Where’s Larry?

Story by Richard Gulliatt

“We would go camping in these beautiful remote wilderness spots,” she says, “and Larry would go diving for mussels and come back and cook them on the fire. We would spend the day prising oysters of rocks and then tie a rope to a bottle of champagne and trail it in the water to cool it down. We’d go kayaking, swimming with seals – a lot of things I had never done before.”“I wanted to show her the amazing world under the water with a mask and snorkel, because that would be a great starting point for going on adventures together,” recalls Gray. “But I couldn’t for the life of me get her into wearing a mask underwater. So I introduced her to the idea of having a shower with the mask on.”

Within a year, O’Malley found herself socialising with Inuit on the Greenland icecap as her new partner went kayaking through icefloes. Gray had found out that Eric Phillips, an Australian adventurer, was going to trek across Greenland with two friends and arranged to join the trip as a cameraman.

He and O’Malley lined up financing from the ABC network in the United States for a film, Chasing the Midnight Sun, which was directed by Michael Balson. The film has since been screened around the world and led to Gray and co-cameraman Wade Fairley winning an Emmy award, the most prestigious television prize in the US, for electronic camera work.From their small flat near Bondi, O’Malley and Gray now run Primal Vision Productions, the company that turns their wilderness wanderings into documentary films. In 1996, they drove up to Yirrkala, an Aboriginal community in Arnhem Land, bearing two unusual objects: one was a bamboo raft Gray had designed, modelled on the vessels of the Macassan traders of South-East Asia; the other was an electric didgeridoo he had invented in his spare room in Sydney.
The idea was that they would sail the craft – complete with sleeping hut – around the croc-infested waters of Arnhem Land until they got to Elcho Island, where Gray would demonstrate his “cyber-didge” to the tribal elders of the Yolngu people and, he hoped, get their seal of approval. Which is pretty much what happened, as captured in the television documentary Journey Between Worlds. Its Rousseau–like depiction of Aborigines living in a tropical idyll, far from the interference of white society, mirrors Gray’s ideal of man and nature in harmony.“The New Guineans, the Aborigines – they are keepers of the planet,” he says. “They have a deep spiritual understanding of the world that we skip over. I get that feeling when I am kayaking and I’m looking at the horizon and the sky and the water – on a long trip, you start to get in harmony with it. The colour of the clouds will tell you there’s shoal water ahead; you’ll see a green look about them that tells you perhaps there is an island over the horizon. If you were in a powerboat, you would be going too fast to see it. Their world is a slow world, but it is actually a timeless world. It’s another way of seeing time.”
Not that he hasn’t adjusted to urban life. “I like Sydney – I like the speed of it,” he says cheerfully as we hurtle through the eastern suburbs in his car one afternoon, a driving display that shows his love of G-forces hasn’t waned in the urban environment. He and O’Malley are planning a series of documentaries that could take them back to Greenland, Mallacoota and the south coast of NSW over the next few years. Meanwhile, he’s working on his latest invention, a cockroach catcher that he assures me would radically transform Sydney’s ecosystem – if he could only get it patented.Recently, Gray found out that a kayak-maker had stolen his Pittarak design and was making cheap unauthorised copies, so he got Consumer Affairs to shut the operation down. “I’ve been ripped off before,” he admits. “People think I’m from the country and try to take advantage of that. But I’m not any more – I’m from the city now, so I’m getting streetwise.”