Category Archives: festivals

Two-Up Gambling with the Aussies on ANZAC Day

The crowd get ready for the result at a two-up game in AustraliaI lost it all. All the money in my wallet went in the time that it might take to make and drink a cup of tea. All I’d been trying to do was join in, to be part of a rowdy Aussie crowd, to feel and immerse myself in this annual event.

So I didn’t lose it, as such, I just gambled it away in a game where skill, poker face and celebration style are unimportant. Thankfully.

Known as two-up, this game sees people bet against each other on a heads or tails majority of a two or three-coin throw. Using a wooden coin cradle AKA a kip, the spinner stands in the middle of a 3-metre circle and flips the coins out of their paddle onto the ground. The ringkeeper announces the result and the crowd goes wild, swears, shouts.

Someone always wins. The tails better – the person who has held the money throughout the action – either hands over the cash or pockets it, depending on the game outcome.

Then it all repeats. Again and again. Hours of it, apparently.

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Originally played by the soldiers in the trenches of Gallapoli during the First World War, two-up is now legally only allowed to be played on the 25th of April every year – ANZAC day  – which ‘marks the anniversary of the first major military action fought by Australian and New Zealand forces during the First World War‘.

But why only play two-up one day a year?

It does make some sense. With patrons of the places where the games take place betting each other and not the house, there is little to no commercial profit, other than the income from extra drinks. But this doesn’t address the legal issue.

More likely, though, is that Australia wants to be responsible in keeping problems associated with alcohol and gambling to a minimum. Two-up certainly offers the opportunity to win and then lose a lot of money, very quickly.

Back to the game. Every now and then the ringer would hand out freebies and call for a charity shower, and the ring would get pummeled by silvers. I imagined that later in the day the donations would be more generous as drinks flowed and spirits were charged in an ebb and flow of energy and excitement.

A flawlessly made up woman dressed in a silver summer dress hung with one arm to the metal barriers surrounding the game circle and waved banknotes around with the other, tipping them to her forehead. Her eyes struggled to focus yet each time they opened the game up to the next round of betting, she was in, waving those notes. First she collected a few wins but then I saw her starting to hand it back. Finally she slunk away, all spent up, I assumed, or otherwise in need of a friend or a glass of water.

After observing others place bets with neighbours and people across the room I felt ready to test-drive a bet. I played D-man $5, and I lost. ‘I’ll give you it as a test run,’ he teased and gave me back my note. I tried it against another guy close to me. The coins were flung in the air and fell to the ground. I lost. Only $5 again, but I lost and someone else was up $5. It all adds up.

‘One more go,’ I told D-man and I found myself another opponent and upped the bet. $10 this time. Third time lucky, right?

Wrong. The coins fell and I walked away a loser. A very un-Australian loser, at that.

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Total solar eclipse: the power of the universe puts things into perspective

I’ve been putting off writing this up for some time. Why? Because everything I put down on paper feels empty compared to the actual experience, because each moment and emotion described feels shallower than the reality, an indignity, an untruth.

Sunrise, clear skies

Sunrise, clear skies

Yet, I was one of those fortunate enough to witness the universe lock in to a moment of perfection and the experience touched me. Deeply.

During the days following the event I did little other than describe it as ‘amazing’, which is pretty nondescript, bland even. I couldn’t come up with anything better. My senses were pricked and I was filled with awe for the universe, and yet I was somewhat dumbed.

So what happened? Time to start finding my words.

Wrapping up the pre-eclipse party just as dawn breaks

Wrapping up the pre-eclipse party just as dawn breaks

At around 5.30AM on 14th November 2012 I made my way from base camp at the Eclipse 2012 festival up in Far North Queensland Australia, back past music stages where I’d recently bounced to Fat Freddy’s Drop and later stomped about to a DJ I can’t recall, stages that were now winding down. It was the first break from beats we would have in a whole week of celebrations. Respect the moment and the magic. Instead, birdsong was the gathering call.

Ravers, families and a man dressed in a mask and gown gathered on the hill by the Moon Stage as the sun rose, warming the dusty ground and the bones of people who had not stayed up to party, sleepy bodies re-awaking for this unique moment in time. Against a pinky orange sky, a little girl of maybe two snuggled into her father’s cuddle whilst the man in the mask started to sing out in monotone. He raised his face and stretched out his arms to the rising golden orb.

People start to make their way to the viewing spots

People start to make their way to the viewing spots

Sun worshipper

Sun worshipper

Crowds start to gather for the eclipse

Crowds start to gather for the eclipse

And then came the moon, crossing in front of the sun, starting at the top left, a creeping blackness.

The first quarter passed quickly but then time slowed down and the moon seemed to stick on a partial cover up. I took off my glasses and looked around at everyone else. Hoards of people, crowded up against makeshift fencing, creating silhouettes on the hillside. A raft of upturned faces standing, sitting, lying on a sea of festival dust, eyes protected by paper solar safe shades. Some people headed away from the crowds in search of a private observation spot.

By now all festival stages had hushed, completely, and other than quieting birdsong, an occasional charged ‘whoop’ or a monotone ‘ooooh’ from the sun god worshipper, the world started to silence.

