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Melbourne Tried to Have a Tomato Festival and It Was a Violent Mess

I saw a guy almost blinded when his glasses were smashed. I saw a kid in a tiger suit crying on the ground. I saw a woman struggling to pick herself up among the fury of legs and arms. I saw things I'll never unsee.

Melbourne revelers partying in tomato pulp and possibly blood. All photos by Christopher Callil

La Tomatina is a Spanish festival where tourists throw tomatoes at each other and seemingly have a great time. It looks fun and somehow culturally significant, which explains why Melbourne tried to recreate it at the Flemington Racecourse on Saturday. But somehow Melbourne's version became a tomato bloodbath featuring injuries and people mistaking it for Stereosonic with food waste.

When I arrived the tomatoes were in a huge rotting pile and people hadn't started flinging them yet. The crowd, dressed in brightly-colored costumes that had nothing to do with anything, ground against each other while a DJ played club bangers. At first I thought the heavy house soundtrack was out of place for a food event, but the advertising girls in tight shorts assured me everything was fine.

Half party, half farmers market, this midday purgatory continued for some time. The sun was hot, even though it was overcast, and I began to wonder exactly why we were dancing. My queries about the music and dress code were soon replaced by genuine fear as the first tomato flew.

Tossing semi-rotten objects at your siblings as a kid is fun. Five thousand strangers pelting each other with acidic fruit is a little more intimidating. With adrenaline and fat bass pumping friends turned on friends and we did what we were all born to do—we threw tomatoes.

As I ran through the crowd I realized getting hit in the face with a tomato hurts. But as you take that first impact, and the rogue passata fills your nostrils, you gain a bit of nerve. There's something primitively satisfying about smashing fruit into a person's face. So I shoveled some slush into my hands and pushed further.

Shoving between some body builders (presumably) and old ladies (why were they here?), I remembered my conversation with one of the coordinators earlier that day. She was lovely and assured me all the tomatoes were very old, soft, and completely safe. "Oh! By the way," she added, "Have you signed the waiver?"

The author after being hit in the face a bunch of times

She was right to double-check. There was nothing safe about this. I saw a guy almost blinded when his glasses were smashed. I saw a kid in a tiger suit crying on the ground. I saw a woman struggling to pick herself up among the fury of legs and arms. It was like Platoon, I saw things I'll never unsee.

The music didn't stop the whole time. The DJ kept the ceaseless electronic beat thumping like war drums. I was consumed by it. Who was a friend? Who was an enemy? All I knew was that I had a tomato.

Then through the screams came a muffled voice, barely audible over the slosh of tears, blood, and exploding romas. Only a few people stopped to listen.

"Everyone! Please, listen!" said the voice over the PA. "Stop throwing tomatoes! I repeat. Stop throwing tomatoes immediately!"

Almost no one paid attention. People kept throwing tomatoes at one another. There was no sense of time or place, only the battle. The bloodshed continued.

"Everyone! Please! People have fallen down in the tomato pit! We need to get to them! Everybody! Stop throwing tomatoes!"

This time more people listened and held their friends back. A lady dressed as a giant cat began screaming at people to stop. "Can't you see there's people hurt in there!" she yelled.

Gradually the onslaught abated. Senses returned. We realized something was amiss. One by one, we raised our open hands to show we weren't throwing anything. This was awkwardly misinterpreted as a celebration and—like the sheep we are—we started cheering stupidly while medics carrying stretchers pushed passed.

It was not one of Melbourne's prouder moments.

From where I was, I could see three people had slipped and hit their heads and been trapped beneath the slosh. They must have been there for quite some time.

As medics rushed to their sides, we stood and watched them apply neck braces and shift them onto stretchers. On the fringe, some people were still indifferently throwing tomatoes. They had to be told to move away. In a matter of minutes a couple of ambulances came pushing their way through the crowd.

This sort of wrapped up the day. The ambulances put a bit of a dampener on the event. People began to collect their stuff.

But despite the somber end, I still had fun. And so what if our Melbourne version doesn't compare to the ­­­Spanish original? Who cares if there were a few blokes showing off washboards, or if every second person was a bit hacked on VB? If we were going do something, I'm a bit chuffed we chose to do it as dangerously as possible. Grass sucks, let's do it on concrete.

Follow Jack Callil on Twitter.