CHAPTER 11. Our Discovery of Flat-Footed Lake Dwellers.
Rumours at Cape Nelson of a "Duckfooted" People in the Interior - Conflicting Opinions - Views of a Confirmed Sceptic - Start of the Expedition - Magnificence of the Vegetation - Friendliness of the Barugas - The "Orakaibas" (Criers of "Peace") - Tree-huts eighty feet from the ground-Loveliness of this part of the Jungle - Description of its Plants - A Dry Season - First Glimpse of Agai Ambu Huts - Remarkable Scene on the Lake - Flight of the Agai Ambu in Canoes - Success at Last - A Voluntary Surrender - The Agai Ambu Flat-footed, not Web-footed - Sir Francis Winter's subsequent Visit and fuller Description of these People - Their Physical Appearance, Houses, Canoes, Food, Speech and Customs - My Account Resumed - Making Friends with the Agai Ambu - A Country of Swamps - Second Agai Ambu Village - Extraordinary Abundance and Variety of Water-fowl - Strange Behaviour of an Agai Ambu Women - Disposal of the Dead in Mid-lake Food of the Agai Ambu - Their Method of Catching Ducks by Diving for them - An Odd Experience - Mosquitos and Fever - Last View of Agai Ambu - An Amusing FINALE.
Many were the wild and fantastic rumours we had heard at the Residency at Cape Nelson, on the north-east coast of British New Guinea, concerning a curious tribe of natives whose feet were reported to be webbed like those of a duck, and who lived in a swamp a short way in the interior, some distance to the north of us. I myself had at first been inclined to sneer at these reports, but Monckton, the Resident Magistrate, with his superior knowledge of the Papuans, as the natives of New Guinea are called, was sure that there was some truth in the reports, as the Papuan who has not come much in contact with the white man is singularly truthful though guilty of exaggeration.
I knew this, but I had in mind the case of the Doriri tribe, who lived in the interior a little to the south of us. These Doriri (who had had the kindly forethought to send us word that they were coming down to pay us a visit to eat us, for the Papuan, though a savage, is often most suave and courteous and by no means lacking in humour), were reported to us as having many tails, but needless to say when we made some prisoners, we were scarcely disappointed to find that the said tails protruded from the back of the head (in much the same fashion as the Chinaman's pigtail); in this case each man had many tails, which were fashioned by rolling layers of bark from a certain tree - closely allied, I believe to the "paper tree" of Australia - round long strands of hair.
We three white men had many a long talk as to whether these swamp-dwellers were worth going in search of, but I soon came round to Monckton's way of thinking. Acland, alone, however, maintained to the last that the whole thing was a myth, and jokingly said to Monckton: "When you find these duck-footed people, you had better see that Walker does not take them for birds, and shoot and skin a couple of specimens of each sex and add them to his collection." (For my chief hobby in this and many other countries all over the world consisted in adding to my fine collections of birds and butterflies in the old country.)
As we three, with our twenty-five native police and four servant boys, rowed up the Barigi River in our large government whaleboat, on our way to search for these "duck-footed" people, I could not help being struck with the very great beauty of the scene. Giant trees laden with their burden of orchids, parasites and dangling lianas, surrounded us on both sides, their wide-spreading branches forming a leafy arcade far over our heads, while palms in infinite variety, intermixed with all sorts of tropical forms of vegetation, and rare ferns, grew thickly on the banks.
Some distance behind us came our large fleet of canoes, bearing our bags of rice and over one hundred carriers, and as they paddled down the dark green oily waters of this natural arcade, with much shouting and the splashing of many paddles, it made a scene which is with me yet and is never to be forgotten. As we proceeded, the river got more narrow, and fallen trees from time to time obstructed our way. We at length landed at a spot where we were met by a large number of the Baruga tribe, who brought us several live pigs tied to poles, and great quantities of sago, plantains and yams. They had expected us, as we had camped in their country the previous night. They had been "licked" into friendliness by Monckton, who less than a year ago (as elsewhere mentioned) had sunk their canoes, and together with the aid of the crocodiles, which swarm in this river, had annihilated a large force of them. And now to show their friendliness they were prepared to do us a good turn, by helping us to find these duck-footed people, with whom (they told us) they were well acquainted.
Oyogoba, the chief of the Baruga tribe, came to meet us. He assured us of the friendliness of his people, and himself offered to accompany us. His arm had been broken in the encounter with Monckton and his police, and Monckton had immediately afterwards set it himself. It now seemed quite sound.
We soon resumed our journey, on foot, passing through very varied country, plains covered with tall grass and bounded by forest, through which at times we passed. At other times we had to force our way through thick swamps in which the sago-palm abounded, from the trunks of which the natives extract sago in great quantities.
About mid-day we arrived at a fair-sized village belonging to the Baruga tribe. It was surrounded by a tall stockade of poles, and as we entered it, the women sitting in their huts greeted us with their incessant cries of "orakaiba, orakaiba" (peace). On this account the natives of this part of New Guinea are generally termed "Orakaibas" by other tribes.