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Ironfest: shifting gears for Lithgow


 

Steampunk inventor Bruce Hodsdon of Ingleburn at the 16th annual Ironfest at Lithgow Showground. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Steampunk inventor Bruce Hodsdon of Ingleburn at the 16th annual Ironfest at Lithgow Showground. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

By Ellen Hill                                       Photos: David Hill

“We have an executioner on duty. He’s explaining his craft to someone – it seems to work.’’

Emcee Friar Craig Batty has been whipping up the peasants with outrageous one-liners for years.

“Medieval torturers: the only people allowed to be drunk at work’’; “The grandstand is a designated bomb shelter; “It’s okay to get killed, just not injured – there’s too much paperwork’’.

Steampunker Augustus Smoke at the 16th annual Ironfest at Lithgow Showground. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Steampunker Augustus Smoke at the 16th annual Ironfest at Lithgow Showground. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

He continues as the ominous vibration of a procession of World War II vehicles take to the racetrack.

“There is an attack imminent,’’ Batty blares.

“Do please cover your ears and close your mouth as the firing starts.’’

Under thunderous skies, a medieval knight decked out in iron helmet and chainmail covers his ears while a French damsel in a cylinder caul headdress takes a picture on a smart phone and gluts of Steampunkers cheer and stamp their feet, trinkets and baubles jangling and glass eye pieces glinting.

Crowds of voyeurs in jeans and caps gawp in amazement at the mish-mash of history and unabashed exhibitionism surrounding them.

“Don’t stand too close to the fence or you might get hit,’’ Batty booms.

A camera drone buzzes overhead capturing the whole spectacle.

“The aerial attack has been thwarted. The displacements from Lithgow Small Arms Factory saw them off.’’

The crowd murmurs and shuffles in anticipation for the next instalment.

“Where else can you go to have your children disembowelled?’’

The Kingdom of Ironfest, in a windswept valley in Australia’s first industrial heart, Lithgow just west of the Great Divide, that’s where.

For 16 years, long before Game of Thrones, Vikings, Marco Polo and the like, the secret lives of those who cover inhibition with costumes have been played out in a surreal real-life fantasy for all to witness at Lithgow Showground.

The “Festival with a metal edge’’ has strayed slightly from its original intention of showcasing metal art and celebrating Lithgow’s industrial heritage.

These days there are fewer medieval groups and more Steampunk. Regardless, the event attracts an ever increasing number of people eager to transform from bland to brazen.

Chainmail jewellery maker Tamara Dalrymple of Blacktown, who attended Ironfest with partner Graeme Paterson, said: “When I dress up I can be myself.’’

Kendall Bailey of Redfern in her extravagent rendition of Maleficent. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Kendall Bailey of Redfern in her extravagent rendition of Maleficent. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Like every hard core cosplayer Kendall Bailey of Redfern knew her costume would create a stir amongst the watchers.

Resplendent in gold medieval-style gown, cosmetic cheekbones, towering horns and wings with a 1m span, she faced a wall of lenses at every step as her interpretation of silver screen character Maleficent.

“It’s one way you can do art without having to publish it, and everyone can enjoy it,’’ she says.

For Steampunkers Natalie and Ray Everton it’s a family activity they enjoy with sons Joshua, 16, and Fletcher, 10.

Deesh strides through the lush grass besides the row of Australian colonial era canvass tents, her navy blue medieval gown flapping in the wind, her dark hair playing around her face. She looks exquisitely regal.

Her slim frame is deceptive: Deesh is an expert – and ruthless – swordswoman, capable of packing and taking a bone-jarring wallop.

Swordsman Rob Lyon of Sydney prepares for battle. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Swordsman Rob Lyon of Sydney prepares for battle. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Partner Rob Lyon used to be satisfied playing Dungeons & Dragons.

These days, he likes a more robust game – sword play.

“Some people don’t like to be hit hard but I like to be flogged so I know I’ve been hit,’’ he says.

