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Memories of ‘Korgua Dan’ Leahy – explorer & planter

Dan Leahy and Fr Joe McDermott at Ulga parish house, circa 1972GARRY ROCHE

DAN Leahy, along with his brother Mick and Jim Taylor, entered the Wahgi Valley in 1933.

After spending some years gold mining at Kuta ridge, around 1960 Dan went into coffee production, establishing a plantation at Korgua in the Nebilyer valley.

He became known as Korgua Dan to distinguish him from his nephew, Sir Danny Leahy, who lived in Goroka.

In the years after World War II there was a road from Mt Hagen that went over Kuta ridge and down to Korgua.

This bush road later became unusable and in the seventies another road was built that went the long way round - from Mt. Hagen via Togoba and Wybip past Ulga Catholic mission then across the Trug river and on up to Korgua.

Fr Joe Krimm was based at Ulga and was good friends with Dan and his family, who often called in to Ulga on their way to and from Mt Hagen.

Dan Leahy became well known outside Papua New Guinea through the documentary film, First Contact, by Robin Anderson and Bob Connolly, which was based on Dan and Mick Leahy’s explorations.

Later documentaries, Joe Leahy’s Neighbours and Black Harvest focuseed more on one of Mick Leahy’s sons, Joe Leahy, and the Nebilyer Valley.

In 1972, long before First Contact was made, I was stationed at Ulga parish in the Nebilyer, not too far from Korgua.

I was replacing Fr Joe Krimm. who had gone on leave.  Fr Krimm had a small coffee plantation at Ulga in which he took great pride. The coffee cherries were carefully picked, pulped, dried and the parchment processed as green bean.

Fr Krimm would send samples of the green bean coffee to Australia to obtain a price before exporting his coffee there with the help of Dan Leahy.

When I took over from Fr Krimm, he wisely decided that the pulping, drying and processing would be too much for me and it would be simpler if, each day after picking, I sold the coffee cherries directly to Dan Leahy. That suited me fine.

So every afternoon, after the coffee cherries were picked, weighed and bagged, they would be loaded on the back of a big Cherokee open-back utility and I would drive from Kigragl at Ulga down to Korgua where Dan lived and had his coffee factory.

I’d go straight to the ‘wet factory’ where the bags of coffee cherry would be weighed and unloaded.  The clerk there would note the weight and give me receipt which I’d take to Dan’s house and office.

His older children were usually away at school in Australia but the younger ones, Margaret and Nancy, went to school in Hagen and were often back in the house in the afternoon together with their mothers, Biam and Mancy.

By this time Dan Leahy had poor eyesight and was also a bit deaf.  His glasses had thick lenses and he usually wore a hearing aid.

However, in his office, once he picked up the tone of my voice, he could hear me if I spoke clearly.  Dan would take the note the clerk had given me and write a cheque for the required amount.

He would then offer me a drink and we would chat about events.  Dan once told me that he felt more cut off from the world by lack of hearing than by lack of vision.

He had a good memory for the early days in Kuta and he would recount many interesting stories about the war years. He talked about Fr Schaefer who had been based in Simbu and told me he had got on well with Fr Ross in Hagen and said they were good friends.

In some ways Dan himself was more like the strong character of Fr Schaefer than the gentle Fr Ross.  Dan had also admired Bro Eugene Frank, who had been fatally wounded in Simbu, but thought Bro Eugene was too gentle.

With regard to the war years, Dan talked about his journey to the Sepik and back, rescuing missionaries, priests and sisters.

He told me that the sisters were more cooperative than the priests. The good sisters agreed to wear “soldiers’ trousers” instead of their long skirts in order to facilitate quicker walking in the bush.

Dan said he warned the priests not to swim in the cold mountain streams. One priest ignored him and soon got a fever as a result.

He talked about a trip to Madang to bring cattle from Alexishafen area to a point far away from the threatened Japanese invasion in the Ramu, and about how one of the missionaries tried to keep back some of the cattle by hiding them.

When Dan asked me to have a drink with him, I usually accepted his invitation.  Then after the first whisky, he would say, “A bird never flew on one wing.” So we had a second.

On some occasions this extended to “One for the road” and even beyond that to “One for no reason at all!”.

Somehow I always managed to drive back safely to Ulga.

All this was over 40 years ago and these days I sometimes enjoy a drink with Dan’s son Bernie Leahy in the  Madang Club. Korgua Dan Leahy died in 1991.

Korgua Coffee is still advertised on the internet.  Dan’s son Brian Leahy now manages the plantation.

Photo: Dan Leahy and Fr Joe McDermott at Ulga parish house around 1972. Joe was based at Ambullua in the Jimi. He was an expert horse handler and helped break in horses for Dan


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Mark Ernest Young

I had the good fortune of spending six months with Danny Leahy. The well-known John Collins was his nephew. John owned Tigi Plantation the highest yielding coffee plantation in the then remote Baiyer Valley and he requested me to assist Danny Leahy in improving his Korgua Plantation. At that time I was managing Tigi Plantation for John.

Danny was a lovable person, very considerate, humble and he had other fine qualities which enabled him to be the famous explorer and adventurer who discovered areas of the western highlands and also a new people whose existence was unknown to the outside world as late as the 1930s.

I spent a very happy seven years of my life with my true friends the Hagen highlanders. I have written two books Tigi Adventures and Gumanch. My email id is mernesty@gmail.com and my phone numbers are +91 9945161371 and android ph +91 8861427498

Karen Donald

Love the article. I too lived in PNG in Mt Hagen in the 1980's and knew Bernie Leahy. Also met his father Dan.

I would love to make contact with Bernie again. Do you have a contact address for him?

Garry Roche

Chips, I never saw Dan drive, by the time I came I guess his eyesight was too bad. I have driven and walked that road from Hagen up to Kuta and have walked the section from Kuta down to Korgua. Steep and twisty.
Phil, by 1973 the old Leahy house up at Kuta was a ruin. I remember the base of a water tank was still there and some walls still standing. On a clear day there was a great view in all directions from that location

Philip Fitzpatrick

I'm not absolutely sure but I think I went up to Dan's old house on the ridge at Kuta in 1968.

No one lived there but it was in good condition and the door was open. The locals told me that it was full of spirits and I must admit the hairs on the back of my neck stood out when I went inside. Very strange.

I guess the house has long gone but I've often wondered why it felt like a haunted house.

Chips Mackellar

I remember back in 1956 when stationed at Mount Hagen, Dan would invite a few of us up to his house at Kuta for the weekend.

The old road to Kuta was then in use. It was narrow and winding, and a difficult road to drive, even with good eyesight.

Dan's eyesight was very bad then, and he could not see the dangerous curves in the road ahead, or the dangerous drops to the valley below if he missed the curves. But he insisted on driving his truck along this road, even though he could not see.

He overcame this problem by using one of his boys as a navigator. The navigator would sit beside Dan and guide him by saying, "Hap bilong iu, masta," or "Hap bilong mi, masta" and without seeing where he was driving, Dan would follow these instructions and steer in the direction indicated.

Dan could not see the dangers along the road, but we, his terrified passengers, could. Each such journey with Dan was an awesome experience, but we all survived happily to enjoy his hospitality at Kuta.

Rest in peace, Dan. You were a great Territorian. It is a great honour to have known you.

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