Deni Ute Muster: Ready to rumble

First published September 17, 2011

Twelve years ago, the October long weekend took on a new meaning for Deniliquin – though the organisers of the first Deni Ute Muster weren’t to know it at the time.

In less than a fortnight, the first of an expected 20,000 people will roll into the Riverina town for the two-day festival that celebrates perhaps the most Australian of Australian icons: the ute. Some will camp at the gates of the Deni Ute Muster and Play on the Plains Festival for 10 days.

The site is looking greener than it ever has and plenty of cash has been splashed to improve the area, festival director John Harvie beamed.

“It’s looking fantastic, the site is really great, it’s greening up and we’ve spent around $400,000 on the site this year to try to improve the experience for patrons,” he said.

What began as an idea to try to get more people into Deniliquin on the NSW Labour Day long weekend has evolved from a small festival in the town centre that managed to draw in 2839 utes – far beyond the 500 to 1000 organisers expected – to an event of epic proportions.

The muster moved to its current location on the Conargo Road in 2001. Development of the site in the following decade has been the result of outlay by festival management or donations from local contractors and businesses as well as those interstate.

The area has been fenced, drainage work still continues and permanent structures include the XXXX Gold Bar, Bundy Bar, Holden Centre, festival operations compound including police command centre, corporate hospitality centre, outdoor stage, viewing mounts and seating. Permanent power will be switched on at the site before the muster.

Power poles are being installed and a substation will be constructed at the site, thanks to Essential Energy staff from the Deniliquin area who have donated their time to install the required elements. For the first time since the inaugural muster, organisers won’t have to rely entirely on hired diesel-powered generators – reducing running costs and the muster’s carbon footprint as well as opening up the site to opportunities of hosting other events during the year.

Bundaberg has been with the festival since the inaugural event and XXXX Gold came on as a major sponsor in 2008.

It has gone from a festival that included a horse-drawn wool wagon re-enactment, family camp-out under the stars with camp oven dinner, bush poetry and stargazing on a stock route to something that keeps people in every nook of Australia hitting the highways. As the saying goes, all roads lead to Deni.

Last year, in paddocks several kilometres outside of Deniliquin, more than 22,000 people in more than 10,000 utes parked themselves in for the weekend.

Drawing in a crowd of that size was the reputation of the muster as well as that of its headline act for the Saturday night, Australian rock legends Cold Chisel.

Lee Kernaghan was the big act at the very first muster and he has been a popular artist at the six others he has appeared at. Cold Chisel saw the biggest crowd yet, but other Australian artists at the muster over the years have been

The Living End, Powderfinger, Jimmy Barnes, The Angels, Hoodoo Gurus, Troy Cassar-Daley, Adam Harvey, Adam Brand, Jasmine Rae, Steve Forde, John Williamson, James Reyne, Beccy Cole, Tori Dark, The Sunny Cowgirls, Catherine Britt, Kirsty Lee Akers, Kasey Chambers and Travis Collins.

This year, Suzi Quatro will light up the stage on the Friday night before Icehouse woos the crowd on Saturday.

Also appearing are Adam Harvey and Beccy Cole, The Sunny Cowgirls, McAlister Kemp, Tori Darke, Luke Dickens, Troy Cassar-Daley, Guy Sebastian, Eskimo Joe, Mental as Anything and Adam Brand.

While they are key parts of the festival, it’s not all about utes and music – both days are packed with things that are sure to attract people of any age.

The SunRice family centre, woodchop demonstrations, blade shearing, V8 ute display, show and shine, reptile encounters, whipcracking championships, ute museum, circus entertainers, and aerobatic legends The Roulettes are just a taste of what the ute muster is all about.

A little bit louder is the Go to Wo competition, ute barrel races, circlework (introduced in 2007) freestyle motocross and rodeo, and adults-only areas – the Bundy and XXXX bars – are popular.

A new addition to this year’s muster is a 15,000-litre tank filled with barramundi, which poses the perfect opportunity for fishermen to show others how it’s done.

Footy fans are catered for, with the AFL grand final to be shown on the big screen at the muster with Mental As Anything the live half-time entertainment, and the blue singlet count held on the Saturday always attracts a massive crowd.

The Guinness World Record officials closed the gate on 3500 people last year, setting a world record for the most people wearing blue singlets. While it won’t be going down in GWR books this year, that event will be moved from the bullride arena to the adjacent sports arena so more people can take part.

Before the utes, cars and caravans arrive and after they leave each year, the Deni Ute Muster site on the Conargo Road is simply paddocks, arenas, a number of permanent buildings and a stage.

