Where’s Larry?

Story by Richard Gulliatt

According to friends, however, none of this is contrived. “He has a sort of naïve fascination with the world that is completely genuine,” says friend and filmmaker Gary Steer. Gray’s partner and co-producer, Mary O’Malley, recalls that on their first date at a Kings Cross restaurant a few years ago, her new beau ended the meal by picking up the plate and licking it clean. As for his vagueness about times and dates, she has a ready explanation: “Larry reads time by the sun.”O’Malley winces at the Crocodile Dundee comparisons people often make, but some of the stories about Gray’s younger days do read like comedy. In 1986, he was one of four Australian kayakers who retraced the path of a 1931 British expedition that travelled 1,000 kilometres down the east coast of Greenland. Upon arriving in London, the intrepid Australian explorers were guests of honour at a formal dinner held by the Austalian-British Society in an 18th century mansion. George Pompei, one of the kayakers on the trip, recalls that Gray looked with awe at the huge sculptured gardens surrounding the mansion, then turned to one of their terribly English hosts and exclaimed, “Wow – what a great backyard!”

For the first 40 years of his life, Gray lived in Mallacoota, a Victorian coastal town near the NSW border that is so isolated that it was only connected to the State electricity grid in the 1970s.The son of a local builder, he was a natural tinkerer and explorer who built his first kayak as a teenager and paddled it up to Sydney, pulling into Circular Quay and camping the night with some winos near The Rocks. He became an Australian motocross title-holder, lived for a while on a boat (bought for $400) and made money leading kayaking expeditions around coastal inlets.

Gray still calls Mallacoota his “soul place”, and he’s almost evangelical about kayaks, which embody his ideal of self-suffient adventure: pack a tent and some provisions and take off into the sea. In the late 1970s, he sold his motorbike and, with the resulting $1,300, staged his six-month kayak journey up the east coast of Australia with fellow-Mallacootan Colin Russon.

The Greenland expedition in 1986 was his first taste of adventure filmmaking – he helped devise camera housings on the kayaks so that a film crew could record the trip for the ABC. Despite a near-death accident when he was trapped under a disintegrating iceberg, Gray developed a lifelong passion for the country and its Inuit, from whom he has learned much about kayaking.“It was just incredible how he could strike up friendships with the Inuit people,” say George Pompei, recalling the trip. “Larry has an almost boyish inquisitiveness: he loves to learn, he loves to fit in, and that seems to give him an extraordinary rapport with indigenous people of all kinds. A lot of the bush and kayaking skills he’s learned have come from them.”

Back in Mallacoota, Gray designed his own customised kayak, the Pittarak, which is now commercially manufactured. He also raised development money from Film Victoria to finance a couple of kayaking trips through Papua New Guinea, where he shot his own footage to make a demo-reel that got him through the doors of the Seven Network.

The eventual result was Islands of Fire and Magic, a one hour documentary directed by Gary Steer, in which Gray led a team of kayakers on a 2,000 kilometre journey through the remote northern islands of PNG, startling the local tribesman along the way by performing a fire dance and paddling his kayak across a boiling volcanic lake.Mary O’Malley was the publicist on the film and ended up sharing her flat in Bondi with Gray, thus beginning one of 1994’s more unlikely romances. O’Malley had just spent seven years working as a jounalist in Hong Kong and was so petrified of the ocean that she couldn’t even bring herself to put on a snorkel in the shower. But the way she describes it, Gray’s un-citified ways had a certain undeniable attraction.