Excerpt from “Throwim Way Leg” by Tim Flannery ~~Swallet~~

The flight from Wamena to Kwiyawagi is unforgettable. As the aircraft climbs slowly to the west, mountains rise sharply from the valleys, their upper slopes clothed in beech forest of the darkest green, while their summits stand out above the vegetation as pointy limestone peaks and spires. Below, the Baliem River rushes through yellow grassland, past hundreds of settlements and gardens. There is something very ‘Irian’ about the view with its round houses and limestone topography. I could never mistake it for somewhere in Papua New Guinea.
Soon the aircraft enters a narrow valley where the river becomes a foaming torrent. At the head of the valley stands an abrupt limestone wall. It was astonishing to see that huge river we had been following was issuing from a fissure at the base of this cliff.
Our aircraft struggled to gain elevation to clear the 3,000 metre-high limestone crest above the fissure. It did so with the barest of margins, and we swooped over tree-tops and spires of jagged, grey limestone karst which seemed to be just a few metres below us.
The conical limestone towers and dark trees soon dropped away abruptly at yet another steep cliff-face. Beyond it lay a glorious, undulating valley, stretching away to the east and west. This great, isolated valley is a gentle and fertile land dotted with hamlets. Two vast rivers cut their way through it. Even though the rivers are at nearly 3,000 metres of elevation, they are lazy, meandering and muddy, resembling the type more often seen at sea-level than at such altitudes.
These are the East and West Baliem rivers. They converge just a few kilometres from the base of the cliff we had just passed. Looking back, I saw one of the most extraordinary natural features ever encountered in a lifetime of travel – the Baliem swallet – a vast hole in the earth which lies at the cliff’s base. Into it disappears the entire combined flow of the East and West Baliem rivers. To see such an enormous volume of water disappear from the face of the earth, as if it was entering some great plug-hole, is awesome. The water swirls furiously sending up great spurts of spray as the river and all it carries enter an underground cavern. It exits on the other side of the range, at the great spring we had flown over.
The swallet is made all the more striking by evidence that this sink-hole occasionally clogs up. Around it, in ever wider concentric rings are ridges which mark the shorelines of old lakes. These form whenever debris, such as trees, boulders, and mud, temporarily clogs the entrance. The water forms ponds until the blockage is breached. Then the lake is emptied by a vast, sucking whirlpool in what must surely be one of nature’s great spectacles.

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1 Comment

Filed under Literature, Non-Fiction

One response to “Excerpt from “Throwim Way Leg” by Tim Flannery ~~Swallet~~

  1. Tim Flannery was born in Melbourne, Australia on 28 January 1956. He is a renowned environmentalist and former Australian of the year (2007). He has made several trips to the New Guinea island and ‘Throwim Way Leg’ recounts some of these adventures. It was published in 1998.

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