Each minute that the moon moved closer to total cover-up brought with it a drop in temperature. I shivered and wrapped myself up in a jumper. I put my safety glasses back on and stood still with this collective of people who all seemingly had the same intention to watch this process unfold. Occasionally someone shuffled about but mostly people, having found places to perch,  were still, some having resigned themselves to the fact that they would probably not be sharing the eclipse experience with their closest buddies. Finding anyone in these crowds would be a considerable mission, one that might take away from actually taking in the event. No, sit still, let things unfold. Observe. (And be glad that you weren’t one of the ones that woke up mid-morning and wondered ‘Have I missed the eclipse?’).

It became dark. The moon was now firmly between us and the sun and the birds fell silent.

And then, in a flash of sunny brilliance, it all locked into place.  Light shone out of the sides, bright rays crowning a ball of the deepest black. We took our glasses off.  I started with my limited ‘amazing’ exclamations and listened to equally immature and breathy responses that only awe can generate. And lots of cheering. This wasn’t a film, hell no! How does life do this? How is our world so damn beautiful?

Lock in

Lock in

I felt comforted by this vivid reminder that there are far bigger things going on in our world, forces that we try to understand yet still contain mystery, patterns that can be predicted but only up to a point, beauty that generates a moment of wonder shared, appreciated by a humanity hotchpotch.

So much was going through my mind – my life events, choices and hopes – passing through in a moment of clarity and understanding. It all made sense: it didn’t really matter. And, yet somehow, in relation to everything else and everyone else, it did.

Lie back, watch the sun re-emerge, choose whether to join the post-eclipse party or finally go to bed

Lie back… watch the sun re-emerge… choose whether to join the post-eclipse party or retreat to camp and finally go to sleep

Just over two minutes later and the moment of magic was broken as the sun and moon moved out of alignment, and we were back to reality. The light and warmth returned, the birds started to sing once again and the doof doof of the party started afresh.

Days later I still carried the magic with me, and months later the memory can still evoke a stomach flip and an utterance of ‘amazing’. Because it truly was amazing. Even the dismissiveness of a self-proclaimed eclipse king has done little to dampen my wonder.

And so I may yet become an eclipse chaser. But, would I get that same sense of awe, that absolute natural high from repeating the experience in another setting? Would it not, like any repeat experience, lack the magic of the first time? I’m hesitant.

The next total solar eclipse takes place in 2015 and is visible from Iceland, Europe, North Africa and Northern Asia whereas if I’m still Oz-side, I’ll have to wait until 2028. Might I see you there?

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Art, consciousness and a whole lot of doof at Eclipse 2012 festival

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Recycling the eclipse

In my sheltered world, hippies and trancers don’t live harmoniously side by side. In my stereotyped view, people who dance to trance are off their heads on party drugs that sustain them through hours and days of dancing to a repetitive beat. In my head hippies are natural and flowing and mix with creative crowds, preferring didgeridoos to synthesizers. In my world, hippies don’t attend trance parties, or doofs (if you’re an Australian partyer). At least, this is what I used to believe.

The Eclipse 2012 festival would show me otherwise.

The event will host a huge music lineup of the world’s leading musicians and DJ’s, outstanding artists and decor crews, a dedicated workshops and intentional healing space, extensive food and market stalls and a perfect viewing platform only a short distance away from the eclipse centre line of totality path. Link

My world started to expand and any preconceived ideas about 24/7 beats and dancing, about everyone being cocktailed to the highest high, about being disconnected from the world in order to appreciate the world started to shift. I knew it would happen. Why else was I here?

Apart from the total solar eclipse itself. Oh yeah. That was the real reason.

But if it was just about being present at the total solar eclipse then I could have instead nestled in amongst astronomers from around the world on purpose built viewing platforms somewhere else, somewhere close.

No, from the moment I’d heard about the festival I’d been determined to go. I wanted to fling out my arms and dance uninhibited at whatever time of the day I pleased, I wanted to be filled with thoughts and ideas about the future direction of the world, I wanted to immerse myself in a new experience and surround myself with beauty in all its forms. What an indulgence.

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DJ set backdrop on the Sun Stage

The Eclipse 2012 festival ticket and website were the first giveaways to something beyond a primitive party, making reference to a ‘spiritual’ festival, to ‘healing spaces’, to consciousness raising, to an array of workshops and speakers and films designed to inspire change and open the mind.

And why else do we travel?

The music itself was not the catalyst for me to part with AU$350. Despite there being six stages, I barely recognised any names in the line-up, other than the likes of Fat Freddy’s Drop and Tijuana Cartel, both on the Earth Stage, the only truly live stage at the festival. If I’d ever been into the trance scene or had stood longer on Australian ground, I’d probably have been aware of the reputation of some of the other acts, but it was all new to me. No bad thing.

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Inspiration

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Flowertime

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Food and relax stops

Getting involved in yoga and craft classes, lounging out listening to learned folk discuss current thinking in relation to the upcoming cosmic and spiritual shift (including the impending end of the Mayan calendar), dancing under the sweet kiss of sprinkling water, of being surrounded by sculptures and murals and living art, that is what convinced me to join thousands of people for a week of celebrations rather than huddle quietly with the odd cluster of scientists and astronomers for one night only.

