HALFWAY BETWEEN DARWIN and Tennant Creek – around 500 clicks each way – there's a wide spot in the road called Larrimah. Some travellers reckon it's another country. Those unable to get mobile coverage or anything on the car radio will tell you it's "in the middle of nowhere". Locals, most of whom are here because it's "nice, quiet, relaxed", might suggest it's "the centre of everywhere". Others might observe that its population of 20 is gearing up for a civil war.
Larrimah is heralded by an 80km per hour sign, rare on the Stuart Highway. On most of it you can cruise at whatever velocity you like until your path is blocked by a road train, another road-lice convoy of interstate caravans or packets of military vehicles travelling at their regulation speed. As you slide over the rise – another rarity in this flat, scrubby country – there's a string of street lights down the western side of the highway and signs for your reading pleasure: LARRIMAH Tidy Town 1998.
On the eastern side are the gutted remains of the Top o' the Town roadhouse, scene of many ripsnortin' parties, according to old-timers. It bit the dust in 2002 when Di Rogers closed it after taking over the lease. She already had the lease of the rival roadhouse down the road the Green Park Tourist Complex. On this side of the road you'll see some dilapidated shacks creeping into the red dirt and scrub and then the inviting tropicality and shady lawns of the Green Park Tourist Complex. Its roadhouse, with bowsers out front, has a large dining room with green shadecloth walls to keep insects and birds at bay. Ceiling fans hang from the corrugated iron roof. Di Rogers, a former South Australian prison warden, moved to Larrimah after the Katherine floods in 1998. She leased the pub for a while but baled out of it in September 2002. Its kitchen had been closed because of health concerns. Trade fell off. The days when you could get a room for the night and free grog if your mate had a guitar in the car were over. Truckies no longer slapped 50 bucks on the bar and said, "Play some Slim Dusty and it's yours." When Di left the pub, she took its name, the Larrimah Wayside Inn, its phone number and decades of memorabilia with her. She was compelled to return the name and number but she kept the other stuff. A member of the Larrimah Progress Association (LPA), she is not well liked by some locals.
The Progress Association was begun by publicans Carl and Rae Drummond back in 1987. They got everyone involved in a project to boost the town's tourist potential by promoting what, between 1941 and 1976, was effectively the terminus of the North Australian Railway. Prisoners were brought in from Darwin to clear the line for eight clicks to the official terminus at Birdum. The association paid for the delivery of a gifted diesel locomotive, in which they hoped to offer trips to Birdum. The engine was too heavy and it derailed. Then the association got a quad car. That worked for a while. Then the Drummonds left town, new folk moved in and before you knew it, the Larrimah Progress Association was in the hands of one family: former museum workers Karl and Bobbie Roth, their daughter Charmaine, her husband, Michael Deeth, and Bobbie's daughter, Di Rogers. Not long afterwards, they gave away the town's diesel locomotive to Pine Creek and a Fairmont two-stroke section car to Adelaide River.
On the western side of the highway is the old police station and cells that opened in 1958 and closed in 1981. For the past 22 years, it's been home to 64-year-old "Billy Light Can" Hodgetts and his wife, Fran. Bill drives water trucks with road construction crews and, for the past 15 years, Fran's been running a Devonshire-tea establishment serving filtered coffee, scones and homemade buffalo pies, apricot pies and apple pies. Former Progress Association members, Billy and Fran are now in the rival Larrimah Development Association (LDA), which was formed last year by disgruntled folk who'd either resigned from the Progress Association or had their applications for renewal rejected. They got behind the new publican, Barry Sharpe, with a mission to restore the old railway precinct to its former working glory: the Now or Never Never Project. It now boasts 16 members, including some outsiders, 11 more than the Progress Association.
It's not just about trains or politics, of course. It's the pub. Fran doesn't talk to Di or go near the Green Park Tourist Complex " 'cos of what she done to the pub". Lose the pub in a town and you lose the town. And losing the pub was a very real possibility when Di Rogers baled out.
