like the raft Huck Finn might have constructed for the much quieter waters of the Mississippi and realizing that around any bend, you might see a waterfall, that the water would suddenly drop out from under you, or there would be unexpected dips or turns in the river, and of course the, always the large boulders that are waiting there to dash the raft to pieces.
Who are the people that they¿re encountering as they work their way down here? Who are the New Guineans?
There are a number of tribes in New Guinea. In fact, on, if you count both east and western parts of New Guinea, there are over 1000 different tribal groups, each of those speaking a distinctively different language and most of which, up until the 1930s, were not well-known to outsiders. The language groups can change so much that within a 5 or 10 mile area you could walk from one group to the next and be in a group that is not really able to understand the language of the group that you just left. Many of those New Guinea people were hunter-gatherers and were what anthropologists refer to as semi-nomadic people where they might not have permanent villages, but would stay for a few months of the year in one place and then move somewhere else for better hunting in another season of the year and then perhaps go back to the original place.
The accounts that I¿ve read make the people there sound quite warlike and hostile. Were people afraid of being killed or even eaten? I mean, there was cannibalism going on.
I think that¿s probably a good reason why so much of New Guinea was left unexplored until the middle part of this century and of course, Archbold¿s people were going into areas that had not been explored before. Part of that was on purpose because that¿s a good place to go and find interesting materials for your scientific study, but there certainly was some danger involved in terms of not knowing who the local people were and what they might try to do to strangers. There¿ve been a couple of interesting books written about those early years, and some of those books have looked at the ways in which the local people now recall having viewed the outsiders. And one of those books by Edward Shefflin that¿s called Like People You See in a Dream talks about the kinds of responses that people had when they were first, they first encountered visitors who either came in strange aircraft which had been seen close up before or who would simply be walking up the trail, wearing clothing and having a skin that was a different color than people you had seen all your life, and so there were a lot of rather amazing encounters between two different groups of people in those years of exploration.
Archbold is down at Port Morsby and when they start making their way down, he starts making his way up, but do you know of any journals or anything that might reflect his thinking at the time? I mean, if he¿s worried about these people or does he regard all this and kind of on him?
He definitely took responsibility for the plight that his people were now in. He of course didn¿t feel that he was responsible for the loss of the airplane, and in this case, it as not through an airplane accident, but it was through a water accident that involved at night when nobody was around the aircraft. But he was very concerned to get all of his people back out alive and in fact, was very clear in his directions to the exploration party that he, that if necessary, they should leave behind some of collections if they were hindering their safe passage back out. That was, some of that was taken care of course by the rough river journey, and at a couple of points, different cases of materials ended up falling aoverboard into the river. But he was very concerned that he get his people back out and the journals, and especially the letters that he wrote back to people at the museum and so on, and we have some of the records of the radio messages that he sent back and forth, either to his expedition in the mountains or also to people in the surrounding areas, show that he was gravely concerned with this particular problem.
So is he, what did he say to tell you that?
A lot of the, some of this actually is by contrast with the later expedition, the third one, which took place in what was then Dutch New Guinea, and when I spoke to Richard¿s sister, Frances Archbold Hufty, last March, she said that Richard would probably say that a good expedition is boring. He said, according to her, that the only expeditions that people really have a lot of stories to tell about are the ones where something goes wrong. So it¿s obvious that his worries in that, especially that second New Guinea expedition, had to do with things going wrong. And of course, they made great stories afterwards. For years afterwards, he would tell his stories when he could be persuaded to do so and very often they would be about that second expedition. As he and his sister as well have said, some of the aspects of the third New Guinea expedition were so well-planned that it was almost boring. Everything went well, the things that they needed were there, there was no loss of life, there was basically smooth going, and again, that doesn¿t always make the best adventure story.
You know, there¿s one aspect of him that I would think would make certainly flying with him an adventure story and that is his narcolepsy. When did that come on?
As far as I know, that was first spotted fairly early. He learned to fly, of course, before that 1933 expedition, but there are some letters in the files in which people are advising him to always have a co-pilot and so someone perhaps back at times when he was driving a car or whatever in what would have been the very early 30s, apparently that was recognized. And as a result, he was careful to employ a pilot that would always also be with him in the airplane, so you will find that on both of those expeditions where he had aircraft, he¿s using Russell Rogers as one of the pilots, and at times, Richard Archbold himself would take the controls, but he always have someone there to take over in the event that he seemed to be nodding off. And people who have flown with him have told me that he seemed to relax right after takeoff and as the airplane would climb to a little bit higher altitude, he would just basically sit back in the seat and you would see him drifting off. Now that certainly didn¿t happen every time that he was flying, but people have told me that it was a little bit scary to realize that your pilot was nodding off as he was flying. And people that have been passengers in cars with him as well have said that that was a problem too.
