'The last time I went to a ball like this I ended up running round the desert,' said Nancy, hitching up the hem of her silk ball gown and delicately picking her way between thorn bushes. 'In the end a bloke took pity on me and let me sleep in his car.' It is 7pm on a Friday night and Nancy and I are off to the Outback Ball, a legendary black-tie event held once every two years in the semi-desert of South Australia. The ball is being held on a dusty racecourse in Beltana, a once-busy railway settlement which now boasts only a lonely truck stop and petrol station. It is a remote spot - the nearest city is Adelaide, 600km to the south. To the north are the forbidding Tirari and Strzelecki deserts. All around are pancake-flat plains dotted with salt bushes and the bleached bones of long-dead cattle. As the setting sun paints the western sky with streaks of orange and purple, smartly dressed locals spill out of battered Toyota LandCruisers and buses. The men wear tuxedos and silver-buckled belts. The women are in ball dresses, matched somewhat incongruously with sturdy leather boots, and some wear Akubras, Australia's answer to the cowboy hat. Events like this are an institution in Outback Australia - an opportunity for people who live in tiny towns or on sheep and cattle stations to get together and have a good time. The best known events are called Bachelor and Spinster balls. Popular pursuits at these balls include being dragged around a field behind a 'ute' (a flat-bed truck called a utility) - a practice known as 'tailgating' - and driving your ute round in a tight circle burning rubber off the tyres and raising clouds of dust, called 'circle work'. A band is playing as we file into the ball enclosure and buy fistfuls of 'dusty dollars', cardboard tokens with which to buy beer and wine. People are dancing to a mixture of rock, pop and country and western music. One of the acts, Jungle Jooce, are a tribute band who dress up in a series of increasingly lurid 70s hippy costumes as they belt out well-worn classics by Elvis Presley and Neil Diamond. 'The more you drink, the better we sound,' yells the lead singer. The audience appear to be keenly following his advice. With a couple of hundred people jigging around in the dirt, we are soon choking on dust, which drifts like smoke in the glare of the coloured lights strung up around the stage. A pretty blonde girl sways unsteadily, clutching a can of beer, while some of the local lads engage in a bit of good-natured pushing and shoving. As Outback events go, it is relatively tame - no fights, no vomiting - and by 2am everyone drifts off, trying to remember where they parked their cars in the unending scrub. Nancy and I join a group of her friends in lighting a fire and drinking a bottle of red wine before crawling into our swags [sleeping bags]. Music drifts from distant encampments. Soon everyone is asleep. Our slumber is cruelly cut short at 6am when the sun rises in a cloudless sky and begins to hammer down with alarming intensity. The heat only adds to the inevitable hangovers and as I lie cocooned in my sleeping bag I feel like an over-cooked sausage roll. Someone seems to have rammed a tablespoon of flour up each nostril and my skin is as cracked and dry as a lizard's. We are all covered in dust. 'I don't know whether to go for a wash or have someone Hoover me,' says Marcus, 28, blinking at the sun. Nancy suggests heading to a nearby marquee for a restorative coffee, and egg and bacon rolls. It seems like an excellent idea, and we duly shuffle off. She had a good night, she says. And, unlike last time, she managed to retain her dignity.