And so the days went by and people stomped and bounced day in, day out, taking moments to refresh themselves with fruit juices and wholesome, fair priced curries, to solar shower away a thick caking of dust, to chat and catch-up with friends, new and familiar.

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Daytime Sun Stage raving

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Sprinkler dancing @ the Sky Stage

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Doofer in training

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Beach feel flake out

Polka dot dresses and exaggerated face paints, tutus and lederhosen, basking on the branches of living art, taking dips in crocodile cleared waters, window shopping the work of artisans more concerned with their craft than making a sale, catching a ride on a motorised sofa, relaxing in the women’s shelter, watching fire art, learning to hula-hoop, re-gathering at camp for water refills and sustaining snacks.

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Daytime lazing

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Sun, shade and crocodile warnings

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Tutus and wobbles

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Doctor dress-up

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Parasols, fishnets and boat sails

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Brace dancing

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Sofa riding

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Art branch moments

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Face painting

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Base camp catch-ups

And sleeping. It’s amazing how one learns to sleep through a constant beat.

Through life and travelling I have had the good luck to meet and share time with a real range of people – a spectrum so broad that my mind should find no space for stereotypes. Yet I still have my assumptions, my preconceived ideas based on everyone I’ve previously met and everything I know. And of course it’s limited.

Stereotypes have some basis and function, maybe to act as a compass to enable us to find ‘our type’ and fellow ‘types’, maybe to guide the un-established personality and set them off in a specific direction. Maybe they offer some tribal comfort? I guess the only real danger is not being able to see beyond them.

At Eclipse 2012, stereotypes loomed large, on an ocular level. If you wanted to see society’s versions of a dreadlocked, grungy hippy, a dancing nymph dressed in floaty tie-dyed skirt, a yogi in lotus meditation, they appeared. If you looked for the sweaty, gurning raver clutching a water bottle and repeating moves in their own little world or sporting Day-Glo, hot panted outfits, they too existed. The Japanese wedding in a fusion flurry of traditional-clubbing kitsch, the self-important eco-speaker, the meticulously costumed regular festival goer, the wise old earth mother. They were all at Eclipse 2012.

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Temples (and makeshift church)

But sometimes hippies chewed their faces up. And sometimes pig-tailed raver chicks needed no more than the music to get high.

Stereotypes flipped, were stretched and distorted. Earth mother surprised me with her mushroom journeys. Famous drummer intrigued me with his gentle nature. Dreamy types brought considerate, well-behaved children to basket weaving classes. And the raver sat with a stranger during a bad trip, talking them through some crazy moments until a place of relative calm was reached.

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Morning at the Moon Stage

More often than not, the festival was a whole lot more wholesome than one might expect. Good food. Good company. Good support. Good dancing. Beyond good.

Of course the craziness existed. As with many a party, a continuum of personalities coloured and enriched the event. But it’s what most those people did that made the event; they spoke, they performed, they danced, they painted, they played; they – an army of artisans and thought-leaders and revelers – created a beautiful visual and sensual feast of celebration.

If you believe this random mix of humanity, of intention, of consciousness, cannot exist side by side, then Eclipse 2012 was a great example that we can.

Let’s dance.

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Chill out and kick back stage

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Live creativity

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Light, sound and DJs

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Accessorising

 

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And the heat and beat build

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Queensland Roadtrip Day 5: Cairns – Palmer River Roadhouse (via Mareeba) (218km)

There was something about Kurunda that caught my attention that was less about the cute, independent coffee bars and tourist shops of the compact town centre and more about everything else. Like the gorge at Barron Falls, and the dense lushness of greenery, an environment of the richest greens.

We were barely half an hour out of Cairns, car weighed down with a week’s worth of drinking water for three people. We wound our way up into the mountains, missed the stop-off for wide angle views down over Cairns and the Coral Sea, and made a brief stop at the gorge.

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Barron Falls, Kurunda, Far North Queensland

But now to face the matter in hand; the final inland stretch to Palmer River and the Eclipse 2012 festival.

We drove along straight roads towards more mountains and into a plateaued land of spindly trees, thirsty twigs and branches poking out of thin trunks, out into a vast, clear sky. Termite mounds rose up from the tarmac edge, dotted along into the far distance, some heading towards the two metre mark, traditional cone shapes alongside crazy distortions and face-like shapes, trip-like. No wonder the festival was being held out here. Mind enhancement seemed pretty unnecessary: let nature show you some magic instead.

A cow ambled along the roadside. Where was its nutrition?

Those far away mountains loomed close and once again we started to climb. With less than an hour to go, we pulled in at another scenic viewing spot and paused, looking out over a light brown landscape, a tinderbox of dryness.

One guy stops off to  take in the scenery. A moment of peace before the party.

One guy stops off to take in the scenery. A moment of peace before the party.

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Dry, dusty environment… a taste of things to come

And then the last filling station, a few souls milling around grabbing smokes and snacks, what was left. Bottle shops and convenience stores from Cairns to Mareeba to Palmer River were running low. Fuel needed bulk replacing. It would be a good week for this little area of Far North Queensland.

