The Centipede

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.

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There were times when my involvement in rodeo didn’t always mean riding and competing alone – it also meant being on the committee and cleaning up the rodeo grounds the week before an event. One day we were cleaning up the grounds for the rodeo the following week, which meant painting fences, mowing, and knocking down long grass, and setting up all the 44-gallon drums to be used as markers in the races and as rubbish bins. Nine-year-old Megan was with us.

I moved a drum and this giant centipede locked right onto my toe. It was about 20 centimetres long, not like those little browny-black ones you can find in other parts of Australia. This was one of those massive blue and yellow ones. I’d seen these big centipedes around and knew they were a hazard. They lived under things like logs and drums. Even though I knew the risks of coming across such a creature, you can get a bit complacent when you’ve lived all your life in the bush and never been bitten. And I paid the price for wearing a pair of Maseur sandals and not closed-in shoes, because this centipede’s bite caused an instant burning sensation. I began kicking around and the bloody thing was flying all over the place, still latched on to my toe. Eventually I managed to get it off by rubbing it up against the drum.

After the clean-up we were to have a meeting, and I didn’t really think I could not attend simply because of a centipede bite, no matter how painful. So I gritted my teeth and went through with the meeting – except all I could think was, It’s burning. I didn’t even have a chair to sit on – we were all sitting around on the cement. As we discussed what was going to happen at the rodeo – who was going to do the gate, who was responsible for the floats, had the grog been ordered, and all those important last-minute things – I was in agony and it was obvious to everyone around me.

Then Cissy Bright, who didn’t smoke, grabbed a tin of tobacco from one of the men and said to me, ‘I’ve heard that if you put a wad of damp tobacco on there it’ll suck the poison out and relieve it.’ And I thought that probably made sense, and tobacco was a natural product anyway, so it was unlikely to do me harm. Cissy grabbed a wad of tobacco, put some water on it and rolled it – she said she didn’t want to spit on it (and fair enough). She put it on the bite . . . and not a single thing changed. The meeting continued, and when it was over my foot was still burning and swelling. I’d never had a centipede bite but I knew the pain could go on for days.

I tried my best to drive the car home after the meeting, but it’s hard to focus on the road when your foot feels like it’s going to explode. I had to pull over. I still had a conundrum, though: we needed to get home. So I said to Megan, ‘You’re going to have to drive.’ It’s no secret that bush kids learn to drive young. The road was so straight we could see for ages and would have plenty of warning of someone coming towards us.

That didn’t mean I was just going to conk out and leave Megan to it. I was there with my foot up on the dashboard moaning and groaning, saying to her, ‘Don’t go too fast!’ Megan got us home safe and sound although the pain from the bite lasted for days and days.

About the Author

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.