In the cities, technology has transformed social life. But in Australia's vast rural areas, finding a mate is a bit more complicated.
They called it a wet T-shirt contest, but there were no winners or losers. Not many shirts, either.
One man wore nothing but a tool belt, which no one seemed to mind even as the wettest and drunkest of the young and rural Australians — both women and men — tackled each other in the thick red mud, before arising for hugs.
Two hours later, they appeared transformed: black ties for the men, dresses for the women. The Ariah Park Bachelor and Spinster Ball had officially begun. After all, 1,500 people didn't drive forever to this tiny town (population 493) just for giggles. They were searching for love.
"Yes, we're here to meet people," said Emme Williams, 22, a veterinary student who walked the fairgrounds in denim shorts with a few girlfriends before arriving at the ball wearing white. "I prefer the ones that don't yell at you, the ones who want to have a conversation."
In cities, courtship has become efficient to excess. Tinder and other apps can bring intimacy faster than food delivery. But for people trying to meet and mate across Australia's vast distances, it takes more planning and patience.
Bachelor and Spinster balls — or B&S balls, a fixture in the country since the 1880s, with about 30 each year — aim to help. And they are increasingly the catalyst for a matchmaking hybrid that combines the digital with the raw, communal and real.
The interaction starts online, with friends posting photos and descriptions of their friends in a singles Facebook group before each ball; Williams was featured scantily clad except for the wool of a freshly shorn sheep. The lucky ones move on to flirting via Snapchat.
But then real-life socialising takes over. All weekend in Ariah Park, which is about a five-hour drive west of Sydney, phones largely remained out of sight so eager was everyone for eye-to-eye contact.
"You're limited to three single boys in your town, and you're related to two of them," said Ebony Worland, 25, one of the ball's organisers. "These were built for single women and men to find love in the country, really."
Her own sister, Shelby Worland, 18, found a boyfriend at last year's ball. Selling tickets this year — about $100 for food, booze and live music, plus a goody bag that included a condom — she explained that her path to coupledom began when someone named Lleyton Neven, a friend of friends, started messaging her on Snapchat.
He lived about an hour away and after he arrived in Ariah Park on Friday, when most ball-goers show up, he found an excuse to seek her out.
"I didn't know how to actually meet, so I said my phone was dead and I asked if she could charge it," Neven said. "And now here we are!" Wobbly with beer and affection, he kissed his beloved on the cheek. "One year together!"
Not all stories from the balls end so happily.
Just ask Rippy, aka Shane Anthony Williams (no relation to Emme Williams). He's the unofficial photographer of the B&S scene, a railroad worker with a shaved head and gray goatee who has been snapping pictures for no charge since 2009.
On his Akubra hat (made famous outside Australia by Crocodile Dundee), he carries cattle tags imprinted with the names and dates of B&S balls, along with others marking specific memories. One commemorates a ball regular named Ezra who died at 19 in a car accident; another recalls a woman he knew from the balls who jumped to her death from a cliff with her 2-year-old child.
"It's hard finding love," Rippy said, noting that his wife of 30 years was somewhere nearby. "I'd hate to be single again. It's scary, dead set."
But that's why the balls matter, he added. Along with the awkward singles, the free-flowing beer and the backfiring pickup trucks known as "utes," turned on and off to create fiery explosions called key bangs, there are people who connected at balls and come back to socialise.
"Who here is a couple?" Rippy yelled, meandering through the crowd.
Within a minute, Jess and Matt Chown emerged. He works on sheep farms; she works at an aged-care home for veterans.
"We met at a ball in 2011," Jess Chown said. "I laid eyes on him and it was love at first sight."
"You know why I come? To do things I can't do in church," Matt Chown said. Standing at least 6-foot-3 and wider than a tree cut for timber, he kicked a trash bin, making a loud clang.
Everyone laughed, including his wife.
Jess Chown, 30, noted that they were all part of a group, "the Rummed-up Rednecks," that convenes on Facebook and at balls. "It's a way for us to let out our frustrations," she said.
Nearby, Emme Williams, the veterinary student, scanned the crowd for a bachelor. After a man offering her flowers moved on, one of her friends, Stephanie Papulia, 22, pointed to a guy in an expensive new ute.
"He's got a Land Cruiser and a mullet," Papulia said. "Ticks both boxes."
Williams pointed to another ute with large antennas. "The bigger the aerial," she said, "the more he's overcompensating."
Most of the men in Ariah Park were more "chivalrous," they said, than their behaviour might suggest. But some of the balls in other towns have been dangerous.
In 2017, two men were convicted of raping a woman at a ball in another state. Another man was sentenced to 18 months in prison last year for sexually assaulting two women at the Eel Skinners and Duck Pluckers B&S.
In Ariah Park, security staff members walked the fairgrounds continuously.
At the ball, held under the stars after dark, the main problem seemed to be food dye. No one could explain why, but for years, attendees have felt compelled to spit dye onto each other.
The rules against bringing it in were generally ignored. Every few minutes, someone was hauled off after being caught with dye.
Glitter, though, was allowed. It floated in the breeze, destined to stay in mullets forever.
And as was the case all day, the ball itself captured the silly, lonely and romantic.
The first band to perform, Whiskey Business, set the tone, playing upbeat country songs about love and traditional living.
Near the center of the stage, men bounced to the music. At one point, Emme Williams squeezed toward the front, pulling a girlfriend by the hand. Many of the men seemed awkward. Some of the women chose to be bold. "Are you taken?" they asked their intendeds.
But near the edges, there was more tenderness, as if the phases of courtship were rippling out in concentric rings.
There, stage right and near the back, a woman in a green lace dress danced with her bearded partner, swaying slowly at half the beat of the music. She leaned forward. Something he said made her laugh.
"I love you," she told him, staring into his eyes. "I love you."
Written by: Damien Cave
Photographs by:Matthew Abbott
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES