After attending five multi-day music and camping events in three months, Anke Richter gives us the lowdown from food to fashion to facilities – including a run-in with anti-vax lawyer Sue Grey.
This summer, I became a festival hopper – not just because I love partying with hippies so much (I actually do!), but I also toured my workshop “How not to start a cult”. Despite my apprehension about alternative festivals where misinformation and conspiracy content had been circulating, I wanted to build bridges this year and leave the division of the pandemic behind. Mixing with people who are like-hearted felt more important than being like-minded. My mission didn’t quite end as planned though.
The camping festivals I went to from south to north – Convergence, Kiwiburn, Splore, Relish and Earth Beat, in that order – weren’t any of the big mainstream music events but the kind where you can do yoga in the morning and catch a talk about plant medicine in the afternoon before dressing up for the dance floor. One gave me a headache beforehand, another one Covid afterwards, and all made me appreciate my own bathroom back home – as well as the tenacity of friends toughing it out together in terrible weather.
Here’s my rundown of the good, the bad and the wet.
Relish, hands down – best kept secret of the south. If Kiwiburn and Convergence had a love child, that would be it. After it originated from a series of funerals (!) in Wānaka, this down-to-earth family-run operation has moved to a new site near Waimate where numbers are capped at 500. The working bees throughout the year are part of the fun. The nights turn into sparkly spectacles. At the heart of it all is the large tent kitchen where everyone cooks together. It’s one big rotating potluck party, and it works.
Splore. First time for me. So many stages and fancy decorated zones that run like a well-oiled machine. A plethora of volunteers show you were to camp or help to pull your van out of the mud. Last but not least, rubbish sorting teams “keep it cute”. Their message about dress-ups and cultural appropriation was also crystal clear: ditch the bindi and that native American headgear, white wellness person.
Not so well organised
Earth Beat – also my first time. They had to deal with a few curve balls though. I didn’t notice the lack of medical and food safety that others have reported but got a taste of their poor information hygiene. As a last-minute panellist, I experienced first-hand how the session about disinformation and free speech got derailed by angry Covid protesters. Confused communication and lack of transparency in the lead-up was part of the problem.
Splore – but you get some world-class acts with your ticket. Because you pay everything extra from your wristband, which you top up as you go, it’s easy to overspend, given the steep mark-up for everything on offer. I did.
Convergence, a family-friendly co-created gathering in North Canterbury by a river with a bush sauna that has been going for decades. I’ve been at least 10 times and stopped counting. All food, apart from breakfast, is provided and prepared together in shifts in the communal kitchen. You can stay on site after the event, which extends your five-day ticket into a longer holiday. Strictly no drugs or alcohol, which makes it the cheapest New Year’s Eve party on the motu.
Kiwiburn, New Zealand’s regional Burning Man, sits at the other end of the hedonistic spectrum and offers most bangs for your bucks in terms of intensity, visual extravaganza, self-expression and wackiness. Since it has a non-commodified gifting culture – no money changes hands – you can walk anywhere around the paddock, day or night, and get offered a snack or a cocktail from one of the camps. (Better check that snack though. Overuse of chili is a common prank.) My camp even held a pizza night for punters. If you’re a good burner and not a freeloader, you bring supplies for your theme camp’s bar and keep as many strangers happy as possible. The joy of giving. Win-win.
Lowest expectation, biggest surprise
Convergence. It’s usually a 200 to 300-person event, but they only had 95 tickets this year. That shrinkage felt sad and empty on arrival, but soon turned out to be a bonus: no overload, only one workshop on offer at a time, and enough room in the sauna to cram everyone in and not turn people away. The only festival of them all that left me replenished, not exhausted.
Most misinformation spreading
Show me an alternative festival that doesn’t have at least one workshop or presenter who fits that bill, even if it’s not so obvious in the programme. Earth Beat took the cake though. Reality Check Radio, the new VFF platform, had their flyers everywhere as did Yes Aotearoa, a new “truther” party. They held a Q&A with anti-vax lawyer Sue Grey at the community hub. I attended a talk by a herbalist who told people never to take what doctors prescribe, and that there are “entities” out there, like the government, that want to “keep us unhealthy”. In another session, people were outraged to hear a key message from Nicky Hager that mainstream media is essential, not evil.
Convergence happens in a Methodist camp, and although the facilities look a bit tired and worn, they have flush toilets, which is a nice sensory change from what you usually face in a festival portaloo after day two. The prize for the most creative crappers goes to Kiwiburn, where you could be doing your business in a quirky shrine of artwork. The prize for most sustainable loos goes to Relish: all toilets are compost ones, and everyone helps to change the buckets once they’re full. It’s an easy-peasy eco-friendly rotating system – radical self-responsibility at its best.
