The Heartbreak Bush Ball

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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One Sunday afternoon at Bessie Springs in 1989 a few of us were sitting on the log, the branch from a submerged tree, drinking Wild Peach wine while the kids swam over to the waterfall and jumped off the rocks into the water. Chrissie Holt and I came up with the idea of holding an old-time family ball, the Heartbreak Bush Ball. It had to be a family ball so that everyone could attend as no one would want to babysit, especially the young single women on the various stations.

Sitting on the log at Bessie Springs planning functions.

We set a date with the Heartbreak owners, Denis and Shirley Watson, made posters, and jumped straight into the organisation. Our staff and friends helped with food preparation and ticket sales: Tracey Sexton and Jude Hetzel from Balbirini, and Sarah Kendall and Beth Hales from McArthur. We hired the Sublimes, a girl band, who flew in from Darwin. The Sublimes were the party band of the day and the little girls loved them, as they made costume changes throughout the night. We had large platters of finger food and, of course, Heartbreak supplied the bar.

It was a night of glamour for everyone: bow ties, suits and cummerbunds came out from the backs of closets and the women ordered satin and taffeta gowns from town. The children were all dressed up in long dresses or white shirts and ties. We also had sashes for the Belle of the Ball, Matron of the Ball, Bull of the Ball, and best-dressed boy and girl. My mother and sisters Caroline and Kate came down from Katherine, all sporting new gowns in taffeta, because it was the trendy fabric.

About 100 people attended – that was virtually every person in the region. We danced on the cement floor of the back verandah and tables and chairs were set up on the lawns facing in towards the dance floor and the band. The young stockmen and girls flirted with each other while the little kids ran in and out of the dancers. The older generation sat at the tables and talked and kept a watchful eye on the kids. It was a beautiful night under the stars and a great success. We decided to hold a ball annually for the next couple of years as a fundraiser for the ICPA (Isolated Children Parent’s Association). Funds raised by the ICPA were used to send delegates to the state and federal conferences as well as pay for the Christmas parties and sporting event.

Chrissie and I used to laugh about this a lot – the fact that we could come up with an idea and everyone just believed in us and then we got on and made it happen. We said, ‘We’re going to have a ball, it’s going to cost you all twenty-five dollars, we’ll get a band down.’ And everyone’s response was, ‘Yeah, I’ll be there.’ People dressed up and they came.

One year I wore a strapless dress with a bit of fishtail thing – mermaid, I believe it’d be called now. I thought it looked pretty glam, especially as I was also sporting polka-dot stockings. The dresses all came from Diane Lane’s Krazy Birds Boutique in Katherine. We’d ring up Diane and say, ‘We want dresses for these sizes and these ages,’ and she’d send two or three for each person on the mail plane in those big, flat cardboard dress boxes. We’d choose the dresses we wanted, pack up the rest and send them back with a cheque for the ones we’d kept.

1988 Heartbreak Ball – Back: Caroline Tapp, Dominique Hammer, Ken Bright. Front: Me, Esme Hessell, Sarah Kendall and June Tapp. 

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.