We turned into the festival site, waved in by two guys and a girl, big smiles and a jiggle dance. A girl walked towards us, little shorts showing smooth, tanned legs covered in a thick layer of dust. She pulled down the cloth that was tied around her mouth.

‘You already got tickets?’ she asked.

‘Yep.’ I dug around in my bag. ‘Have you seen any crocs?’ I asked.

‘Not for a bit. Some guys pulled a couple out. It should be fine.’

Armbands on, we passed the quick car check and drove on down a few more kilometres of bumps and dust alongside water holes bearing signs that read ‘No swimming’ until we reached civilisation in the form of a rocky, hard-ground campsite. Many rocky, hard-ground campsites.

My mind flipped. This was a city of tents and abodes and set-ups, established within what felt to be the most inhospitable natural environment I had ever found myself within. It would be like no other camping experience. Of that, I was sure.

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The final stretch into the festival site

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And we arrive! Some 2,307km later. Celebrate.

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What to pack for a festival in the outback

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Mid day water spray

Outback or bush, call it what you like, this would be the remotest, driest, hottest festival that I’d ever been to and unlike some travels where spontaneity keeps the magic alive, this needed planning.  At least a little.

Event organisers emailed out a survival guide a few weeks before the start date of 10th November 2012, warning of bugs and beasties and dangerous drop access roads, of shrivel-inducing temperatures and complete communication cut-off.

eclipsefestivalsurvivalguide


This wasn’t a festival for pussycats.

Instead it would be a moment for thousands of wiry revellers, eclipse chasers, festival die-hards, musicians, DJs and artisans to unite. A seven day festival of music and workshops, of crafting and consciousness building, of stomping feet, raised hands and banging heads, a seven day festival created around the total solar eclipse visible within Far North Queensland, Australia.

Me and my crew were nearly ready. One final stock up and then we’d start the journey inland from Cairns, away from city structure into a landscape of termite mounds and tracks that led to houses a million miles from anywhere else.

So what did we bring? What might work for you next time the eclipse festival fever grips Australia again in 2028? Or whatever hot and humid festival that might be coming up shortly?

Essentials

  1. Drinking water. Lots. We each got through about 4 litres a day. Onsite water was not considered safe to drink so we brought what looked like a ridiculous amount and it only just lasted.
  2. Water sprayers/misters. Handheld are fine but the full on backpack, gardening maintenance style were best. And fun. And in demand. Spray and dance and stay safe and hydated.
  3. Sunscreen. Far North Queensland heat and full on rays need a little thought.
  4. Sunglasses. Super bright light. Some hangovers. Sensitivity.
  5. Longlasting snacks. Nuts and other nutritious, energy giving nibbles.
  6. First aid kit with all the basics including antiseptic cream and plasters/bandaids. Obvious.
  7. Ear plugs. The music never stops (apart from during the actual eclipse, so that’s maybe an hour of quiet in a whole week).
  8. Eye mask. Days and nights get a little mixed up and who knows when you want or need some shut-eye?
  9. Tent, sleeping mat and a sleeping bag liner/sheet. Make sure your tent has plenty of ventilation, or do as some people did and only set up the inner tent.

Desireable

  1. Tarpaulin. A friend lent this to us and it provided an extra layer of amazing sun protection over both tents whilst also marking our tenting territory.
  2. Cool box/Eski. Ice available on site meant cold drinks and a longer life for fresh food. And every Aussie seems to travel with an Eski. Maybe if I was Australian this would be up there as an essential item.
  3. Face/dust mask/scarf of some sort. Dust got everywhere. You learnt to live with the constant dirty taste it in your mouth, of a layer coating your teeth (and everything else).
  4. Alcohol/cigarettes. Both could be bought at the festival but prices were a little inflated and most people came suitably stocked. The same was true for all other poisons.
  5. Baby/wet wipes. Crawling in to bed having wiped off some of the dust layers was more than a luxury.
  6. Electrolytes. We brought a big tub of GatorAid and although I can’t stand the stuff, I needed it to replace all those salts lost through dancing and dehydration. We stuck it in water bottles and brought it along on daytime missions into the festival.

Luxury

  1. Solar shower. Yep. Although they offered $5 showers on site (outdoor but with privacy), having our own rig meant that once a day I had about five minutes of feeling dust free and clean. It was wonderful.
  2. Cooking gear. The festival didn’t actually allow open flames and the discovery of our cooking gear could have led to us being kicked off site, yet it saved us some money and meant mornings could still start with a percolated coffee. What we soon realised was that there were so many great eating spots serving great quality feeds at decent prices that cooking at camp wasn’t actually quite as desirable as we expected.
  3. Parasol. I carried mine with me everywhere, a plain green thing. Other’s carried theirs everywhere and I realised my idea of a parasol was entirely unoriginal and everyone else’s were much more beautiful and decorative. But functionwise? They all did the job.
  4. Light sabers, wigs and glow masks. And face paints. Even if we transported a broken light saber all the way from New South Wales to Far North Queensland, it still formed part of an essential festival fancy dress kit. Okay, maybe not essential. But adds to the fun.
  5. Fairy lights and decorations to create home. I’m a Cancerian so maybe my want to nest wherever I base myself was realised through these little camp set-up pleasures. Others clearly have this down to an art.
  6. Proper pillow. Some people would scoff but few people complain when they get to lay their head down on a comfy pillow rather than a squished together, hard pile of clothes. I slept beautifully, through doof and human traffic. I’m sure the pillow helped some.
  7. Change of clothes and pillow cases. Clean, dust free stuff saved for near the end would have been amazing. Instead we slept in our own dirt and dust. Ah well.

