An Epic Journey of Discovery

Happy Australia Day!

On March 7th, 1979, a week before I turned 14, I heard at school and on the news that a famous explorer named Michael James (Mich) Leahy had died. This man took an epic journey into the undiscovered, and untamed central highlands of British New Guinea in 1930s. I was in year nine at Busu High School, Lae, Papua New Guinea. During that time, I had been searching for my father and I already knew I was a child of the Leahy family. None of the information about the Leahys including those of the famous explorer were told to me. I was a very inquisitive child with many resources available and many people I could ask. However, only very few of my mother’s family members were responsive. At an early age, I knew that in order to find my father, I had to get my own information and do my own research. I became anxious as I grew older and was faced with the charges of other cruel children. They would constantly question who I was, my life, my father, my colour, and why I was ‘different’. Up until that point, all the information to do with my heritage was bundled into one big secret, kept by my mother. To get the information, I conducted a secret investigation of my own.

And, that was how I knew, the famous explorer who died was my father’s father. On that day, reading the news, I knew I would never meet my grandfather. It was a moment of surrealism, one I could not share with anyone. It felt strange to be paralysed by the thought of losing something great, that I never had. I did not speak about the death with anyone. As days went by, my fears were suppressed by my curiosity. Wherever I went and whoever I spoke to, I continued my research for every information I could get about my father. (Read more when I publish my memoir.)

fig19 Mich Leahy
Mich Leahy

My final Australian story tonight is about Australian Michael Leahy, the first white man to enter the central highlands of Papua New Guinea with his three brothers. This is a long story, however, this post will be brief, and I will give you as many links as I can for you to read more about Mick Leahy.

Born in Toowoomba on February 26, 1901, fourth child of nine to Daniel and Ellen Leahy, an Irish migrant family, Mick completed his education at Christian Brothers College, Toowoomba. His first job was as a railway clerk, but, his entrepreneurial spirit drove him to leave and become a freelance wood-cutter. When the news of the gold rush in Eddie Creek, New Guinea, in 1926 reached him, Mick was driving a lorry. He had stopped the truck and the story was that, he jumped on the first ship to Port Moresby. His three brothers, Paddy, James and Dan joined him later. His brother Tom remained in Toowoomba.

In the same year Mich was born, June of 1926 the Permanent Mandates of the League of nation met in Geneva to discuss Australia’s takeover of New Guinea. It was noted that the total area of New Guinea was 16,000 square miles. This was only one sixth of the actual total area and the reason being, the rest of New Guinea was unexplored and unknown.

Mich started his gold prospecting; mostly down along the Bulolo and near and around areas close to the Eddie Creek. During his prospecting years in New Guinea, Mich became ill with Malaria and nearly lost his life. He took a construction job and stayed out of the bush until 1930.

Michael_Lahey_Mt_Hagen_expedition Mich with his back to the camera is making a movie of the plane Canberra being prepared for surveying expedition into the highlands. Ken and Irish Spinks collection at National Library of Australia photos.

He returned with Mick Dwyer and walked across parts of interior New Guinea. Their main aim was to prospect for gold. However, as they approached some parts of the interior, they discovered that they were the first white men to be seen by the natives of the area. The natives of the interior could not communicate readily and many reacted as if the Mich and Dywer were ghosts or spirits. They had brought workmen from the coast, and some could speak and translate in pidgin. Mich and Dwyer had  been warned the inland area was unpopulated with no Australian government administration and it was very dangerous. They were told that they could lose their lives. This did not deter Mich’s passion for prospecting and his inquisitiveness to see inland New Guinea. Mich had not wanted to take his brother Dan, the youngest, because he felt, Dan was not ready. Both Mich and Dywer kept personal diaries, notes, and they took photographs of their expedition. In the first part of the Epic journey, Mich and Dywer crossed the Purari/Gulf of Papua which began his taste to return and walk deeper into the highlands of New Guinea.  In his book, The Land That Time Forgot, Mich Leahy wrote that in their first expedition, on the foot of the hills before him and Dwyer entered the highlands, one of the missionary workers tried to scare Ewunga, Mich’s boss-boy in pidgin.  Mich more or less wrote it in his version of Pidgin-English:

“Moun-tain ee big fella more. No got road, Kanaka long hap, man belong fight true. Allee can killum you fella, now kai-kai.”

(Translation – the mountains are bigger, there is no road and the natives are fearful warriors. They can kill and eat you.”)

To which the fearless Ewunga replied: “No can! Kanaka something nothing. Suppose allee like fight, me fella can tryum.”

Translation: (“No, they cannot! Natives are nothing. If they want to fight, we can all try.”) Mich was really glad that Ewunga was fearless.

Leahy, Michael J., 1901-1979. Papuans looking at first gramaphone, Mount Hagen, Papua New Guinea, 1933 PPIc: National Library of Australia.

Mick and his brother Danny were leaders of the next and the 1933 expedition that opened up the Wahgi Valley of the Western Highlands and this was where Danny would eventually settle. From what he had written, I believe, Mich loved the Waghi Valley and the Western Highlands the most. He admired the architecture of the houses, the adornment and dress of the people. he also thought the people were intelligent and warm.

“The landscaping and the sing sing (dancing) grounds resembled that of the upper Waghi and we were continually admiring their beauty and arrangement. I was invited to enter one of the ceremonial houses and found them to a well-made, circular grass house, with a roof ten feet high, divided into five compartments, one of them being a sort of hallway down the centre.” Leahy, The Land That Time Forgot”, p.218.

Mich’s gold prospecting adventures turned out to be one epic journey which has gone into the history books of both Australia and Papua New Guinea. A trilogy of the Leahys’ story can be purchased from ABC stores. There are previews on YouTube. I have posted a link to the Australian Screen.

The Central Highlands of New Guinea. Royal Geographical Society: London. (pp. 229–262 in the Geographical Journal

13 thoughts on “An Epic Journey of Discovery”

  1. How interesting! I study historic photographs from all of PNG and I have looked through collections of your grandfather’s photos in both England and Australia – so special! You’ve seen the book ‘First Contact’ by Connolly & Anderson haven’t you? It’s so good in the way it relates the Leahy brothers’ experiences with the local peoples’ reactions and thoughts. Cheers from Mr Jan – PNG traveller and writer


  2. you certainly do some great
    research … fun to read … wondering if your
    relatives are handling your recent
    tragedy … hope so … no need to
    comment just know i
    know …. thanks for stopping by… ks

    Liked by 1 person

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