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A Dane drops in on the Deni Ute Muster

AAP logoAAP 20/10/2016 Lisa Robinson

I'm holding my breath at Albury airport, hoping my fairy godmother behind the car hire desk will tell me my wish for a ute has been granted. We couldn't possibly turn up to the Deni Ute Muster in a sedan.

Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo! She hands over the keys and we skip off to the carpark to find our chariot, Herschel bags in tow, looking like a couple of foolish city slickers who've never driven a ute before.

My boyfriend Kasper, a Dane who's lived in Sydney for five years, grew up in a cycling city with centuries-old cobbled streets where there's really no need for four wheels.

It's his first time behind the wheel of a ute and also his first time in regional NSW. When I initially suggested we go to the Deni Ute Muster on the October long weekend, he asked what a muster is. I told him Shannon Noll would be there, but he said he didn't know her. I said he'd have to wear flannelette, which he thought was a tiny towel.

We head south on the Hume Highway to Wodonga and the next three hours take us west through some of the smaller border towns in the Goulburn Valley. The roads are partially flooded because of severe storms that battered southwestern NSW and knocked out transmission towers in South Australia at the end of September, plunging the state into darkness.

We're blasting Nollsie's breakthrough hit What About Me so Kasper can learn the lyrics and sing along at Deni.

"Sounds like a shit corner shop," he says after the first verse.

"Who would let a little boy stand there waiting and then push him to the ground?"

It's not long before we see a sign for The Big Strawberry 300 metres ahead, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

"Pull over! Quick!" I yell. Obviously no Aussie road trip is complete without stopping at a "big" something.

We take an obligatory selfie, buy a few bottles of strawberry wine and set off on the final leg to Deniliquin - the ute capital of the world.

We know we've arrived when we see a red ute stuck on top of a six-metre-high pole.

Our motel is one of those sprawling, drive-up-to-your-room affairs. Our room has brick walls and a floral doona. We quickly fill out our continental breakfast order on the paper slip, put on our blue singlets and gumboots, and drive over to the festival.

It's all mud and mayhem. Kasper takes great delight in using the ute's 4WD option so we don't get bogged, after I explained what "bogged" means. The sun hasn't even set and there's a girl in a blow-up boat rowing through the mud, a guy riding a motorised esky and a chick flashing her chest with one hand, while holding a tinnie in the other.

"It reminds me of Roskilde Festival in Denmark, but the people are different," Kasper says as he cracks open a can of beer.

"In Denmark they're the long-haired, multiple piercings type of feral who look like they've never been outside. Here they're the loud, beer-guzzling, cowboy hat-wearing type of feral who look like they've never been inside."

Over the next two days, we embrace events like the monster truck ride and the hay bale hustle; we check out the ute paddock, take part in the blue singlet count, and watch the rodeo and tradie competitions.

Thankfully, Kasper's up for anything. The only thing he has no interest in is the AFL grand final, so he heads home for a nap while the rest of us watch "people playing sports" on the big screen.

There's also a stellar lineup of musicians - if you're into country music. Catherine Britt, John Williamson, Troy Cassar-Daley and even Keith Urban take the stage. But it's clear that everyone's hanging out for Australia's favourite runner-up, Shannon Noll.

Noll's told us he'll be filming his new video clip at Deni and the crowd is wild with anticipation. The "Nollsie" chanting begins about 15 minutes before his set starts and it doesn't stop. They deadset love this man. Kasper does too now. He's a country music convert.

But he's still puzzled by one thing - why people care so much about utes that they've dedicate an entire festival to it.

"You're loving yourself sick in this ute," I say.

"I also liked the truck we hired to move into the new flat but I wouldn't buy one," he says. Fair enough.

It's with groggy heads and heavy hearts that we roll out of Deni the next morning. We drive about 45 minutes to the tiny town of Finley and stop for breakfast. I spy a Spiderbait poster on the cafe wall that's signed by the band's guitarist Whitt - "The best next door neighbour any kid could wish for!!"

A quick Google search tells me the kids who would go on to form Spiderbait and win a couple of ARIA awards grew up in Finley - population 1921. It's almost unbelievable.

With a bit of time to kill before our flight leaves Albury, we cruise down to the Rutherglen wine region in Victoria. We stumble across the second annual Scarecrows, Sausages and Shiraz festival at Pfeiffer Wines, where 19 scarecrows are being judged for accolades.

Entries include Ronald Phrump and Tony Babbott, who's wearing nothing but budgie smugglers. They're legitimately frightening.

We then stop at the Wicked Virgin winery and olive grove for an antipasto plate and a sample of the famous durif drop, before heading back to our ute.

There's a huge sign in town that says "Sydney may have a nice harbour but Rutherglen has a great port". It's time for us to return to the big smoke by the sea, but we will definitely be back.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Deniliquin is approximately two-and-a-half hour's drive from Albury and about three-and-a-half hours from Melbourne. Flights from Sydney to Albury take about one hour and 20 minutes.

STAYING THERE: Quest Albury is centrally located and newly refurbished. Visithttp://www.questapartments.com.au for more info.

Settlement Motor Inn at Deniliquin is spacious, pet-friendly and has the biggest saltwater swimming pool in town. Find out more at www.settlementmotorinn.com.au

PLAYING THERE: The Deni Ute Muster is held each year on the October long weekend.

* The writer was a guest of Destination NSW.

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