“Tits out for Barnesy!” a middle-aged man yells, almost hopefully, over the opening strains of “Working Class Man”. Some people laugh, but no-one within earshot obliges. The people around me nurse beers and cans of rum, and are dressed almost entirely in blueys and sunburn. Cold Chisel lets rip. The crowd, though taxed by an emotional Collingwood victory earlier that day, definitely knows all the words…
The Deni Ute Muster has a bit of a reputation. We were warned that it’s a glorified Bachelor & Spinsters Ball, drunk hoons race each other over the world’s largest natural plains, people burn your vehicle if it isn’t a ute, there’s shagging on tray-backs, and guys with southern cross tattoos and Australia flag capes fully get into fisticuffs over chicks, eh. At its most basic manifestation, it’s 24,000 people and 10,000 utes driving out to Deniliquin to party down for a weekend with a largely agricultural/rural crowd, though we did at one point meet an electrician from Canberra.
My cousin and I decided that going to Deni would therefore be a kind of edu-tainment; we’d learn the truth and we’d also get to rock out to Chisel and Lee Kernaghan who were headlining the festival. We were also attracted by the opportunity to help set a world record – most number of people wearing blue singlets simultaneously (record smashed by over 1000!).
We had no ute, so my cousin’s trusty 1985 Volvo had to suffice; and plus, there was space in the back to sleep in after a hard day’s muster. We loaded it up with an esky full of pineapple cruisers, donned our fresh blue singlets from Best & Less, and began the two hour drive west through the canola fields in the glare of the setting sun.
On arrival the Muster site resembled the fairground scene from Tomorrow When the War Began, or any refugee camp with a Ferris wheel and a thick haze of campfire smoke/burnt rubber rising out of Mallee scrubland. Our lack of ute meant we had to park in the “family area”; this also unfortunately left us exposed to an adolescent crime gang who stole our entire esky of alcopops on the first night. Late on the following day we found it upturned in an irrigation ditch with only a tin of apricots and some cream cheese left.
There were some interesting politics at Deni, mainly along the lines of rural separatism. “WHO HERE HATES CITY SLICKERS?” one warm-up act yelled, to a full-throated response by the milling crowd (last week in Deniliquin, angry residents publicly burnt a copy of the guide to the draft report into water reallocations along the Murray – if you want to witness the city/urban divide, look no further). There was a bumper sticker of someone flipping the bird and the slogan “TERRORISTS: F–K ‘EM”, as well as a lot of anti-environmentalist sentiment – “SAVE THE BUSH- BULLDOZE GREENIE” read one bumper sticker for sale. We also spotted a pashing couple wearing, respectively, the Eureka and Confederate flags as capes, and a guy in a T-shirt reading “AUSTRALIA: We eat meat, we drink beer and we speak F*%@ing ENGLISH!”
At one motorbike stunt event, the commentator monotoned “if something goes wrong we’re going to have like four, maybe five people killed or seriously injured” as bike after bike backflipped over Holden girls in short shorts who were standing on a giant inflatable barricade. The crowd cheered. Despite all this, Deni was one of the most peaceful festivals I’ve attended; I didn’t see a punch up or even any verbal agro to speak of outside of the Pro Wrestling ring. People seemed on the whole to be lovers, not fighters. We witnessed a wedding apparently sponsored by Bundaberg Rum- all the wedding party sipped on cans throughout the celebrant’s speech, which explicitly mentioned the couples’ love of the major sponsor of the muster. There was philanthropy too. Deni was raising money for breast cancer research this year, probably the only place where breast cancer fundraising is done by selling flashing pink stick-on nipples. “Yer all love boobs so let’s do something to save them!” hoarsely shouted one woman collecting donations.
We spent our nights wandering around the exotic ute part of the camp, crashing into people’s campfires and trying to mooch drinks to replace our lost loot. Some guys who were apprentice builders had constructed a two-storey wooden home and gave us a tour; their neighbours offered to angle-grind the back off the Volvo “and turn it into a ute, like we done over here”, showing us their hastily welded former sedan. You don’t get that kind of community spirit at Parklife, your honour.
One of my favourite moments was hanging out with some great American evangelists who had set up in a caravan and were serving hot drinks to the drunk and rowdy crowd leaving Chisel. “It’s an unusual place to be called to serve,” said the woman placidly, “but I feel like I’m getting some of the real Australia, y’know?”
“YOUSE ARE LEGENDS” shouted a guy staggering away from the scene with a Styrofoam cup of Milo.
In an era of hipness and irony, the Deni Ute Muster is remarkable for its enthusiasm and lack of self-consciousness about loving certain things. Friends, bantering with strangers, pub rock and a cold beer on a hot day are all great things; I’m personally less sold on V8s and meat-eating, and wouldn’t exactly leap in a car with a “NO ROOT- NO RIDE” bumper sticker. But in general I found the lack of pretension and agendas at Deni refreshing. We also met great and diverse people; hilarious council workers, slightly baffled guys from Sydney hoping no-one would notice their expensive shorts and Ray-Bans, and a woman who sobbed uncontrollably for many minutes after Collingwood won.
So if you’ve ever wanted to see an eight-year old child in cowboy gear crack a bullock whip, a pro-wrestler called Picasso take some slaps to the nipples or drive a ute fast in circles to the cheers of thousands, well, you might want to try again next year.