Anything I’ve forgotten to mention? That I should know about for next time?

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Backtracking to Splendour in the Mud 2012

Jack White doing his thing on the main stage

Jack White doing his thing on the main stage

I would never have found myself in amidst soggy Jack White fans at the end of a wet first day at Splendour if it hadn’t been for a surprise reissue ticket tucked inside a couscous box and wrapped elaborately in Happy Birthday wrapping paper.

Have you felt how the town is coming to life?’ asked a woman I was introduced to on the streets of Byron Bay a few days later. ‘You’re not a fan of wintertime Byron then?’ I asked. ‘I don’t like it when it’s dead. I love this because… because I’m not dead!’ she said.

Whilst true locals might bemoan the anonymity of a busy Byron and welcome quieter winter moments where bumping into familiar faces on the streets is much more likely, the fact remains: Splendour in the Grass brings big bucks to the area. And a bit of a buzz.

So, the day arrived, full of sunshine and the promise of a good line-up.

Let's get this festival started

Let’s get this festival started

Buses passed by fast walking ticket holders on the trek out of town, onwards to Belongil fields.  Whilst I waited for a friend, a group of girls sashayed past in a calm confidence of orange hair, high belts and eyeliner. Policemen waited by the entrance, sniffer dogs pulling at their leads.

I’ve been to a fair few festivals back in the UK so had some idea of what to expect. But key differences? Wintertime, for a start (the thought of having a festival in winter in the UK seems… well… wrong). And no grassy verges to crash back on and view the music from afar. And considering Splendour is one of Australia’s biggest festivals? It felt tiny (and I loved it for it).

Similarities? Queues for the bar, twinkly lighting when dusk set in, the somewhat tragic casualty of the curled up person who got too messed up to even make it into the festival.  And artistic décor that reflected time and energy and the eye of the artisan.

Crowds coming and going

Crowds coming and going

Planning the next stage move (and my favourite random festival photo girl)

Planning the next stage move (and my favourite random festival photo girl)

The Tipi Forest stage

The Tipi Forest stage

Night arrives

Night arrives

And the rain. That was similar. Because within ten minutes of getting in amongst it, the dark cloud that had followed us into the grounds enveloped the sky and gave birth, raining and hailing down with such ferocity it drove even the mud dancers into hiding. Momentarily.

A bit of rain and the crowds retreat

A bit of rain and hail and the crowds retreat

$80 wellies/gum boots

$80 wellies/gum boots

The only one in our group to come prepared

The only one in our group to come prepared

Friends helping each other out

Friends helping each other out

Glastonbury, eat your heart out.

Or welly sellers (aka gum boot pimps) eat your heart out (because the crowds flocked to their stalls, parting with silly cash to stylishly protect their tootsies from inevitable sogginess of that wet July day).

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Can’t I just get drunk and dance (or should I really find out what Australia Day is actually about)?

Flag of Australia

Flag of Australia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So it’s my second Australia Day in… erm… Australia. And guess what? It’s raining and blowing the start of a storm. Again. Mid-summer? Pah! ‘So what exactly are you celebrating on Australia Day?’ I asked a friend. ‘Er… something to do with our independence’. ‘You don’t even know what you’re celebrating?!’ ‘Yeah, yeah I do…’

And so I became determined to find out what Australia Day was really about. If I’m going to pause my travels for a little while to be here, to explore this place, I definitely want to have some idea of what’s going on (and why).

Dubbed by some as Invasion Day, Wikipedia gives a bit more insight into the event: Celebrated annually on 26 January, the date commemorates the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove, New South Wales in 1788 and the proclamation at that time of British sovereignty over the eastern seaboard of Australia.

But what about the impact of the British arrival on indigenous communities? Surely Australia Day is far from a day of celebration for communities who were robbed of their land and rights? As one website states, ‘To many Aboriginal people there is little to celebrate and it is a commemoration of a deep loss. Loss of their sovereign rights to their land, loss of family, loss of the right to practice their culture.’

There are efforts being made to be more inclusive and redress the situation (as much as is possible), for example The Australia Day National Network states that On Australia Day we recognise the unique status of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The National Australia Day Council (NADC) is committed to playing a part in the journey of Reconciliation by helping all Australians to move forward with a better understanding of our shared past, and importantly how this affects the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today and how we might build a better future together’.

I later read a little more into modern views of Australia Day and came across a good few grumbles about the Australian flag that with prominent inclusion of the Union Jack is not deemed to be sufficiently Australian. It made me think: is the wish to have a separated, unique identity so unreasonable?

