Nutter, Bart, Adrian, Gilly and Chris are determined to keep up the pace for eight days. They have been drinking for most of the first 96 hours of the Munich Oktoberfest, and are halfway there.

'The first day we started drinking at 12,' says Nutter, who is wearing a T-shirt adorned with the legend 'Instant asshole, just add alcohol'. 'Our pace is slowing a bit. We didn't start till quarter past today.'

Four of the five are from New Zealand, Chris comes from Cape Town. They are all in their early twenties, but, midway through their mission, they look about 50. Their hands shake, the skin on their faces is the colour and texture of an uncooked German sausage; a couple of them have involuntary twitches of the eyebrow or the side of the mouth. Chris has half a dozen stitches in a vicious wound on his forehead: 'A table jumped me,' he explains.

'We start out with 200 marks ( pounds 80) a day and keep going till we've drunk it all,' says Nutter ('that's Nutter, as in Complete and Utter Nutter').

At 10 marks for a mass (a litre glass), that is 20 litres per man per day. Assuming they completed their eight-day marathon last night, the quintet will, in the past week, have consumed nearly 35 gallons of beer each.

Millions of people descend on Munich's massive festival site during the three-week-long bacchanalia to eat and drink in prodigious volumes. For the Bavarian, the Oktoberfest is a celebration of a long-dead agrarian past. They can dress up as Alpine woodcutters and sing the drinking songs of their great-grandfathers to the swaying beat of the oompah band. During one period of the year at least, work need not be the most important thing in their lives; the production line at BMW can slow down to Rover rates.

But for thousands of young Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans, all this is foreign stuff. For them, the Oktoberfest is the biggest coming-of-age party in the world. They have spent the summer 'doing' Europe, and now, as autumn approaches, they gather, bringing with them their own traditional drinking songs: such as the one to the tune of the children's hit 'Bring Back My Bonny', which goes 'Pull back, pull back, oh pull back my foreskin for me.'

'It's an ambition I've had since I was a kid, mate, to come to the bierfest,' says Chris. 'To be honest with you, coming here was the only reason I came overseas.'

The Germans and their young visitors get on with their respective rites almost unaware of each other. The eight major local brewers erect their own marquees on the site, elaborately decorated like ersatz Alpine chalets, full of rustic refectory furniture and waitresses in flouncy blouses. In seven of the eight Brauhause, whole generations of Germans gather at the same table, smoking seven-inch cheroots and wearing T-shirts adorned with the comic heroes of the Oktoberfest: the big-breasted woman with fists full of overflowing beer mugs and the bewhiskered old man trolleying his gut around in a wheelbarrow.

But in one marquee, they don't bother with much in the way of decoration, just a bit of greenery thrown about the place to make it look like a Biergarten, and a giant teddy bear called Aloisius suspended from the ceiling. This is the Hofbrauhaus, and it is to here that the Antipodeans are drawn, like salmon returning up stream.

'I dunno why we come to this particular tent, mate,' says Dale, from Sydney. 'You just know to come here. From when you were a kid, people who've been overseas tell you. Munich means the Hofbrauhaus.'

Dale has worked as a barman in London for six months, saving pounds 100 of his pounds 125 weekly wage to finance a six-month grand tour of Europe. He has been 'everywhere, Pamplona, Ios. But Prague's the best, mate. The history, the culture, the beer.'

Guys like Dale travel Europe in a cocoon of 'Ozness', doing the same things, going to the same places, having the same hangovers as their parents did when the European tour became an essential part of growing up for the Antipodean. Nothing has changed since Clive James and Germaine Greer's day, when Barry Humphries chronicled the whole procession in The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, except nowadays they detour Yugoslavia. The Hofbrauhaus is the end of the journey; after this, they will go back to London, perhaps via Berlin, and trade in their combi vans for an air fare home.

The Antipodeans start gathering at the Hofbrauhaus in numbers from the early evening. Some have spent the day sleeping off the previous night's excess in their campsites, some have tried out the terrifying fairground rides that pepper the festival site, rides that seem designed with the sole purpose of separating drinkers from their beer. One girl has even visited Munich's science museum.

Theirs is a unisex uniform: round their wrists are thin leather bangles picked up in South-east Asia; they wear shorts, lightweight hiking boots or Jandals (flip- flops), and drinking T-shirts. The shirts, customised and carefully kept through their travels for this event, say things such as 'World Series Pissheads' or 'Stein Team, Munich '92'.

As the beer goes down, an incessant roaring noise, like a prolonged belch, starts up. Across the marquee Australia v New Zealand arm-wrestling contests are taking place, a man sucks on a baby's bottle that is filled with schnapps, another man pulls a condom over his face and inflates it until it looks like a 3ft boil on top of his head.

Drinking games are played at the tables. In the '100 Club', drinkers attempt to down 100 measures of schnapps, one a minute. The unofficial Oktoberfest record is 76.

Despite its size, the Hofbrauhaus is an intimate place, everyone is friendly, everyone is a mate.

'Where you from, mate?' they ask. 'Not London, mate. Biggest rip-off city in the world.'

As the evening progresses, people become less capable of speech. They start to use sign language and are forever hugging and slapping their mates on the back. Chris explains his philosophy.

'A mate's a mate, mate. And yer mates are the most important thing in yer life, mate. You stand by them.' He adds that he had come to Munich with his girlfriend but lost her a couple of days ago.

There are Germans in the Hofbrauhaus, on the fringes, and groups of American servicemen, on leave from nearby bases, but they don't get the plot at all, confused by another culture's drinking language. Some Japanese men wander into the middle of the maelstrom, and leave immediately, shaking their heads at the way in which the inhabitants of their economic colonies disport themselves.

By 10pm the Hofbrauhaus is so full you can barely move your elbows - except to raise a mug to your mouth. The blue-bereted security men have given up trying to stop people climbing on the tables, every surface is crowded with people swaying to the band or shouting 'Kiwi' as loud as they can.

A big Maori and his short, fat friend jump on a table and run through a terrifying haka, the Maori war dance performed by the All Blacks before rugby internationals. The Maori is wearing a grass skirt and war paint. The security men gather, but let them finish.

'Good idea, mate,' a Kiwi advises them. 'It's best not to interrupt a man in the middle of his haka.'

Put 5,000 drunk young Englishmen in a tent like this and the fighting would break out within half an hour. There are English lads in the crowd, numbers of them, and Scots, too, but in the prevailing atmosphere of jollity, no one causes trouble.

'We just want to drink,' says Adrian. 'Don't want to waste energy fighting. Besides, you get thrown out if you fight, and that's the last thing you want.'

It is probably the large numbers of women in the tent that keeps the atmosphere from souring. The Down Under girl seems to drink as much as her male compatriot, will squeal in feigned resistance when someone like Nutter rips

her bra off (by the end of the evening he is wearing a dozen trophies round his neck), and, if they are real sports, they will jump on to a table and remove their


One girl, on her third trip on to a table-top, decides to whip off her shorts, too. She sways for a few moments, wearing only her money-belt, before the security men, their tolerance for once pushed too far, bundle her down.

At 11pm the band put down their brass, time is called, and the security men gently wash the crowd outside, back to their campsites. Several will make it no further than the tube station, where they will collapse on the platform, 'crook'.

'I'm surprised, but I haven't seen anyone die yet,' says one of the waitresses. 'But these are good young people. You know? Nice.'

Nutter, Gilly, Bart and the rest say Munich is everything they had expected and more. Their ambitions have been fulfilled.

'It couldn't be better,' says Chris. 'Tell you what, mate, if you come here next year, you'll find us all here. At the same table.'

(Photograph omitted)