1 December 2023 · Mazda Stories
The Round-Up in a Mazda BT-50
By Thomas Wielecki & Steve Kealy
Events don’t get much more Australian than the Deni Ute Muster, where our nation’s love affair with the humble ute revs to new heights.
“Get a real ute, mate,” a voice rings out above the crowd. Its source is a jovial-looking bloke wearing a big hat and a grin to match. He flicks us a friendly hang-loose shaka and keeps walking. It’s a cheeky reminder that we’re woefully underdressed to be attending what is billed as the World’s Biggest Ute Muster.
Our pristine white Mazda BT-50 is lightly bug-smeared from the three-hour drive north from Melbourne, but its modest selection of accessories makes us feel near-naked amongst the thousands of heavily modified utes of all makes models, sizes and persuasions surrounding us.
Sure, our ute is still as pretty as Margot Robbie, but she’s dressed for the Oscars, and this event is a little closer to a family-friendly version of a B and S Ball.
We’re parked in the middle of a vast paddock filled with utes, 4x4s, wagons, caravans, tents, camper trailers and all the accoutrements of an outdoor music festival on the outskirts of the smallish NSW township of Deniliquin.
Located 75km north of Echuca on the Victoria/NSW border, ‘Deni’, as it’s colloquially known, looks like many other far-flung regional Aussie town, except for the fact that, since the first Ute Muster was staged here in 1999, it has become known as the beating heart of Australian ute culture.
Each year, at the end of September, a great migration of thousands of utes and their drivers from every corner of our vast continent descend here, for two days of festivities over the NSW Labour Day long weekend.
An early start from Melbourne has seen us leave the urban sprawl behind to pass first through the boulder-strewn hills around Lancefield, before the country flattens around Heathcote where vignerons produce some of the world’s finest shiraz, then on to the billiard-table-flat run to Deniliquin.
The road trip traverse millions of acres of rich farming country and a dozen or so small towns, some of which, like Rochester, have reinvented themselves as tourist attractions by having grain silos and water tanks painted with murals, forming the Silo Art Trail.
Either side of these towns the country is in fine fettle and springing to life. Canola fields flower in a riot of yellow either side of the highway, fresh green wheat pushes energetically skywards, and fat cattle graze contentedly on sweet spring grasses.
Our BT-50 comes equipped with the SP Enhancement pack, which brings heated and electrically adjusted leather seats, trimmed in an attractive Black and Driftwood colour combination. They’re warmly supportive throughout the three-hour drive, and the cabin is also impressively quiet despite the muscular thumping of the 3.0-litre turbodiesel up front.
The SP cruises effortlessly at the speed limit, its six-speed auto keeping engine revs to a thrifty minimum but kicking down instantly whenever a truck or slower vehicle needs to be dispatched.
Deniliquin emerges like a mirage out of the shimmering plains. It’s flat out here, so flat in fact some locals reckon that if you face east on a Tuesday evening, you can see Thursday morning coming.
The surrounding countryside looks good but isn’t always this way. In fact, it was out of desperation to bring much-needed tourism revenue to the town’s parched small businesses during a severe drought that the first Ute Muster was born.
That first event attracted a then world record crowd of 2839 utes, and in the intervening years new records have been set and broken, including the current record of 9736 utes, set in 2022. Today, in its 25th year, the Muster is a monster.
Passing through wrought iron gates boldly announcing “DENI UTE MUSTER” we’re confronted by a sprawling festival city, filled with every attraction and distraction imaginable: the screams of visitors enjoying the thrills of amusement park rides, the sizzling aromas of international food stands, and the high-fidelity punch of music emanating from the towering speaker stacks either side of the Woodstock-sized concert stage.
There are helicopter rides, rock climbing, merchandise tents, vehicle-accessory stalls, ferret racing (yes, ferret racing), an ice rink (yes, that too), even a Deni Muster currency in the form of a PayPass wrist band that streamlines the business of selling food and drink to the 18,000 revellers. The various arenas buzz with activities including wood-chopping competitions, whip cracking, bull riding, driving events and much more.
The organisers have cannily steered the Muster from its wild-child beginnings as a bare bones B&S event starring Bogans and burnouts, to something far more family focused. But the central role of the trusty ute has not been erased or even diluted in the process, and the result is a happy blend of some of Australia’s top musical talent performing live on stage to thousands of appreciative fans.
Dedicated vehicle and non-vehicle camping areas surround the main festival arena, including a rent-a-tent section for latecomers like us who haven’t bothered to pack a swag, as well as clearly marked alcohol-free zones.
Over in the family camping area we find Ed and Miah Regan, who tell us they’re attending their third muster with children Macey, Axel and Blake, aged between two and six.
Ed, a former Rock ‘n Roll Roadie turned construction worker, explains that the family live on a farm near Geelong and don’t even own a ute, but have arrived pulling a caravan behind their 4x4 wagon and are mainly here for the world-class music lineup.
“There’s plenty for the kids to do; a family atmosphere. We can relax, they can play,” he says.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Blake Deaves, who has travelled from Goulburn to attend his third Muster, along with partner Georgia and daughter Mylah. Blake has given his Mazda BT-50 the full camping-rig experience, adding a custom-built tray, drawers, camp barbecue and water-proof tarp, plus uprated springs to help haul the family caravan.
It’s a capable and comfortable looking setup, as are many of the vehicles, campers and caravans in the family area, where gleefully grubby children play hide and seek amongst neat rows of caravans and tent sites.
Elsewhere things are heating up as dusk falls, notably over in the Ute Camping area where the original spirit of the Muster is being faithfully maintained by an audience of 20 and 30-somethings who appear hell bent on having a good time.
Here, the evening sky resembles the burning oil fields of Kuwait, punctuated by random smoke plumes and indefinable cracking noises. The mood and energy is entirely different; not dangerous, but certainly wilder with raucous cheering, a cacophony of music, revving engines and that strange cracking noise.
Squeezing through the crowd we find one of the multiple sources of noise, smoke and flames. An excited crowd presses perilously close to the singed back end of stationary Holden Commodore Ute, the exhaust pipes of which periodically belch a ball of fire and accompanying thunderous cracks in a process we later learn is called “key banging.”
We flee the fiery danger zone and make our way back to the main stage where families have settled in for the evening on picnic blankets and camp chairs to watch the likes of Missy Higgins, John Williamson, Lee Kernaghan and Jessica Mauboy strut their stuff.
The giant Ferris wheel revolves slowly over the vast expanse of utes and campsites paddocks, as we settle in to enjoy some of Australia's finest musicians, beneath a star-studded night sky at what is an undeniably unique Australian event.
It’s an early start the next morning as we break camp and pile back into the BT-50 for the return journey back along the Cobb Highway, where patches of blistered bitumen and potholes make us thankful for the bump-smoothing abilities of the Nitrocharger suspension. This special spring and damper combination forms part of the SP Pro Enhancement Pack, providing tangible benefits to the BT-50’s already exemplary ride and handling.
With the cabin gently cooled to our individual preferences by the dual-zone climate control system, we settle in to enjoy the landscape in reverse, with the eight-speaker audio system faithfully reprising Lee Kernaghan’s classic and eminently appropriate outback anthem, ‘She’s My Ute’.
Next year’s Deni Ute Muster is scheduled for 4 and 5 October 2024.