Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Utes, shoots and leaves: wouldn’t be dead for quids
It’s a purler, you might say, of an evening. The air is like champagne but, perversely, I’m breathing smoke. Wood smoke. River redgum to be precise, and fragrant as frankincense. I know, I know, the carbon! But I’m not thinking about that. I’m squatting by the banks of a surprisingly well-filled Murray, Blunnied up, sipping whisky from a tin mug, opening the catflap on my inner Clint.
There’s no moon to speak of, but by the dancing firelight I’m reading A.A. Gill, Britain’s most feared columnist, on why hippies find the meaning of life in the flame of a Zippo lighter.
I stare into our tiny conflagration, convinced life’s meaning is in there somewhere. My attention snags on an ant the size of a small marsupial. It clutches by one end – I can’t tell which – a larva rather larger than itself, and struggles desperately to save it, save them both, from the flames. But it’s all out of whack.
“Hold it in the centre,” I want to advise, “go for balance.” But that, I decide, would be hypocritical. So I watch as the ant shoves its load over a hump then tumbles back, overbalanced by the parcel it will not relinquish, losing most of the ground it has made. Yet it struggles on, gamely, and is just, I think, about to clear the circle of danger when it does a sudden, voluntary U-turn and marches its precious burden back into the mouth of hell.
The Deniliquin Ute Muster, which is why we’re here, makes the ant’s tale look like allegory. It’s the muster’s 10th birthday and convoys have come from WA, Queensland and Tassie. World records will fall. One for utes; at 7242 they’re a thousand up on last year and still streaming up the Conargo Road at paddock’s close. And one for blueys, the navy Deni Ute Muster singlets for which there are permanent queues; counting stopped at 2700, with another 3000 waiting.
It’s a well-tempered crowd, even when hung-over. Even when rain turns the dust into a thick clumping mud that splatters up the backsides of thong-wearers and coats the portaloo floors inches deep. It’s also surprisingly homogeneous. I count four non-white faces, half of them volunteers, one selling corn.
You felt Darren from Perth was speaking for the entire crowd when he listed his favourite things as “utes, rum and chicks”. The remaining differences are Holden versus Ford, Bundy versus Beam, blondes versus brunettes. Even there, it seems, there’s hands-down consensus. “Why wouldja watch five blokes pulling a ute,” mutters a spectator at the Holden Grunt-Off, “when you can watch the arse on that blonde.”
Darren’s ute has six headlights, four roof-mounted roo lights and LEDs along all doors, plus half a dozen flags and bull bars to die for. As one popular bumper-sticker reads: “A bull bar in the bush is worth a pedestrian in the city.” There are utes with snakeskin-quilted plasma-screened interiors, utes with Marilyn and Elvis under the bonnet, utes covered in Ned Kelly quotes, utes with oil gauges that protrude through the bonnet so you can keep an eye while you drive.
There’s a 1924 Model-T ute that “runs good as new” and a ’47 Vauxhall, with its toothbrush windscreen wiper and bare-board seat, that once belonged to Bob the Riverdog, a nomadic rabbit trapper who lived round Eudunda, SA. Once, after a day in the Mount Mary pub, Bob was collared by the local gendarmerie, who drove his ute home for him. “I ever see you on the road again,” said the cop afterwards, “I’m driving right around you. As it is I’ll spend the rest of me life picking the splinters out of me arse.” (Arses, you’ll note, are big in Deni – and not only through devotion to beer and trans-fats.)
The ute, after all, is no simple means of transport. It’s a symbol, encapsulating the values of a young man’s culture based on risk-taking, meat eating and getting horribly, hopelessly ratfaced. To quote another favourite bumper sticker: “There’s too much blood in my alcohol system.”
There’s also “Kill ferals” and “I killed Skippy”. But all these values are now under attack, from sissy stuff like multiculturalism, feminism (this year’s Bundy Ute of the Year went to a chick, Kylie Rochow) and depression, with the Black Dog Institute now a major sponsor. But more urgently from Skippy himself.
There’s drought, there’s petrol prices, and now there’s Garnaut. “We gave up tar. Now they want us to give up sheep,” noted one old guy at the blade-shearing demo. “I was telling the missus, we farm kangaroos an’ we’ll hafta put an extra rail on all the fences.”
I want to point out that kangaroo is good eating: tender, juicy, lean. That the benefits would include greater ground cover, soil retention, wetter microclimates, reduced petrochemical dependence, less irrigation, healthier rivers, enhanced biodiversity and reduced human obesity. (The ‘blueys’ start at size 16.) Money, too.
But it’s not just mending fences. It’s deep, this cultural stuff, and change hurts. So you watch the ant march its baby right back into the fire.