Tall outback tales: how one man’s disappearance haunts the landscape at Larrimah

In Australia’s dead heart, telling yarns about the many ways to die in the bush is practically a pastime

We’re only part way through our first cup of tea and a series of anecdotes about goannas, when Karl Roth disappears. While we wait for his return, we chat to his wife Bobbie about the palms and frangipani in their garden. How have they managed to tame this harsh landscape into something so orderly and colourful, we ask. It’s a question that comes up every time we come here.

We’re several years into our investigation of the disappearance of Paddy Moriarty from the 12-person town of Larrimah, 500km south of Darwin in the Northern Territory. It’s a strange case; the stuff TV shows are made of. On 16 December, 2017, 70-year-old Paddy finished his last drink at the bright pink Larrimah Hotel, also known as the Pink Panther. He and his dog, Kellie, jumped on his quad bike to ride a few hundred metres home on the other side of the Stuart Highway. Nobody has ever seen them again.

So far, the police haven’t unearthed any answers, and so we keep returning to this hamlet, trying to get to the bottom of it all – what happened to Paddy and what happened to Larrimah in the wake of his disappearance. Part of what is driving us is that one of us – Kylie – had met Paddy. Our other motivation is historical preservation; we want to document this place that’s dancing precariously close to extinction before it slips off the map entirely.

Karl returns with something in his hand.

“There you go,” he says, putting it on the table with a heavy clunk.

“What’s that?”

“Thirteen death adders. In a jar,” he says. He’s keeping them for the museum for research, he tells us. He caught the last one just the other day out on the road in front of their place. One night a few years back, he woke to find one of them crawling across his neck.

In outback Australia, telling yarns about imaginative ways to die in the bush is practically a pastime. And after years of research for our book, Larrimah, about the disappearing man and his disappearing town, we’re pretty much experts in the subject, too.

Out here, you don’t have to travel far to find the unmarked sites of any number of historical misfortunes. For example, in 1955, not far south of Larrimah, an English migrant on a bicycle perished. It took nineteen days for police and Aboriginal trackers to find his body under a tree. Police estimated he’d died three days and 15km into his journey, after becoming deranged and abandoning his bike, food, water and clothes. He is still buried out here, somewhere in this desolate countryside, under the tree whose insufficient shade he’d spent his final moments. There are hundreds of these stories. Adventurers and drunks and bushies – Australia’s “dead heart” seems to claim them almost indiscriminately. For outsiders, people like us who dwell in bigger towns or cities, these stories seem to confirm a deep-held mistrust of hot, barren and far-flung places like Larrimah.

Paddy Moriarty at the bar at the Larrimah Pink Panther Hotel. Added 8 February 2018
Paddy Moriarty at the Larrimah Pink Panther Hotel. Photograph: Kylie Stevenson/The Guardian

The nefarious landscape is part of Paddy’s story, too. In the early days of their search for him, police seriously considered the wildest possibilities. They investigated the pub’s three-metre pet saltwater crocodile, Sneaky Sam. They entertained the possibility of sinkholes, or an abandoned World War II bunker. The role of animals –snakes, birds of prey, wild pigs, wild donkeys, wild buffalo – in a potential death or a body’s decomposition were factored in.

But ultimately, police believed that Paddy’s case was a bit different. Because chances are, nature wasn’t the villain here. Whatever happened to Paddy Moriarty and his dog, Kellie, was more than likely human. It turned out the residents of Larrimah had been embroiled in feuds for years. As a result of some of those feuds, not everyone liked Paddy Moriarty.

Trouble in the town

A cast of falcons, a hum of blowflies and a stench of rotting flesh in the heat. These are the usual signs of death in the outback, but to Paddy, these were signs of opportunity. One man’s roadkill is another man’s practical joke.

The dead wallaby he found by the bitumen a few days before he disappeared was one of several he’d pitched over his neighbour Fran Hodgetts’ fence. He’d leave them to rot in the sun under the windows of the outback teahouse she ran, later laughing about it to his mates over at the Pink Panther.

