It’s not too often a music festival and camper trailers come up in the same article, and it’s because it’s not too often the two are entwined. But Deni isn’t your average music festival. If you haven’t heard of the annual Deni Ute Muster before you’re obviously from a small Latvian village somewhere, so let me get you up to speed on something that’s become an institution of Aussie culture, and why there’s far more than meets the eye.
A little under 20 years ago on the edge of the outback, the small country town of Deniliquin was suffering one of their worst droughts on record. With their agricultural income drier than their skies, the call was made to put together an event that’d not only show off the natural beauty of the Riverina Plains, but raise some much-needed relief funds for local farmers. In 1999 the Deni Ute Muster was born, and fittingly for its 18th birthday it’s matured into an event for the whole family. Think the Royal Easter Show with camping, replace cheap show bags with Aussie culture and you’re onto a winner, and so is Deniliquin.
So just what the heck do you do at the country version of an Easter show? Well that all depends on how old you are, on your birth certificate and on the inside. There’s entertainment for the young ones from sun up to sun down. The big drawcard is the carnival area and family centre. There’s loads happening including magic shows, face painting, carnival rides and even a giant ferris wheel that soars above the festival. Kids will love heading over to the whip cracking demonstrations, watching the wood chopping, or even ducking into the big-top circus for an hour or two.
Bigger kids (adults I think they’re called?) have plenty on too. The bull-riding is a show all unto itself with some of the toughest blokes I’ve ever seen strapping themselves to a tonne of angry bull then holding on for dear life. Right over the bleachers is the sports arena, which is code word for circle work and barrel races with utes big and small giving it their all. The tradie challenge put skilled builders head-to-head to see who could knock out the most impressive creation from a couple of pallets and a few nails. A full set of patio furniture was the most practical, but it was hard to go past some of the genius inventions in the paddocks, which included a John Deere road train stroller ferrying around a couple of little ones.
Those with deep pockets (around $80 from memory) were able to head up for a chopper ride to get a bird’s eye view of the event, while many others found themselves buried in the crowds soaking up the live music, although more on that later.
You’ve probably heard the name Deni before, but might not be familiar with Deniliquin itself. There’s around 8,000 full time residents, although for one weekend a year that number swells to around 30,000. But that’s not what makes this area so special. It’s on the intersection of trade between Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane, so for the better part of 170 years has been a vibrant hub of business and agriculture. The town itself is on the edge of the Riverina Plains, the flattest plains in the world that rival even the iconic steppes of Mongolia. The land was run by cattlemen, bandits, farmers and early explorers. Even William Wills from the famous Burke and Wills expedition cut his teeth at a sheep station just outside Deniliquin. The result is a little town on the edge of the outback, full of fair-dinkum wild west history complete with river boats, vigilante justice, WWI and WWII facilities, and some of the best music festivals either side of the black stump.
The tickets to the Deni Ute Muster cover camping fees for all three nights, with plenty of room to spread out your camper, but if you’re keen to immerse yourself in country life there’s no shortage of new and historic places to lay your head at night in town, and plenty of places for a feed after a swim in the rivers.
You’ve probably seen beat-ups in the Daily Telegraph bemoaning the bogan element, and that’s because they’re idiots. The reality is there are still the wild party seekers having the time of their lives, but they self-segregate themselves in the ute paddock and are some of the most polite and respectful yobbos I’ve ever done shoeys with. The result is the wild days of Deni are still there if you go looking for them, but the overwhelming majority of spectators are families young and old. There’s a diverse mix of country and city folk too with seasoned Deni veterans right through to first timers keen for their first visit. If you’ve got a heartbeat you’ll fit right in.
As a first-timer to the infamous Deni Ute Muster I mentally prepared myself for three days of sausage sandwiches and cans of Coke. Boy, was I in for a shock. While many campers were content to slide out their kitchen back in the family camping areas, nestled between the main stage and kids carnival area was perhaps the best food alley I’ve ever seen at a festival. And I’m not talking 20 kebab stands either (souvlakis for you Mexicans). Real, fair-dinkum food with everything from gourmet wood-fired pizzas and pulled-pork burgers to top-notch healthy stuff I stayed well and truly away from. I think it was called yoghurt.
It’s not limited to the food alley either. Just wander around the event and you'll realise you can barely take two steps between food stalls scattered around the grounds. I probably ate 10kg of jam donuts over the event.
THE MAIN STAGE
Despite having the title of Ute Muster it’s safer to say Deni is a country music festival with utes, especially when you sit back and take in just how much live music comes pouring out of the multiple stages around the festival grounds. From local acts while you’re sitting on a picnic blanket eating lunch to massive artists performing late into the night.
Saturday afternoon the field in front of the main stage became a sea of cheering footy heads, with toddlers all the way through to retirees donning their AFL teams colours and kicking back with an esky full of cold drinks to watch the grand final on the huge main screen with thousands of other fans. I follow sports about as closely as I do the Lithuanian Knitting Championship but even as an outsider it was hard not to get wrapped up in the electric atmosphere and find myself cheering as the points racked up.
As the sun set on the final night of Deni, the crowds reconverged front and centre around the main stage as celebrations of all things country went on into the night. In years gone by American headliners have taken pride of place, although this year it was an all-Aussie line up, fitting for the most Australian festival you could hope to attend. Over a dozen Aussie artists took to the main stage, with Lee Kernaghan and Shannon Noll drawing huge crowds whenever they belted out their famous tunes. As the rabble passed out back at their camp a huge fireworks show was the final hoorah for kids and many families before the Wolfe Brothers finally closed the festival around midnight.
It’s hard to do the Deni Ute Muster service with so much ill-informed negative press over the years, but if you’re after an honest Aussie cultural experience it should be on your must-see list next year. I just wonder if I can grow a mullet in time to fit in at the ute paddock?
Check out the full feature in issue #120 of Camper Trailer Australia magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest camper trailer news, reviews and travel inspiration.