TALES OF OUTBACK TOWN LARRIMAH
Larrimah, written by Caroline Graham and Kylie Stevenson, tells the story of Paddy Moriarty and his dog Kellie who went missing from the small outback town in the Northern Territory. He is still missing today. Here’s an extract fro m the book.
IF she’d known what would come later, Fran Hodgetts probably wouldn’t have bothered with the haircut. It was an ordinary December morning. The sun had just come up, but the Stuart Highway was already shimmering in the heat. Without the grey nomads and backpackers who usually filled its lanes in the dry season, the highway sat quiet.
The wet season is not the time to visit Larrimah – the thermometer hovers around 40 degrees Celsius and the humidity just about kills you.
Last night, a big downpour had dumped 33 millimetres on the town and, this morning, the air had thickened in its wake.
Without any tourists, business was slow at Fran’s outback Devonshire teahouse.
In the dry season, she was flat out brewing tea, baking scones and cooking buffalo and crocodile pies.
She’d recently been inspired to add waffles topped with camel mince to the menu.
But with the big rains due, there just wasn’t the demand.
At this time of year, sometimes she’d only sell a coffee a week. Sometimes it was one a month. Still, she tried to keep the gates open – mostly for the company.
If no one were around, she’d cook batches of pies and scones and freeze them for the busy times.
That was the usual pattern of things. But today, Fran was taking the day off.
She stood in her bathroom applying eyeliner and pencilling in her eyebrows, knowing full well sweat would distort her efforts before she made it out the front door.
It was about seven thirty and she had to hit the road soon if she was going to make her hairdressing appointment in Katherine at nine thirty.
She grabbed her handbag and hurried downstairs to her car, only to be interrupted by her gardener’s large frame loping across the yard. ‘Look at that,’ he called.
Owen Laurie had been in Larrimah a few months, tending Fran’s bougainvillea and expansive lawn in exchange for a room for him and his dog.
He was an old bushie and mostly kept to himself, but he was a good worker.
‘Look at all those coppas,’ Owen said, pointing towards Paddy Moriarty’s house, directly across the highway.
The police had been there yesterday too, crawling over the old road- house Paddy lived in, like ants on a nest.
The police had been there yesterday too, crawling over the old road-house Paddy lived in, like ants on a nest.
She knew what this was about – she’d suspected Paddy of drug dealing for years.
Someone who had been mates with him told her Paddy sold dope, kept it hidden under his floorboards.
The drug bust she’d been waiting for had arrived.
She was eager to pay the cops a visit to tell them what she knew.
But first, the haircut. Larrimah is stranded halfway between Mataranka and Daly Waters, in what’s called Never Never country.
Katherine, 180 kilometres away, is the closest major town – but calling it major is probably overstating it.
The book Sh*t Towns of Australia says Katherine is ‘basically a tarted-up gulag masquerading as civilisation’, which seems a little unfair.
It does have a Woolworths, a McDonald’s and at least five bottle shops, which is a lot more than what’s available in Larrimah.
The closest thing to a shop here is a dusty shelf at the pub, which at last count held seventeen cans, most of them tinned asparagus.
But the dearth of local produce in Larrimah is fair enough; demand isn’t high when you’re catering to a population of about a dozen.
And, so, regular trips to Katherine for supplies and services are a necessary ordeal for Larrimah’s handful of residents, and with a speed limit of 130 kilometres per hour the journey along the Stuart Highway, known as The Track to locals, goes quickly.
Fran was only ten minutes away from her Katherine appointment when the police pulled her over. ‘You’re Fran?’ the officer asked. ‘Yeah.’ Fran wasn’t fazed that he knew her name.
She was well known in these parts. Anyone who’d driven along her stretch of The Track had encountered her teahouse and homemade pies – or, at the very least, the signs pointing to them.
The business had landed her in Lonely Planet guidebooks and on several travel programs.
She was also a bit of a character – mid-seventies, so short she barely reached most people’s shoulders, and built like a kindly grandmother whose soft appearance was at odds with her penchant for the F-word.
