"Bloody'ell," the man grumbles as he drops his tupperware container filled with honey chicken and fried rice onto the splintered wooden floor. Chunks of chicken and rice granules spill everywhere, but the man scoops them back into his container. Sweat drips from his forehead and his exposed arse crack as he does. His friend scowls and puts his hands on his head. "You're not gonna eat that?" Sweat dripping into the container, the bloke grins, shoves rice into his mouth and responds: "I paid 16 bucks for this."
This is Trangie, a tiny town that's part of the patchwork quilt of rural western New South Wales. Located 485 kilometres north-west of Sydney, the town hosts the annual Macquarie Picnic Races, or as some locals call it, an "unreal bush-doof with horses."
Trangie's population of 849 swells to nearly 3000 when the races come to town. Utes, cars and everything in between are nose-to-tail as they cram into the paddock-turned-campsite. A humble grassy knoll turns into a lethal dustbowl, and the arid heat made things feel much tougher. If you've ever seen Wake In Fright you get the idea.
By the time people start flooding the race precinct the temperature is already hitting the mid-30s. By the time racegoers are in their shirts, pants, boots and all, the heat is off the scale and by afternoon's end, has hit 40 degrees. It's worth remembering that genetically Australians are largely the product of northern Europe and in no way cut out for this sort of punishment. Sweat bursts from foreheads and armpits as clouds of flies take turns sipping on it. No one ever complains or even properly acknowledges the heat. The rural Australian survives an environment like this - one that is screaming for them to get the hell out - by methodically sipping from an ice cold can/bottle of liquor. It's an art form, and if you've seen King Of The Hill you get the idea.
By the time the first race has been run and won, most of the men have ditched the long sleeves with their oyster sweat patches for shorts and thongs. It is important for the men to pay their respects to the Trangie race day conventions with traditional race-day clothing, but it's a token gesture more than anything. Most of them strip down at the earliest convenience. For the women there is no such respite. For the most part they stand stoically in carefully-selected dresses and impressively high heels (some cave into blisters and throw on a pair of thongs throughout the day).
Behind the grandstand is the betting tent. Some punters waddle around looking to place a bet, while others crave the shade. In the shadow of the colossal TAB van are some bookmakers. While old enough to retire and take the pension, there's little chance of that happening. These doyens live for Trangie. They're sharp, cunning, overtly professional and very adept at picking the pockets of young pissheads. Dressed in weather-torn Akubras and dust-bitten sandals they catch your eye, suck you in and make sure you don't walk away without chucking 25 bucks on a "born-and-bred winner."
When one old timer upps the odds on a horse and makes a mint from the winnings, a gaggle of angry gamblers sprint to his desk and wave their losing tickets in his face. He grins with joy.
For those not blind to the symptoms of heat-stroke, the grandstand becomes their kingdom for the afternoon. Beers go down like water, brains and kidneys shrink with dehydration, and a merry delusion sets in.
The bar is the best place to make sense of this crowd. If you watch closely you can see the pupils darting around behind the sunglasses as men and women nervously eye each other. The men of mating age fold their shirts just high enough on the arm to show bicep definition, while the women flaunt daring amounts of cleavage in backless dresses.
Many of these people spend most of their time at the bar. The many postures of bar leaning is another subtle art of the Trangie race day experience. A couple in front of me seethe over a bet. "That horse is second-favourite, I'm gonna chuck 30 on it to win," he says. "Don't waste your money on that one. Pick the favourite if anything," she says. They both frown and sip their drinks then look away from each other.
As the races go on the mood begins to sour. It is surely an inevitability with the weight of negative environmental factors baring down on the patrons. Sunburnt, stumbling drunks get more and more frustrated as the notes are summoned from their pockets and into the metal tins of grinning elderly bookies.
The betting tent becomes a kaleidoscopic spew of shirt patterns, burnt-red foreheads and pummelled fascinators. People are shoulder to shoulder, sweating, panting, diving into pockets to fetch money, straining to pay attention to conversation, over-stimulated, under-nourished, and restoring sanity and size to the brain and kidneys with sips of beer. I have to sit down and be alone for a while.
Then, as post time nears, the crowd thins and migrates to Trangie's waterholes, such as the classical Royal Hotel. Finally, the relentless ball of fire in the sky disappears leaving behind a sea of pink faces. The flies also disappear tag-teaming their pals the mosquito on the way out.
Suddenly, a makeshift dance floor becomes a hive of activity. With all inhibitions boiled off Daryl Braithwaite's suitable anthem 'Horse's' breaks from the speakers and the crowd finds its voice. It's messy though spellbindingly Australian.
A short walk from the bar, across the wooden, splintered ballroom, is a makeshift kiosk. Hundreds come and go, dragging their legs across the floor like a dingo whose just eaten one of the several naturally occurring hallucinogens that exist in the Australian wild. What they get is a 16-dollar tupperware tub filled with honey chicken and fried rice, carefully prepared by a cheerful Chinese woman and dished into the tubs by her two daughters. Chinese restaurants are a ubiquitous feature of most country towns in the NSW central and north west, their descendants having chased the gold rush out here in the mid-19th century.
It is here I witness the two men debating whether to eat the chicken and rice they'd just spilt on the floor.
With the pubs shutting their doors just after midnight, the crowd floods out of the doors and onto the streets. By then, several blokes have their shirts wrapped around their heads or draped over their shoulders, while the girls that chose to keep their high-heels on are limping, clutching at their feet from the pain of their blisters. The moon might be at its highest but the words still ring around the crowd: "It's bloody hot."
Then it is a zig-zagged walk back to the campsite, possibly via a service station where despite the heat you will order a steaming hot meat pie, before retiring to your mosquito-infested swag for some interrupted rest before the next day's hangover and sunburn.