The small town of Carnarvon is a long way from most places, but the community is now at the centre of Australia’s biggest story.
Carnarvon, Western Australia.
It’s a small coastal town prized for its fishing and seafood; a pocket of remote suburbia and rich fruit plantations at the edge of a vast scrubland that folds into the Indian Ocean.
A 10-hour drive north of Perth will just about get you there, with the town’s 4000-odd population ebbing and flowing as seasonal workers come and go and tourists stop over on their way north to Broome.
It’s a long way from anywhere – but on Wednesday morning Carnarvon was the most talked about community in the country.
Residents of the West Coast town were crying happy tears after waking to the news that local girl Cleo Smith had been found alive and well after an agonising 18-day search.
The four-year-old was found alone in a locked home on Tonkin Crescent, about 70km from the Quobba Blowholes campsite where she vanished nearly three weeks ago.
Cleo has already been reunited with her family, with her mother Ellie acknowledging her recovery by sharing a photo of Cleo on Instagram.
“Our family is whole again,” she wrote.
Local tackle shop owner Janice Baird has lived in Carnarvon for 16 years, and on Wednesday morning she couldn’t remember a time when the community had been generating such a buzz.
“I‘m getting emotional now even talking about it,” she told NCA newswire.
“It‘s the most amazing feeling that she’s alive and they’ve found her and she’s in Carnarvon… it’s best news I’ve ever heard I think, and I think the whole town is feeling exactly the same way.”
Other local residents contacted by NCA were similarly overwhelmed by Cleo’s safe recovery.
“Everyone is ecstatic,” remarked one local business owner who didn’t want to be named.
“I can tell you now it is all over, everyone is just so relieved,” said another.
“I’m so happy for the family after something so sad.”
Cleo vanished from her family’s campsite in the early hours of October 16 in an incident that was quickly deemed a suspected abduction.
The seemingly fruitless effort to locate the missing girl involved hundreds of police officers searching vast swathes of the countryside and hundreds of kilometres of roadside bins for evidence, with thousands of calls coming in to Crimestoppers during the nearly three-week ordeal.
In the end, detectives found Cleo at about 1am on Wednesday after ramming in the door of a locked home in the northern Carnarvon suburb of Brockman.
A 36-year old man has been taken into custody and is assisting police with inquiries.
No charges have been laid as yet.
Police Commissioner Col Blanch said a police team had found Cleo alone in one of the rooms.
“One of the officers picked her up into his arms and asked her ‘what’s your name?’ She said, ‘My name is Cleo’.”
Janice Baird says she can’t imagine what the detective who first spotted the girl must have thought.
“They opened that room in that house and you know, she just turns around and says ‘my name is Cleo’,” Ms Baird says.
“That‘s actually what you know, really sets me off with the tears. That Detective must have must have done the same thing, I reckon, as well.”
Speaking on Sunrise, one Tonkin Crescent resident said he was shocked that Cleo had been found in the home of who he though was a “quiet” neighbour.
“Everyone that knows the person that stays in that house, wouldn’t think that it would be him,” the man said on TV.
The neighbour told Sunrise his neighbour had, however, been exhibiting suspicious behaviour, and had been seen buying nappies despite not having children.
“We didn’t click on about who it was he was buying it for until now,” the neighbour said on TV.
It is undoubtedly the most extraordinary event to happen in Carnarvon in recent memory, but Janice Baird hopes that people will also remember the town for its many other qualities.
“We have some beautiful beaches, we have whale sharks, you literally go three miles three miles off the coast and there‘s whales everywhere in the winter,” she said.
“Carnarvon is a very transient town, everyone comes up this way to get out of the cold from Perth and the south … but the local people who live here and have lived here for a while know what an amazing place it is.
“We do have that really good community spirit here and it‘s just shown through the last few weeks.”