For one weekend a year, a dusty Australian town raises a boot to the ute
Back in 1933, a farmer’s wife from Gippsland, Australia, wrote to the head of the Ford Motor Company’s outpost in Melbourne with a quandary.
“My husband and I can’t afford a car and a truck,” she said, “so can you build a vehicle that we can use to go to church on Sunday and that my husband can use to take the pigs to market on Monday?”
Amazingly, in an act of consumer responsiveness reserved these days following a public PR disaster or shouty tweet, Ford Australia agreed. The firm gathered its brainiest brains in a room and had a long, hard think. After a bit more thinking, a lightbulb moment: why not mash the benefits of a car with the practicality of a pickup truck? They called it… the utility vehicle. Or ute, for short. Fundamentally, its ethos was the opposite of a mullet: party in the front, business at the back. Yet it was a concept that proved to be very popular with people with haircuts that were the other way around.
Words and Photography: Rowan Horncastle
Utes started flying out of the showrooms. So much so, that now one in five cars sold in Australia is a ute. And just like Vegemite and swearing, they’re now part of the cultural fabric. Actually, it goes further than that. The adoration for the iconic tradies’ wagon of choice has reached religious status. And for one weekend, I’m in ute Mecca.
To get there, go west from Sydney – over the lush rolling hills, past the 15-metre-tall concrete ram at Goulburn and continue into a horizon that’s so dry it’s flooded with a glassy mirage. Done that? You’re about halfway there. Keep driving until your windscreen is wearing a five o’clock shadow of flies, past eight or so hours of turgid ready-to-pop possum and kangaroo road kill, and then, out of the orange nothingness, a ute – hanging from a 30ft pole – will spear out of the ground. “Deniliquin, Ute capital of the world” the plaque under it reads. You have arrived.
For 362 days of the year, Deniliquin is a quiet farm town. But for one weekend, the town’s population nearly triples, as 20,000 people drive (some fifty hours from the other side of Australia) to make the annual pilgrimage to the Deni Ute Muster. To outsiders and the scathing press, it’s a primitive and near-Neanderthalic bush party in an arid part of nowhere Australia. But to the attendees, it’s a time to celebrate country life and all things Australian: loosen up, watch rodeos, listen to country music, crack some whips, chainsaw some wood, make diesel-fuelled fires and amend their chemical balance via copious amounts of alcohol. But, most importantly, bow at the altar of ute.
It’s also one hell of a party. But I, a quasi-posho media type from West London, am a pariah. One dispatched to learn the ethnographic ways of plaid and car-shaped pickups… but my immersion has not got off to a good start. First of all, I did not get the uniform memo. Cowboy boots, jeans and an Akubra hat are a must, while mirrored wraparound ‘speed dealer’ shades, a blue ‘singlet’ vest (Deni actually holds the world record – certified by Guinness – for the most blue singlets worn at the same time) and mullets are optional but encouraged. Owning none of these, I stick out like a cybergoth at a school disco.
But having negotiated the entrance and a demonic clown (plus two middle-aged men pogoing in kangaroo costumes), I enter the ‘ute paddock’ gingerly. It’s infamous for being the rowdiest, basest campsite of the festival. Possibly on earth. Imagine the mentality of District 9 on the set of Mad Max with Borat’s costume department, and you’re sort of there. It’s a sprawling refugee camp from a near-future drunken tragedy. One where engines constantly ring out on the red line, whips crack and chants bellow as people down whatever alcohol they can get their hands on, out of anything they can get their hands on. The air is thick, clogged with smoke and diesel fumes as seemingly endless lines of utes are side-saddled by anorexic khaki tents more akin to flammable disposable coffins. The mood is wild and electric, teetering on the edge of chaos while occasionally dipping its toe in the waters of mayhem. But, by Jove, it’s exciting and stimulating for the senses.
With more mankinis and blow-up dolls than a Magaluf stag do, there’s plenty to make your eyes widen. Yet it’s the cars that are the real draw. To us ‘poms’, utes are completely alien and bizarre. Aside from the rare rogue import, they simply don’t exist on our roads. Their two-seat, big-motor-up-front, big-space-out-back philosophy actually makes complete sense – it’s solid solution engineering. And being low, long and with hefty V8s under the bonnet, their proportions are bloody fantastic – especially when garnished with a catalogue of modifications.
Everywhere I go, folk parade their pickuppy wares to me; constantly heckling to take pictures of their pride and joy. If I don’t, they barrage me with abuse about my sunburn. And there are many ways that you can outwardly express your interests and identity via a ute; furnish it with a flag, for instance (actually, make that six flags), a custom number plate, a variety of stickers, a honking great bull bar or, like most here, all of those things at once.
