Simon Day uncovers the fascinating history of New Zealand’s longest running music festival.
Twenty years ago on the rugged cliffs above Karioitahi Beach, an hour south of Auckland, somewhere between 500 and 700 people gathered to spend two days celebrating the end of 1998 and the beginning of 1999. It was a wild bush trance party, a hippy trip out. The very first Splore.
A small crew of friends looking to host a New Years party had spent months hunting for a venue for their outdoor festival. They’d been turned away by farmers and the Auckland Regional Council. Three weeks before New Years Eve they got a tip-off about a spot that could work. The old salty Karioitahi local who owned KPs Bar and Grill, now a luxury wedding venue, whispered of a secluded but exposed cliff top overlooking the sea which could handle their rave. It was perfect.
“It was the right place for Splore at that time, very wild and grassroots,” says Amanda Wright, co-founder and festival director for the first 16 years of Splore.
The name Splore is often mistaken for its aural similarity to ‘explore’. It’s in fact a Scottish word discovered in Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words by one of the original crew, Nicole Martin. The definition: “merry-making festivities, carousing and frolicking, a good going session”.
“We thought that is about the perfect name, so it was called Splore right from the beginning,” says Wright.
Twenty years on the festival is still the most “good going session” you can experience. It’s a banquet for your eyes and ears, a cultural wonderland, a utopian paradise set in a stunning natural environment. In 2019, Splore’s theme “celebrate” is a recognition of its special history and legacy that has had a deep influence on the people who have created it and who have attended.
Before starting Splore, Wright had been living between the outdoor summer festival circuits of Goa and Europe for seven years, DJing to crowds on DAT machines that could resist India’s dust. It was where she first got deep into dance music. And because she experienced it outdoors, she was never drawn to the club scene. Partying in nature, on the beach, in the forest, was where it was at.
Back home in New Zealand, Wright started hosting renegade parties with a reputation for their raw weirdness. She and her friends dreamed of providing a special place in New Zealand for the underground culture to go. Somewhere for the artists and performers, the musicians and the ravers – somewhere different and welcoming.
Jamie Larnach, Splore’s co-founder, returned to New Zealand the same time as Wright (he’d been hanging out with her in Europe and Goa). Before he’d gone chasing summer festivals in Israel, India and Germany, he’d been a key part of the crew that organised the legendary Entrain New Years Eve raves from 1992 to 1995 in the forests, valleys and beaches around Nelson. These were more than just outdoor dance parties – they were a place for costume and arts and performance to flourish. This was the foundation for Splore.
By 1998, Larnach and Wright had a more sophisticated understanding of what it took to run an event. They surrounded themselves with a tight community who could pull the thing together; not just people who wanted to play music and dance, but people who knew how to throw parties without losing a lot of money. People like Larnach’s wife Anne, who had major event experience working on the Big Day Out and major bands’ New Zealand tours. She brought systems and schedules and an idea of how to run realistic budgets.
“Anne is a rock,” says Larnach. “She’s really steady, she’s the sort of person you want running your event. You never want anything to go wrong, but if it does you want Anne there to resolve it.”
The site was carved out through a series of tough working bees. The lower branches of the pine groves chainsawed down so people could camp. There were lights, a really good sound system, DJs, flags, costumes, performance artists, wind and dust.
“That was the beauty of the early Splores. It was such a collective of people who pitched in and made it happen. We were just putting together a fun little news years party. We had no idea it would carry on,” says Wright.
Next year, from 21 to 24 February 2019, Splore celebrates its 20th birthday and its 15th festival. It’s a longevity that few, if any, festivals in New Zealand have achieved. Those associated with the festival, past and present, attribute that ongoing success and survival to Splore’s ability to evolve while remaining committed to its original unique kaupapa.
“Things have changed a bit, but the essence and the story, and the kaupapa behind it is still strong and has remained. And I think that has been the anchor of why Splore has survived,” says Wright.
