Splore is New Zealand's biggest dress up party, and probably the best festival ever (Photo: Serena Stephenson)

Splore 2018: the best weekend ever

Simon Day looks back on what might just have been the best Splore ever.

Once a year a utopian paradise appears at Tapapakanga Regional Park. For three days Splore is a vision into a world where everyone embraces each other’s difference, where people are encouraged to express themselves, where everyone looks after each other, and your inner freak is allowed to run free in a safe space in a stunning natural environment.

This is the thing which defines the Splore experience, the culture the festival embodies creates its unique vibe. It’s full of love and kindness. Splore has a soul and heart that is palpable. Everywhere I looked on the weekend people were laughing and smiling.

It’s a feast for your senses and a safe place to try strange things for the first time, but at the same time it’s a safe place for the young mother in the tent next to me to take her five-month-old baby. It’s set up for families; children ran wild all weekend, parents’ cell phone numbers written on their arms in Vivid marker, with instructions to “call if lost”. And it’s designed for grown men and women to get high, and get completely lost in Splore. When you bump into work clients, you don’t need to be shy about how much fun you’re having.

It’s a place where women can dress in little more than mesh and glitter and not fear sexual assault. The police have a visible but light-handed presence, and had to deal with no complaints over the weekend. I even saw people thanking the cops for their work.

Umm… sure (photo: Serena Stephenson)

The relationship with the tangata whenua is strong and visible throughout the weekend. The site is part of the ancestral lands of Ngāti Whanaunga and Ngāti Paoa, and the iwi opens Splore with a powhiri. The farm next to the festival is the largest piece of land in in the country to have remained permanently under Māori ownership, and there are a number of wāhi tapu around the site. They are roped off, and protected by security, and respected by the crowd.

The Tino Rangatiratanga flag flew from boats and above stages. The hongi was a greeting of choice. It’s a partnership that respects and celebrates the relationship Māori have with this special piece of land. In return the iwi have allowed Splore to become a special kāinga for the people who return to Splore again and again each year, a place where they feel empowered and connected to.

As is becoming customary for these types of events, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern opened Splore, this time over video link wearing a t-shirt which said Rt Hon Splorer. An attendee of multiple Splores, her message included the hope that the famous Saturday dress-up would feature someone in a brown wig, a Labour rosette and a “pregnancy gut” on her behalf. I suspect we are are not far from that inevitable moment when the prime minister starts making appearances at festivals as a hologram.

Not a bad spot for a festival (Photo: Serena Stephenson).

And from that moment we were treated to a three day feast of music, circus, art and knowledge, full of unexpected surprises. I explored artists I’d never heard of and discovered music that I’d never before enjoyed. Who knew deep house was all about the subtle journey through the ritualistic power of the bassline?

On Friday night Dizzee Rascal had the crowd eating grimy bass out of the palm of his hand. How the saxophonist and trumpet player from brass instrumental group Too Many Zoos can keep playing that hard without passing out I don’t know. Kody Neilsen’s dark buzzy vibe was perfect for when the stars came out that night. Detroit producer and rapper Black Milk was all energy performing new songs from an album he’d only just released that afternoon.

I made lifelong friends with people I will probably never meet again (except maybe at the front row of the Living Lounge next year). I shared an intimate moment with people whose favourite song is also Chaka Khan’s ‘Ain’t Nobody’. Much later, lost and alone, I pushed my way to the front of one stage and was welcomed by a young woman who crossed her arms in X and greeted me with “Wakanda Forever!”. I returned the greeting and we hung out for the next hour before our friendship vanished into the night.

Splore is so much more than just the music. On Saturday afternoon I paused to listen to a panel of experts discuss drug law reform. Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick urged the crowd not to give up on the political process in spite of the failure of her medicinal cannabis bill in January. “It’s more important than ever that you are engaged with politics,” she told the audience. When the sun went down I watched incredible aerial acrobatics that included the use of a laser butt plug.

On Sunday I reluctantly turned down an early ride home, a decision that I came to celebrate. I borrowed some sunscreen from some kind strangers (or were they new lifelong friends?), made my way back to the dance floor, then relaxed on the hill above the main stage while Chronix played elaborate reggae to a perfect day and a crowd that would periodically seek refuge in the sea. Legendary UK DJ Barry Ashworth, a Splore veteran, dragged me onto the dance floor once last time with his hip hop remixed with pop and electronic classics. Barry gets Splore’s vibe. He charged around the stage, so excited to have the privilege to close the festival. It was the perfect ending.   

Finally festival director John Minty came on stage to bid us farewell. “It’s hard to go back to work tomorrow, you’ll never be the same,” he told us. From my desk back in downtown Auckland, I can tell you he’s not wrong.

It really is hard to get rid of that smile (Photo: Serena Stephenson).

Splore is like a drug where you reach for the memory of your previous experiences desperate to find the same bliss of the years before. But unlike most chemical highs, Splore finds a way to deliver a buzz that gets better each time, always laced with something new and unique and surprising. And it lasts longer too. I must have looked silly this morning walking down Queen St with my Splore grin still smeared across my face. But I didn’t care.


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