Once a year, Sydney plays host to a hedonistic celebration of diversity, writes Emilia Mazza.

Dramatic drag queens and droll drag kings. Bears (the hairy-male type), bogans and Bananas in Pyjamas. Grooving and gyrating mer-drags, macho muscle Mary's and minx-y mistresses. Sinewy prancers, dancers, hula-hoopers and hedonists in harnesses.

With such decadence and debauchery, it could only be Sydney' spectacular Mardi Gras - the annual glittering gem of a pride event that showcases the diversity of Sydney's LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) communities.

Now in its 38th year, Mardi Gras marks a high point in Sydney's social calendar and holds its own as an internationally recognised celebration of equality, passion and freedom.

Borne from a rocky start, this much-loved parade originally began as a protest. Following years of hiding their sexuality, a group of around 1000 men and women took to Sydney's inner-city streets on Saturday June 24, 1978, to march for the recognition of their rights. Despite the peaceful intentions of those who protested, the police reaction was violent, and many arrests were made. Some of those arrested would later be publicly outed, and fired from their jobs, all largely a result of the strong level of anti-gay sentiment at the time.


Since that time, it's drawn so much support from the public, and grown into an event of such proportions that now around 100,000 Sydneysiders and visitors turn out to join in the fun. It's a family event, in every sense of the word, with many families joining members of the gay community to watch the proceedings.

Before the parade has even begun, the footpaths around Darlinghurst - the site of the parade's route - are crammed with people vying for a great "possie"; many camp for a good few hours to get that perfect viewing position. Others hang out on the balconies of nearby apartment blocks, waving rainbow flags.

There's even VIP spots available - for a price - with drinks, canapes and optimal seating.

While Oxford and Flinders streets are dedicated to parade viewing, the backstreets and alleys are filled with people, food carts and drink stalls, which gives the whole thing a street party vibe. With this in mind, revellers take the opportunity to dress up - full leather, full drag or full furry animal - there are no rules here and anything goes.

It's a girls' night out too, with hordes of young women roaming the streets shrieking "Happy Mardi Gras" to anyone within range, proof this is their party as much as anyone's.

Leading up to the start of the parade, there's a crazy, amped-up feeling in the air that electrifies the crowd. It's a din of cheers, and horns, whistles and music that grows louder by the minute.

Then, at the stroke of 7.40ish, it begins with the guttural roars and low-down dirty rumbles of the traditional Dykes on Bikes start.

The parade is made up of around 10,500 glistening and glowing entrants (the city's reserves of spray tan are no doubt tapped dry for the event), and about 150 floats. Some are dedicated to causes; emblazoned with banners calling for an end to homophobia and other issues, but most are light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek fairy-light emblazoned flights of fancy.


The next two and a half hours whizz past in a blur of colour, sequins, lycra and flesh - ending as it all began - with a huge bang. Fireworks wash a balmy Sydney sky all the colours of the rainbow, lighting a path for these happy trailblazers, and anyone else who wants to follow into the night.

It's 10am Sunday morning - the morning after the BIG night that was Sydney's Mardi Gras.

As I wander round Oxford St, coffee in hand, every bar I pass on this stretch is packed with people knocking back the beers and dancing the day away.

With a reputation as a party town - par excellence - Sydney's Mardi Gras efforts have shown, yet again, that this city really knows what's what when it comes to having a good time. And given how the day seems to be shaping up for both the seasoned party pro and novice newbie alike, Mardi Gras Sunday looks set to guarantee the fun's not about to stop anytime soon.

The party - which happens each year after the parade - starts at midnight and finishes at 8am. Around 20,000 people make this one of the biggest nights of the year.

It's a sprawling carnival of an event that takes over a good part of Sydney's Moore Park Showgrounds.

On offer are four different dance areas DJed throughout the night, as well as big-name acts that perform on the main stage.

As far as parties go, this one falls into the wild and unpredictable category. There is only one rough guarantee: expect to be spat out in the early hours of the morning when the sun will be up and the birds singing.

Keep that hideous hangover at bay by enjoying a leisurely breakfast at any number of the cute Surry Hills cafes within walking distance - or just collapse into the first available cab, ready to pass out from one of the biggest nights of them all.



Emirates flies direct from Auckland to Sydney, with return Economy flights starting at $547. emirates.com

This year's Mardi Gras parade is on March 5.