Festivals in our DNA

Published 10:54 pm Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Suffolk Peanut Festival is almost upon us. In less than two weeks, the airport will throng with folks out to celebrate the humble legume and this city’s abiding connection to it.

I’m a stranger to the Peanut Festival, but no stranger to festivals that outsiders could perceive as a tad unusual.

My hometown is Gilgandra, a community of 3,000 in the central western portion of Australia’s eastern seaboard.

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The town’s namesake is the Aboriginal word for “long waterhole,” and it’s true that the Castlereagh River bisecting “Gil” — Aussies tend to shorten things — is a couple of glorified puddles along a sandy bed.

In October, the town holds its four-day Coo-ee Festival. Its what? Coo-ee Festival. Let me explain:

During World War I, 26 hardy Gil lads (they breed them tough) decided to walk the 300 miles to Sydney as a recruitment drive.

Thousands of Australian soldiers had recently been slaughtered in the Gallipoli campaign, and the Australian Defense Force was having a hard time finding replacements.

Passing through towns, the walkers would call out — shrilly, throwing their heads back, as loud as possible — “coo-ee!”

White settlers had picked up the word, which travels over long distances when pitched correctly, from Aborigines, who used it to communicate in the vast, dense bush.

By the time the Coo-ee March, as it would be known, reached Sydney, 263 men had joined. They signed on with the military, probably bought new shoes, and shipped out to war. The initiative sparked copycat marches across the country.

So that’s how the Coo-ee Festival got its name. The potential strangeness of its events rival — probably surpass, in fact, but it’s all relative — the coronation of the Peanut Queen, with pursuits including coo-ee-calling and boomerang-throwing contests.

Then there’s Julia Creek’s Dirt n Dust festival, which I covered as a reporter in remote northeastern Australia.

That’s staged around a triathlon involving an 800-meter swim through a muddy creek, a 25-kilometer bicycle leg on a parched outback highway, and a five-kilometer run through a middle-of-nowhere town of 350-odd people in the searing heat.

But the Top Seven Strange Festivals at www.wackyowl.com take some beating. During Thaipusam, observed in southern India, Singapore and Malaysia, devotees participate in “mortification of the flesh,” skewering themselves with metal objects to forge a closer relationship with God.

In Gloucester, England, folks chase a single piece of cheese down a hill, and in Spain, during El Colacho, they place babies on mattresses on the street for people to jump over.

The mind boggles.

Bring on the nuts.