Earth Beat’s shower providers brought a whole powder room along: a row of hand basins and big mirrors, free nail polish, an in-house hairdresser, cool music and hot cups of tea while you wait in the queue. Nice touch!
Sunsets at Earth Beat where they held an ecstatic dance up on a hill. And coming down the goat track at Splore, with the ocean and thousands of party people down below, admiring some glow-in-the dark mushroom installations among the trees.
Best camping food hacks
Bring a Jetboil and an AeroPress. If you have no camping gear and booked a glamping tent – as I did in one case – you beat all the long coffee queues at stalls in the morning (especially if commercial machines are broken, as happened). Seasoned burners pre-cook meals, freeze them in packs and use them to cool their drinks in the chilly bin. Extremely handy when you have no place to prepare a meal in pouring rain (as happened).
Best toilet survival and fashion hack
Add a zip in the crotch of your catsuit or overall that you’re partying in. Anyone with a vulva who’s ever had to take off layer after layer in a freezing slippery portaloo at 2am, probably not quite sober at that stage, will get the drift. Excuse the pun.
Depends where you are. Fur vests, fake or real on naked skin, blend in at any Burn. Animal onesies too. At Splore, the accessory du jour was a headband with big flowers, Frida Kahlo style. Biodegradable glitter on the face always goes. From Earth Beat to Relish, you can’t go wrong in an open kimono bath robe, worn with psychedelic-patterned leggings, for cool conformity. Always bring gumboots and leave your high heels at home (uneven dark terrain, grass, mud) – unless you’re performing in a burlesque show. Speaking of which – drum roll…
Best stage performances
Highly selective and subjective, but Miss Hellblazer – “stuntie by day, spicy by night” – set a new standard for devilish and devious pole-dancing acrobatics. Also at Splore, I stumbled upon the mesmerising Proteins of Magic (androgynous Aotearoa artist Kelly Sherrod), my festival crush. There are too many to count who made my night on the Relish stage – it’s all a big happy blur. A shout-out to the talented teens at the Earth Beat Youth Zone whose jamming sessions were as good as some of the professional acts, and to the kids who performed in the cabaret at Convergence. It’s the most supportive audience any parent could wish for.
Best group performance
Fire spinners at Relish, Kiwiburn and Earth Beat. And impromptu singing in the sauna at Convergence. The boiler drum that looks like a Hobbit hole brings out the best tunes and conversations. If these walls could talk!
All over Kiwiburn. It’s worth going just for the effigy and the temple – wooden architectural structures that are built over weeks by volunteers beforehand and are lit up and burnt to the ground in two spectacular ceremonies. You’ll also find beautifully decorated art cars and installations in the forest. My favourite metal sculptures – two gigantic moths made by artists Chris Stead and Chris van der Meys – found their way to Relish as well.
Magical and moving moments
Lying on a supersized mattress in the forest at Relish at night, watching a screening of the aurora borealis on loop on a massive screen that was hung between trees. Sitting in a sharing circle after my inaugural workshop at Convergence, receiving heartfelt feedback. Huddling under an umbrella at Kiwiburn, watching the effigy burn down and a thousand people rip their clothes off to run naked around the fire in a mad howling circle, like the first humans on earth. And after days of non-stop rain in Hunterville, seeing trucks with wood chips arrive to spread mulch on the paths that had turned into deep mud slides. Perks!
Realising that the bottom of your plastic box with all your clothes in your tent has a crack and everything in there bar the top layer is soaking wet; that you can’t find anywhere dry to sit in your whole camp of 50 people; and your chilly bin is full of mouldy things swimming in ice water. The January weather bomb also hit Kiwiburn and turned the paddock into a swamp. The forest and access to the river had to be closed, some structures needed to be taken down, people tried to leave early in a panic, affected by their flooded homes. Never had this happened there before. Two days of it would have been fine. Five were too much for me.
Being accosted by Sue Grey at Earth Beat while her political buddy Joseph Blessing from Yes Aotearoa tried filming Nicky Hager and me without consent during a break in the panel session – and then hearing her distort her inappropriate move in a Facebook video later. A new low.
Best insider info to take away
Know Your Stuff, who were set up at Splore and Kiwiburn to make substance indulgence safer, were spreading the important message that a once-a-week habit of everyone’s favourite party drug can irreversibly damage your urinary tract. Look up “ketamine bladder”, kids. You heard it here first. You’re welcome.
Hot tip for next season
Brazen, a small two-day event for all genders at the Shipwrecked site in Northland with an all-female and non-binary lineup, started by Amanda Wright (DJ Amandamania). I went to the inaugural Brazen last year and loved every minute of it. Couldn’t make it this time, which was last weekend. I’ll have FOMO till summer comes around again.
Anke Richter is the author of Cult Trip: Inside the world of coercion & control (HarperCollins), released as an international paperback this week