It's 8.30am on a cold Tuesday and the Carcoar cattle sale is under way. Farmers have been doing it tough here in the NSW Central Tablelands. Dams are empty, land is burnt-brown, roads are crammed with trucks carting hay to keep stock alive.
Michael Burke from the Central Tablelands Livestock Exchange says there's some good news today: prices are up. I'll have to take his word for it; it's hard to understand the auctioneer. Fifteen hundred head of cattle are being sold, some reaching $3.65 a kilo. That's much better than recent sales when 5000 beasts were being offered as farmers desperately sought to unload animals before they died in the field.
Thomas Icely, the spiritual founder of Carcoar might be surprised by the technology of today's cattles sales, such as electronic ear tags and automatic weigh stations, but he'd instantly recognise the core ingredients: drought, unpredictable prices, the perpetual gamble of life on the land.
Carcoar, which sits off the Mid Western Highway between Bathurst and Cowra, bills itself as "the town that time forgot". Once a rival to Canberra as the nation's capital, it used to be the chief administrative and commercial centre of the Lachlan river. It's the third oldest settlement west of the Blue Mountains (after Bathurst and Wellington) and in its heyday, like now, cattle and sheep farmers were in abundance.
First roamed by the Wiradjuri, the site by the bubbling Belubula River was gazetted in 1839 at the request of Icely – the largest landowner in the area. He chose well. Carcoar lies in a protected bowl beneath Mount Macquarie.
As you descend towards the village from the highway, past the Church of the Immaculate Conception, St James' Presbyterian and St Paul's Anglican, you're transported to a historic streetscape that could have been designed by an Aussie Walt Disney. Within four streets you'll discover a living town that still looks like19th-century Australia.
Belubula Street is an architectural treasure (the entire town has been listed by The National Trust NSW), though only one pub, the Royal, remains. Stroll around and you'll find one of Australia's finest preserved courthouses (often used as the set for period movies and TV dramas); two banks that witnessed historic crimes that shocked the nation; and the resting place of the Carcoar Chronicle, published from 1863 to 1943.
Strange as it may seem, Carcoar's only bus shelter, on Icely Street, is a great place to start your tour. Buses must be infrequent, because its interior contains a superbly illustrated history of the town. The park behind it is named after "local boy" Kurt Fearnley, the three-time Paralympic gold medallist who has crawled the entire length of the Kokoda Track. Carcoar's population is 200, which means it probably has the highest ratio of museums to residents anywhere in Australia.
The imposing Carcoar Court House sits across the road from Kurt Fearnley Park. The magnificent colonial-era building witnessed the trials and committals of bushrangers, and at least one murder inquest.
"The Mad Axeman of Carcoar" doesn't sound like a great tourism drawcard, but it's a historic crime. In September 1893, 26-year-old Edwin Glasson strode into the City Bank "with his tomahawk" and murdered the bank manager and a female customer.
In 1863, two bushrangers made Carcoar's Commercial Bank the site of Australia's first daylight bank robbery. Today, the building houses the nation's strangest private toy museum. Over 30 years, the owners have gathered 2000 character-based models, badges, board games, jigsaws, pencil sharpeners, puppets and stuffed toys.
Don't leave Carcoar without visiting the unique hospital museum on the edge of town. The hospital here provided continuous medical treatment from 1861 to 2013 and, thanks to volunteers, now provides a history of medical care in rural Australia.
Imagine falling from your horse in the 1870s, breaking limbs and puncturing your lung. You are on this very operating table, attended by Carcoar's only doctor. There are no anaesthetics, no surgical hygiene and the doctor's children are there in the operating room, wondering if you'll survive ...
Steve Meacham travelled as a guest of Central NSW Tourism.
Dairy Park Farmstay at Mandurama, about 20 minutes' drive from Carcoar, offers simple farmstead accommodation, including Thummy Jacks, a self-contained cabin with 180-degree views. See dairypark.com.au
Carcoar Hospital Museum, 7 Eulamore Street, see centralnswmuseums.orangemuseum.com.au
20th Century Toy Museum, 5 Belubula St, see carcoarvillage.com
Carcoar Court House, Icley Street, Carcoar, see centralnswmuseums.orangemuseum.com.au