When Cindy Fogarty rang and asked if I’d like to be a judge at the Australian Camp Oven Festival I couldn’t say yes fast enough. Held every two years in the town of Millmerran about an hour west of Toowoomba, Qld, it’s got a reputation for being one of Australia’s best country festivals – and for good reason.
Yet, I’d never been to one because the long weekend in October is about when we kick off filming DVDs most years. While it’s known for the camp oven competitions, this is about as complete as a country town festival can get and there’s no way you can spend a couple of days here and not become totally immersed in bush culture, old and new. In fact, I reckon a whole lot of us travellers know that already because there were more than 1400 caravans and camper trailers booked to stay at the showgrounds and a lot more day visitors, too.
And why wouldn’t you spend the weekend there when there’s so much to see and do? The entertainment kicked off early on the main stage with celebrated bush poets like Gary Fogarty – yes, Cindy’s husband. With Murray Hartin and my friends Mel and Susie from Lightning Ridge putting on performances everybody was feeling their country heart. Then the musicians took over and kept the stage jumping with purebred Aussie country music that carried into the night, with an appearance by none other than the fabulous Sara Storer late on Saturday night.
Meanwhile, prestigious chaps like Ranger Nick and myself were putting in appearances on the other stage, in between workshops from the Kangagang children’s show and cooking displays. But there was no missing the cooking competition itself which all took place in the fabulous ‘Camp Oven Alley’.
The teams take these national championships very seriously and preparations often start well before the official kick-off at 6am. Events run from a beginners’ competition featuring dampers and scones and go all the way through to complicated three-course evening meals. I had to judge one of the open classes – gee, that sounds like I was forced into it – and seven teams constructed their own variations of oxtail soup for entree, a side of damper, main meals featuring roast beef or mutton and gravy and vegetables. Dessert that night was spotted dog with homemade custard.
It’s all stuff I figured I’ve probably knocked up at some stage – until I realised that a big part of the competition was to prepare everything using the products available a hundred years ago. Hmmm, so much for a couple of spoons of Gravox and pouring some custard out of a box!
Presentation played a big part but for me it was all about taste and texture. I tried really hard to play the part of a knowing and worldly-wise culinary expert, dipping my spoon in delicately and trying to remember to touch and smell and appreciate the food before gobbling it down. But my wife says that it was just lucky they gave us bowls and not a trough...
Plenty of people were obviously completely new to the whole business of cooking in a camp oven and it was obvious that they were well catered for too. There were lessons in using heat beads on stage and plenty of cooks willing to show the crowd what they were doing and why. In fact, if you could find a friendlier place on earth I’d be surprised.
So does that mean you get to taste the results? Yes, all the competitors were willing to share and then there were the professionally-run camp oven meals available too. In fact, if you left Millmerran hungry, it’s because the aliens grabbed you before the gate.
There’s a strange phenomenon I’ve noted at more than one country event over the years. Even city folk tend to slow down and take their time when they’re in the bush, conversations are easy and friendships spring up between people who’d have nothing in common if they met in a crowded supermarket. That’s the magic of heading bush and I guess the legions of people travelling these days just prove that even more. Go bush, slow down...
Plenty of old bush skills and attractions apart from cooking on the coals were on display, including a range of stationary engines, leatherworking and blacksmith demonstrations. If you like stalls then wow, what a choice! Once again the dominating theme was the bush, which meant that rather than the shoddy stuff often flogged in city malls you could get some old-style bush craftsmanship for a decent price. I bought my last belt at a fair in Longreach almost 15 years ago. Seeing as it’s shrunk somewhat – ahem – someone treated himself to a new one complete with brass trim. I reckon that’ll last for the next 15, which means, if a bloke’s lucky, it’ll see another seven visits to Millmerran on the October long weekend!
I should mention that the festival is planned and manned by volunteers who put in amazing efforts too. Why? Because they’re proud of their town and want to show it off, local businesses all do well and everybody’s better off for it.
Especially your esteemed reporter and judge, burp...
Check out the full feature in issue #108 of Camper Trailer Australia magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest camper trailer news, reviews and travel inspiration.