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Ute culture: Aussies celebrate near-extinct icon

Motoring

By: Jason Reed

Deniliquin, Australia - In the small rural town of Deniliquin, on the edge of Australia's vast outback, around 20 000 “ute” lovers gathered in the mud to champion a national treasure deemed surplus to requirements by the big car manufacturers.

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Robert Dowse powers his Ute "General Lee" through thick mud during a 'circle work' competition at the Deni Ute Muster. Picture: Jason Reed / Reuters.The last Ford Falcon Ute rolled off the production line in July.Campers trudge through mud among hundreds of ute vehicles in a paddock at the Deni Ute Muster in New South Wales. Picture: Jason Reed  / Reuters.An Australian couple wake up after spending the night together in their Holden Commodore Ute at the Deni Ute Muster. Picture: Jason Reed / Reuters.Operators of a monster truck bearing a skull and crossbones pirate flag alongside an Australian flag watch a national circle work championship of dirt driving at the Deni Ute Muster. Jason Reed / Reuters.Aboriginal bull rider Sally Malay tapes up his hands prior to the bull riding competition at the Deni Ute Muster. Picture: Jason Reed / Reuters.Men wearing Australian traditional bushmen's hats are silhouetted against colourful amusement rides in the late afternoon sun at the Deni Ute Muster. Picture: Jason Reed / Reuters.A pair of 'truck nuts' on the back of a ute taking part in a mud derby at the Deni Ute Muster. Picture: Jason Reed / Reuters.Volunteers push a bogged Australian ute out of the mud during the 'circle work' competition. Picture: Jason Reed / Reuters.

An Australian legend

Part car, part pickup truck (or bakkie in South African speak), the Australian-made utility vehicle has become synonymous with farmers Down Under and is the centrepiece of the annual Deni Ute Muster festival, a two-day alcohol-fuelled celebration of all things rural Australia.

Now in its 18th year, the festival has grown to include country music performances from Grammy award-winning artist Keith Urban, a rodeo, whip-cracking championship and gallery of artwork created with chainsaws.

But it's the “utes” that keep the revellers coming back, even though a deluge of rain turned the usually dusty New South Wales state venue, some 300km north of Melbourne, into a mud pit.

Sky Fulcher drove her black and pink Ford Falcon XR8 named “Rumble Princess” around 3300km from Perth for three days across the Nullabor Plain to attend the festivities, played out at a difficult time for the vehicle in Australia.

End of the road for Aussie Utes

Ford rolled its last Australian-made Falcon “ute” off the production line in July and GM’s Holden said they will cease making its Commodore Ute (once sold as a Chevrolet Lumina in SA) in 2017 as buyers look to smaller, more fuel-efficient cars.

Both brands trail Toyota, Mazda and Hyundai, according to September sales data for the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries.

“It is extremely sad that they (Ford) are closing down production in Australia, but we don't believe that this will affect our festival,” Anika Ahmad Bull, part of the organising team, told Reuters.

How the humble ‘ute’ was born

Folklore says the humble “ute” was born when a farmer's wife wrote to a car manufacturer in the 1930s asking for a vehicle that could go to church on Sunday and carry the pigs to market on Monday.

While nationwide popularity has dropped, Bull and her not-for-profit team have been able to buck the trend and grow the festival from a humble vehicle 'show and shine' into a wild celebration of all things Australian country.

A 10 000 AUD (R108 000) prize was up for grabs for the 'Ute of the Year', while A$500 rewards were on offer in 13 other categories including best 'chick's ute' and best 'refurbished ute'.

Others, though, just wanted to drink in the mood.

“It's a party that doesn't stop, it's a great atmosphere and everyone gets on with everyone,” said 27-year-old delivery driver Darren McGarvie, who used the backtray of his “ute” as a bed for the festival.

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