It was late on Sunday afternoon in 2018 when we first rolled into the dying town in the middle of the Northern Territory. The sun’s arc had settled into a spectacular orange over the bush but the temperature still hovered around 35 degrees. There was no one around as we pulled up next to a giant Pink Panther lazing in a deckchair beside a five-meter tall concrete statue of a beer bottle.
This is Larrimah: a tiny town perched on the edge of the Stuart Highway, about 500km south of Darwin. It’s what they call Never Never country, a harsh, scrubby landscape full of wild donkeys, death adders and the occasional sinkhole.
Our accommodation, the Larrimah Hotel, also known as The Pink Panther, looked like it had been plucked from the collective Australian imagination: a rusting tin roof topped a wide verandah and the building was painted bright pink. Inside, every wall was covered with quirky signs. War relics and more Pink Panthers battled for shelf space around the main bar, which claimed to be the highest in the Northern Territory. Out the back was a maze of aviaries and enclosures filled with emus, crocodiles, wallabies, snakes, squirrel gliders and hundreds of birds.
When the bartender, Richard Simpson, showed us to our room, he stopped by a small pond to introduce us to a croc with no eyes called Ray Ray. His enclosure was about five steps from our pink room.
We were there because one of the town’s 12 residents, 70-year-old Paddy Moriarty, had gone missing three months earlier. The circumstances were bizarre, even for Larrimah – a place that is steeped in strangeness – and we were hoping to get to the bottom of what happened, and how it might affect this hamlet hovering on the precipice of extinction.
Barry Sharpe (now deceased), the publican, was expecting us. He’d lived in Larrimah for 28 years at that point, and had been running the pub for the last 14. The zoo was the result of Barry’s lifelong animal obsession. We tracked him down sitting at a bar table nursing a cup of tea.
“We’re making a podcast about Paddy,” we told him. “Maybe we’ll write a book, too.”
“What’s a podcast?” he asked. We explained it and Barry shrugged.
We weren’t the first reporters to turn up, and we wouldn’t be the last. But perhaps we were more acutely aware of the town’s loss than most journalists, because it cut a little closer to home. Kylie had spent a few weeks in Larrimah the year before Paddy went missing. She’d sat with him and Barry on the verandah of the pub, drinking beer and exchanging stories.
“It’s not the same here without him,” Barry said, nodding at a bar stool in the corner. In thick texta someone had written on the sign above it: Paddy’s Corner.
Any missing person leaves a terrible absence. In a town of 12 people, the absence was more obvious than most.
It was a story that gripped Australia – equal parts tragedy and incongruity. On December 16, 2017, 70-year-old Paddy Moriarty and his dog, Kellie, vanished. Paddy had been drinking at the Larrimah Hotel, and around 6pm he jumped on his quad bike, Kellie on the back, and drove the 400 metres home. When he didn’t show up at the pub for a few days, locals alerted police. And when officers searched his house, days later, they discovered everything was as it should be. Paddy’s hat, wallet and keys were all on the table. There was dinner waiting, as if ready to be heated up. There were no signs of a struggle. But there was also no sign of Paddy or his red Kelpie, and nobody has seen them since.
There are a lot of ways to die in the bush – snakes, spiders, the occasional crocodile. The landscape around Larrimah is pockmarked with sinkholes and old war bunkers. The police spent days scouring the area for anything that might tell them what happened to the Irish-born man who’d moved to Australia in the 1960s. Helicopters whirred overhead, volunteers walked shoulder to shoulder, and police zoomed along every dirt track on motorbikes.
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