A Sunburnt Childhood by Toni Tapp Coutts is a joyous autobiography about growing up in the Northern Territory. It was 1960, when she was five years old that Toni began a great adventure in life with her mother, her new step-father and two younger siblings.
They set off by truck from Katherine for a new life on Killarney Station owned by step-father Bill Tapp. After a journey of about 300 kms her exhausted mother asked how much further they had to go.
“Oh, this is it” he proudly declared as he pointed to a bough shed with no walls and an open fire surrounded by black pots and pans. Their new home was a rickety shed made of six wooden posts with dried branches layered over the top for a roof.
Communication with the outside world was by a two way radio powered by a 12 volt battery. There was no house, no running water or refrigeration, no toilet, no fresh fruit, no vegetables but there was 2,819 sq kms of playground for the children to explore.
Up to 30 women and children of the aboriginal and caucasian stockmen also called Killarney home. Toni and her brother Billie spent carefree days and many nights too, with the wonderful aboriginal women Dora and Daisy and their families. They regularly met king brown snakes, scorpions, big red back spiders, goannas and lizards. They learnt about bush remedies and bush carpentry from their new friends and found bush tucker such as wild bananas and oranges, bush potatoes, paddy melons and wild honey.
After two years, they moved 30 kms somewhere within the property to another bore area where the water was of better quality. They moved in one trip only, the whole family and everything they owned fitting into the back of the truck.
The Northern Territory has two seasons, the wet and the dry. “In the wet, one can expect torrential rain, flooding rivers, 40 degree heat in the shade and what seems like a million flies and mosquitos. In the dry, the temperature can drop to minus overnight, the cold biting into your bones and sucking every bit of moisture out of your body.”
Life and death are raw and exposed in this rugged countryside.
Why read it?
Toni is a country girl to her boot straps. Her writing is full of humour, pathos and a never ending love of people, of the world around her and of life itself. A Sunburnt Childhood is an illuminating and refreshingly tender autobiography. It is the perfect choice to discuss at a book club.
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 spent time at Varuna the Writers' House in Katoomba NSW in 2009 to work on A Sunburnt Childhood. Toni is a leader in her community in Katherine, working for the Victoria Daly Regional Council and organising leadership groups for women within the vast council area. She has been an elected member of the Katherine Town Council for more than ten years. A mother of three, she lives in Katherine with her husband, Shaun.
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