From revving sessions to poetry readings, occasional nudity to mullet-cutting, Deniliquin’s annual Ute Muster celebrates a certain slice of ’Straya. Add record rainfall and a city-dwelling writer carrying boutique beer: what could go wrong?
I brought this on myself, of course. Go to that ute muster thing out bush, I thought. Observe the crazy parade, chat with the rurals, artists and organisers, partake of the flavour – curly potato here, can of XXXX Gold there – stir in research and writerly flourish. Solid plan for investigating our inland psyche, or at least a subculture therein. And indeed things begin smoothly, departing Melbourne’s inner-city sunshine on a country drive in my little white ute.
But perhaps fate sensed something a touch smug in the premise. By the time my mate and I reach the Riverina region of south-western NSW, and then endure the two-hour car queue to get into this festival, our tents, bedding and clothes are soaked, and it’s almost 11pm. But we’re here, at the Deni Ute Muster, an event that sprang up in 1999 to celebrate “ute culture” and “Australian-ness” and now draws more than 20,000 people, 10,000 utes, Cold Chisel last year and Keith Urban tomorrow night. It has ultimately become Burning Man for bogans, Coachella for country folk, Bonnaroo for roo shooters, but right now, I see nothing but a few glistening floodlit “roads” and utterly dark mud paddocks. Oh, and pandemonium.
You see, Deni has just been served with an almighty downpour. Record rainfall, in fact. And when record rainfall tumbles down on some of the largest, flattest plains on the planet, you can guess what happens. It would be kind to say that the vehicles struggle for purchase. Most are at a complete bogged standstill, caravans are turned away, and finding a campsite becomes a survival game.
I see tents and take decisive action – a quick right over a culvert. Too late, I notice a grinning teenage attendant mouthing the words, “Don’t do it.” He giggles while I slide to an embarrassing halt. I spend the next five minutes engineering a white-knuckled three-point turn near a row of port-a-potties. A girl steps out of a loo and we make awkward eye contact. (I try to smile casually, but my face is pure panic.) I’m almost certain this is where I will camp tonight, in the mud, a metre from the toilets…
Photography by Damien Pleming