Unfamiliar with the lexicon of Planet Ute, I enlist the help of Simon Thompson, a six-foot-something defensive bat against the locals’ banter and a handy translator. He’s a Deni veteran. His parents formed part of the initial community that set up the event to try and entice people to the area and give the local economy a lift 20 years ago. He’s been to every single one; having partied his way through his youth, he now exudes power within the paddock.
“It’s harmless,” he says through his beaming smile. “They’re just kids having a good time. Some are probably mine… whether I know it or not.”
Simon shows me around, acting as a beer-swigging encyclopaedia to identify the thousands of utes to my untrained eye. He rattles off models and specs simply from hearing their straight pipes scream, like some sort of ute Shazam.
“That’s not proper,” he says wagging his finger at a jacked-up Nissan Patrol splurting a V of acrid diesel from its exhaust stacks. “I remember when this place used to be full of ‘proper’ utes.”
See, the demise of car manufacturing in Oz brought the death of the ute as we know it – so the younger generations are forced to arrive in aesthetically modern and culturally ersatz pickups. But it also means the old cars are celebrated more than ever.
“Fair bloody dinkum, mate!” a dusty, dreadlocked and drunken zombie land crab shouts. “Check out the sooters on that!” he says as he points to a rusty Holden Kingswood. Before I can even fire up Urban Dictionary to try and translate his words into English, he takes off his cowboy boot, fills it with beer and toasts the golden sunset. “That ute is flasher than a rat with a gold tooth,” he says before seeing off a size 11 worth of Victoria Bitter and returning to a catatonic state.
The main event for the utes is the annual Circlework Championships. Think of it as an agricultural automotive Olympics that comprises three driving disciplines: Barrel Racing, Go to Wo and Circlework. Each year, the nation’s top drivers congregate to compete in the hope of being crowned king or queen. To do so requires a complete disregard for mechanical sympathy and a healthy appetite for dust.
“I just don’t want to look like a goose,” Bradley from Bordertown says to me nervously as he’s breathalysed before his final run. With cattle tags hanging like agri-epaulettes from the rim of his hat, he grips the wheel and narrows his gaze. “CLEAR PROP!!!” he screams as he fires up his 5.7-litre V8 and pins it to the red line. He doesn’t back off for the next 60 seconds, pirouetting around the arena in front of thousands of spectators as his flags whip through the air and tyres send mud into the stratosphere all to the sound – I kid you not – of Men at Work’s ‘Down Under’.
Unfortunately, it’s not enough to beat Reece Haggerty, who takes home the glory in his controversial V6 Commodore. See, out here the V8 still reigns supreme. But the crowd went wild as he managed to set wet dirt – a substance not normally known for its flammable qualities – alight through dogged determination to blow the rubber off his rims with the mother of all burnouts.
Heading back to camp, I’m welcomed back to the infamous party pit with quite the Australian handshake: a clavicle-crushing rugby tackle to the floor from a man built like a D battery. It’s my bad, though. Befuddled with jetlag, I walk directly into the path of two men running in opposite directions but tethered together by an industrial crane strap wrapped around their waists. As they sprint for opposing horizons, they hit the inevitable point of tension and come to a very rapid stop as their organs contemplate bursting. Well, they would have had if I hadn’t got in the way. Why? There is no reason – it’s just dumb fun.
This proves to be a running theme of Deni. Booze is obviously a major benefactor in the entertainment but there’s no barrier to entry or prejudice. Women have a go at rupturing a spleen. People in wheelchairs have a go. It’s raw joie de vivre and obviously infectious. It’s also doing its bit to add community and bring people together. Australia is a big place, and it gets lonely in the arid farmlands. Farmers are among those at highest risk of suicide in Australia – taking their own lives at twice the rate of those in urban areas. And, as stupid as it sounds, if wrapping a crane strap around your waist and running in the opposite direction of a mate in order to test Newton’s Third Law counters that, it’s only a good thing.
See, you’d come to this part of the world expecting total nothingness, but for one weekend you get palpable weirdness, utter enthusiasm and a healthy dose of good times. I’ve seen things that I would have never, ever seen had it not been my job to stay sober enough to remember them. I’ve seen community, I’ve seen a form of motorsport I never knew existed, I’ve seen a man that looks like Action Bronson wear a suicide belt of beers and endlessly crack a whip. And it was all because of one thing: the ute. If it weren’t for the ute, I wouldn’t have seen any of it. More specifically, I wouldn’t have seen any of it if it weren’t for that letter from the farmer’s wife. So pour out a drink and raise a glass/shoe to her, would you?