The wairua of the festival is founded on its land, its culture, and the people. Its spirit is palpable and has a lasting influence on its guests. I’ve been attending Splores since 2014 and each year I leave the festival exhausted but with my soul replenished. It’s a place where you encounter magic, where you’re allowed to express parts of who you are that can’t exist in your everyday life, where you get lost in a spiritual paradise and discover things you wouldn’t find anywhere else in the world.
Tapapakanga Regional Park – the festival’s third location and where Splore has been held since 2006 – is a stunning plot of rolling hills and native bush. I’ll never forget the first time I walked down the road after putting up my tent and the forest cleared to reveal the ocean speckled with yachts, the main stage perched on the water’s edge and the colours of Splore’s flags and people. The location embraces all its guests and provides space to camp, dance, swim, eat and drink without ever having to climb over the top of anyone.
The site is part of the ancestral lands of Ngāti Whanaunga and Ngāti Paoa, a deeply spiritual whenua. The festival is opened each year with a powhiri from tangata whenua, welcoming the artists and guests onto their land. The farm next to the site is the largest piece of land to have never left Māori ownership. On the festival site itself, there are a number of wahi tapu, including three different former pā sites.
“Tapapakanga not only has a visually stunning environment, it has a very strong spiritual feel for that land and I think people feel that,” says John Minty, who came on as co-director of the festival in 2006 and director since 2015.
Splore has always been more than just a music festival. From the first festival the commitment to provide space for art, performance, theatre and engaging the guests as part of that theatre, has been essential to its unique experience. I remember weaving around a sculpture maze built of mirrors creating a constellation from the reflection of the sun and sparkling sea. Late at night, I’ve lain under the tangled branches of a pohutukawa tree where an arrangement of TVs faced down at us and visually remixed songs in front of our eyes. I’ve bumped into brass bands and danced in a gypsy van. I’ve watched a husband and wife perform impossible silk ribbon acrobatics. And I’ve seen some of my favourite musicians perform on a stage that looks over the sea
“They might have come to see Dizzie Rascal, then you ask them at the end up of the weekend what were your highlights, and it was three or four random things that had nothing to do with the music programme that’s happening on stage,” says Minty. “That’s a unique thing of Splore that keeps people coming back.”
The community defines Splore vibe. There’s a sense of collective ownership of Splore, a family that polices itself, an extended whanau that welcomes you back with open arms each year. It’s a place where the attendees are given an opportunity to express themselves. After an infamous sexual assault occurred at Rhythm and Vines, young women at Splore knew they were safe and endorsed to wear whatever they want.
“When people come to Splore, they know how to behave, they have a very open attitude to everything that is going on. Anyone who is new to Splore [are] guided by the community’s behaviour,” Minty says. “When they come for the first time, they see a lot of kids running around, a lot of local iwi, and they realise it’s something a bit different, we are not just going to get drunk and mashed up.
“Something we get a lot on Monday and Tuesday, people tell us: ‘that was a slice of the world the way it should be.’”
The festival’s embrace of children has helped define the atmosphere of the event. With their parents’ cell phone numbers written on their arm in vivid, young people roam the site free to discover Splore’s delights.
Splore’s Rumpus Room, which caters for the kids in attendance, was created by Jamie and Anne Larnach and was inspired by Jamie growing up in the Kids’ Zone at the legendary Nambassa festivals in the 70s and 80s. Children attended Splore since its first event, but as the audience aged and they started bringing more kids, something distinct had to be put on for them.
“That fell to Anne and I because we were the only ones [in the organising group] who had kids,” says Jamie.
The Larnachs’ two daughters (14 and 11) consider themselves Splore kids – it’s part of their identity, and they’ve been heavily influenced by its culture. The eldest wants to become a circus performer after seeing aerial silk acrobatics at Splore.
“The exposure of kids seeing music and art and culture, and seeing adults having fun without getting rolling drunk, sets an example of how they can be in the future. And It goes the other way. Having kids there modifies people’s behaviour around them. It’s a multi-generational party.”