“You can be whatever and whoever you want to be. Some people take it to the enth degree.’’

John Pettigrew from Tamborine, Brisbane, likes the Viking era. With cascading grew/white hair and beard, he is on the road six months of the year peddling drinking horns on the re-enactors festival circuit.

“My wife passed away four years so there’s nothing to keep me at home now,’’ he says.

“I like the Viking period but I’m damn sure I wouldn’t like to live in it. The average age was only about 24; very few would have gotten to see their grandkids; there was disease everywhere. It was a hard life all round.’’

For mechanical engineer Bruce Hodsdon of Ingleburn, Steampunk is all about the detail: “Too much glass is never enough.

“I like to look at that things and think: `That can actually work’.’’

Ironfest is as much about a gathering of artists, re-enactors and cosplayers as it is about an industrial town emerging from its time languishing in the shadow of the hulking golden Greater Blue Mountains escarpment.

Viking John Pettigrew of Tamborine, Brisbane. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Viking John Pettigrew of Tamborine, Brisbane. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Dotted with gritty industrial sites such as the Blast Furnace ruin, the Small Arms Factory and State Mine Museum, the largely working class population is reeling from the recent and imminent closures of its main employers – the coal mines and the power station.

Rather than wallowing in self-pity, Lithgow Council has implemented a range of morale-boosting initiatives.

Efforts to reinvigorate the town centre with murals, shop window displays and retail competitions aim to encourage local business while events such as Lithglo lighting show and Halloween encourage town pride and foster community spirit.

The plan has paid off, along with a new focus on local tourism.

The fact that the town’s first female Mayor Maree Statham supports these events in spectacular style must surely help too.

 

Magnificent in head-to-toe Steampunk costume with trademark coral coloured lipstick and immaculate coif, Madam Mayor made a jaw-dropping debut on the dress-up stage at the 2014 Ironfest and was unrecognisable in a red mask and cape at Halloween.

“I do it for Lithgow,’’ she says, again in full Steampunk attire.

The success of Ironfest, which began when metal artist Macgregor Ross convinced about 200 mates to turn up to the inaugural festival 16 years ago, is testament to that – about 16,000 attended on the April 18-19 weekend.

Detail work of the Steampunk outfit adorning the elegant Mayor of Lithgow Maree Statham. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Detail work of the Steampunk outfit adorning the elegant Mayor of Lithgow Maree Statham. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Icy rain begins to fall like medieval arrows from the sky, the freezing droplets stinging the eyes as they splosh on bodies unprepared for damp rising from beneath and suffocating fog bearing down from above.

Kids wearing Roman helmet-style beanies, wielding plastic swords and lance splinter mementos burrow into fleecy hoodies, stuff mottled hands into denim pockets and trudge slowly through the wrought iron gates of the showground.

Behind them, fantastic characters pull woollen capes tightly around themselves as they wander through the makeshift campground: members of Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s own 73rd Regiment in their red and white colonial uniforms chat with those of the Australian Armoured Vehicle Association while Danish wenches prepare hearty meals in cast iron pots and the kings of the joust brush down their steeds.

The stalls are battened down and the blacksmith fires doused until next time.

But next time is not next year. For these folk, Ironfest is not a one-off event. It is a mobile playground filled with every character of the imagination.

Members of the Macquarie's 73rd Regiment re-enactment group (l-r) Simon Fowler and Lea Barnett study an antique from the period. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Members of the Macquarie’s 73rd Regiment re-enactment group (l-r) Simon Fowler and Lea Barnett study an antique from the period. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

The weird and the whimsical roam the nation in search of playmates.

They cross paths (and swords) at the Australian Celtic Festival at Glen Innes in April, Rowany Festival in April, My Lords and Ladies Medieval Fayre at Doonside in May, Winterfest Sydney Medieval Faire at Parramatta in June and St Ives Medieval Faire in September.

They re-convene at Abbey Medieval Festival in Queensland in July, Gumeracha Medieval Fair in South Australia in May and Balingup Medieval Carnival in Western Australia in August.