Further discussions on news sites focused on nationalistic behaviour and accusations of  ‘the “boganisation” of Australia Day”. Is Australia Day really ‘all out bogan day, get drunk, wear a flag cape, cause some violence, be racist, get arrested and vomit’? It makes me think of football finals in the UK, cars covered in scarves and banners, houses draped in giant St. George flags, bloody faces on sore losers. Just a matter of patriotism? Hmmm…

On the alcohol side of things, there definitely is some truth.  ‘It’s about barbecuing with friends, and drinking until you can’t stand up’, said Sam, a Melbourne based guy in his mid-thirties. ‘We usually go for a surf, then head back for a barbie and beers’, said another friend up in North New South Wales.

It would seem that for many Australians, the way to celebrate this day is by spending time with friends and family, barbecuing, beaching and drinking. It is, after all, suggested as being the ‘largest annual public event in the nation’, so why not get together?

It also seems that for many, many people, Australia Day is about Hottest 100 parties, The Sydney Morning Herald claiming that the countdown event ran by Triple J (a popular ad-free and government-owned station)  ‘brings us together’ whilst Triple J themselves talked up the day weeks in advance, generating hype and giving shout outs to registered parties around the country.

On my way back from a trip out into Byron Bay I stopped at the off-license (or bottle-O, if we want to keep things Australian), expecting to find myself in amongst a last-minute booze scramble. But the only hint at Australia Day was the seller’s insistence that I buy the organic Australian vodka over an imported brand, and maybe the guy who was slurring and paying up wearing only a pair of tightie boxer shorts was my second sign? My first bogan sighting? Quite possibly.

And then I drove on through oncoming storms, home to a veranda of bodies huddled out of the reach of driving rains, to a barbecue sheltered by parasols, to music blasting from the radio, to eskies crammed with ice and beers, to over 30cm of rain in one hour (noted when we were still level-headed enough to check).

The beach party, I guessed, wouldn’t be happening. Maybe next year.

So what are we celebrating again? Oh yeah. Independence. No, invasion. No, the British landings. Ah, it’s getting a bit fuzzy. Now, where is my drink?

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I should be at a trance party, so what am I doing here?

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Some day time revellers keep going at the rave (photo: Carl Maybry©)

IT’S FRIDAY AND I SHOULD be in Uyuni with new friends partying at a windpowered goa-trance festival on the Salt Flats outside of Uyuni in Bolivia, but I’m ill. Another bout of food poisoning has crippled me.

I let my friends know that I can’t come. A day on the bus followed by a weekend of all-nighter hedonism when I’m spinning out and have only just stopped puking? Not a great idea. But I’m gutted.

My day comprises of sleeping and Skype chats. It’s taking me ages to do anything. My eyes are heavy so after my lunchtime snack of cough medicine and probiotics, I end up snoozing some more.

One of my friends drops me a message to say that a local told him ‘the raves out on the Salar de Uyuni aren’t all that great anyway’. Momentarily I feel better but then I look at pictures of the salt flats, imagine 180° of starry sky and I’m back to frustrated envy.

I venture out of the hostel for the first time in a couple of days. Destination: pharmacy.  I need to stock up on potent cough syrup. Two more bottles, the doctor reckons, that’s at least another week of codeine stupor. I walk slowly with consideration; I am spinning out and not totally sure that I won’t faint.

The doctor has banned me from eating out, despite it often being cheaper, so I make myself a package soup and tart it up with some vegetables. Hopefully this time the food will stay down. It doesn’t.

I don’t have the energy to be my social self and initiate conversation with all the new people in the hostel, but I chat a little with the owner’s son. Spanish practise. He’s not feeling well either, although it’s definitely something different. His Bolivian belly is resistant to the food and water bugs. Tourists, he says, always get sick at some point.

I watch a movie but I can’t focus. I keep imagining a mass of bodies bouncing to a beat. I’ve never been to a trance party. Travelling for me is about trying new things and stepping out of my comfort zone. This would have been perfect. I’ve never liked trance music. I don’t think.

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Another whack of medication. Doped out.

I wake up on Saturday feeling pretty good considering that if you shook me, I’d rattle. I take a shower. I’m so spaced out from all the medication that I get stuck into a stare. I wonder if the way I’m feeling is anything similar to how it feels to be on ketamine. Why ketamine, I’m not sure. It must have cropped up in conversation recently. I’m tingly and dizzy and a bit numb. I’m trying to flip this on its head, trying to enjoy the feeling. I’m listening to Salmonella Dub and I wonder what genre Salmonella Dub is. I’ve never been good at classifying music. Whatever, it’s my own zone out party.  I’m sure I’m in the shower for far too long. Zombiefied.

The rain arrives. ‘I’ve never seen rain in Bolivia’, says a guy I meet in the kitchen over a cup of tea. Talking about the weather. I could do this in England. I do do this in England. Actually, I do this everywhere. My one bit of Englishness comes with me.

And the day continues pretty uneventfully. I manage to get out to buy a bus ticket to Uyuni for the following day. The rain makes me a bit soggy, which isn’t clever when I’m still sick. Bare feet weren’t the smartest move. I buy some shoes. Retail therapy, not my thing at all, but it works. If I’d gone to the rave I wouldn’t have been able to buy these lovely shoes. I’m momentarily consoled.