Tell me about the third expedition and the, you know, you might just for a moment if you would, describe this great valley, you lived in the valley that he discovered. What, here we are looking to this piece on the radio and we¿re trying to say, well, okay, what is it like here when he¿s flying in the mid-1930s? What is this place like?
On the morning of June 23, 1938, Archbold¿s people were doing one the survey flights from their base on the coast, on the north coast of New Guinea in a very nice little harbor there, which was later the site of a buildup during World War II of American troops at Hollandia. And on their way to Lake Habima, which they know is up in the high mountains, some of the mountains in the interior of New Guinea are up around 16,000 feet and they know from an earlier expedition mounted by the Dutch back in 1909 and 1910 that there is a lake there that probably will be large enough for seaplane operations. Archbold had checked things out flying his seaplane to a lake high in the California mountains and had made sure that he could land and take off on Lake Mead. So as he was flying on June 23, his people were looking at New Guinea¿s almost ever-present cloud cover and realized that there were jungled mountains below and suddenly, off to the left of the aircraft, they noted a little opening in the clouds, and realized that they weren¿t looking at that dark blue of the jungle trees, but they were looking at a much lighter green color. As the airplane continued and as the cloud cover dissipated in that area, they realized that they were looking down on a very large grassland valley. Far below them they could see the coffee brown of the winding Balim River. Later they were able to figure out the name of that river from other maps and the results of earlier expeditions. Lining the winding river were the gray-green boughs of cassarina trees, a kind of tree that is sometimes referred to as an Australian pine and which grows in Florida among other tropical places. And as they flew a little lower over this valley, they notices that in some of these groves of cassarina trees, there were the small thatched grass huts of the local people. From the air, these round huts look a little bit like mushrooms. And they are often joined together with a wooden fence that is capped with a little bit of thatched grass on the top, so the whole courtyard of the village is tied in with this fencing. Then one of the most spectacular sites in the valley is the fact that all of the land that can be cultivated is arranged in a series of rather deep drainage ditches. The green of the potato plants, the sweet potato plants, contrasts nicely with the brown of these ditches, some of which are filled with water, which on most mornings when you¿re flying over that area, the water in the ditches will be winking at you far below. And there are of course other areas in the valley that are too wet for cultivation and they¿ll be, there¿s some swampland area. But for Archbold to fly over this area for the first time and realize that he was looking at a rather large concentration of population must have been very exciting to him. He wrote in his National Geographic article of March 1941 that some of the gardens were surrounded by stone fences that reminded him of some of the stone walls in New England and for years, he would tell people whenever he talked about that third expedition, it was often about the experience of looking down for the first time on the Balim Valley and realizing that they¿d found something important here.
Indeed. He had found the last large concentration of people about whom the world knew nothing. Completely unaware that this small civilization existed up there.
That¿s right. Members of earlier expeditions seemed to have run across some people from that same language group, but they called the by different names as they ran into them and asked them, ¿What group are you from?¿ and it was only after the Archbold expedition that people looked back through the records and realizes, ¿Oh, these must have been Doni people that these earlier expeditions were talking to.¿ The Doni group is a very large one, probably in the valley itself, there were probably about 60,000 people at that time. The total number of language speakers of the Doni group is about 150,000. That would include areas that are not in the Grand Valley of the Balim, as Archbold¿s people soon named it, but instead are maybe off in side valleys and so on, and it was certainly pockets of those Donis that the early expeditions ran into.
How large a valley is the Grand Valley?
It is about 40 miles long by 10 miles wide, so it¿s a fairly large area.
And tell me, when you were, you were there as a boy. If you were standing there and looking around, what would you see there? What did it feel like being in that valley?
Being in the valley was always an interesting thing, because for one thing, the way of life there was totally different from what I was used to. I had lived for a bout 5, little more years, in Binghamton, New York. And then one morning in May 1957, looked out the airplane window as we were flown from Hollandia on the coast into the Balim Valley to see this broad grassland valley for the first time. As we landed on the airstrip, we were suddenly surrounded by probably 3 or 400 screaming Doni people, many of whom were brandishing 18-foot hardwood spears, all of which were almost totally naked. The men wear penis gourds and the women wear a very small skirt that is made of woven fiber strings. The women also wear long nets down their backs and so this screaming, chanting group ran to us as soon as the airplane¿s engine had been shut off and stood around the airplane, basically running in place, screaming at us, and it took the local missionary, who we were flying in to stay with for a while a few minutes to get to us and explain that this was a greeting and these people were glad that we were there. That was hard for me to figure out and I am told that the first thing I did was to burst into tears and, in fact, I was probably in a state of shock for the next day or two, because it¿s not everybody who at six years of age is able to get out on an airstrip with a group of people that really only recently been lived among for any period of time. Our mission had arrived there three years earlier in its own seaplane and was beginning to establish different mission stations and the one that we moved to had been established about 9 months before.
