Pick-up trucks, cowboy boots and a 24-hour booze-fuelled party in the Outback: welcome to modern-day dating in Australia’s bush, where swiping right is not an option.
For single men and women on remote farms or in tiny villages, “Bachelor and Spinster” balls offer a better chance of finding love than dating apps like Tinder.
The balls, a decades-old tradition in outback Australia, still attract thousands of young adults looking for love – or to get rolling drunk.
“It’s very old-school,” says Emily Pitt, a 24-year-old from the former gold rush town of Gulgong.
“It’s how country singles meet each other because you’re rural and there’s hundreds of kilometres between you.”
Surrounded by vast tracts of wheat and canola, Ariah Park, 400km west of Sydney, is better known for grain growing than big parties.
It has a population of just 500 and the main street – with its row of historic buildings with wide verandahs – looks preserved in time.
But on the last Saturday of October the usually peaceful village is inundated with pick-up trucks, which roar up to a dried-out paddock to deposit party-goers.
About 1,500 people showed up for this year’s outdoor drinking and dancing extravaganza, the second-biggest turnout in the event’s 32-year history.
While the ball has a black-tie dress code, the warm-up party is a casual affair, with people wearing scruffy T-shirts, shorts and flip flops and drinking heavily.
“It’s just fun, you meet people, you drink, you party,” says five-time BS partygoer Claudia Bailey, who travelled more than 200km to attend the celebration.
“We got here Friday night and haven’t slept yet so it’s just completely different, nothing like clubbing or anything. It’s just a different vibe,” the 21-year-old says.
When night falls, party-goers change into their formal attire and pack into a marquee, where they stomp their boots and toss their cowboy hats into the air as they dance to country rock tunes belted out by live bands.
The balls are notorious for binge drinking, casual sex and dangerous driving antics, and safety is a perennial concern for organisers.
Ariah Park revellers get unlimited alcohol for their AUD$120 (HK$700) entry ticket and a goody bag that includes a plastic beer cup and a condom.
Pre-ball entertainment once featured pick-up trucks – utility vehicles known as “utes” in Australia – tearing up the paddock in ear-splitting “circle work”.
That’s now banned, but “key banging” – making a vehicle backfire – has taken centre stage. Across the showground, deafening pops shatter the air.
“Mine is pretty loud, it’s pretty good, I get flames every time I do it pretty much. I get wedding proposals, I get people asking to marry me when I do it,” says Mandy Mannington, 22, from the nearby town of Marrar.
One man adds to the merriment by driving a sit-on lawn mower around in circles as smoke belches from its two vertical exhaust pipes, attracting loud cheers from onlookers.
Another reveller strolls past holding a long walking stick fashioned out of empty rum cans strapped together with duct tape, drawing shouts of “Gandalf!”.
BS regular Jack Beehag from Sydney says he likes the easy-going atmosphere of the balls.
“You just go up and talk to anyone really,” the 20-year-old says, noting the big difference to the dating apps popular in the city that allow people to chat online. “Everyone gets along here better.”
Medics are on standby to treat the inevitable injuries.
“Today already somebody’s had a bit too much to drink and fallen off a ute and had a bit of a head injury… you get everything like people falling over, rolling their ankles, hurting their back or what not,” paramedic Aaron Savidge says.
As the festivities continue and inebriation levels rise, pick-up trucks turn into makeshift camps, with many amorous attendees enticing someone back to their swag, an Australian-style bedroll, to spend the night.
“They used to have a sit-down dinner, strictly black tie and closed shoes,” says organiser Ned Fisher, referring to BS balls of the past. “Now it’s a modern sort of thing where it’s just more of a bit of a party… People just come here and have a good time and meet new people and just really let their hair down.”