The officer leaned in.
‘We want you to go up to the head office in Katherine and make a statement.’
‘Well, that’s where I’m going. I seen you had a drug bust over the road.’
‘No,’ the officer said. ‘Paddy’s missing.’
Fran was shocked. ‘Nah.’ ‘Yeah, he’s missing.’
The officer told her Paddy’s dog was missing, too.
There was a moment of silence as Fran digested the news.
‘Well, I never murdered him,’ she said.
It was a joke, something she said in the spur of the moment.
But, as she conceded later, it turned out not to be that funny.
Fran had travelled almost two hours, so she kept her appointment.
At that stage, Paddy’s disappearance wasn’t considered suspicious.
He was only missing.
Police just needed to know if Fran had seen him or knew where he might be.
When the haircut was finished, Fran made her way to the police station, ready to tell her story.
She hadn’t seen Paddy since 12 December, four days before he disappeared.
She remembered it well because it wasn’t even midday, but it was scorching – the hottest day of the year.
She had been in her bedroom packing a bag for a trip to Darwin, and when she looked out the window, she saw a figure on the road, struggling with something heavy.
She squinted, and as the silhouette got closer, she realised it was Paddy dragging a dead kangaroo across the highway by its tail.
His dog, Kellie, was by his side. He threw the kangaroo somewhere between Fran’s driveway and bedroom.
Then he looked up at her, smiled, and walked away.
That was the last time she saw Paddy, she told officers.
The police interview was the beginning of a nightmare for Fran.
The hullabaloo soon moved over the road, from Paddy’s place to hers.
In the coming weeks, she gave police eighty-one pages of statements.
Owen, her gardener, was questioned, too.
Search teams went through everything – Fran’s personal effects, her business papers.
They went through the whole house five times.
They took her receipts away. They drained her septic tank, emptied and searched the incinerator, combed through the shed.
They unpacked her freezers, turning up a $7000 wad of cash.
Pretty soon, the story travelled. Reporters started turning up at her house.
She appeared on A Current Affair and Leigh Sales interviewed her on 7.30.
She got a publicity manager. Fame became infamy, and before long there was no pleasure in being recognised.
People were driving past her teahouse shouting, ‘Murderer!’
Mark Twain once said that a lie can gallop halfway around the world before the truth has time to pull its britches on, and maybe that’s what happened to Larrimah.
It wasn’t that the story got twisted into lies, exactly, it’s just that it was already such a strange, tall tale: a dying town, a missing man, his missing dog, a deadly landscape.
Alcohol. Enemies. Sinkholes. And a setting so tiny and remote that it seemed tantalisingly contained. Like an outback Agatha Christie. Then, under the heat of the media spotlight, the story grew.
The whole thing became mythic. Bigger than the truth.
Or, at least, bigger than a truth. Which is how we ended up in Larrimah.
Before we set off to write a book about Larrimah and Paddy, we told ourselves we weren’t like all the others – the Hollywood producers, documentary makers and shock jocks, caught up in telling what might be the best Australian story that ever really happened.
We were different, we thought, because one of us had met Paddy.
We already knew most of the people in town and our interest in Larrimah predated the disappearance.
We’d been obsessed with the place for ages – nattering about it at barbecues and pitching stories about the town’s history to media outlets and gifting souvenir Larrimah stubby coolers to our long-suffering friends and family.
But maybe that’s a lie, too. Something we said to make ourselves feel better.
In the end, we got caught up in the story.
And the myth.
What we do know is this: back in 2017, Paddy Moriarty was not the only one doing a disappearing act. The town of Larrimah – and maybe the outback itself – was balancing on some kind of knife’s edge and we wanted there to be a record of it before it slipped off the map.
We needed to find out what the hell happened to the almost ghost town of Larrimah and what happened to Paddy.
Because it’s impossible to tease the two stories apart. They’re like two whodunnits, twisted together.
Larrimah will be launched at the NT Library on Wednesday, September 29 from 6pm.
The event is free. Register at https:// bit.ly/3Ay7eRX.