Like so many of our TV features, a simple premise hides a complex plan, and the Deni Ute Muster was no exception. Elise and I would take a pair of vehicles to the largest gathering of utes on the planet to see how the attendees would feel about them.
However, we weren’t turning up in a fan favourite Commodore or Falcon. Instead, we wanted to test this most discerning audience with what we thought might act as the future of Deni now that local car manufacturing can no longer provide a true home-grown model.
In its 21st year, this would be an attempt to predict what the festival might look like in another 21 years.
I don’t know about you, but I had heard a thing or two about this event long before I thought I would ever actually attend. Scenes resembling a battlefield, but with car-based utes instead of tanks, were among the most common scenarios people described.
And the soldiers were mullet-wearing men fuelled not by rations and fear, but by Great Northern and burgers. So you should imagine that an impostor like me with the wrong accent, the wrong attire and completely the wrong car would be sniffed out within minutes and killed on the spot, right?
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I was deeply nervous, Elise, with a stunning country outfit and her usual annoying/enviable energy and optimism for everything was like a 10-year old on Christmas eve, and director Sean - born and raised country lad - was completely relaxed. When I met him at a servo outside Melbourne for the long drive up to Deniliquin, he was already wearing his Akubra and proudly standing by his BA XR8 ute. It’s fair to say he was in his element.
Having our very own resident WhichCar native ute-owning rural New South Welshman gave us a distinct advantage but, as I would find out, I had nothing to worry about even if I had tackled the muster solo.
The whip crack I successfully executed is real and my very first, so the look of triumph on my face is also real although I’m not going to tell you how many attempts it took me. Sean was my instructor for this task and, as you can imagine, he can make a whip produce a sound similar to a 22 rifle.
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Another element that required no camera tricks or makeup is my wholly appropriate farmer tan which was generated by wearing the same T-shirt for two days, then switching to an official Deni Ute singlet to participate in the singlet world record attempt.
I think I can speak for both Elise and I when I say being one of the 3972 singlet-adorned contributors at the main stage is up there with my proudest moments along with university graduation and cracking a whip without losing an eye.
For our one and only visit to the infamous ute camping area, we were authorised entry with a camera only if supervised and we chose to sneak early in the morning while most of the exhibits were still sleeping off a full night on the antifreeze.
This notorious area of the festival is somewhere between war-torn shantytown and a wreckers yard. I did slip back again for a look under cover and the sight will never leave me. Imagine Bartertown from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome with nothing to trade and worse personal hygiene and you’re half way there.
Of course, there was a glut of stuff we couldn’t have possibly shown during our TV time slot including an elderly man on a mobility scooter with a sign that read, erm, let’s just say it implied he had been lucky in love.
And the plethora of unpublishable messages on ute after ute from a variety of different principles - not all of which we condone. But the surprisingly wholesome things far outweighed the stuff I couldn’t tell mum.
Such as the chat I had with country music legend John Williamson who, as it turns out, is a bit of an environmentalist and ute owner/enthusiast. While I was chatting with John, Elise was busy asking Ross Wilson all the tough questions like if his 1984 song ‘Come Said The Boy’ was “seminal”. Ross thought it was very funny.
I’m still taken aback by how warm and welcoming the entire festival was and my memories are predominantly ones of inclusiveness, community and celebration.
Yes, at one point a ute was rolled onto its roof and deliberately set on fire, and there were plenty of the type of ‘ute enthusiast’ I had been warned about if I really wanted to find them, but for the main part, the festival was unbelievably civilised and incredibly well organised.
That said, I still regard getting out with my car and limbs intact a mark of success, and the WhichCar TV feature that resulted was very much the icing on the cake.