But Ann Kanters and Barry Sharpe stepped in to "rescue" the pub and in 2003 it won the "Best Wayside Inn". They had arrived six years earlier from Dunnedoo in western NSW with $20,000 under the car seat, seeking warmer weather and good fishing. They saw the town's potential and settled in. They got the weather but little opportunity to fish. They got involved in the Progress Association and, in 1998, Larrimah won the Tidy Towns award. Everything was sweet. But, as they see it, when Di moved in that year, things started to change. Ann says she stays "because of the heritage. It's a nice little town, a pleasant easy lifestyle. I don't think I could live in the city again." Even so, Ann who used to own one of the old railway houses sold it to buy a caravan so she can get the hell out of town whenever she wants.
But, hey, this is Larrimah. One expects things to go twirly. A decade ago, the blokes behind the "Highest bar in the Territory" were Graham Doyle and Syd Worrell. Syd had a French girlfriend, Jacquie, who liked a drink, cooked when she damned well felt like it and had such an aversion to the heat she'd shower fully clothed and return to the bar wringing wet. She and Syd were married at the pub in a ceremony the celebrant will never forget. The bride wore black and had to be assisted down the aisle. The best man, Mad Mick from Maryfield, was so shickered he couldn't find the ring. That wet season Graham went troppo, started drinking from the top shelf and barred the 10 locals from the pub. Deep in the night, he'd crank up the stereo in the bar and aim the speakers at the house across the road, or stalk the town in the rain, turning on every tap and sprinkler he could. One night, when every tyre on resident truckie Little Dog's two vehicles was let down, the finger was pointed at the publican.
There were raucous peacocks in the town then. The birds nominally belonged to the pub but were free to roam. Some of the folk who'd been banned from the pub got jack of the peacocks crapping on their cars, or so they said. They fed them to the big crocodile then residing in a pond at Green Park. A pet buffalo also had free rein of the town until it was eaten by locals with a score to settle.
SUCH IS THE environment intowhich unwitting grey nomads roll. Perhaps attracted by the concrete pink panther lounging beside the five metre-high beer bottle outside the pub, a constant stream of caravans, campervans and 4WDs towing trailers with interstate plates pull off the highway and doodle up Mahoney Street. In front of verandas shaded by palms, poincianas and frangipani trees is a roughly painted sign: "Historical Hotel / Drop in for a Friendly Meal / Drink all day / Best Wayside Inn '03". In twos and threes, grey nomads troop in, some remarking that, at a dollar a cup, the instant coffee on the veranda is half the price of that at the roadhouse a hundred metres away. Others head straight to the bar and order cold beers from Ann or Barry.
When the Wayward Bus tours roll in, Ann puts on "shows" with her pet blue-tongue lizard, Houdini. She introduces him to the backpackers, Japanese, Koreans, Germans, Swedes and Poms and they all get happy snaps fondling the reptile.
Oblivious of the swirl of local hostilities, the tourists, with libations in hand, check out the stickers on the pub's fridges, the ice skates and snow skis on the wall, the sawfish bills and turtle shell, the antique telephones and bullet shells. On the verandas, they chat about the tin helmets from the war, the old bottles, rusty picks, dixies, rakes, kettles, buckets, bomb racks, crosscut saws, jacks and horseshoes retrieved from the surrounding bush in recent years. Out in the courtyard, they gather around the aviaries, trying in vain to elicit a comment from Wal and Shirl, the sulphur-crested cockatoos, and admiring the lorikeets, parrots and finches. Others gawk into a caged pond to glimpse the small saltwater croc that hides under a rock, only its snout and tail visible. Some peer into another cage and figure it to be vacant. But after the sun sets a couple of possum-gliders shyly emerge and show off cute faces and long bushy tails to quiet observers. Passing an aquarium on the veranda, some jump with fright when the ill-tempered Snappy Tom, another small salty, has a crack at them through the glass.
Someone always asks about the five-metre beer bottle out the front. They are told it was built in the 1970s when the Larrimah Hotel boasted the highest sales of two-litre Darwin stubbies in the Territory. That was in the days of the railway, when the population numbered more than 50. The pub itself is wrapped around a Sidney Williams hut, the Territory's architectural standard for many years. It was once the Birdum Hotel and was trucked to Larrimah in 1952 when Birdum was in its last throes. Inside the louvre-windowed bar, swept by ceiling fans, some of the visitors refresh their drinks and peruse the guest book, chuckling over comments like those made by croweaters Scott and Michelle from Port Lincoln, who wrote in July 2003: "Fourteen months on the road and broke down here. Pub was great but the roadhouse tried to poison us."