For the first time in a while I can focus on a screen so I watch a movie but fall asleep half way through. It’s isn’t a bad film at all, just sometimes something happens when I’m in bed watching a film, particularly when I’m drugged up to my eyeballs. I try to fight it but my body wins out.

Early Sunday morning I pay my bill and get a goodbye cuddle from my hostel hostess. She’s been worrying about me. Thinks I should stay longer. I think I need to get out of Sucre before I become yet another one of the travellers stuck here longer term. I don’t think the place is healthy for me.

Maybe Uyuni will be better? Somehow I doubt it. Sitting at an altitude of 3,669m, I know my pain isn’t over. But I’m on the bus and heading to my friends who will surely be buzzing with incredible stories of all-nighters and special connections and amazing skies and scenery.

And, probably because I’ve been so damn unwell, actually I’m not really jealous. Yet.

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Shall I stay? Finding love in Pucara

HOW CAN I GET TO Pucara?’ I asked a guy sitting outside his shop after I’d hidden my room payment under the candlestick in the alojamiento. I didn’t know what else to do. ‘Ten minutes’, he said, along with some other stuff that I just didn’t understand. I sat down with my backpack and waited.

I looked around. The village of La Higuera was deserted and I wasn’t sure whether I’d get a ride, whether there were buses from Pucara to Villa Serrano, whether I’d be stuck in these tiny villages for weeks and weeks. It certainly wasn’t the worst prospect. I’d had such a pleasant, peaceful and welcoming stay in La Higuera that a few days longer actually seemed quite appealing.

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Morning in La Higuera, Bolivia, and barely a soul in sight

But the car did turn up and an hour and a half later I arrived into the little mud hut maze of Pucara having done an hour detour through Villa Victoria and by the taxi driver’s house. Things to pick up there, stuff to do. You don’t mind, do you? he asked.

Of course not: the beauty of not being in a rush for once in my life. And the bonus? A sightseeing tour that took me really high into the mountains on the most precarious roads I’d seen yet in Bolivia.

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High up in the mountains near La Higuera

In Pucara, the village drunk took a shine to me. Okay, that’s probably unfair, but he was definitely on the wrong side of tipsy and it was barely gone 10:30am. He gripped my arm and started pressuring me to drink some beer that he’d just poured whilst his team of merry men laughed on.

It’s not too early’, he protested when I tried to make my excuses, ‘and it’s not too much’. I realised what I had to do. After a polite sip I removed myself from the party, bought some snacks and started the long wait for the mid-afternoon bus.

The plaza in Pucara is an odd little place, a mix of stone pillars, mini metal railings, a water fountain that doesn’t work and some yellow concrete archways.

Men in wide brimmed hats sat around in doorways surrounding the plaza, and the chatter and laughter of children playing lassoo chase filled the air.

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Kids playing in the plaza in Pucara

It was a couple of hours before what appeared to be the only restaurant in town opened but finally I heard some singing, a grace I guessed, and I made my way over to join a family for al muerzo. I’d already met Dolly outside, a girl in her late teens with a somewhat stern nature.

Whilst Dolly stared and ate silently, her family chatted away to me, and it really was mostly to me, although I did manage to tell them a little about my travels. They were curious about me travelling alone, about what I did back home. We talked about the Channel tunnel, about the economy in the UK and Europe compared to Bolivia. A random mix of conversation, part of an educated and better-to-do Bolivian family reunion.

Before I left and paid for my 15Bs. soup and chicken, potato and rice main, I made a quick visit to the loo, into the back of the house, dodging a huge hunk of meat hanging from the ceiling outside the bathroom door. The chewy contents of my soup, I assumed. My stomach had already threatened to go all South American on me and I hoped all would be well for my bus journey.

I passed the rest of the afternoon in Pucara sitting in the plaza, taking some photos of the town, writing and chatting to locals.

Two small boys noticed my camera and started to pose, falling over themselves with laughter when they saw their faces on the screen. ‘Again’, they said, giggling, ‘again’.

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A serious pose before the silly ones

People dressed in Sunday best were gathering at the church with plaited palm leaves and flowers. I asked an old woman what was being celebrated. ‘La Misa del Señora’, she told me, ‘a religious festival’. The church bells chimed. Two men stood waiting with a donkey on which was mounted what looked like a male doll dressed up as a woman. I was a little confused, but then I hadn’t really managed to grasp the concept of the festival.

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Donkeys and dressed up dolls

Gradually, the crowds gathered in the shade of the plaza. Three girls in flowing white gowns joined the group. There was a sense that something was about to happen.

You want to come along?’ asked the old woman, before muttering something about Santana when a guy drove past on a motorbike. I declined. I didn’t want to go off on a procession and miss the bus.

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The procession in Pucara sets off

And the last hour wait was maybe the most significant in that it could have changed my entire life, had I been a little more open minded and more attracted to older guys.

Germán, a relaxed, somewhat rounded man in his late 70s came and sat next to me. We chatted a bit. In previous lives we’d both been teachers. He loved that we had some similarities.

