Nondugl—Birds of Paradise and interesting visitors: Gordon Dick

John Browne’s account of his period at Nondugl in the mid-1950s (Una Voce. June 2013) aroused memories of the three years my wife and I spent there ten years later. John indicated the difficulties being encountered with the Livestock Project. When I went there—as the last expatriate “didiman”—failure had been admitted: the cattle and sheep were gone and the facilities had been stripped. The main house was unfurnished, uncared for and was being used as a truck stop. But just nearby were the extensive aviaries, gardens and large ponds still meticulously cared for by Fred Shaw Mayer and his loyal local workers.

My instructions were to check the “alienated areas”: repair fences, relocate survey markers, draw up inventories of machinery and equipment, and to prepare for subdividing the area to return it to its original owners for development as model cash-cropping farms. Sir Edward Hallstrom, who had nominally provided half the funding, was a much more available source than the Australian Administration had been. His accountants apparently wanted some reckoning and some exasperated messages were sent from our end.

About twelve hectares of the property were allocated to the Hallstrom wildlife activities. Besides the aviaries, ponds, ornamental gardens and some housing, this included an area of mature coffee plantings which were being harvested. An area for a school was also provided for.

Tom Ellis, as District Commissioner, Mt Hagen, had a soft spot for Nondugl—the easternmost portion of the western highlands—and visited fairly frequently. He left me to my own devices as I ripped up the cattle yards, re-fenced the house block (reducing it to about 1000 m2) and established tea nurseries. He did express the fear that “more spears will be used than spades” when reallocation of the land was attempted: a warning I took seriously throughout. But by the time the blocks were surveyed the original ownership groups knew who had owned which areas and who would represent them as the designated owner when land titles were granted.

Birds of Paradise: When I first visited Nondugl (in 1960, a short drive from my posting at Kerowagi) there was a young Red Bird of Paradise (Raggiana sp.) receiving a lot of care and shown off with a lot of pride by Fred Shaw Mayer, Hallstrom’s man in charge. We watched that bird develop and it became so used to visitors that it would dance and display when an audience arrived. It was one of Bill Peckover’s wonderful photos of this bird that my brother, Gerry, used on the cover of the initial Air New Guinea in-flight magazine, Paradise, and again on the book, The Best of Paradise.

Nondugl’s agricultural modelling was at an end by the time of independence. The land was back with the people. A new facility for Birds of Paradise and zoological studies was established at Baiyer River. The expatriate staff, including Fred Shaw Mayer, was gone.

In 2012, David Attenborough and Errol Fuller published their quirky but fascinating volume Drawn From Paradise: The Discovery, Art and Natural History of the Birds of Paradise. It recounts the various explorers and collectors as well as the European financiers, scholars and artists who dealt with the material reaching Europe. Besides reproductions of many studies of the birds, there are photos and brief summaries of about 40 persons. They include Nep Blood (who built the facilities at Nondugl), Bill Cooper (who did the paintings for the magnificent Birds of Paradise and Bower Birds by Cooper and Forshaw, 1977), Errol Flynn and Fred Shaw Mayer. The authors noted that when Fred finally entered a retirement home two aviaries were built in the grounds so that he could continue looking after his birds. He died in 1989.  

Visitors: The beauty of the valley and the chance to see many of the thirty or so species of Birds of Paradise meant Nondugl was a worldwide magnet for visitors. Sir Edward often invited Directors of overseas zoos, and others, to visit Nondugl. On occasion, as many as ten at once came, following a conference in Sydney. In addition, Australian politicians visited as did university people and others from other walks of life.

Among our memorable visitors were Lord Mountbatten and his daughter, Lady Pamela. Many expatriates from the Wahgi and Mt Hagen also attended on that occasion. I remember introducing station staff to Lord Mountbatten. One of Hallstrom’s employees at the time was a man named Bert Bjorkegren. As I introduced Bert, I observed that he was from Sweden.

“Ah,” said Lord Mountbatten, “From Sweden? My sister is your Queen.”

A much less ostentatious visit was that of Sir McFarlane Burnett. Ian Burnett, Sir McFarlane’s son, was a patrol officer at the time, and we were friends. My wife was in Goroka for medical reasons and I was batching. Sir McFarlane stayed with me for a few days spending a lot of time with Fred Shaw Mayer, but also attended a ceremony at the nearby village. He asked many questions on a wide range of subjects. At the village ceremony, a speechmaker rejected the ceremonial axe customarily carried while speaking, choosing instead to carry a claw hammer. He explained that the axe was for fighting and destroying, but the hammer was for building. This was the only time I ever saw this done.

A few days after his Nondugl visit, Sir McFarlane was “guest of honour” for the ABC on its Sunday evening program. He devoted much of his talk to Nondugl, and told the story of the village chief forsaking the traditional axe for a hammer. When I took the radio ‘sched’ next morning, the first incoming call was from Port Moresby. It was unsigned and simply said “Who is your press agent?”

The third visitor I would like to mention was Larry Burrows, renowned photographer from Time-Life Inc. He was sent to the New Guinea Highlands for a break from Vietnam, from where he had recently filed a cover-winning story for Life Magazine (“Brave soldiers but lousy tactics”). Larry was delightful company. He stayed about a month and produced wonderful photos of the birds. But he returned to Vietnam and was lost a short time later when the helicopter in which he was travelling was shot down.

These are precious memories and we thank John Browne for reviving them.


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