Some pop across to the Larrimah Museum, another Sidney Williams hut erected in early 1942 as a repeater station for military communications. Ann still directs visitors there, but hasn't set foot inside for years. There's just too much bad blood. Maintained by the Progress Association, it houses memorabilia and displays of the history of the district from when it was the site of Australia's largest army staging camp. Some roll their vans into the camping ground for the night. Ten bucks for a powered site is the best deal on The Track, but most move on, returning to the highway where three-dog road trains growl day and night.
AS THE TOURIST trade dwindles in late afternoon, the locals start rolling in: a couple of ringers in big hats, drill shirts, shorts and work boots propped on stools at the bar, three kids, four dogs and a procession of characters in thongs, shorts and singlets. There's Billy Light Can. He used to drink two cartons a day 'til he switched to lights 25 years ago. There's part-time builders Glenn "Mo" Mohammed and Troy Harvey, who've bought an old linesmen's house on Railway Terrace, and there's grader driver "Cookie" Burke, who maintains such happy relationships with members of both the LPA and LDA that some suspect him of being a spy.
Barry is behind the bar. He has the hangdog expression of a beagle that's found itself in the pound. The Progress Association has removed the fence around the disused oval and erected it along his boundary. He is not happy. The new fence, ostensibly erected to protect a new Progress Association tree-planting project, restricts access to the pub's caravan park. Barry is sure the "low-down skunks" from the Progress are out to get him, he's "not gonna take it any more", he fumes.
To get back at the Progress Association, a couple of the hotter heads at the bar suggest bringing blackfellas in on weekends, planting them on the oval in tents or in the pub's caravan park with a couple of cartons of green cans. It is a plan that has at least one major drawback: despite five registered and three recorded sacred sites in the vicinity, Aboriginal people tend to avoid Larrimah. They drive straight through and keep going. "It's the spooks," Barry says. "They end up terrified that something's going to get 'em at night." Larrimah is kadaitja (spirit) country – limestone country pockmarked with subterranean caverns. After a big wet, sinkholes appear and drop 10, 15 metres into the earth.
Brian, the deeply tanned bloke with the white Zapata moustache and crudely executed blue tatts, is a blow-in. He's been blowing into Larrimah for decades, driving trucks, cars, whatever. An inveterate traveller, he's been here a month this time and figures he'll stick around for a couple more. He likes it here: it's friendly, it's relaxed, it's quiet and on the veranda of an afternoon you can fall asleep in your chair. But he couldn't settle here. Not yet. Not with that mob over the other side trying to take over the town. He lives rent-free in his caravan in return for doing odd jobs around the pub, painting walls pink, stringing up fancy beads of lights, washing dishes on occasion, anything to lighten the load. He's been joined by his 12 year-old son who was expelled from school, kicked out by his mother and is now in his father's care, 170 clicks from the nearest high school. In the morning, Brian will paint the Progress Association's new fence pink "just to piss 'em off".
ONE AFTERNOON, I wander up to Fran's Devonshire Tea House in the old police station to peruse her collection of local history books and archival papers over scones with jam and cream and a mug of filtered coffee. Fran's a corker, churning out buffalo pies and scones and all manner of delights seven days a week for the passing trade. And when the passing trade actually stops and walks in, well, it's a hostage situation. Fran's a talker, she'll hold you, captivated, with the woes of the town or any subject the sun has or has not yet set on. You're in her territory. And today she's fired up. Her signs on the outskirts of town have twice been painted over. She's in no doubt who is responsible, that woman down the road who's taken her lead and is now selling homemade scones and pies at the roadhouse.