Can you sum up Archbold¿s achievements on the third expedition and can you tell my why he never went back into the field after that? He never really led a great expedition like that.
From my view, the, probably the largest contribution of Archbold¿s expedition besides the collection of those materials, of those, the discovery of a number of new species, the development of a exhibition of bird life in New Guinea that¿s still viewable at the American Museum of Natural History, But besides that, I think some of the most important contributions have to do with some of the standards that he set for exploration in New Guinea, especially for later anthropological expeditions, which ever afterward used their own aircraft, were very carefully developed and planned, and went about their work in the same attention to meticulous detail that Archbold¿s people did. Another thing that I think is very useful to notice is that unlike many other areas of the world, where when a pocket of civilization is discovered, one of the first things that is done is to build roads into it and then the outside world rushes in. Because of Archbold¿s example, aircraft were used and in fact, continue to be used. Even to this day, there is no road connecting the northern coastal regions or the southern coastal regions for that matter with the Balim Valley. The town that was established in the center of the valley called Wamana is said to be the largest town in the world that is supplied totally by air. There are probably 14,000 people that live in Wamana and its environs.
Is this in Irian Jaya?
Yes, it is. And Irian Jaya is the new name for West New Guinea. It is one of the 17 provinces of the Republic of Indonesia and when Indonesia came to West New Guinea in 1962 through a series of agreements mandated by the UN in which the Dutch left and the Indonesians came in, the Indonesians then developed, continued to develop some of the infrastructure that the Dutch had been working on. One of that, one of those was the large airstrip at Wamana which continues to be the main link between the Balim Valley and the outside world. A road was started, probably 10 years ago, but continues to be bogged down by jungle mud and by bureaucratic bungling and certainly also by some of the mechanical difficulties of building bridges over very large areas of swampland, especially in the Eidenberg River Basin, there are large areas that are going to be difficult to bridge. Eventually, of course, a road will be built and then the outside world will be freer to come in there than it already is and certainly there¿s been a lot of social change and a lot of different things that have happened over the years, but so far, it¿s been 60 years now since Archbold first found that area as a member of the outside world and still there is no road and no easy access for people to get there.
And the question about what happened the Archbold, why he never head off on another great expedition.
In wrapping up his expedition in 1939, Archbold put a lot of planning into continuing to improve his scientific base of Hollandia. He built a number of buildings there, he exteded a sleeping quarters, and actually had a rather large building there to be used as a dormitory for scientists, and continued to stockpile supplies there with the plan that in 1940, he would return to New Guinea and continue his exploration in the highland areas, but also, as he put it, begin a ¿around the island¿ survey where he would do a number of different explorations within that area. It would have easily been 30 or 40 years of scientific work. He intended to establish something like a biological research station at Hollandia. Unfortunately for Archbold¿s plans, the Second World War intervened. In 1940, Holland had been occupied, was occupied by the Germans, and the Dutch contingent of any of the plans that Archbold had, of course, was paralyzed at that point. It was sometime about that time that Archbold realized that he was not going to be coming back in 1940 and decided to give his materials in Hollandia to the Dutch government and so he deeded the land back to them. He also deeded all of the buildings on that land and gave it to them, suggesting it be used for scientific research but realizing it might be used for government offices or other buildings. And of course, at that point, for a number of years then, there were a lot of, lot of barriers to anyone really getting back into that area and in 1944, when General Macarthur was able to come ashore and to drive the Japanese out of that particularly strategic area was really the first time for 4 or 5 years that any Americans had been there. Archbold, it seems, was worried about some of his medical problems, and I haven¿t been able to figure out if it only the narcolepsy or if there might have been other things that he was concerned about, and often talked about the fact that he would probably never get to go back to New Guinea again. He was given a large estate in Florida. The Robling family, the grandson of the builder of the Brooklyn Bridge, had a large estate which they called Red Hill near Lake Placid, Florida, and apparently had tried to sell that property to a few people and found that there weren¿t any takers and ended up donating the property to Archbold for use as a scientific station. That station still exists, it¿s the Archbold Biological Station, and is a center for scientific research in that area of Central Florida and in fact is regarded worldwide as a very important research center. Archbold, with a brief stint out in Arizona where he was developing a ranch that he thought might become his future biological station, basically lived the rest of his life at the base in Lake Placid, Florida. He seemed very happy to work there with other scientists and to supervise their collection of local species and their studies of some of the local flora and fauna and seemed quite content to be there to develop the work that was going on there. Meanwhile, he was funding and supervising expeditions that returned to New Guinea, and the last one that was working in New Guinea was the ninth expedition, I think it¿s called the ninth New Guinea expedition, and I¿m not sure about this, so we can check that, I believe the last New Guinea expedition took place around 1964. So in those six further expeditions, he sent biologists, including botanists, ornithologists, and herpetologists, and others to study different areas of New Guinea.