A Wild Country Party in Australia Proves a Balm for Rural Loneliness
DENILIQUIN, Australia — It’s been called the most debauched outdoor party in Australia: a wild, rollicking weekend where rural masculinity is on display and beer and banter flow endlessly.
But for the Thompsons, the event carries more weight and meaning. They first went to the party, the Deni Ute Muster, three years ago, not long after losing their son, Bryan, to suicide.
Bryan’s mother, Lyn Thompson, 54, said she just knew it was his kind of festival. She pulled some faded pictures from her wallet, showing a son who had been eager to grow up, she said — a tall, 24-year-old bricklayer raising three children in small-town Australia with a heavy burden of responsibility.
“When we’re here, he’s with us,” she said. “When we’re anywhere he’s with us. But especially here.”
“Here” is Deniliquin, a small farming town in rural New South Wales, where thousands of people from around Australia come for a weekend outdoor festival built around the “ute,” Australia’s beloved utility truck. Conceived of 20 years ago as a way of giving the local economy a lift, the festival, or muster, has become a juggernaut of rural identity: Almost 20,000 people attended last weekend’s muster, which featured Carrie Underwood, the American country music star.
And yet, even as it draws somewhat-clichéd coverage (this year’s scandal involved someone pouring beer down the throat of a dead bird), the muster has continued to quietly evolve. For many who come every year, it has become a gathering that ignites love and fights loneliness, where generosity, support and anger about an urbanizing, globalizing world all come together on a flat, dry plain far from any major city.
“We’re not just a music festival,” said Vicky Lowry, the Deni Ute Muster’s general manager. “It is a celebration of rural Australia, it brings it all together.”
This year in particular, as Deniliquin and a wide swath of the country struggle with a worsening drought, a clear issue emerged amid the sea of crude humor and Akubra hats: mental health.
It was in the #doitfordolly shirts some wore, in memory of a teenage girl (and former Akubra hat model) who committed suicide this year after being bullied. It was also in the jumble of messages on a banner labeling a campsite “penetration station” while also noting #itaintweaktospeak — all in loving memory of an 18-year-old who died last year.
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Research shows that farmers are among those at highest risk of suicide in Australia, and people living in remote areas take their own lives at twice the rate of those in the cities. It is particularly bad, many say, among men in those areas, who are expected to live up to an ideal of good-humored, unwavering masculinity.
That Aussie ideal was on display Thursday even before the festivities officially started as young men arrived in utes crammed with camping gear and beer, honking, whooping and waving from the windows.
By Friday morning, the area was blanketed with dust as utes skidded around in circles, with judges awarding points for skill and crowd reaction. Among the fans was a group of young men and women from a rural part of the state of Victoria. They had made bets on how many children would be conceived at the muster. “I was being nice and said a thousand this year,” said Karly Mitchell, 20.
Many of their fathers were prone to bottling their emotions, they said, but among themselves there was a greater awareness of mental health issues. And technology, they said, was essential in their support networks.
For some, the kind of communication fostered by internet access is hard to come by. At a bull-riding pen where young cowboys in bright shirts and white hats greased their ropes, I met Kurt Jamison, 24, who said he lived at a remote, 1,600-acre cattle station where until recently, there was no Wi-Fi. Sometimes, he said, he would go two weeks without seeing another person.
“You end up talking to yourself,” he said, as he leaned on the white gate bordering the bullpen. “You talk to your dogs.”
For a few months last year, he said his depression worsened and he began drinking to cope with loneliness. But he said he was used to hiding his feelings. “Even at school I was the school clown — but inside I was hating it,” he said.
Brett Emery, 24, was with some friends in the ute paddock, a sprawling maze of campsites, scaring passers-by with a rubber snake. He said he had found a way to cope online: “You’ve got to go on the Blokes Advice.” After the suicide of relative, he posted a message to the Facebook group, which has members from across Australia, offering his ear to anyone needing a listener. A man from Western Australia who was struggling with the loss of his partner responded.
“I just messaged him back saying, ‘Mate, everything’s going to be all right,’” he said, a beer in hand. He said he stayed in touch with the man, just to see how things are going.
“They just think we’re all ferals,” he said, referring to people who saw the festival as nothing more than a rowdy beerfest. “But really, you come here, it’s just a good atmosphere. It’s lovely.”
The festival’s endurance may lie in its adaptability. In the last few years, it has leaned toward being more family focused, inviting a wider scope of musicians and providing more activities. It has also limited the amount of alcohol allowed in and is now working more closely with the local police.
“We’ve had to evolve and move with the times,” said Ms. Lowry, the festival’s general manager.
Many of the farmers who attended looked pleased, though in some cases the openness seemed limited to the muster itself. Feelings of discontent were evident among the crowd, which was overwhelmingly white. More than a few people had tags on their hats with a pointed message: “Our land, our country, our way.” In some conversations, pride and struggle had a way of edging into populist nationalism.
“This is the worst season of drought we’ve had for a long time. How many nations overseas have offered aid to our farmers?” said Jamie Heyde, an ex-serviceman with a bear tattoo on his arm and an Amazon Kindle on his thigh. “You don’t sit there and help someone else out if your footing is crumbling beneath you,” he added.
Mr. Heyde, who said he voted for Senator Pauline Hanson — Australia’s main right-wing populist politician — said that he does not have a problem with immigration. But immigrants should be aware that they are “Australian first and foremost,” he said.
Later that night, Ms. Underwood, the American country star, sang of cowboys, mothers, love and land. For those at the show, just being with so many people from similar backgrounds seemed to be a relief.
There were no cows to be milked and no sheep to be shorn, no drought to worry over. Thousands of people roamed the ute paddock. Dozens of fires sent up black smoke as men revved their utes until they backfired.
More quietly, men and women in scuffed jeans could be seen taking pictures of the sunset and offering each other beers. They cheered as a woman in a pink vest, who produced a pair of bagpipes, began playing Amazing Grace.
“This is my main family. This is a family section to me,” Rhys Martini, 24, said hoarsely as he stood in front of his ute, which had a row of bras across the bumper. “Real brothers and sisters here.”