Ironfest, in their own words, is “a cool art festival with a metal edge”. The festivities occurred on April 27-28, 2019, and is located at the Lithgow Showground in the post-industrial steel town of Lithgow. This year, they celebrated their 20th anniversary, as Ironfest started out hosting their event at Lithgow’s Main Street that drew about 30 attendees back in 1999. The tagline of Ironfest makes it sound like it’s not the kind of event that most furries would flock to, but Ironfest is much, much more than an outdoor art exhibition for the creative types. This year’s theme was “Once Upon a Time”, the perfect setting for fantasy and storybook aficionados. However, that doesn’t stop Ironfest from being an artistic mashup from all timelines of human history.
Some of the contingent from the NSW Furries were present, and two of the members there organized the expedition. I tip my hat to them, for without their leadership, this experience would never have been possible. Ironfest 2019 also marked the first time that Furries were recognized as a clan by Ironfest’s organisers and hilariously we as a group were slapped on the itinerary as “The Furry Gang”. All up, the group brought in 15 fursuits, a few costumes, 1 custom vehicle (more on that later) and some non-suiters assisting with this whole gig. I did bump in to a couple of furries that weren’t part of our group (with only one having a fursuit), but seeing them enjoy the festival made my day.
Attendees of Ironfest come to enjoy the festivities, browse the market stalls and express themselves by dressing up in costumes. You’ll see staple aesthetics like witches, steampunk, medieval and the odd sci-fi here and there, but cosplayers also made a good showing and partook in a cosplay competition. Some attendees even drove around in homemade vehicles – the first one I saw on the parkground was a Flying Dutchman cycle that was “sailed” by a man frequently yelling “Arr!”. Statistically, Ironfest can draw in 2,900 artists/performers and 17,000 visitors over the weekend in 2017.
To address the furry question, the folks know of furries, in the sense that they could point to a fursuit and say “They’re furries”, then immediately pose next to the fursuiter or snag some photos, or both. The attendees of Ironfest not only loved us as a whole, they embraced having us there! In saying that, Ironfest is an environment where you could literally dress up in anything and nobody will judge you.
All around the Battleground of Ironfest, the streets outside of it and in the Ballroom, there’s no shortage of exhibits, curiosities and antiquities on display. A mermaid in a gigantic fish tank, fully functional armoured vehicles and steam trains, antique carriages and a lot more. Hotspots at Ironfest include the Artisan’s corner - presided by blacksmiths and crafters plying their trade, the newly debuted Kid’s Corner featuring storytellers and a petting zoo with a live pony, and also a ring where some of the best wrestlers from Lithgow and its neighbouring towns duke it out. Merchant stalls are plentiful and buzzing with business, stocking swords (both foam and steel), bows, belts, specialty liquor and handmade trinkets from the cultural and traditional to the uncanny. In short, if you can dream it, you can live it.
Centre-stage in the Battleground (called the Tourney Grounds) played host to historical re-enactments and battles, some so bizarre you’d think that someone at Ironfest brought a time machine to the premises. Par for the course were jousts, Live Action Role Playing (LARP) melees and even artillery firing displays so loud that you could feel the ground shake and see smoke rings for days. One display, a re-enactment of the Battle for the Western Front, bizarrely concluded with LARPers dressed in attire from the Middle Ages storming the battlefield and cutting down the World War 1 infantrymen, and heck, they even rushed one of the tanks! But what can sword and shield do against one artillery shell and a solid steel frame? BAM! Who knows, the LARPers might be thinking that a steel beast can bleed?
What was my personal highlight of Ironfest? A life-sized Catbus from My Neighbour Totoro! This was the handiwork of a husband and wife team in the NSW Furries Group, and to top it all off, even their children make costumes, cosplay, fursuit and drive the Catbus as a team! In actuality, this Catbus is a tube frame with a lot of fur sown on the outside and a gigantic cat visage slapped on the front. It’s even got legs that flip up and act like doors – one for each passenger. All up, the craftsmanship was spectacular and it really does pass off as both a good replica and a convincing vehicle. Surprisingly, I was able to “ride” on the Catbus – and by “ride”, I mean lift the bus on my shoulders and walk the Catbus with three others. To nobody’s surprise, the bus was stopped for photos very often, got lots of thumbs up and needed eight eyes to navigate, steer and watch the ground for horse poo (which was seldom cleaned up).
By sundown on Saturday, the Ironfest parade was commencing. Crowds gathered to see marching bands, vehicles homemade and steam powered alike, re-enactors and more march down the parade route from the park ground, down to the street near the front gate and back to the stadium grounds for a group photo shoot. The Catbus even made a showing on the parade, though I would only recommend walking the parade route if:
- You are piloting a vehicle or riding a horse
- Your favourite pastime is watching out for horse poo on the ground
- You are part of a marching band or an ensemble of historical re-enactors
As for my experience, I found Ironfest to be a blast! This was the time I debuted Jolty as a fullsuit with the body and feet having arrived, and Lithgow was blessed with chilly cold over the weekend. Jolty was well received by the multitudes who stopped to photograph, got a high five from the Big Bad Wolf (actually not a fursuit), and both children and adults loved him! It’s an Ironfest tradition to greet the festival goers at the gate while dressed as the gates open, and sure enough, watching the crowds pour in, costume or no costume all excited is just a treat all of its own. While in suit, I felt more akin to a roving performer, humoring the many festival goers with my presence and even dancing to some live music. Outside of the fursuit, I roamed the grounds and took in the sight of many peoples’ bringing their imaginations to life with their costumes while also being in awe of all the displays exhibited. It also goes without saying that throughout it all, I very much enjoyed the company of my fellow furries and they too carried themselves admirably around the festival, like professional performers.
Sometimes, you have to venture out of the big cities to live out the wildest fantasies, and I can thusly say that Ironfest is absolutely worth seeing with your own two eyes. Especially when you have a head honcho who’s crazy enough to bring in tanks and artillery from thousands of kilometres away. Next year, Ironfest will be back and you can bet it will be crazy as ever, and the theme for 2020 is “Gothic”. You can expect lots of Visigoths, dark colours or maybe someone dressed as a Huskarl. If you’re willing to scratch that fantasy itch, head on over to Ironfest or failing that, a medieval fair will do the trick (just don’t expect tanks if you aren't hitting up Ironfest).
Feel free to listen to Episode 53 of the Raiders Rambles, titled "Like Being In A Fantasy" to get a taste of the Ironfest story and for some supplementary content that also happened at Ironfest.