They are the ones who have courage to act out their fantasies and breathe fire through their inner St George’s dragon while the rest of us gaze with jealous eyes from beneath safe floppy fringes in wonder and wish we too could unleash our inner Captain Victoria Winter-Buckingham, don squeaky leather corsetry, adjust our decorative cogs and pose ever so politely for photos.

 

 

Go to www.ironfest.net for more information about Ironfest and Lithgow Tourism for more details on other events in the area.

Go to www.deephill.com.au to see Deep Hill Media coverage of Ironfest throughout the years.

* David and Ellen Hill received complimentary into the Ironfest event

Steampunkers and their bling. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Steampunkers and their bling. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

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Great Aussie camping trip: escaping the rat race WITH the rat race


Finding solitude with the masses. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Finding solitude with the masses. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

By Ellen Hill, Deep Hill Media

Burnt-out, cranky and desperate for solace to rediscover what it is to be a family, we packed the hatchback to the ceiling with just enough breathing room for Son & Heir and aimed for the coast.

We were so eager to leave behind the constant bbbbrrring of the phone, ping of the tablet and cha-ching of the hard-earned cash leaving the house that we set off in the dark at 3.30am.

Our pre-dawn escape turned out to be a fantastic inadvertent decision: with gloriously traffic-free freeways, we had covered a chunk of distance by sunrise.

When we pulled into Port Macquarie on the mid-North Coast of NSW for breakfast. a few bleary-eyed tradies and annoyingly beautiful bodies smugly jogging along the waterfront were the only human encounters while we chowed into our bi-annual takeaway food brekky.

Don't be put off by crowds of campers. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Don’t be put off by crowds of campers. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Just as we were beginning to flag, the hatchback was bouncing along a worn dirt track like an overburdened black beetle into Illaroo Beach on the far north coast of NSW between Coffs Harbour and Grafton.

We drove through the gates, reveling in familiar sights, feeling the oppression of worldly cares lifting from our hearts – until our gaze lifted, the rose tints slipped away and we were rudely confronted with reality.

Rows of overlapping tent lines, 4WDs littering the trackside, naked children trudging towards the beach and their undies flapping from makeshift clothes lines lay before us and the whiff of 50 barbecues sizzling in the summer sun hung in the salt-laden air.

No campsite is complete without a makeshift clothesline. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

No campsite is complete without a makeshift clothesline. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

After 10 hours on the road it was too late to turn back. At that stage we would be hard pressed to find an alternative campsite either.

We ended up pitching camp in a perfect spot on a little rise at the back of the campground next to the bush with plenty of room for a large tent and a fire. By the time the hammock and clothes line were strung in front it had become our private den, where we stayed for two weeks of blissful unwashed solitude.

Our contentment to live alongside the masses in dishevelled harmony got us thinking: Why do millions of Aussies abandon their comfortable air-conditioned suburban palaces in search of a seaside Nirvana they know in reality is a tortuous day-long journey in the stinking heat with a 4WD crammed with squabbling offspring, blow-up beach toys and bikes precariously tied with odd bits of rope to the back obscuring the rear view?

 

 

Save on accommodation so you can splurge on treats. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Save on accommodation so you can splurge on treats. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Cheap

Renting a small patch of ground under the stars for $350 a fortnight means you can afford to take a cruise up the mighty Clarence River on the M.V. Mirigini from the boat ramp at Iluka because you haven’t had to shell out $350 a night for a hotel room.

It means you can buy the kids an ice cream after a day at the beach because you’ve bought healthy food from the supermarket and cooked it yourself on the barbie rather than splurged on takeaway food or expensive restaurant fare.

Camping at venues such as Jenolan Caravan Park in NSW encourages a sense of community. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Camping at venues such as Jenolan Caravan Park in NSW encourages a sense of community. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

 

Community

While the face of the Aussie beachside camping trip has changed, the spirit certainly hasn’t:. Thousands of Aussies join the mass migration up the east coast of the continent in search of surf, sand and sun, a simpler life, a breath of fresh air and re-connection with human beings they are supposed to share a life with.