Come the long weekend, the signs are up that things are ready to go. 

Amenities trucks have already arrived, marquees for food stands and stalls are up, bars are stocked, showrides are put together, Holden puts the finishing touches on its site and more than 1000 volunteers from Deniliquin and the surrounding area have already put in countless hours of work.

When the gates open at 6am on Friday, September 30, thousands will be ready to get inside and get to work on a great weekend.

Those in utes will head to their own paddock, where the rule is simple: no ute, no parking. Those in cars or with caravans will set up camp in the non-ute paddock or the family camping area.

The ute paddock – or “feral area”, as some muster-goers affectionately label it – is perhaps the wilder area for camping. Engines rev, campfires burn, music blasts, whips crack and people yahoo until the early hours of the morning. Some manage to catch a few hours’ sleep; others are determined to make sure they see the sun come up.

Families, however, find it a bit quieter in the family camping area while the non-ute section can have its moments as well.

This year, Mr Harvie will see his fourth muster. 

The sights have been sometimes strange, often amusing and at times genius – last year, a group of tradies parked in the ute paddock and erected a two-storey shack complete with televisions and fans.

“I remember my first involvement, my first year, I came out of the operations centre and saw these two guys – well over six feet tall, very hairy men. They were wearing mankinis with angel wings on their backs and fairy wands in their hands. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Mr Harvie said.

“I think we’ve come away from the B&S days but certainly people have fun. It’s one weekend of the year and we want people to come along and have fun ... have a great time and forget about all their worries.”

And that they do. More than $13 million was injected into the Deniliquin economy from last year’s muster alone. The contribution has not gone unnoticed.

“Since its inception in 1999, the festival has had a tremendous economic impact on the region, not only during the festival but throughout the year with increased ‘outside dollar’ expenditure,” Riverina Regional Tourism executive officer Tina Jones, said.

“The festival is a true icon for the region and offers visitors the opportunity to experience the spirit of regional NSW.”

Local community groups and charities volunteer each year, collecting more than $100,000 from the festival for their efforts.

“For the last three years we’ve been putting around $100,000 into community groups, in addition to other donations,” Mr Harvie said.

“For every volunteer hour a club member works, we donate $14.50. We don’t limit volunteer hours because it’s how money gets into the community. We never knock them back – for example, this year we have one group where the average age would be fairly high, so we’ve given them a little mule and they will take water out to the volunteers.”

In the days leading up to and following the muster, it’s a very busy time for the town, Deniliquin mayor Brian Mitsch said. 

“When the actual ute muster is on, they have massive crowds out at the site, but the town itself is not that busy,” he said.

“On the Sunday (there’s) a lot of people coming through the town stop, you often see them congregating at food stores, hotels and what have you before they go home.

“I suppose there’s mixed feelings – a lot of trade goes out there to the ute muster, where some local businesses feel they’re being disadvantaged by not being out there (as) Saturday is very, very quiet.”

Despite that, the sheer size of the ute muster is gobsmacking for some. Motels, hotels, caravan parks and any other accommodation that can be found are generally booked out for that weekend a year ahead.

“It’s a real phenomenon, really, it’s amazing when it’s on there are people everywhere and it goes berserk,” Cr Mitsch said.

“Last year, I spoke to a chap out there and he found a motel at Narrandera, it was the closest he could find to Deniliquin.

“It’s a huge boost, not only for Deniliquin but surrounding towns have a big win out of it too, certainly when people are going home and the little village of Conargo always has a big event on the Sunday. At other towns around the way, accommodation fills up as far away as Narrandera.”

Last year, the paddocks at the ute muster filled just as fast as emergency slashing took place.

More and more families are coming each year, with that group seeing a growth rate of 300 per cent.

“I think some people that used to come along ... have now grown up and gotten married and had families (and have come back) ... people that have grown up with the muster,” Mr Harvie said.

Perhaps the biggest announcement about every ute muster is the headline act, but as the years go by the options of keeping it Australian have dwindled. While the tunes have always been all or predominantly Australia artists, 2012 could see the end of that.

“It’s something that we like to do; we are an iconic Australian event ... but there are only so many iconic bands in Australia. I guess people are saying ‘are we going to go overseas and get international bands in’, and I think we have to,” Mr Harvie said.

To find out more about the Deni Ute Muster, head to www.deniutemuster.com.au.

Volunteers remove a ute from a barrel in the ute barrel racing at the Deni Ute Muster in 2011.

Volunteers remove a ute from a barrel in the ute barrel racing at the Deni Ute Muster in 2011.

This story Deni Ute Muster: Ready to rumble first appeared on The Daily Advertiser.