Fran and Paddy had been at it for years. He called her the Bush Pig and discouraged anyone who pulled up contemplating a pie from going near the place. Their long-running feud became increasingly bitter. In the months before Paddy went missing, Fran’s gardener, Owen Laurie, also found himself in heated exchanges with the old Irishman.

Police found no evidence to suggest Fran or Owen was involved in Paddy’s disappearance, but what they did discover was evidence of wider-spread trouble in the town.

Some neighbours had ignored one another for more than a decade, others occasionally yelled abuse at each other, many had been banned from the pub. Over the years there have been accusations of theft, arson, murdered pets and mail steamed open. There have been complicated arguments over the sale of homemade meat pies, and a rift in the Larrimah Progress Association back in the late 1990s proved an irreparable split. At one point the town of 20 had two rival associations.

Caroline Graham and Kylie Stevenson.
Caroline Graham and Kylie Stevenson. Photograph: Jennifer Pinkerton/Allen & Unwin

As we interviewed residents in Larrimah and across the Northern Territory, one thing became clear: The people were just as fascinating and complex as the landscape in which they had chosen to live. Over three years, we have trawled through archives and driven up and down lonely roads, across scrublands and savannah plains, into outlaw towns so small you could barely call them towns. But in the end, all roads lead us back to Larrimah.

The tallest tales are often true

It’s hard to explain Larrimah to someone who hasn’t been there. It’s like an old shirt that’s been left on the line too long. Everything is faded, dusty, rusting at the edges, but there’s something charming about the decay. It’s a collection of a few roads, a museum, the teahouse and a motley crew of houses, and in the middle of it all is the pub: bright pink, surrounded by pink panther sculptures and a three-storey replica of a bottle of beer. Somehow, although it’s distinctly absurd, it’s also familiar. Like the collective image of outback Australia has been made real.

Against all the odds, Larrimah has limped on as a tiny town, and over the course of our investigation, it seems to grow smaller. Residents move on, pass away, consider other futures. We watch it begin to disappear, in slow motion. There are occasional glimmers of hope with the promise of new industries like farming or the possibility that if fracking goes ahead it might bring new residents and opportunities, but nothing has stuck yet.

We can’t save the town, so we start saving stories. Everyone is brimming with them.

The Roths are a case in point. Back sipping tea under the shade of their carport, their reptile stories escalate. Forty-five years ago, when they worked at Middle Point, there was a king brown plague. They were everywhere. Took over the place. No one knew where they came from or where they went. More recently, they found a crocodile in their backyard fish pond.

Tall tales are common in these parts, but what we’ve come to learn is that the seemingly tallest ones are often true. Which brings us back to Paddy. What happened to the man and his dog remains a mystery, though police are adamant that they met with foul play.

But even still, the landscape haunts the edges of this story, casting shadows. To this day, police can’t entirely rule the most impossible things out. It’s not likely that a sinkhole suddenly opened up and swallowed a man and his dog, but it’s possible. These things happen, sometimes, out here in this impossible place.

We’ve followed Paddy’s case as far as we can. We’ve tailed him back to his roots in Ireland, followed his footsteps across the cracked earth of drought-ridden cattle stations, and drank beers at the outback pubs he drank beers at. But ultimately, what we realise is the landscape is threatening to claim much more than just a man and his dog.

Cover image of the book Larrimah, by Caroline Graham and Kylie Stevenson

Larrimah and places like it are under threat, too. Outback Australia is on the brink of extinction. And what it takes with it is something so much bigger than any of us can fathom.

The heat is closing in.

The blowflies hum.

The falcons are circling.

  • The police are still investigating the disappearance of Paddy Moriarty, and a reward of $250,000 for information leading to a conviction has been offered

  • Larrimah, by Caroline Graham and Kylie Stevenson, published by Allen & Unwin, is available in stores now.

Contributor

Caroline Graham and Kylie Stevenson

The GuardianTramp

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