Australia’s annual rock ‘n’ roll pilgrimage
Hundreds of devotees in extravagant costumes travel to the Parkes festival on the Elvis Express, a special train service from Sydney. (Phil Mercer)
In Australia’s outback, the spirit of Elvis Presley shines as brightly as a freshly minted rhinestone jumpsuit.
Thousands of fans and impersonators have flocked to the town of Parkes, in the eastern state of New South Wales, for a festival dedicated to the legendary American singer. Each year, the sparsely populated farming community located 365km west of Sydney welcomes legions of fans that cram its streets to attend a flamboyant parade, a host of concerts and an Elvis-inspired gospel church service held in an underground car park. For the athletic, there’s an Elvis lawn bowls tournament (a bocce-ball like sport) and for the glamorous, a Miss Priscilla lookalike competition.
Hundreds of devotees in extravagant costumes travel to the carnival on the Elvis Express, a special train service from Sydney, where the morning rush-hour is invigorated by white jumpsuits, aviator sunglasses and black wigs.
“It is just tons of fun,” explained Trevor, a retired paramedic from Wollongong who was waiting to board the train Friday morning. “You’ll see the oldest, and the fattest and the ugliest in the world but everyone enjoys themselves.”
Squeals and applause echoed through the station’s main concourse as a gyrating impersonator strutted around on a small stage and belted out a very credible version of A Big Hunk o' Love, followed by Blueberry Hill and other crowd pleasers. Even commuters were drawn into the musical maelstrom.
“When he sings to you, he just sings to you. It doesn’t matter if there’s a thousand or a million people around — he is just singing to you,” said Karen, who was taking her mother and teenage daughter on the annual rock ‘n’ roll pilgrimage. She of course, was talking about the real King.
The Elvis festival was first held in a Parkes restaurant in 1993 to celebrate the singer’s birthday, 8 January. The event has since mushroomed to such an extent that the town’s population more than doubles during the January festival. This year, the event runs until 15 January.Onboard the Elvis Express, Terry, a club manager, was looking forward to a hero’s welcome at the train’s destination.
“When it [the Elvis Express] arrives in Parkes, the station is full of people,” he said. “It must be the closest thing to when the war was over and how soldiers must have felt when you step off the train. You can’t move on the platform. It is just unbelievable.”
Elvis was 42 when he died in 1977, and he probably never heard of Parkes. Yet every year, the small Australian country town still pays fervent homage to his music and enduring style.