Show Sydney your satin and sequins at the biggest gay party in the world

It started 20 years ago as a protest march for gay rights - now three-quarters-of-a-million people turn out to watch the 270-float parade and dance until dawn. Andrew Tuck visits Australia's Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

THE LOUDEST cheer is saved for the officers of the New South Wales Police Service, marching in their blue uniforms and with faces glowing under their peaked-caps from the adulatory roar of the 750,000-strong crowd. The appearance of so many officers - an impressive 40 - in the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade is a barometer of how once bigoted Sydney has been transformed into a capital of tolerance and diversity. In 1978 the first march, in support of gay rights, ended with 53 arrests. Today Mardi Gras is the biggest gay event in the world and attracts high- spending international visitors (4,000 last year), as well as crowds of Sydneysiders, who all know that this is the perfect excuse for excessive partying. It's also the one time in the year when anyone can get away with wearing sequins.

The main Mardi Gras weekend is always on the first weekend in March and kicks off with the lavish Saturday-evening parade (there were 270 floats and marching troupes last year). This is followed by an all-night dance party for over 20,000 gays, lesbians and their closest friends. And its very easy to get close friends when the ticket allocation is so strictly controlled - even local members are only allowed to buy three tickets, overseas members just one.

But over two decades Mardi Gras has grown and grown until it's now a month-long celebration of all things queer. In the weeks running up to the party night, there are films, plays, debates, drag shows (including Frocks on the Rocks), parties (do not miss the Harbour Party held outdoors on the edge of the Royal Botanical Gardens, with the postcard Sydney view of the Opera House as a backdrop), cabaret performances, and even the chance to go shopping in aid of charity (this day is charmingly entitled "Shop Yourself Stupid").

Everyone seems to get in on the act and Mardi Gras has high-profile corporate backers including Qantas, Coco-Cola and Telstra (the Australian version of BT). Last year, for the first time, the owners of the Sydney Tower, a structure that dominates the city's skyline, illuminated it with pink lights for Mardi Gras week.

Such is the frantic pace of events, many revellers book a week off work prior to Mardi Gras so that they can indulge in the hedonistic nights hosted by the bars and clubs along Oxford Street's gay strip. The same people are usually compelled to take another week off after Mardi Gras to recover in Queensland's beach resorts. For some these "recovery breaks" are just an excuse to carry on partying.

In the week running up to the big night, we (myself and the significant other) were staying with friends who lived yards away from Taylor Square, the most full-on section of Oxford Street. As each day came and went we noticed the streets filling with more and more partygoers. By the eve of the Mardi Gras parade, every bar had queues snaking away from their doors; gay restaurants were struggling to cope with their orders; and shops selling skimpy shorts and disco outfits were having to calm down panicking outfit-less punters.

Only the weather threatened to dampen the enthusiasm of the crowds: after weeks of record-breaking heat, grey clouds had gathered and rain begun to fall.

Warned by locals of the danger of getting too tired and too excited before the fun really started, we opted for a quiet Friday. In the early evening we made a last circuit of Oxford Street's clothes stores to make sure we didn't need to buy something just a bit more colourful to wear (two hours later we had bought two pairs of brightly checked trousers and some equally lurid shorts - well better safe than sorry). Next stop was Gilligan's for cocktails as colourful as our shorts and then home about midnight, slightly the worse for wear.

By Saturday morning the weather had calmed slightly, although the rain clouds continued to reappear just when you thought the sun was about to break through. Yet no one thought that this was God trying to rain on the parade, except perhaps for the Reverend Fred Nile, a critic of the parade and a member of the legislative council of New South Wales. Fred had been declaring for weeks in the press that he would pray for rain to "dampen the enthusiasm of the exhibitionists". Fred's annoyance levels were tweaked even more when the news came out that once again the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (men in nun's habits) would be marching with a giant model of Fred's head on a plate. Soon after he announced that he had abandoned his plan to blockade the parade, because he didn't want his young Christian followers getting mowed down by the Dykes on Bikes.

There are two options if you intend to watch the parade. Either you stand on the road or you sit in the stands set up by the Bobby Goldsmith Foundation, Australia's equivalent of the Terrence Higgins Trust. Standing on the street is fine if you can remain in place for several hours without requiring a visit to the loo (no, me neither) and can contend with the tall people who just don't understand that their position in life is at the back. To sit in the stands you need a ticket, and despite there being several thousand of these, they sell out weeks before the event. Our Sydney friends had bought us tickets as soon as we had announced our intention of abusing their hospitality. At AU$60 (around pounds 22) apiece they were another expense but it was worthwhile: not only did you get to sit with your mates in some comfort, but each section of seating had its own compere and there were bars and loos too. More importantly, the people on the floats and the marchers timed their choreographed routines so that you saw them at their best.

