Deni ute muster: Australia's wackiest country festival

Nearly 20,000 people turned out for the Deni Ute Muster Image copyright Ian Lloyd Neubauer
Image caption Nearly 20,000 people turned out for the Deni Ute Muster

In 1999, the residents of Deniliquin, a small farming community of 8,000 people on a drought and flood-prone plain 720km (450 miles) south-west of Sydney concocted a plan to kickstart tourism.

Their answer: a festival that showcased two of the key themes of country life. Country music and utes.

The ute, a passenger car with a cargo tray (or pick-up truck), was first manufactured in Australia in 1932 after a farmer wrote a letter to the head of Ford asking him to build a two-in-one vehicle so "I can go in to church on Sunday and carry pigs to market on Monday".

Held over the October Labour Day Long Weekend, the Deni Ute Muster now attracts 20,000 people annually to a paddock outside Deniliquin.

Image copyright Ian Lloyd Neubauer
Image caption The annual world record attempt for most blue singlets in one place fell short

It holds two Guinness World Records: the largest parade of legally registered utes (9,763) and the event with the most blue singlets (3,959) - another Aussie icon created in the 1890s when legendary sheep shearer Jackie Howe tore the sleeves off his undershirt to free up his upper arms.

"The Deni Ute Muster is recognised as one of Australia's premier rural events," says Sandra Chipcase, CEO of Destination NSW, the tourism bureau for the state of New South Wales. "It encapsulates all the uniqueness and vibrancy of our rural heritage and culture."

Mud and rain

Attracting big-name performers has been key to the muster's success.

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Media captionThe wackiest festival in Australia

The inaugural event featured Australian country music legend Lee Kernaghan, with alternative rock band Spiderbait and Australian crooner Jimmy Barnes of Cold Chisel fame also making appearances over the years.

This year's event was headlined by four-time Grammy Award winner Keith Urban, who performed in howling rain as the remains one of the biggest storms to hit Australia in half a century turned the muster into a muddy swamp.

The bad weather didn't dampen the enthusiasm of the crowd. Rather it appeared to accentuate it, with many revellers gleefully rolling around in the mud.

"In the city when the weather is like this nobody goes out. But here nobody cares," says Bernie Green, one of more than 1,000 volunteers who manned a breathalyser station that raised money for driver education at a local high school.

"They love their utes, they love the country music, and come rain, hail or shine, everyone turns up."

The highest blood alcohol concentration recorded over the weekend says Green was 0.4% - a life-threatening reading according to that National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. And while binge drinking is highly prevalent at the muster, incidents of alcohol-related violence are rare.

"There is a lot of alcohol around, yes, but I have not seen too many issues," says Collin Jacobs, a police officer from the town of Wagga Wagga.

Non-stop entertainment

Live music is only one element of the muster. There's wood chopping, bull riding, a big top circus, chainsaw art, a whip-cracking competition, helicopter, camel and monster truck rides, a petting zoo, fireworks displays and the screening of the Australian Football League's Grand Final in Melbourne.

Image copyright Ian Lloyd Neubauer
Image caption Event highlights included big name music acts, a rodeo and the iconic ute muster

Utes and ute culture are also central to the entertainment. At the "Go to Wo" Competition, drivers in supercharged utes run a course while attempting to stop within a predetermined space.

The Milwaukee Barrel Race sees drivers race around a course outlined by barrels while trying not to knock any over. At the Circle Work Championship, judges award drivers points for executing the highest number of figure-of-eights in a muddy arena.

Image caption Best Chick's Ute - Katrina Cochrane's Playboy-themed creation

Then there's the Show n' Shine, where ute owners compete for a A$10,000 prize for the most beautiful and eccentric customised ute.

Katrina Cochrane of Sydney was the winner of the "Best Chick's Ute" category with a pink Playboy-themed invention featuring a custom leather interior, airbrushed paint job and a boudoir-style bed in the tray.

"I love utes," Cochrane says. "You can do much with them, you can go camping in them, they are so versatile. Who wouldn't want to own a ute?"

The overall winner of the Show n' Shine was Alan Hamilton of Townsville, who spent six years customising a Holden HSV ute with Lamborghini-style scissor doors, racing seats, "fibreglass everything" and 28 speakers and subwoofers.

"How much did I spend on it? I can't really put a figure on it," he says. "But around $100,000 and three ex-wives."

Image copyright Ian Lloyd Neubauer
Image caption 2017 will mark the 25th anniversary of the Deniliquin Ute Muster

Friendly country welcome

More than just an excuse to drink and hoon around in utes, the Deni Ute Muster provides an important opportunity for rural Australians to socialise and let off steam.

"It's a great way for people to relieve the tension and hardships of living off the land in marginalised rural communities," says Colin De Pagter of Heli Surveys, which offered festival-goers joy flights at the muster.

"A lot of these people live a long way from their peers, so an event like this offers a great chance to meet up with friends and make new ones."

General manager of the Deni Ute Muster Kate Pitt voices similar sentiments.

"Without a doubt there is a 'bogan' element to the muster," she says, using the Australian word for 'redneck'. "But these are the most beautiful and friendly people you'll find anywhere in the world."

Model Ally Pinnock of Wagga Wagga aka Ginger, the official mascot of the muster, adds: "Being friendly is a typical country trait and that comes from familiarity.

"Everyone know everyone's business, there's a real sense of family and strangers are always welcome. You can really feel the love out there."

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