After three years on the windy cliffs above Karioitahi the sound equipment company said they wouldn’t let Splore use their gear at that venue anymore because it was taking so long to clean out all the dust. So, in 2002, with the help of the Auckland Regional Council, Splore moved to Waharau Regional Park on the firth of Thames. Set in the lush native bush, where a river ran through the site that was entirely draped with fairy lights, the setting’s intimacy was vastly different to Karioitahi. It was an important evolution for Splore.
“We had come away from this wild west coast venue to this valley, full of Manuka trees, with a river running through. It was like the masculine was out on the coast, and the feminine was here,” says Wright.
Wright and her partner Alan Green, who had worked with her on the festival since 1999, had travelled to Burning Man, the famous festival in the Nevada desert, for the previous four years and were taken by the immersive theatre of the experience. They wanted to import that experience to Splore while embracing the unique influence of its South Pacific setting.
“It was all about creating Splore as a theatre, a theatre of creativity and artistic integrity and we wanted to push that to its limit. And by getting people to be theatrical within their own spirit, within their own consciousness, it creates the theatre of the place,” says Green.
“It’s that expression that people do within their dress up, it adds massive flavour. It makes it a far more exciting place to be. It raises the level of the whole party.”
In 2001, Green and Wright watched the El Circo crew perform inside a geodesic dome in the desert at Burning Man. On a stage at the centre of the elaborate structure, their multi-discipline performance covered 360 degrees. The next thing they knew the 25 person crew and their dome was being imported into New Zealand.
“[The dome] was such a struggle. We got it four days before Splore. It had to clear customs, then it had to be built. It went right to the wire,” remembers Wright.
The effort to bring in and build the dome created one of the greatest individual Splore performances of all time when Fat Freddy’s Drop took the stage at the centre of the structure at around 5 o’clock on Saturday afternoon in 2002. One of their first big performances in Auckland, it was a huge moment for the band. The sound spiralled around the dome. The gig was filmed on a Super 8 camera and became the music video for their iconic song “Hope”.
“It was quite a breakthrough gig for us. It was a totally epic show. That was way before Childish Gambino started playing in a dome” laughs Joe “Hopepa” Lindsay, the band’s trombonist.
“I really fell in love with the festival and I’ve been trying to go every year since. It is one of the only festivals in the world where I will go along as a punter.”
Lindsay has brought his son Benny to Splore since he was a baby. Every year his parents have been able to attend, Benny’s been there too. While his dad has played a number of times, in 2018 Benny made his first appearance as a performer, DJing a minimalist techno set at the Fox’s Den stage from 4-6 pm on Saturday. He’s been invited back to play again in 2019.
“It went really well. He had some big name DJs come and check him out. He played a really nice set. A sophisticated set,” says a proud dad.
Running a festival is a bad way to make money. Both Wright and Green were covering a lot of the cost of Splore from their own pocket. It was wearing them down and putting their relationship under stress. And after 2002, the complaints from local residents meant Splore couldn’t get consent from the council for 2003 and became biennial. The 2004 festival was permitted on the basis it would be the last event at Waharau.
Splore 2004 was a big turning point. The event was more lavishly designed and expensive, and after not enough tickets sold, Wright and Green were left with $30,000 of debt and a relationship under so much pressure it broke.
“We were $30,000 down, a debt with my ex, and had creditors to pay,” says Wright.
She was told someone might be interested in talking about investing in Splore. John Minty moved in the same circles as the Splore crew and owned the nightclub Galatos. He was a regular attendee of the festival and had taken his son and nephew to Splore. He heard from a mutual friend that they’d got in a hole, and he thought Splore was too special to let collapse. He had capital from selling his publishing business, and he offered to pay off the debt and buy into Splore. Three months later he’d signed a partnership agreement with Wright. Minty took control of the music. Wright became the artistic director.
Now all they needed was a venue. The team had now built a really good relationship with Auckland Regional Council, and when Splore was forced to leave Waharau the park rangers said: “It’s a shame you have to leave, but we know another place”. They told them about a spot just up the road and offered to show them Tapapakanga Regional Park.