"I cooked at the Larrimah Wayside Inn for nine years and always made pies. I made pies before we came here 22 years ago 'cos I done restaurant cooking an' stuff, you know. And when Di got into the pub she started making pies and she made them look like my pies, then she started making scones. She was tryin' to force me out of business because I was doing a big trade here. Then she moved to Green Park and started making pies exactly like mine, again ... they painted over me signs; the first time that cost me $1200. I didn't see 'em do it but I know it was them. The second time they covered up my name, not the "homemade pies, sausage rolls and pasties", anything like that, that's how we knew who done it. They took over the Progress Association and made it so hard for us townspeople to get involved. They didn't want us in it so we all got out, which we shouldn't have done 'cos once we got out of the Progress they got it. The only people in the Progress Association are all family, just family, none of the locals. They've got all the machinery and everything. Meanwhile, they've given away the train; they've given away all our war memorabilia that was outside the museum; they've given away the quad car. They've given all of that away. And we've got nothin'."
When Di applied for a tavern licence to sell takeaway grog at Green Park, both the publican, Barry, and Fran objected, arguing that one takeaway for 20 people was enough, and her application was rejected. Then Fran complained to the Health Department about Di sending "Larrimah Pies" to Borroloola nine hours away on the mail truck, figuring the use of the name, Larrimah Pies, would reflect badly on her produce. The Health Department investigated and that aspect of Di's enterprise was closed down. In retaliation, Di's sister Charmaine lodged a complaint with the RSPCA, citing ill-treatment of the two buffalo, two camels and Dingaling the donkey grazing near the pub. An RSPCA officer checked it out and dismissed the complaint.
In the midst of this venting, Fran's daughter Michelle pauses by the open window and yells out her ritual joke for the customers' benefit, "I picked up another couple o' road-kill for ya, Mum!"
BEHIND A FLOURISHING barrage of palms, bougainvillea and eucalypts, the genial Karl and Bobbie Roth of the Progress Association live in the old post office, a flash two-storey '50s job with a satellite dish and solar panels. They share it with various critters furred, feathered and leathered. Out the front, the Australian flag writhes in a languid sou'easterly breeze, a gaggle of geese march around the garden, chooks peck at the ground, sprinklers shower the lawn with bore water beneath unblemished skies, bowerbirds souvenir trinkets. Inside are mod cons and an impressive array of history and nature books, many bought off the net.
We chat over cigarettes and coffees in the shade of the carport, in the presence of saddles, a row of buffalo horns on a beam and, under a tarp, Karl's 1972 Triumph motorcycle. He came to the Territory "as a kid in 1958", grew up in Darwin and joined the army. He did three tours of Vietnam and says "like most diggers, I figured there was nothing wrong with me, it was the rest of the world that was off its rocker. Then you learn that there is something wrong." At 60, he's on a TPI pension, diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. "Vietnam veterans seem to know where to find each other, so they pop in when they're passing by. I fought under the Australian flag and I fly one out the front. One of the grand kids said to me, 'You fought in the war, didn't you?' I said, 'Yeah, one of them.' The next question was 'Did you know Napoleon?' I might have grey hair, but I'm not that old."
Intricately tattooed, Karl put in much of his life as a field officer with museums in Darwin and Alice Springs. "I thought about retiring to North Queensland, but I don't speak Japanese, so we looked for somewhere up the Stuart Highway that was peaceful and quiet and this place was up for sale so we bought it. We planted the garden and jungled it in 'cos it was open to all the stickybeaks ... I like it here, it's very relaxed. I'm not a social animal so I had to get out of the towns." When he goes to Darwin, he stays out of town "at the Humpty Doo pub 'cos it's still feral enough to feel like home".
As a member of the Progress Association, Karl busies himself slashing grass along the highway during the wet, planting trees and collecting rubbish. He's involved in the fire service, the bushfire brigade and emergency services. He attends road accidents. Bobbie brings out a photograph of the most recent incident, a blazing semitrailer. "We got there half an hour after it happened and by then it was well ablaze. On average, there are four or five bad accidents each year.
"We go down the road to Green Park for a beer at night and meet the tourists and tell them lies, or at least stretch the truth a bit. One of the good things here is there's no blackfellas getting drunk, 'cos for them this iskadaitja country. I look at Larrimah as the centre of everywhere, not the middle of nowhere. You're only an hour and a half from the shops in Katherine, five hours from Darwin. Within 12 hours or so you can be in Brisbane by plane from Darwin. It has its disadvantages, too. Like you wouldn't want to get seriously ill too quickly.
"Oh, and there's the politics ... but you know what small places are like ... we're all eccentrics in a town like this."