Reuters International

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 in Deniliquin, New South Wales, September 30, 2016. REUTERS/Jason Reed


By Jason Reed

SYDNEY (Reuters) - 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.

Part car, part pickup truck, 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 300 km (186 miles) north of Melbourne, into a mud pit.

Sky Fulcher drove her black and pink Ford Falcon XR8 named "Rumble Princess" around 3,300km (2050 miles) from Perth for three days across the Nullabor Plain to attend the festivities, played out at a difficult time for the vehicle in Australia.

Ford rolled their last Australian-made Falcon "ute" off the production line in July and Holden said they will cease making similar vehicles in 2017 as buyers look to more fuel-efficient, smaller 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.

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 A$10,000 ($7,500) 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.

($1 = 1.3187 Australian dollars)

(Editing by Patrick Johnston and Michael Perry)


 Reuters International