Tag Archives: Australia Day stories

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.

http://www.nla.gov.au/apps/cdview?pi=nla.pic-vn3289888 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

The First Indigenous Author to be in Print

For Australia Day features, my son Nathan came up with this brilliant suggestion, and something from Australia’s history. It is a story of a man who became a mediator and later described as a traitor for his relationship with the first settlers. He lived a fascinating life between his own people and the colonials and this life took him on an adventure to England in 1792. Bennelong was said to be the first Indigenous Australian Author to have his words printed. Here are two versions of his story with a song from Bennelong. Long live his spirit!

From ABC Radio, here is a brief story about his trip to England with an audio recording of Bennelong singing.


It has been more than two hundred years since the death of Bennelong – that great Wanggal leader and ambassador to the Sydney colony.

Bennelong has long been cast as a tragic figure, a traitor to his people, a damaged character from countless Australian histories, novels and narratives. But as more information about him and his contemporaries comes to light, Bennelong is being recast as an adventurer, a politician, a diplomat … and it seems he is still speaking to us across the centuries, in words and song.

Bennelong was 29 and his companion Yemmerawanne was just 19 when they agreed to sail to England with Governor Phillip.

When Bennelong finally returned to Sydney Cove, he’d been away for almost three years … Yemmerawanne died in England and is buried there.

Back at the Governor’s house in Sydney Cove, Bennelong wrote a letter to Lord Sydney. We’re not sure if Bennelong dictated it to another person, or wrote it in his own hand, because the original letter can’t be found. Only a copy survives.

Historian and curator, Keith Vincent Smith, has been investigating Bennelong’s life and his long, traumatic voyage to Britain in 1792. He found the copy of the letter we have today, in an obscure German astronomy journal published in the early 19th century.

Performed in London in 1792, as notated and published by musician Edward Jones in 1811. This version is performed by Clarence Slockee and Matthew Doyle at the State Library of NSW, August 2010.
(02’01”, 1.85MB)

Bennelong Sings


National Library of Australia Picture and caption: Portrait of Bennilong, a native of New Holland, who after experiencing for two years the luxuries of England, returned to his own country and resumed all his savage habits [picture].
 Bennelong (1764–1813)

by Eleanor Dark

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

Bennelong (1764?-1813), Aboriginal, was captured in November 1789 and brought to the settlement at Sydney Cove by order of Governor Arthur Phillip, who hoped to learn from him more of the natives’ customs and language. Bennelong took readily to life among the white men, relished their food, acquired a taste for liquor, learned to speak English and became particularly attached to the governor, in whose house he lodged. In May he escaped, and no more was seen of him until September when he was among a large assembly of natives at Manly, one of whom wounded Phillip with a spear. The attack seems to have been the result of a misunderstanding, and Bennelong took no part in it; indeed, he expressed concern and frequently appeared near Sydney Cove to inquire after the governor’s health. The incident was thus the means of re-establishing contact between them and, when assured that he would not be detained, Bennelong began to frequent the settlement with many of his compatriots, who made the Government House yard their headquarters. In 1791 a brick hut, 12 feet sq. (1.1 m²), was built for him on the eastern point of Sydney Cove, now called Bennelong Point.

In December 1792 he sailed with Phillip for England where he was presented to King George III. August 1794 found him on board the Reliance in Plymouth Sound, waiting to return to the colony with Governor John Hunter, but the ship did not sail until early in 1795, and on 25 January Hunter wrote that Bennelong’s health was precarious because of cold, homesickness and disappointment at the long delay which had ‘much broken his spirit’. He reached Sydney in September, and thereafter references to him are scanty, though it is clear that he could no longer find contentment or full acceptance either among his countrymen or the white men. Two years later he had become ‘so fond of drinking that he lost no opportunity of being intoxicated, and in that state was so savage and violent as to be capable of any mischief’. In 1798 he was twice dangerously wounded in tribal battles. A censorious paragraph in the Sydney Gazette records his death at Kissing Point on 3 January 1813.

His wife, Barangaroo, bore him a daughter named Dilboong who died in infancy. Later he took a second wife, Gooroobaroobooloo, but during his absence in England she found another mate, and disdained Bennelong when he returned.

His age, at the time of his capture, was estimated at 25, and he was described as being ‘of good stature, stoutly made’, with a ‘bold, intrepid countenance’. His appetite was such that ‘the ration of a week was insufficient to have kept him for a day’, and ‘love and war seemed his favourite pursuits’. Contemporary accounts reveal him as courageous, intelligent, vain, quick-tempered, ‘tender with children’ and something of a comedian.

Bennelong also had a son who was adopted by Rev. William Walker and christened Thomas Walker Coke. He died after a short illness aged about 20.

The Voice of an Enigma

I have been a fan of my next Australian story for many years. Gurrumul Yunupingu has a magical voice and one that always reduces me to tears. He has a beautiful story as told by the ABC Stories. Please click on the link at the end of the post to watch a documentary about this amazing Australian’s life.

Briefly, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu has eluded the media since becoming a household name. The enigmatic blind Aboriginal musician first came to attention when he released his eponymous first album in 2008 to international acclaim.

Sung in the Yolnu dialect of Arnhem land, Gurrumul’s music transcends cultural boundaries and touches listeners in the UK and Europe as much as it does in Australia.
Yet despite the accolades and awards, Gurrumul has resolutely refused to do media interviews or provide any clues to journalists about his background or motivations; to both the chagrin and respect of the people responsible for his success.
For the first time, in 2010, Australian Story presented an intimate profile featuring behind the scenes footage of Gurrumul shot by filmmaker Naina Sen, combined with interviews from his family and unofficial spokesperson Michael Hohnen. Watch the film on the link below.


Thank you ABC Stories.