I said good-bye to Vidgen the pearl merchant with regret, and left Thursday Island soon after noon to cross the Torres
Straits. My first water hop was to Deliverance Island, 50 miles. The seaplane was awkward to trim which I think was because I had loaded her nose-heavy, filling the front petrol tank full, and leaving the rear tank empty. I thought that she might take off better with the weight forward, and I believe she did, but in the air she was so nose-heavy that I had to use three fingers to keep the control-stick back while I held the log-book between my finger and thumb. Deliverance Island was an atoll with smooth water inside the ring, and it was soon passed. I flew on, and rather suddenly realised that there was land below me; I had seen it for some time, but thought it a cloud shadow. Soon I was flying along a broad, shallow, muddy shore and I shall never forget the fantastic sight below. Hundreds of crocodiles basking in the shallows went crazy with fear as I flew over, and sheets of liquid mud flew wide into the air to right and left as they lashed their tails with great writhing strokes until they reached deep water. Some of them by my float shadow were 15 feet long. I always thought that crocodiles lived in fresh water, but this must have been a sort of crocodiles’ Brighton beach. Flying over one little sandy cove I saw a sailing boat drawn up on the beach, which looked like the stolen lugger. It would have been the perfect hide-out if a small seaplane had not happened to be flying through that part of the world. I reported it, and it turned out that it was the stolen lugger, and a police patrol recovered it as a result of my report.
Australia Time Zone Map Photo Gallery
Merauke was a tightly packed settlement in a space cleared from dense tropical growth. The river flowed in front of it, wide, smooth and muddy. Studying the layout as I flew overhead, I could see natives pouring on to the jetty and river bank, some white figures embarking in a launch, and I presently picked out the bright tricolour of the Dutch flag nodding from a drum buoy. I came down, and I think that there must have been 2,000 Papuans on the jetty and river bank. All the white men of the settlement were there too; three missionaries with long beards straggling to their waists, who seemed glad to see a stranger although none could speak English or French; the gesaghebber, or Dutch official, and the doctor, who could speak a little English. It was an exotic place, packed tight with flimsy wooden or bamboo structures crowding narrow streets. There were one or two Chinese stores, surprisingly well stocked. I bought some petrol from one in unbranded tins, but I could not get any suitable oil, and was glad that I had brought a spare gallon tin with me. I had no map or chart for the next 1,000 miles of my route, expecting to have been able to get one at Merauke. But there was no map to be had. I should have been badly placed if the gesaghebber (doctor) had not generously given me his own map.
I was taken to the stone guesthouse where I stayed the night alone. I tried to ask about buying food, but our language was not equal to it, and presently a meal arrived, which I think the gesaghebber had sent, though I was never able to find out. The guesthouse was in front of a prison guarded by four native sentries who each sounded a bell one after the other at every quarter-hour. Judging by the effect on me I should think it was an excellent way of keeping them from sleeping at their posts. On my way to the jetty next morning I met the prisoners going off to work on the roads. The Dutch official drew my attention to two husky prisoners with beaming faces laughing away and chattering rapidly at each other as they padded along the road. They looked ideal husbands. They were hill men who had formed a habit of coming down to the town periodically, selecting a fat town boy and treating him to a meal of drugged sago before they dragged him back to the hills where they cooked and ate him. The Dutch thought that it was not right to execute them for doing what they had been brought up to believe was the right thing, and so set them to road making for a few years, which they liked, the Dutch official said, because it gave them regular food without the trouble of finding it. (It must be remembered that all this was thirty years ago).
Time after time I tried to get off the glassy surface of the river in the hot sticky air, and when at last I managed it, it felt like flying a mud-clogged old wheelbarrow with wings. Before I left that sea of tufted palm-tops I was sick to death of them, and my clothes were soaking wet.