We’re here! 4000 or so kilometres travelled across deserts, mountain ranges, freeways and unsealed dusty roads and the convoy has finally reached Adelaide River for the races. We’re in early to the show ground, choosing a shady area under some tall gum trees to set up camp.
We form a circle with the cars, like wagons keeping out the Indians in the Wild West. From the comfort of our little compound we watch as the preparations for the race day get underway. Food stalls are being set up. Trees are trimmed. Marquees are erected.
More campers arrive and the show ground gradually fills. The first race is due to start at 2pm. We kit ourselves out in the best racing finery camping will allow and head into the fray.
Young men with slicked back hair walk arm in arm with girls teetering on high heels. The crowd is a glorious celebration of clashing colours and styles. Denim shorts and cowboy boots stand next to satiny prom dresses in the queue for the first glass of chilled wine or beer. Lacy fascinators wired into intricate swirling designs are perched atop freshly blow dried tresses. Akubras add an outback charm to business shirts and dark trousers.
The setting is pure Australian bush. The grass race track is surrounded by gum trees. The scent of wood smoke is in the air from a bush fire the day before. Plumes of smoke can still be seen in the distance. The sky is bright blue with a few white clouds to shade us from the heat of the tropical sun.
Men drink beer cans branded XXXX or Bundy and Coke. Women sip white wine from plastic wine glasses. Corporate tents are filling up with the glamour set, while caterers work hard to prepare food for the masses. There’s Asian style wok fried rice and noodles, pizza or roast lamb for the unaffiliated outside the marquees.
The racehorses are stabled at the back of the show ground next to the road for a quick getaway. They are impatient to get out onto the racetrack, they paw at the sand and toss their heads. Trainers hose them down with jets of cool water, leaving their lean muscled bodies gleaming wet in the sunlight. As their turn comes to race they are led out with numbers fixed to their saddles to identify them to punters studying form.
A jockey dressed in bright colours, pink and white like the galahs flying overhead, mounts a fidgeting racehorse who skips sideways as the small boned man grips tightly with his knees. Animals and men feel the tension, it’s all nerves in the lead up to the start. Race goers leaf through their form guides, pencilling in cryptic comments as they watch the horses circle in the mounting ring. “I like the grey” whispers the girl next to me.
The loudspeaker on the PA system is working at maximum volume, distorting words and phrases and forcing us to shout to make ourselves heard. At first we are confused as races being held in other states are called out, excited commentary working itself to fever pitch of arousal before fading away as the races end and the results are known. Then the first race at the show ground is underway. We lean against the cold metal of the barrier to get a better look. Hooves thunder around the track, horses flying through the air leaving a dusty haze hanging behind them. They are magnificent beasts.
A man in an oversize hat punches the air. His horse has won. He listens for the confirmed results to crackle over the PA and hurries off whooping to collect his winnings.
I watch the whistling kites circle above us on the rising thermals as the heat grows into the day. They swoop and glide, hovering over us to see if any little scurrying mouthfuls are disturbed by the human activity below.
It’s a family day. A little chubby cheeked toddler in a pastel pink and yellow cotton dress scrunches up her baby face in offence when her daddy walks ahead of her, encouraging her to walk rather than sit in his arms as she would prefer. She waddles after him with arms outstretched, sobbing, then is all smiles and kisses when he picks her up and strides away.
Bets are laid. Money won and lost. We are not big spenders in our group. A few dollars on the nose. A buck either way. Beryl and Olive use their experienced horse knowledge to make some good calls, but we won’t make our fortune today.
Another race starts and I make my way to the barrier to watch. They’re off. As they gallop towards the finishing line I see a riderless horse running inside the circle of the racetrack. His jockey must have taken a fall. The horse runs alongside the others as they finish and I see red blood, he’s been hurt. Race officials catch up with the horse and bring it to a stop. I am shocked. I can see flesh hanging, he urgently needs a compress to stop the bleeding. I look around, where’s the vet? The sweating horse is bleeding profusely, it’s too late. He tosses his head in convulsions, and staggers. I involuntarily clasp my hand to my mouth in dismay. “That horse is going to die”, says Beryl, in a calm matter of fact voice.
The St John Ambulance pulls up in front of the group of people standing helplessly by the scene. A big man standing tall among them hangs his head and is patted on the back by a friend. We assume he is the owner. A screen is quickly unrolled to hide the dying animal from the few in the crowd who are nearby.
We can only imagine the final moments of that proud creature. In racing, risks are taken and today number eight has paid the highest price.
Few people in the main throng of race goers have noticed what has happened. I feel slightly nauseated to hear them laughing and having fun as I walk through the crowd. It’s not their fault, little reference is made to the fate of number eight on the crackling PA.
The sun is getting low in the sky. Excitement builds as the horses make their way out to the start for the finale of the day’s racing, the Adelaide River Cup. The beer and wine has been flowing freely all day and dresses are starting to look a little crumpled, fascinators sit at an angle, speech is slurred. It’s been a big day. The crowd pushes towards the barrier to watch the big race. Cameras click, punters cheer their horses on and the racing day draws to an end as the Cup is won.
We retire to our compound to relax with a much needed cup of refreshing tea to chat about the day’s events and total up our wins and losses.
But it’s not over… the evening promises a band, the Funky Monks, and dancing. As the sun goes down we head towards the music to party.
The heaving mass of arms, legs and heads moving to the beat of the thumping bass is almost impenetrable. It’s intimidating, but we are here to party and we force ourselves in to the dancing throng. It’s hot like a sauna. We dance, sing and wave our arms to Wonderwall as the band begs the crowd to leave more room at the front. “There are young girls getting crushed here, move back”.
We are dancing with giants, dwarfed by the men and girls around us. Six foot is an average height here, they must be putting something in the water we laugh. The volume goes up, we pump our arms and sway our hips to the rhythm, dodging elbows, arms, legs of those around us. The crowd crushes tighter together and moves as one. It’s a heady mix. You have to give up your individuality and become part of the herd, dancing, jumping, swaying, staggering. It’s intoxicating without any need for alcohol. Not in our twenties any more we can’t keep up the pace for long and we retire to sit and watch the antics around us.
That night, no one gets much sleep. The band plays on well after bedtime for the Deans Marsh campers. I hear the music shift in the last set of the night, Aussie rock favourites ring out, Khe Sanh, Working Class Man and Men at Work singing Land Down Under. The crowd sings discordantly along. I could only be in Australia. Fire crackers bang, bang, bang above us in the early hours of the morning as revellers stumble their way back to their tents. As the human noises quieten to just the snoring from the man sleeping in the back of his ute beside us, I hear the birds begin to greet the dawn.
It’s been a big day and a grand experience to complete our time together as a travelling convoy from Deans Marsh.