From the swimming sessions, meal times, ducking into town and strolls at dusk, the campsite moves as one.

When one kid hears “Ja-ack! Tea’s ready! Tell Chloe to tell `Arry to tell Teagan tea’s ready!”, every kid knows it refers to them and, with a grumble and towels dragging on the ground, they trudge barefoot through squeaky sand still baking hot from the 40 degree sun and head for the family trough.

 

 

There is space for all in the great outdoors. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

There is space for all in the great outdoors. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Space

With vast skies above and heaving water gobbling up the heavenly bodies in front, there is space enough for all at a beachfront campsite.

Even when the cowboys of the sand in their new 4WDs tear down the beach just out of reach of the waves, even when generations of campers have bagged the ultimate spot since 1952 and even when the grey nomads park a lumping great SUV with its whopping great aerial and pull-out veranda in the middle of the ground, there is space for all.

 

Evening campfires are essential to memorable camping trips. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Evening campfires are essential to memorable camping trips. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

 

 

Togetherness

Like a flock of cantankerous cockatoos in a tree, the family groups squawk and squabble over the food. They hustle and huddle at the showers and grizzle and groan over chores. But they do it together.

When myriad electronic brain drainers and conversation killers every family is infected with eventually expire, there is no alternative but to talk to each other, play games, physically exercise, explore the surrounds and, wait for it …do absolutely nothing but sit around the campfire.

 

 

 

Everyone is equal in a swimming costume. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Everyone is equal in a swimming costume. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Equality

Camping is a fantastic leveller. Yeah, the neighbours might have a new Range Rover to your ancient hatchback, they might have a you-beaut camp dunny and a portable oven but you all look the same in the water. Everyone smells putrid after a few days. Everybody blisters like an overcooked fried egg white in the sun.

 

 

Romance

Nothing beats the romance of a sunset beach walk. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Nothing beats the romance of a sunset beach walk. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill MediaRomance

It’s cliche for sure, but nothing beats a dreamy sunset walk along the beach with your love while the kids you made together skip and squeal in the shallows in the distance.

Nothing matters when kids slave away all day in the blistering sun on a sandcastle and moat or digging a hole to the centre of the earth, only for the sea to wash away their progress in one spiteful wave on the next inbound tide. The ritual is repeated on the morrow over and over again and committed to the memory bank to be savoured when the complications of adulthood cloud a difficult day.

 

The barbie is part of tradition. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

The barbie is part of tradition. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Tradition

Stone the crows! It’s the Aussie way `init? You’re just not `Strayan if you haven’t taken the family camping, had a line of undies and cozzies strung between the guy ropes and eaten a sandy sanga in the salty haze of surf.

So grab a beer, douse yourself in mozzie spray and join Gazza, Bazza and Dazza at the barbie while Shaz, Maz and Kaz giggle and natter over glasses of bubbly and barefoot kids beg the dog to give up the cricket ball in the last rays of a tourism brochure kind of day and embrace the great outdoors.

 

You CAN escape the rat race with the rate race. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

You CAN escape the rat race with the rate race. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Here’s some tips on how to escape the rat race with the rat race:

– Change your travel time or route to avoid becoming entangled in the mass migration

– However, be prepared for traffic and factor travel times accordingly, scheduling meal and rest breaks to coincide with major bottlenecks such as Macksville on the north coast of NSW to avoid frustration and stress

– Pare back the luggage, especially clothes

– Buy your own healthy food and engage the whole family in preparing meals

– Embrace the crowds as an opportunity to meet new friends

– Focus on picturesque, quirky and unique sights rather than hysterical billboards counting down the kilometres to the next fast food restaurant

Soak up the solitude with everyone else. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Soak up the solitude with everyone else. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

* Deep Hill Media stayed at Illaroo Campground in Yuraygir National Park at their own expense.