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I Come From the Stone Age

I Come From The Stone Age, by Heinrich Harrer. Translated from German by Edward Fitzgerald. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1965. 256 pages, 38 pictures, 18 in color, 5 maps—sketch. Price: $6.95. Harrer is an illustration in the best tradition of man overcoming a hostile environment and physical infirmities to win through to a successful conclusion of his goals, in this case, three remarkable explorations on the island of New Guinea beginning in January, 1962. The title might discourage a mountaineer; however, the perpetual snow-capped summits are indeed there, and Mr. Harrer writes about them with a keen insight into the philosophy of mountaineering. He poses the question: How much self-confidence is desirable? You can’t get started without it, yet self-confidence plus experience can lead to dangerous situations beyond one’s control. Eventually are separated the "many people might like to, and some people might want to. But very few people would dare to.” And the attaining of one objective is but a stage on the way to the next.

The book is divided into three sections: 1) "The Equatorial Ice,” 2) "The Source of the Stone Axes,” and 3) "Baliem Gorge.” The story is told in diary form, which has some drawbacks, yet I found the lengthy, daily entries move forward with the vigor of immediacy combined with acute observation. Mr. Harrer is at his best in describing the curious customs of the Danis, the mountain Papuans, of the island. To name a few: they cure muscle cramps by rubbing the area with nettles; when angered they remove fingers (not thumbs); the preparation and consumption of Dani salt, which involves a great deal of saliva; when excited the males drum with their fingers on their gourd penis sheaths; they pierce the nose lobe—and a proud native strolls by with a discarded flashlight battery attached to this location.

The mountains were reached after a six days’ trek with 115 porters through wet jungles. The party climbed every peak, thirty-one in all (only one a second ascent), including 16,600-foot Mount Carstensz. The author was "most impressed by endless loneliness and the tremendous silence,” and the amazing retreat of the ice in the area. He has indeed good reason to be proud of the achievements. I was greatly disappointed with the pictures (or lack of them) of these "most beautiful mountains.” Getting the Dani porters to remove their sheaths so that they might don high altitude clothing proved hilarious, as did their efforts to return to the villages with snow, which they had never seen.

On the approach march to the stone quarry, Mr. Harrer all but came to an end with a slip and plummet down a waterfall. Head, back, and leg injuries required evacuation by stretcher. His successful fight to remain conscious through all the pain is an epic in fortitude. The natives won the argument as to the type of stretcher to be used, and he was carried out trussed up like a pig. After a period of recuperation, with an injured leg, Mr. Harrer attained his objective, the stone quarry. It was wondrous for a civilized man to view, perhaps for the last time, primitive men practicing their ancient craft of quarrying the stone for the axes from the river bank and fashioning the rough finish. Mr. Harrer very helpfully participated.

With his game leg, Harrer undertook the third part of his explorations; the traverse of the Baliem Gorge from North to South with Gerard van der Wegen, a geologist. The trek was planned for twenty-one days (they took four more) at a time when they might have emerged on the coast in the midst of an Indonesian invasion. An escape to Australia by boat was a part of the planning. The gruelling grind included tribal war scares, no tracks, camouflaged craters, wild rivers, hunger and the inevitable New Guinea deluge. With a break-through to the plains a raft is built and launched only to run afoul of a sweeper. The rendezvous with the anticipated Dutch patrol launch was finally made. The rest is anticlimactic except for Mr. Harrer’s astute observations on the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller, lost while swimming to shore for help in this same area of Agats. Perhaps the most amazing part of Mr. Harrer’s personal odyssey is the epilogue. Chance plays an inevitable role.

Fritz Lippmann