In 1930 Mick Leahy and Mick Dwyer came to the Highlands searching for gold and walked into the previously ‘undiscovered’ Eastern Highlands. Three years later, Leahy returned with his brother Dan and they stumbled upon the huge, fertile and heavily populated Wahgi Valley.
The film First Contact (1983) includes original footage of this patrol by Mick Leahy and is a priceless record of the first interaction between Highlanders and Europeans.
Missionaries followed the Leahy brothers, and government stations were built near present-day Mt Hagen and in the Simbu Valley, near present-day Kundiawa, although gold was never discovered in any great quantities.
Even during WWII, the mountains largely protected the Highlanders from the foreign forces. Not until the 1950s were outside influences really felt, and many areas remained largely unaffected until the 1960s and even into the '70s. The construction of the Highlands (Okuk) Hwy had a huge impact on the lives of Highlanders, as did the introduction of cash crops, particularly coffee. The Highlanders had long been traders and skillful gardeners and adapted to the cash economy with remarkable speed.