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.
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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