“We’d been driving past it for years not realising it was there, and we looked at it, and said why the fuck didn’t you tell us about this before. This is amazing,” says Minty.
With a new home, Minty’s musical direction also represented a pivot for Splore – another step in its evolution. He was passionate about exposing New Zealanders to unique exciting artists, and booked Brooklyn rapper Talib Kweli to headline – the first time a hip-hop artist played at the festival.
“He brought Cuban Brothers to New Zealand for the first time. He has always been on the edge of bringing in really big acts before the break into the big time. And when we bought someone like that in it opened it up to a much wider audience. It put some audience off, and it opened it up to another audience,” says Wright.
It was an important step in the festivals financial sustainability. For a long time, Splore had been perceived as a niche hippy, trance festival. Minty wanted to expose more people to Splore’s multi-discipline performance and visual arts by opening up the line-up. And he wanted to sell more tickets.
“When I took it over a lot of people saw it as a minority festival. They weren’t getting the numbers to make it viable. It needed to open itself up to a new group of people to check it out,” says Minty.
That year the festival received it’s first Creative NZ funding to develop the visual arts scene at Splore. By 2008 performance art had its own specific space in the Butterfly Zoo. Themed on 1930s Shanghai cabaret club, it was the first time the festival’s Saturday dress up was themed.
The Saturday Cabaret has become the place to find the most exciting and challenging performances at Splore. It has hosted everything from the contemporary performance of the New Zealand Dance Company, to the laser aerial artistry of Empress Stah.
“People want to go and experience what Splore is because they can’t get that anywhere else. The doors are open. We are not afraid to welcome whoever wants to come,” says Emma Vickers, Splore’s performance director (and circus trapeze artist).
“It started as a trance party and over the years we’ve wanted to add more layers and genres and have art and sculpture and wellness and performance. We wanted to be able to create a microworld to make people feel amazing. We can because we have the space and the imagination. We are not scared to do that.”
Executing a successful festival is hard. It’s a fine balancing act. It requires a lot of preparation and a lot of luck. And in 2012 it all went wrong.
The Friday weather was horrific – described by reviewers as “real deal rural rain” – and the festival had sold out for the first time and was dealing with bigger numbers than they’d ever had. The site and the infrastructure struggled, particularly with the pressure of the weather. Traffic backed up, cars were getting stuck in the mud, and the portaloos were overflowing. Then, on Sunday, a yacht dropped it’s sewage holding tank, and the beach had to be closed.
“I remember going down on Sunday morning and the surf lifesaver came up to me and she said ‘Amanda you’ve got to come and look at this’ and she showed me what was washed up on the beach, and she said I think one of the boats have dumped their load,” says Wright, still visibly pissed off.
“We had to get everyone off the beach. I was just in tears. I couldn’t believe the arrogance of someone to do that when there were all those people there. Everyone blamed us for that. It just broke my heart.”
Of all her years running the festival, Splore 2012 was her least favourite. It was the catalyst for her stepping away from the festival, but not before she got everything right.
“When you’re in the background and dealing with so many shitty problems, it can be really difficult to see the beauty of it. That was when I went ‘things have to change’. I always had intentions of one day being free of Splore. I know that sounds like it has been a chain around my neck but it hasn’t been. But I always one day knew I had to put a line in the sand and walk away from it.”
There was no way she could leave Splore in a state she wasn’t happy with. So 2014 became her defining event.
Born from the principles of Burning Man, Splore has always been devoted to protecting the environment and limiting its footprint before sustainability was a buzz word. But Wright was determined to get its environmental processes and standards codified. She employed a sustainability manager and introduced reuseable Globelets for the first time. It was mandatory for hospitality vendors to use only compostable servingware, and most importantly, the guests were educated on leaving no trace of their campsite – the source of the vast majority of a festival’s waste.