It wasn’t long before he told me that he wanted to come and travel with me to Villa Serrano and on to Sucre. He took my hand and held it for a while. He playfully nicked my pen lid, then my pen. He gave my leg a cheeky stroke.

I looked out for the bus. Surely it must be on its way? And if the bus didn’t show? The alternative was for me to stay here and marry Germán and inherit a donkey and his three houses. He’d made a point of telling me about the houses, sure that they would seal the deal. If only I didn’t believe in true love.

A little girl with whom I’d been engaged in a face pulling contest for a few minutes left to find her mum who ran the village shop, leaving me fully alone with my would-be suitor. I started to write.

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My new friend in Pucara before the face pulling and hand hiding started

Germán was fascinated by my pen. ‘How much did it cost?’ he asked. I told him 8Bs, embarrassingly expensive, I realised, for most Bolivians. I told him that a good pen for me was more important than a good meal. He laughed and asked if he could write something. He moved in closer. He wrote me a note in my book, a love letter of sorts.

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A love letter of sorts

And then he tried to stroke my bum. ‘Pare, por favour’, I said. Enough was enough. I stood up. ‘We could get a room together in Villa Serrano’, he said quickly. ‘No. It wouldn’t be nice to mi novio’, I said, trying to think of excuses and a gentle let-down. Germán put his fingers to his mouth. ‘Sssshhhh.

No’, I told him, ‘I’m going to Villa Serrano alone’.

A strong handshake, a strange little finger stroke on my palm and he left. Love affair over.

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What a day to arrive! Vallegrande celebrates

Vallegrande is a town with about 6,000 inhabitants situated 118km from where I’d been staying in Samaipata. I’d taken a two and a half hour bus journey cramped in the aisle amongst sleeping babies and bulky bags. As the only gringa on board, I had stuck out like a sore thumb and had been the centre of attention and the butt of teenage jokes that I couldn’t understand. But I’d arrived, sorted out some lovely accommodation and life was sweet.

I was only spending one day in the town and coincidentally, it was a party weekend. Once I’d dropped my bags in Hotel Plaza Pueblo and eaten some cake with the family who ran the place, I decided to get out there and explore a little.

I wandered down a cobbled street to Plaza Rubén Terrezas where, on the taxi driver’s recommendation, I bought some bread which I nibbled as I ventured over to the main plaza.

Plaza 26 de Enero was heaving with people and stalls, the weekend fiesta to celebrate ‘400 years of the foundation of the city of Montes Claros Jesus and the Knights of Vallegrande’ (now there’s a mouthful) kicking off with toffee apples and drinking and dancing to a live band.

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Early evening at the fiesta in the plaza, Vallegrande

A guy started to talk to me as I went looking for a warm drink. ‘You were in the collectivo from Santa Cruz?’ he asked. He looked familiar but not. I wasn’t sure. He bought me a drink, a base shot of Singani topped with hot, frothy milk. Warming and tasty. Perfect for the chilly night air.

You want another?’ he asked having downed his pretty quickly. I decided not. Tipsy, alone and disoriented wouldn’t be the smartest move.

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Singani liquor used for cocktails, and alcoholic milk drinks, apparently

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One local guy get a refill of the alcoholic milk

Whilst I supped my milky drink, an old woman with twinkling eyes started to talk to me, curious about where I was from. And then she told me how she’d known Che Guavara, how he was a good man, agradable, and that she was glad I was following his journey, his route.

I went to watch the dancing. A young guy started to bounce around in front of me, animated, a little drunk. Someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was one of the lads from the back of the bus, bottle of liqueur in hand. He insisted he was 26.

You must try some’ said Daniel pouring red viscous liquid into a plastic tumbler. I had a small shot. A little sickly, sweet and fruity, it’s what I’d seen a lot of people sipping on around the square.

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Arocco, Daniel’s friend, turned up. More shots were dealt and soon the two of them were swigging from the bottle. They rattled away in fast Spanish. I nodded, said yes, said no, told them I didn’t understand. I picked up the odd word but more often than not lost the context of what was being said.

Later, Arocco insisted that he was the great-great-nephew of Che, but unfortunately that was all the information I could glean from his extended, passionate soliloquy. Evidently, he rated the guy (a stark contrast to both boys’ response to the Bolivian president Evo Morales).

I didn’t know what to believe. There seemed to be plenty of people with a connection to Che, real or imagined. I guess it didn’t really matter. The sentiment was loud and clear.

In the plaza the musicians packed up, hefty speakers were bussed away and the crowds started to dissipate. I found my way back through poorly lit streets to Hotel Plaza Pueblo, said goodnight to the family and crashed out in my massive twin room, wondering what other unplanned adventures lay ahead.
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In Vallegrande I stayed in Hotel Restaurante “Plaza Pueblo” on Calle Virrey Mendoza no. 132, Vallegrande and paid 70Bs. (£6.35/US$10.20) for solo occupation in a twin room with shared bathroom. Breakfast was included but was basic. The hotel is a short walk from the market, and the main plaza, Plaza 26 de Enero, is only a little further along.

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