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BATHURST ’04: FIREWORKS, FALCONS AND GRENADES

SITTING in the lunch room at work on the Wednesday of Bathurst 1000 race week 2004, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

I wasn’t sure that I had holidays owing, but minor details like that were to be sorted with the boss upon my return a week later.

The mission however was nearly aborted early, when a spider that stowed away in my camping gear crawled up my leg.

This wasn’t a run of the mill, backyard variety eight-legged friend, this thing should have been on a poster to discourage American tourists from entering the country.

As I made a panic swerve across four lanes of peak hour Bruce Highway traffic without hitting anything, the scene was set.

Upon arrival into Bathurst, it was time for the usual housekeeping – pie shop, the newsagents to pick up the latest camping fashions (a Dirty Pierre shirt), Woolies for bare basic foodstuffs such as a lifetime supply of sausages, and Liquorland for beer, ice, beer, ice, and another slab of beer, because you can never be too sure about these things.

For 2004, a new ban on couches, unregistered vehicles, fireworks, and anything else that constituted fun, slowed the camper check in process, with sniffer dogs being swung into action.

On the bus to the top of the hill, we waited somewhat impatiently in line.

The five-star security general climbed aboard, “Anyone have glass, fireworks, drugs?”

“YESSSS!” came the response….

On one particular bus ride to the top, a sniffer dog lost its shit when it came to a pair of rough nuts armed with swags.

“Have you got anything in there?”

“Awww, it’s probably a bit of gun residue from pig shooting the other night.”

“No worries sirs, on your way.”

Once off the bus at Reid Park, old mate unfurled his luggage to reveal a cache of fireworks that would make the Sydney Harbour Bridge on December 31st blush.

I hiked across the top to our accommodation for the next four nights, “McPhillamy Heights”, a combined eight campsites, filled with grizzled veterans whose sole purpose in life is this one weekend of the year.

Located behind Castrol Tower about 50m from the track and adjacent to the local toilet block, the first campsite attendees from late the previous week had already barricaded off a prime section of spectator fence line for Sunday.

It soon became apparent that these guys had done this before.

One of the eight plots were solely dedicated to a variety of 24/7 camp fires.

Piping hot water any time of the day? A keg-like contraption perched above a fire sorted that, while another keg was adapted into a spit roaster, with a homemade electric turning mechanism.

BBQ trailers, TVs a plenty, DVD players, a whopping stereo, fridges, fairy lights, and light boards with topical commentaries aimed at Holden fans were powered by a variety of generators.

A couple of brown outs during the week were hastily sorted by a quick juggle of the power board wiring.

Completing the experience, the local residents were issued with bespoke t-shirts and stubby coolers.

It was asked on more than one occasion, “Why don’t we just move here?”

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Bruce McMahon from the Courier Mail dropped by to do a feature on “Shocky”, and his XE done up in a classic Dick Johnson livery, a tradition that he has continued to this day.

While the car cost $500, it looked sharp with $300 worth of stickers down its sides.

On Thursday night, the weather turned nasty, with a major thunderstorm tearing through downtown Bathurst, bypassing the top of the Mountain.

Somehow, we didn’t notice it, maybe it was the constant blast of fireworks, or maybe the beer.

The ban on unregistered vehicles probably didn’t meet its KPI. It seems many of the thrifty punters trotted off to the RTA and concessionally registered their creations.

Some of the mowers, tractors and scooters were works of art. One of the highlights featured a locomotive towing eight carts, including a keg with a bar, a generator, a TV with Playstation, a few seats, a couch, and a spa bath filled with the entire contents of one public campground hot water systems.

While the bottom of the hill received an off-season revamp with its massive new pit complex, changes up top extended to a coat of paint to the toilet blocks. In hindsight, it was probably money well saved.

Friday night featured an excursion to the dark side, Reid Park, where the bulk of the feral population of Australia had set up shop for the week.

It’s good family fun, so long as you don’t bring the missers or the kids, and are able to dodge the flying explosives.

Participation in the “Beer Olympics” at the aptly named “No Shit Hotel” was not for light weights.

A fun-filled night of burnouts, burning things, and explosions ends when a few of the braver lads climbed the communications tower, fate unknown.

Back over McPhillamy way, the crowd behaviour wasn’t too bad.

One of the boys who worked in the mines at Newcastle, after a few cans one night decided to test out the strength of the lock on the gate at the back entry of the Mountain with his Landcruiser’s bulbar.

From then on, there was unlimited access from the backroad of contraband, including a literal stack of previously surrendered couches, which were donated their own tent for safe keeping until Sunday morning.

On Saturday evening, we grabbed a few beers and headed down to the Mount Panorama sign for a spot of reflection.

I always get a tingle when you see that sign as you roll into the circuit, and in person it’s larger than life.

While it was incredibly peaceful sitting on the painted rocks of the sign, the campgrounds above raged in surround sound, while below some families of kangaroos gathered, no doubt planning their assault on the front of Jim Richard’s Commodore the next day.

I quite badly ripped my jeans and leg on the barbed wire fence while un-trespassing from the infield, with beer the obvious replacement for a tetanus shot.

Such is the camping life on top of the hill.

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Early wake up Sunday morning, and the crowd is massive, especially at the adjacent ablution block, so I make the trek down to the Forrest’s Elbow, where there is a total lack of a queue.

There is little wonder though – the facilities there haven’t seen a flush or a bucket of disinfectant since they were erected in 1987.

News soon filters through that the extended line up at the McPhillamy Park facilities were due to a hand grenade attack on the Reid Park dunnys, an action that was entirely par for the course.

The first half of the day is spent on top of the hill, with the boys arming our trackside campout with a generator, three TVs, and a series of ill-gotten lounge chairs.

After catching the finish at the bottom of the hill, it was time for the long walk back up to camp via the race track.

Near the Cutting, a couple of Holden supporters were heard to say “Here skippy skippy, where are you boy?”, but apparently Tony Quinn had already scooped up the carcass.

The biggest accident of the weekend then befell a pair of well hydrated lads, who rode a keg with wheels at the speed of gravity face first into a concrete wall.

Sunday evening is a rather sedate affair, with one final serve of sausages, and the ceremonial burning of the lounge suite.

Good times, do it again some time?

WORDS + IMAGES: Mark Walker

Mark Walker used to camp at Mount Panorama when he was in race fan mode. Now he writes and shoots for The Race Torque amidst promoting Slideways Go karting centres in Queensland. We’re not sure if it’s a promotion or not.