Infrastructure was improved and operations were streamlined. The weather was beautiful, there were no queues and everything flowed. The festival weekend fell over Valentine’s Day and the theme for Splore that year was “love”. That year, six couples were married at Splore, a tradition that continues every year.
“It was my definitive event. I had been one of the key people in creating the legacy and now I was able to walk away from it.”
In 2015 Minty brought Wright out and became the sole director.
“I was really lucky he did that. I earned it, and I deserved to be able to have that opportunity. How can you put a price on 16 years of toil and fun? It was such a huge part of my identity,” says Wright
Now Splore looks like a finely oiled machine. In 2015 it became an annual event. It had built a reputation that meant the demand was there, and being biennial left the company vulnerable to competitors. Operationally it made sense to keep continuity with the crew by providing more permanent work. And for the last few years, even in torrential rain in 2017, the festival appears to run effortlessly.
But when I asked if it’s always been this easy, it drew laughter.
“Easy is a relative term,” says festival producer Fred Kublikowski.
“The last three or four festivals. We’ve hit a sweet spot. A really wet Splore was my worst personal nightmare. Then we handled it.”
While Minty’s work is all but complete by the time the festival starts, that’s when Kublikowski is in charge of ensuring Splore works.
“We are busy and we have to stay alert,” says Kublikowski. “And you can’t let your worries go and disappear offline with your friends. I’m on comms 24 hours.”
They know the festival is running well when the radios are quiet. Last year it was so calm people were checking in to see if the transmitters were still working. They bank on getting about six to eight hours sleep across the weekend.
Was there a time you felt like it was too much and it was a bad idea and you shouldn’t do this anymore I asked Minty?
“2006, 2008, 2010, 2012,” he laughs. “It was hard work, it was really hard work. I don’t think we had our operational team firing like we do now. It’s my family that hears about it if I’m stressed out and they’ve been known to remind me that “dad last year you said it was your last Splore”, yeah but that was Saturday night and now I’m good.”
I asked Wright if she was able to enjoy Splore at the same time she organised them.
“For me, I always enjoyed the Sundays. Once you got through two nights and nobody died and everybody had a good time, that’s when I could enjoy myself,” she says. “I would always struggle to sleep even though I was exhausted because I was nervous, and you’re hosting a lot of people and want to make sure everyone is having the best time. But come Sunday morning, now I can just relax.
“I definitely had some fun. But not as much fun as I do now because I don’t have the responsibility.”
Minty is proud of the festival’s growth, where it has gone and what it has become. It’s healthy culturally, it’s healthy financially and he believes that existence is sustainable beyond his tenure. It’s still a place where people long to come every year.
“The fact it’s lasted this long, is on solid financial footing now, and got a very loyal following, there’s no reason it couldn’t carry on. When we look back 20 years ago there are no other events that are still here. We’ve survived everything,” he says.
Splore usually breaks even or makes a small profit. But profit is not the festival’s ultimate imperative. And this has allowed it to retain its vibe and aura: it’s refused to sell out. Kublikowski believes the fact Splore is independent and isn’t controlled by independent shareholders is probably the reason it’s still around.
“Because some of the years Splore has been through, no logically thinking individual would keep it around,” he says.
Over the years Minty acknowledges he’s done things that, from a business point of view, make no sense at all. Things like the wellness zone have no financial logic, but the festival is happy to support it because it is important to its spirit.
“We do it because we love it and it’s a great contribution to the cultural landscape here. I own it so I have the freedom, I don’t have to talk to other shareholders. So while my mind is saying “this is a fucking awesome thing to do”, let’s keep doing it. That’s given us a lot of freedom to stick to that vision and not compromise it.”
And Minty knows the festival is so much bigger than him now, and it means so much to so many people. Splore’s community are its permanent kaitiaki, he’s merely looking after it for now.
“It’s almost like Splore has its own entity. You have an ownership thing, but it feels like Splore will carry on as an entity no matter who owns it,” he says.
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“I would like to think that if I wasn’t involved in it financially, Splore has become bigger than us and it would carry on and it would be a gift.”
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