This article appeared in the December 2016 issue of the members journal of the NT Writers’ Centre, Imprint.
I am in the outback, miles from civilisation, in the scorching midday heat with three men I don’t know all that well, five dead people, and a large mob of flies.
These men have brought me into the scrub to meet Andrew, who I only know by reputation. He is the man responsible for my current living conditions at an odd outback pub, where a crocodile lurks 5 metres from my door and the threat of a death adder slipping into my room always sits in the back of my mind.
But it’s not as sinister as it sounds.
This is all part of what could be Australia’s most unusual writer’s retreat – the Andrew McMillan Memorial Writer’s Retreat at the Larrimah Wayside Inn, also known as the Pink Panther Pub.
Today the pub’s owner Barry has driven me out to this peaceful bush cemetery where we are erecting a tombstone on Andrew’s grave.
We heave the monument onto the tiles, mix the glue and assemble.
“Here we go Andrew, give ya head a wash,” Paddy says, as he pours water onto on the grave to wipe off the excess paste and shine up the tombstone.
“Yeah mate, clean yourself up, would you?” Barry chimes in.
Both are old friends of Andrew’s, a well-known author and journalist based in Darwin, who passed away in 2012, leaving money to the NT Writers’ Centre to establish the retreat in Larrimah, a minute speck of red dirt on the vast Territory map, 497km south of Darwin, population: 11.
This was where he used to come to write, and after two weeks in this desolate furnace I can see why. There is nothing much else to do. But in the same breath, there is so much going on.
Drover Dave from Kununurra, our other tombstone accomplice, tells me I should burn the book I’m working on and write his story. He could be right.
This tiny town might be home to more wild donkeys than humans, but there are a trillion stories here – and that’s without even delving into the area’s fascinating WWII history or the town’s own long-running civil war, which Andrew wrote so eloquently about.
The offbeat locals – most of whom still do not speak to one another – are a novel waiting to happen.
Barry Sharpe owns the pub and its attached wildlife park, which is home to 500 birds (some who swear), 20 squirrel gliders, three crocs (one with no eyes called Ray), two emus and a handful of wallabies.
He’s been here more than 20 years, owned the pub for 12 and seems to have a wardrobe exclusively comprised of sleeveless khaki shirts and matching shorts.
“I just stopped in for a drink one day and I never left,” he says.
There’s a sign on the bar proclaiming it’s the “highest bar in the Territory”.
“What does that mean?” I ask Barry.
“Well, it’s according to the latitude and longitude,” he says pointing to the painted numerals. “But is it true?” I ask.
He looks surprised and shrugs. “No one’s ever asked me that. I dunno. It was there when I came here. No one’s ever disputed it. People always get photos in front of that sign.”
Paddy lives on the other side of the highway and when not erecting tombstones can be found melting into a bar stool at noon each day with his dog Rover at his feet.
Bill turns up each night for a beer and the 7 o’clock news.
Lennie, a collector of monogrammed glasses, comes to the pub one morning looking dishevelled – his favourite Black Douglas Whiskey glass has taken a tumble and shattered. It’s really shaken him up.
Karl and Bobbie’s house is over the road. “Woke up the other night with a death adder in my bed,” Karl tells me when I pop over to say hello. “Felt him crawling across my chest and flung him across the room.”
Back at the pub I tell them the story and how I doubt I will sleep tonight. Instead of putting me at ease, they recount every death adder story they have. Drover Dave tells me a snake got in his swag two nights ago. While he was in it. “It was OK,” he tells me. “The thing is you don’t panic.”
More recent arrivals include Five-Cokes-A-Day Karen and her husband Mark who manage the pub, and soon-to-be-20 barmaid Tessa, who was working as a ringer on a local station. She came in one day to collect her mail and never left.
The pub is a character unto itself, painted pink and decorated with blushing panthers, rusty old ice-skates, a triple-tandem bike, crusty saddles and dusty kettles. A network of spider webs overhead completes the ambiance. Owner Barry is a hipster ahead of his time.
And then there are the trickle of tourists, the ones who haven’t got the memo that the dry season is over and it’s too hot up here now. Heat that in practical terms means a light jog is a near-death experience and if you want to eat an ice cream you need to do it in under 10 seconds or risk the entire thing dribbling down to your armpit.
A bloke from central Australia saunters over after seeing me take a million snaps of a brilliant sunset overwhelming the bush. “Like sunsets do ya?” he asks. Sure. Who doesn’t? “I’ve got some good ones on here.” He hands me his camera and makes me scroll through a year’s worth of family photographs to get to an outback sunset. I pause on a picture of some boggy grass. “Crop circles,” he says matter-of-factly. “Heaps of ‘em out there.”
Although it’s tempting to sit in the bar and listen to the parade of peculiars all day, many things conspire to keep me indoors and writing – the 40-degree temperatures, the pair of hostile wasps that live outside my door and ambush me any time I leave. And, of course, the desire to finish my first novel so perhaps one day I can send another budding author on a bizarre bush adventure.
As I sit in my room contemplating my time in Larrimah – the solitude, the greatly-needed space and time to write and the people I’ve met – I’m pretty sure I hear laughter brush through the trees on the sultry afternoon breeze. And there’s no doubt in my mind it’s coming from Andrew’s grave.
Journalist, emerging author, and recipient of the inaugural Andrew McMillan Memorial Writer’s Retreat, Kylie Stevenson, spent two weeks in the remote township of Larrimah.
This retreat is the result of a bequest to the NT Writers’ Centre by the late author Andrew McMillan. Andrew asked that the NTWC use the bequest to establish an annual retreat for an emerging author across genres.
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