The stands are at the end of the parade route, close to the Showground where the party is held, and the first floats came into view only at about 9pm, a full hour and-a-half since they had set off from downtown. The entrants varied from Miss New Zealand, a man who marches every year dragged up in Fifties fashion (the joke being that Australians consider New Zealand rather backward. Indeed one story has it that until a few years ago waggish Qantas stewards would announce on arrival in New Zealand, "The local time is 10am ... 1952") to Gayviation, featuring hundreds of air stewards in slinky silver outfits and a giant model of a jumbo jet. There were also the community and political groups, churches, parents of gays marching with their kids (and movingly holding hands), rather a lot of Janet Jackson lookalikes and, of course, the police. It took more than two hours for the parade to pass us and, to make sure you didn't get bored and wander off, the best floats were saved to last.

As soon as the last float had passed there was a scramble as people headed for the Showground, and a night of relentless partying. It's an all-ticket affair so the queues move fairly quickly and after 15 minutes we had fought our way through the turnstile and into the party.

The Showground, usually used for trade and agricultural fairs (it's a bit like Olympia), is made up of several massive halls. For Mardi Gras each of these is pitched at a different crowd. The Dome is for the leather set, the Hawden is very mixed and has a reputation for appealing to non- gay partygoers, and the RHI (Royal Hall of Industries), the largest of the venues, is young and gay and where most of the shows take place: we saw sets from Kylie and Danii Minogue, among others. And in between these vast arenas are stalls, bars, women-only zones and plenty of places to sit down and chill out.

Stripped down to shorts and singlets, we chose the RHI as our home for the night and danced there for a worrying number of hours, among thousands upon thousands of ridiculously handsome people, who had clearly spent weeks in the gym and on the beach preparing themselves for this one night. Whenever the heat became almost too much, we would head outside to gulp down water. It was during one of these breaks from slowly killing ourselves that we noticed that our hands were puckered from the sweat trickling down our bodies and that our clothes were covered with an even less appealing mix of dirt and sweat.

Back on the busy dancefloor it was almost impossible to move (especially when any act was on, including the oddly emotional sight of more than a hundred drag queens taking to the stage to sing I Am What I Am). We also had to contend with the carpet of plastic water bottles on to the already slippery floor.

At 10am, the party finally drew to a close with Jimmy Somerville strutting his stuff on stage (good, but not quite Madonna). Then, slowly, people began to gather up their friends, clothes and senses to depart, staggering back towards their homes in the fresh morning air. Well, at least some of them went home. Many others ended up in the bars along Oxford Street and even those who went home to shower and perhaps sleep, dragged themselves along to one of the huge chill-out parties on Sunday night (yep, I was there).

FACT FILE

gay & lesbian mardi gras

Getting there

Andrew Tuck travelled courtesy of Qantas (tel: 0345 747767). Qantas "Getaway Fares" to Australia start from pounds 699 (excluding taxes) to the east coast, including Sydney, and include one stop-over in each direction in Asia. Qantas also flies to 52 destinations within Australia and the Boomerang Pass offers passengers low-cost domestic flights in Australia, New Zealand and the south-west Pacific.

Mardi Gras

The main celebrations are an evening parade, followed by a ticketed party for over 20,000 people. Last year party tickets cost AUS$70, plus an additional AUS$20 for international memberships. Mardi Gras office tel: 00 61 2 9557 4332/fax: 00 61 2 9516 4446. For seats in the parade stands tel: 00 61 2 9320 9169.

What to do

What's hot changes rapidly but you could try Oxford Street bars such as Stonewall, The Albury (drag), The Beresford (on nearby Bourke Street), and Gilligan's.

Several of Sydney's numerous beaches are unofficially gay. The most famous of these is Tamarama - or as it is also affectionately known, Glamarama - one bay round from Bondi. Nervous of your pecs deflating while on holiday? Then head for the City Gym in Crown Street, which is very gay, very friendly, and very busy.

News
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete today
News
people'I’d rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare'
Life and Style
The new Windows 10 Start Menu
tech
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedyFirst national survey reveals Britain’s comedic tastes
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
Bruce Chatwin's novel 'On the Black Hill' was set at The Vision Farm
travelOne of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
Sport
footballManchester City 1 Roma 1: Result leaves Premier League champions in danger of not progressing
Arts and Entertainment
Gay and OK: a scene from 'Pride'
filmsUS film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
News
i100
Life and Style
Magic roundabouts: the gyratory system that has excited enthusiasts in Swindon
motoringJust who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Arts and Entertainment
Hilary North's 'How My Life Has Changed', 2001
booksWell it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Management Accountant

    28,000 to 32,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our client, a hospitality busi...

    Food and Beverage Cost Controller

    18,000 to 20,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our fantastic leisure client i...

    Marketing Analyst / Marketing Executive

    £20 - 24k: Guru Careers: A Marketing Analyst / Marketing Executive is needed t...

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    Day In a Page

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?