EACH year in a little rural village with about 500 residents, just outside the ACT, one of Australia’s biggest cracker nights fills the sky with colours, sounds and the smell of sulphur.
The Gunning Fireworks Festival claims on its website to offer “a display of fireworks second only to Sydney’s New Year’s Eve”, which might be a little hard to believe at first. But ask about the framed photographs of festivals past on the walls of Gunning’s pub, The Telegraph Hotel, and there’s a good chance you’ll hear much the same thing.
The unique festival, complete with food, music, rides and children’s entertainment, is actually like a spectacular afterthought, explains Fireworks Australia managing director Martin Brady, whose company organises the event. Originally, the massive fireworks show was not open to the public.
“How this started was we did a trade demo for our wholesale clients,” says Brady. “Companies from around Australia would travel to Gunning – we chose it because it was near our warehouse – and for two hours, we would demonstrate the latest and greatest in commercial fireworks.”
Word got around about the private event and people soon lined the fences of the property where it was held to see the crackers, which led Gunning Golf Club to propose that they host the event and charge entry as a fundraiser.
“And that was fine with us,” says Martin. “Then the last year we did it at the golf club there was a 40-minute traffic jam, so we moved it to the Gunning Showgrounds a few years ago.”
This year, on September 14, he expects a few thousand people to turn up, including a coterie of clued-up Canberrans, alongside Fireworks Australia’s commercial guests from around the country and overseas.
The business put food on the table when Martin was growing up and his father used to supply a lot of the crackers that Canberrans lit in their backyards every Queen’s Birthday long weekend, until that was outlawed.
The company is now one of the major national players in the pyrotechnics industry and the festival is almost certainly Australia’s premier commercial fireworks demonstration.
“When [home fireworks displays] became more regulated, we evolved more into a commercial fireworks supplier,” Martin says.
“At that time the industry was pretty old-school and a bit staid, so the thing that really pushed us along was that we went to Asia ourselves and created all-new supply lines that hadn’t been in Australia before; a lot more product, different product, better product.”
In the mid ‘90s, according to Martin, there were only a few commercial fireworks suppliers, with a limited range of high-priced products.
“For a three-inch aerial shell in those days, the wholesale price was $17. We put our first one on the market for $3, and we weren’t doing it for nothing.”
Although its main business is supplying explosions used for theatre, film, television, concerts and public events nationwide, Fireworks Australia’s creative side, which designs the displays themselves, is never short of work either.
“Our biggest [display] work now is touring shows,” says Martin. “This year we’ve done KISS, Motley Crue, Guns ‘n’ Roses and we’ve got someone out with Pink now.”
The company has taken care of Canberra’s last few New Year’s Eve and Australia Day displays and has put in proposals to do them again this summer.
Martin is confident his ideas for Australia Day 2014 will be the biggest and best yet, as is generally expected of things that go bang.
Along with markets, festival food and kids entertainment such as face-painting, temporary tattoos and amusement rides, guests at this year’s Gunning Fireworks Festival can expect the nine-piece Brass-ere Jazz Band and the Goulburn Pipe Band taking it in turns from 4pm.
The professional fireworks demonstration runs for about an hour and a half, with the largest explosions left till last, and at the end is a grand 12-minute finale, set to music, purely for the enjoyment of onlookers.
“Don’t be too worried about the weather,” says Martin. “It’s a bit like a drive-in movie; you can sit in your car.”
Gunning Fireworks Festival, Gunning Showground, Nelanglo Street, September 14 from 4pm. Adults $10; children $4; $25 per vehicle.
TOP PHOTO: Pyrotechnician Martin Brady in his Gunning warehouse… “Our biggest [display] work now is touring shows. This year we’ve done KISS, Motley Crue, Guns ‘n’ Roses and we’ve got someone out with Pink now.” Photo by Brent McDonald