Nondugl Hallstrom livestock station: John Browne

My encounter with TPNG began in 1955 when I was studying Agricultural Science in Perth at the University of WA. After two years as a student, finances were at low ebb and it was suggested I apply for a cadetship with the Dept of Territories. I did this and was accepted, and for the first time in my life I was on a rather handsome living allowance (compared to most of my fellow students anyway: I was the one who could afford to run a car, even if it was only small, second hand and cheap). The agriculture course took four years, so at the end of 1956 I was due to take up duties with DASF in PNG. However my uni results were good enough to catch the eye of someone there and I was invited to remain to do an Honours year, majoring in Animal Nutrition. I duly got in touch with Canberra asking if they could extend my cadetship for a further year. They said they would be in touch, but in the meantime I should proceed to Port Moresby to become familiar with the place and system.

In December 1956, after a long and bumpy DC4 flight from Sydney, I was met by Barry Osborne, then Animal Husbandry Officer (and to be my future boss), and introduced to Jim Marley, the Chief of Animal Industry (within DASF). Both thought the idea of me returning to complete my postgraduate Honours degree was just what they needed as there was a complete absence of animal nutrition experience at that time. Jim said he would follow it up with Canberra. So for the next three months I was able to explore the places where Animal Industry operated: Lae/Erap, Kerevat, Madang, Goroka, Kila and the 8-Mile (just off the western end of Jacksons Airport). I don’t know why I didn’t get to Nondugl or Baiyer River, but I just went to where I was sent.

At one stage while in Konedobu I remember being summoned to the office of Larry Dwyer who was Director of DASF at the time and a long time Territorian and extremely well liked and respected. There were deaths occurring in cattle at Bisianumu probably due to poisoning from a plant. He felt that it would be a good introduction for me to the local herbage to investigate this. I duly met up with Mac Jamieson the local stock inspector (who was to become a life-long friend) and we spent a couple of days wandering through the area gathering likely plants: then back to Konedobu where Larry spent time with me identifying the collection. By the way, Larry Dwyer retired about a year later, so I guess that Frank Henderson, who succeeded him, was just filling in when Robert Harrison arrived in 1954.

I was due back at university in March, but by the end of February Canberra had still not responded to Jim Marley’s promptings. So he decided, presumably with the blessing of Larry Dwyer, that it was OK and I was issued with a travel warrant to travel back to Perth. However there were no seats on aircraft available for about a month. I now had a room at the 8-Mile Station where Barry Osborne had a house. Each morning when the southern plane came in he would run me down to the air terminal in the hope of a cancellation or no-show. This went on for about a week until I was successful. I had a pleasant trip to Sydney seated next to Paul Hasluck, Minister for Territories at the time, and a fellow Western Australian. The DC4 had been replaced by the much more comfortable Super Constellation aircraft during the 3 months since my arrival.

Fast forward 10 months, and I had successfully completed my postgraduate year at the University of WA and was back in Port Moresby in January 1958. Things had changed! Both Jim Marley and Barry Osborne had departed abruptly, and Jim Anderson, a vet who had only been in PNG for about 3 years after graduation, had been moved into the job of (acting) Chief of Animal Industry. He was fairly obviously snowed under, and promptly dispatched me to Nondugl with the instruction to sort out why the sheep there were not doing well.

I was met at Nondugl by Frank Ballagh and his wife Val. He was caretaker of the station while Frank Pemble-Smith (the manager) and his family were on leave. Ballagh obviously had little experience with livestock while Pemble-Smith was very experienced and already had several years running the place after taking over from Ned Blood, who set the place up in about 1950. Officially the station was known as the Hallstrom Livestock Station, set up at the instigation of Sir Edward Hallstrom who contributed capital and organised the sheep to stock the place. Theoretically it was run by the Hallstrom Livestock Trust, but in practice it was part of the Animal Industry Division of the DASF. Barry Osborne was the first secretary of the Trust and was influential in the establishment of the place. Robert Harrison commented that he was manager for a time, but this was only while Pemble-Smith was on leave (Osborne was in fact Pemble-Smith’s boss). I spent the first month or two familiarizing myself with the place and what was going on there, until the return of the Pemble-Smiths when it was time to start putting all the professional knowledge I had supposedly accumulated over the previous five years into practice. It was then I started to realize that I was on my own, without colleagues to discuss problems and ideas. Fortunately I discovered that the local Stock Inspector, Artu Hantsoo (don’t know if that spelling is correct), based at Banz, was in fact a well-credentialed professional with a Veterinary Science degree from an Estonian university. His qualifications were not recognized in Australia (and presumably he felt it was too late to re-qualify: he was in his 60s) so he opted for a quiet life in a government job in a fairly idyllic location with few livestock to keep him busy. He took an interest in me and was able to help me put a lot of my theoretical knowledge to practical use.

