Across the seas from King's Landing, in a moody valley beyond a vast wilderness where imagined dragons linger, lies the mysterious Kingdom of Ironfest. Before a huge crowd of noblemen and serfs baying for blood, armoured knights are poised for battle, lances drawn, fiery steeds pawing the ground, nostrils flared. The flag is dropped; hoofbeats build to a crescendo, before that sickening clash, iron on iron, as contact is made… We're talking jousting here, people – jousting!! But this is not the fictional land of Westeros, or even the ancient European cities that serve as locations for that addictive HBO series Game of Thrones. The setting for this medieval rumble is, in fact, in our own backyard – the humble town of Lithgow, just beyond the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney.
Approaching its 16th year, Ironfest is arguably Australia's wackiest, most colourful festival. Established in 2000 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the steel industry in Lithgow, it has escalated over the years to bring together performers, historical re-enactors, metal artists and machine enthusiasts in what can only be described as Dad's Army meets Game of Thrones, with steampunk, blacksmithing, cosplay, bellydancing and pro wrestling thrown in for good measure. More than16,000 people are expected to attend the event this year, on April 18 and 19 at Lithgow Showground.
It's a cavalcade of weird, from stalls selling freshly forged candlesticks, armour, swords and hatchets, hand-crocheted helmet balaclavas and Victorian gothic corsetry, to wandering minstrels singing Shakespearean ditties. Armoured tanks rumble around the perimeter of the showground, while explosions during battle re-enactments on the main arena are as authentic as the detailing on historically accurate uniforms.
An enclosure where hooded birds of prey perch on wooden stakes draws curious onlookers; a handler wearing flowing medieval robes invites a magnificent wedged-tailed eagle onto his leather-gloved fist, stroking its sleek feathers as he answers questions about hunting, care of the bird, and the injury which prevents it from being re-released into the wild.
Meanwhile, in a makeshift medieval village, a toothless hangman has a young boy enthralled with his collection of wax heads and instruments of torture. "Do you want to see a real execution?" he asks in a Cockney accent, never breaking character. "In my day, this was family entertainment – we loved a good hanging!" I later see the same little boy locked up in wooden stocks, clearly relishing his colonial punishment.
Despite quite adult themes and mind-boggling displays of historic weaponry, Ironfest is a family event, with children encouraged to dress up in their Arya Stark best and get with the medieval times. Archery lessons are held throughout the weekend, while Sir Kids teaches little princes and princesses the fineries of medieval chivalry – in other words, how to give each other a good drubbing with foam rubber swords and shields.
Like America's outrageous Burning Man, Ironfest has a different theme each year; in 2015, it is Gypsy Dreadnought, described by Founding Festival director Macgregor Ross as a "bunch of happy-go-lucky gypsies singing and dancing their way around the universe in a souped-up muscle space ship".
"Opens up a few themes really," Ross says. "Especially when you realise that the first dreadnoughts were the predominant type of battleships in the early 20th century." In keeping with this wonderfully nonsensical theme, a highlight of this year's event will be World War II battle re-enactments featuring pyrotechnics, stuntmen and armoured tanks as rival historic societies duke it out on the main arena. This fingers-in-ears event will take place three times daily, with a spectacular finale on Saturday at dusk.
So head west, good sirs – the Iron Throne awaits you in Lithgow.
Ironfest is at Lithgow Showgrounds, a 2.5-hour drive west of Sydney. Trains run hourly from Central Station on the Blue Mountains line.
Ironfest 2015 is on April 18 and 19. A single day admission costs $35 for adults, $25 children, $95 families; weekend passes cost $55 for adults, $35 children, $140 families.