Heartbreak Hotel

Written by Toni Tapp Coutts

The following is an extract from My Outback Life, the sequel to the bestselling A Sunburnt Childhood, this new book captures Toni’s time living the Gulf country of the NT, running a cattle station with her husband, raising her children amongst snakes, centipedes and saltwater crocs, riding in rodeos and making new friends at the Heartbreak Hotel.  

Visit http://www.tonitappcoutts.com.au/ to purchase the book.


Since opening, the Heartbreak Hotel had been a hit with those who lived on stations close by, and with anyone who was driving along the Carpentaria Highway looking for a place to stop. With the business going well, Brian improved the hotel by putting in underground fuel tanks and buying a second-hand kitchen and dining complex, as well as a toilet and shower/laundry block, from the closed Francis Creek Mine near Pine Creek. He transformed these buildings into a hotel with front bar, kitchen and dining area, and a verandah along the front.

The name ‘Heartbreak’ was given to the Cape Crawford Roadhouse by Chrissie Holt, Chrissie Joll and me after there were a few big fights there. It seemed appropriate to christen the roadhouse with a name that reflected the activity that frequently took place there. Some of the regulars had a reputation of settling all arguments with their fists. Despite a number of serious fights resulting in someone being thrown down the six steps, leaving them with black eyes and broken noses, no one ever went off to hospital for treatment, nor did they hold a grudge. There was great respect given to those who could hold their ground, even if you were the one in the firing line, and the combatants would come together as the best of mates at the next gathering.

A couple of times we held a gymkhana on the airstrip over the road from Heartbreak. There wasn’t a tree in sight, and in the early years we had to take all our food in eskies and set up a picnic on the tables and chairs under a tarpaulin while being bombarded by flies, insects and ants.

In the boiling heat we had running races, egg and spoon races, and sack races for all age groups. The tug-o’-war between the station men was a highlight – the little kids loved to see the grown-ups in such a fierce competition. We held gymkhana events where horse and rider had to negotiate set courses around barrels or stick poles at full gallop. Bending and flag races on horseback were also held for the little kids. The crowd on the sideline was very raucous in encouraging the little ones to get across the finish line, handing out coloured sashes for the place-getters.

Normally we’d have to take eskies everywhere, particularly to the Christmas parties we held at Bessie Springs or at Balbirini. We used to take turns to host the Children’s Christmas Party for all the children from all the cattle stations in the area. We would fundraise to be able to buy every child a gift. The money and a list with each child’s name, age and sex was sent to Toyworld in Katherine and the presents would be sent down on the freight truck, all beautifully wrapped with each child’s name on them. Every year Santa had to be bigger and bolder than the year before. Once he arrived in a canoe, once in a helicopter, and once on a quad bike with a huge mailbag filled with presents. It was such a fun and joyous time that was a special day for all our families.

1991 Borroloola Rodeo.



Born and raised in the Northern Territory, Toni Tapp Coutts has had a varied career, from living on cattle stations, riding in campdrafts and barrel racing, to owning a variety store in outback Borroloola and a dress boutique in Katherine. She is a breast cancer survivor and Councillor on the Katherine Town Council. Her first memoir,
A Sunburnt Childhood, was published in 2016 and quickly became an Australian bestseller.

Having grown up on the massive Killarney cattle station near Katherine, NT, Toni Tapp Coutts was well prepared when her husband, Shaun, took a job at McArthur River Station in the Gulf Country, 600 kilometres away near the Queensland border.

Toni became cook, counsellor, housekeeper and nurse to the host of people who lived on McArthur River and the constant stream of visitors. She made firm friends, created the Heartbreak Ball and started riding campdraft in rodeos all over the Territory, becoming one of the NT’s top riders.

In the midst of this busy life she raised three children and saw them through challenges; she dealt with snakes in her washing basket; she kept in touch with her large, sprawling Tapp family, and she fell deeply in love with the Gulf Country.

Filled with the warmth and humour readers will remember from A Sunburnt Childhood, this next chapter in Toni’s life is both an adventure and a heartwarming memoir, and will introduce readers to a part of Australia few have experienced. 

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