By the time I arrived at Nondugl, Minj was the administrative centre for the eastern end of the Wahgi valley. It had a population of about 20 Australians, plus surrounding coffee growers. Banz was a bit closer and on the same side of the river as Nondugl, but the suspension bridge (mentioned by Robert Harrison) meant that it was neglected because of the good airstrip at Minj which was also becoming the social centre for the area. There was usually some sort of gathering there every week-end with coffee planters from both sides of the river as well as the local admin and business people: a happy and close community in an isolated situation.

Back at Nondugl I took on the job of the daily radio contact with Mt Hagen to get telegrams and other messages from the outside world, and with the Weather Bureau and Dept of Civil Aviation to provide weather and airstrip reports, for both of which I was totally untrained. I read all the instructions and just hoped I had it right. I was never queried on a weather report: the weather was pretty much the same every day, with sunny days followed by an inch or so of rain each evening. I was very much aware that the Nondugl airstrip, a long piece of grassed area which was mowed occasionally, was adequate but not the best in the world particularly for larger aircraft such as the usual DC3 or the 3 engined Junkers of Gibbes Sepik Airways, so I made sure that I inspected the area every day by driving along the length of it either in the Land Rover or on motorbike. Sometimes it got pretty sloppy so I would recommend closure. I was guided by the comments of the aircraft pilots on this. After I had been there a year or so I was meeting the weekly DC3 service when a pilot I knew asked me about the length of the strip. He felt it was always a bit of a problem getting off with a full load, and sometimes landing when it was a bit greasy. I only knew what I had been told but promised to measure it which I did with the result that the length was quite a bit shorter than that shown in the DCA manual. I inadvertently had the Nondugl strip closed to DC3 aircraft!

Life was good at Nondugl. I was living in a one-room house about a mile from the main homestead area. It was a woven bamboo walled/thatched roof cottage but very comfortable. There was a good tennis court in the main home area and Frank Pemble-Smith was a keen player so we used the court several times a week after work. Evenings were spent reading or trying to get a signal on my Phillips shortwave radio. I had a kelpie dog for company, bequeathed to me by Barry Osborne. The zoo (actually a holding area for native birds and animals which might be exported, mainly to Taronga Zoo in Sydney) attracted regular tourists and other interested people who mainly flew in from Goroka. The arrangement was the plane, usually a Cessna from TAL, would buzz the house and whoever was around would go to the airstrip and take the tourists to the sanctuary. I met many interesting people this way. It was perhaps the only opportunity in the world to see an assortment of birds of paradise (and other PNG creatures) close up. Fred Shaw-Mayer, who was ‘old’ at that time, had personally built and oversaw the sanctuary. He was perhaps the world expert on birds of paradise and other New Guinea fauna, and had been working in the country since the 1930s. He was a real gentleman, and could recount his time working with Errol Flynn pre-war.

Robert Harrison also mentioned Father Dunne, an American who ran the Catholic Mission: a real character. Sir Edward Hallstrom would visit from Sydney at least once a year to spend a few days on the place. He was easy to get on with and asked a lot of questions. If there was a problem which was taking a bit of fixing with Port Moresby, a word in his ear seemed to get results. And he willingly provided me with an excellent reference when I eventually left PNG.

The focus of my work there was the sheep. But despite the best intentions the climate was really the limiting factor. The Romney Marsh breed was hardy and could handle the wet conditions, but the native vegetation was not conducive to a healthy animal, being too coarse and quick growing for the animals to handle. Careful management, such as mowing to keep pastures short and a bit of supplementation, as well as strict parasite control could result in healthy animals. But the intention had been to introduce sheep to the locals with the aim of a cottage industry in wool growing and weaving. There didn’t seem to be any way that could be reasonably simply achieved, at that time anyway. And the occasional reduction in numbers of the flock seemed to indicate that the locals had discovered that mutton was just as tasty as pork without the hang-ups of a ritual killing involved (I don’t think we ever actually proved that there was anything other than an occasional opportunistic theft happening). On the other hand, cattle did well in the area. There were a few milking cows and milk was supplied to Minj daily: a can containing a few gallons was transported by donkey to the Wahgi River and sent across by a ‘flying fox’ arrangement from where it was retrieved and carried on to Minj.

I went on leave after the usual 21 months (with probably very little to show for my endeavours) and on my return was posted to Head Office at Konedobu where I shared an office with Mac Jamieson. Among my duties there was Secretary of the Hallstrom Livestock Trust (maintaining my interest in Nondugl). An interesting sideline was that Animal Industry acted as collection point for snakes which were used for the collection of venom used by the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories for the production of anti-venin. To this end a local would occasionally turn up on the path outside the office clutching a sack and uttering the feared words “sinake masta”. I (or preferably someone else) had to then get him to open the bag and then very quickly identify and estimate the size of the creature. It’s amazing how quickly this can be done when it is known there is probably an extremely venomous, and presumably angry, Taipan or Papuan Black at the bottom of the bag. (The collector was paid by the type of snake and its length—I think it was about 10/- a foot.)

After a year in Port Moresby, in spite of the great social life there, I decided that a career of paperwork was not for me so I resigned and went south early in 1961, ending a particularly happy and rewarding part of my life. I still have many friends from that exciting time.

 

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