All you really need to know
- Cost: $350 ticket, $99 camping
- What: Music Festival (Camping)
- Where: Byron Bay, Australia
- When: Five days in late July – it’s a mid-winter festival that thinks it’s summer
- Why: Because it’s winter in Australia, you’ve been doing nothing but look at your friends’ Facebook pictures of the summer festival season, and if you don’t get in on the action soon, like right quick, you’re gonna wind up dropping a pill and dancing naked through the hostel, and that would get you kicked out.
Splendour in the Grass
I got the text 20 minutes before Alec picked me up – “I hope you packed light, because we have no room in the car.” I’ve been living out of a backpack for the past year, so I’m not sure what he expected me to bring, but when the little angular white sedan finally pulled up, I realized that even the three plastic grocery bags in my hands would be a tough fit. Five-day camping festivals take some planning, and apparently a lot of stuff. We may have overdone it. I squeezed into the bitch seat in the back and piled my bags on top of me. My legs were forced over the center console, into Issy’s face, Naomi’s lap. And that’s how we became friends.
We were on our way to Splendour in the Grass, one of the largest music festivals in Australia. Founded in 2001 by music producer Jessica Ducrou and band manager Paul Piticco, it’s steadily grown from a 1 day affair to a three day bonanza. It’s also one of the few that doesn’t tour here, so while the likes of Future and Big Day Out (RIP) draw similarly big names, Splendour is the one that maintains the mystique of a holiday. It’s five days of camping, three days of music, and one day of lethargically getting the fuck outta there. It’s a holiday people come from all over the country (and in my case, I guess, the world) to attend.
Splendour takes place in the parklands north of Byron Bay. If there were a homeland for hippies out there – and surely there needs to be one, right, why else would they exist so confidently in their lifestyles – then Byron Bay is it. Their Mecca. And Splendour in the Grass is their Hajj. It embodies all the tenants of the lifestyle – sustainability, green living, not washing your hair. And while Australia enjoys fairly draconian drug laws (bumping the prices up to triple that of America’s), Byron stands as a Las Vegan-style oasis in which these laws are all but ignored. The nearby town of Nimbin flat out sells weed and DMT right on the street corner. Seriously. It’s advertised and everything.
But a major festival can’t be seen as too lax on these things, so there is plenty of pontificating and bird-like mantling over the kill. Not even alcohol is allowed in the campsite, and the organizers have to play the straight-face as they pretend those rules are followed.
[alert type=”info”]Important Tip: Splendour allows campers to arrive on the Wednesday before the festival itself begins, but only the foyer of the grounds is open before Friday. This is fine for Thursday night, as the Red Bull tent has music, but on Wednesday, the only amenities available are the tiny shops and the crafts tent, which, sure, okay, if you’re into that sort of thing then by all means. Take more days off from work than necessary and enjoy such perks as unfatigued security and an extra day sleeping on the ground. If you’re not a masochist, then the best time to arrive is mid-day Thursday. It’s a bit more crowded, but liveliness is the essence of a festival in the first place.[/alert]
We arrived at 3 PM, and were shortly forced to park in one of the furthest spots available, a dusty little corner boxed in by a deteriorating chain link and a traffic coordinator drunk on power. But the hike evened out – had we arrived earlier, our campsite would have been closer to the festival entrance, and thus the same distance from the car. Ultimately it doesn’t matter. In that first exploratory campaign, ignorant of the above fact, we figured we could save our strength by making multiple trips; this would up saving us our stash. The first pass through required getting a wristband and a bag check, and unfortunately, Issy had not hid her alcohol well enough. As the guard’s wormlike fingers rooted around the bag, they wrapped around and pulled out the vodka bottle, so delicately wrapped in bubble. He held up his prize for the line supervisor, who grinned with lips that didn’t cover her gums.
“We’ll be drinking well tonight boys,” she said before holding it up for all in line to see, “and now you fine folks get to wait while we search their bags more thoroughly.”
Of course, nobody felt particularly inconvenienced, and more squatted to the ground to surreptitiously rearrange their own bags into a more concealing structure. We emptied our bags and tarps half heartedly, but luckily, Issy’s was the only booze in our first wave of bags. We got in fine, slapped on our wristbands, and found a camping spot. These wristbands actually allow you to bypass the lines entirely (perhaps a symptom of an overworked security force – the initial lines took ages), so when bringing in the rest of our bags (containing, mind you, enough alcohol to sterilize a blue whale’s anus, among other things), we were not even glanced at, let alone searched. There are drug dogs present, but they seem to go after the large-scale dealers and not those carrying just enough for a good time. Good news for those who didn’t assume the worst and shove it up their ass – whoever they may be.
[alert type=”info”]Important Tip: Security is tight the first time you walk through, and there’s no alcohol or drugs allowed, obviously. Your bags will be searched, and while there was no pat down for me, drug dogs were present. However, once you have your wristband, you no longer need to wait in line to go in, and we carried the rest of our stuff through unhassled.[/alert]
And once you’re in, you’re in.
The campsite is a tent city, built haphazardly with no respect for thoroughfares or modern principles of civic engineering. Tiny, serpentine singles tents lay prone in the shadow of eight man monstrosities, with tarps and tye-dye flags offering shade in a shattered prism of direction. Navigation is a combination of hopscotch and limbo, where one wrong move will send you crashing a neighbor’s party. My only experience at a camping festival thus far in my life was Coachella, where campsites are sorted into streets, so setting up in the only available clearing next to a rain ditch gave me my first appreciation for the suggestion of putting lights up on your tent to make them easier to find. It took all of one hour after nightfall before the drunks began stumbling through, begging for directions to the comforts of their sleeping bags. Alas, we could give none, could offer little but a hand up after the first two fell on their faces in the ditch. It really could have used a railing. At least there was sand at the bottom.
[alert type=”info”]Important Tip: Seriously, put lights or some identifying marker on your tent. It’s so unorganized that it’s very hard to find a particular tent at night, especially if you’re in the middle.[/alert]
One interloper in our territory turned out to be a mutual friend, and we joined him at his campsite. While you don’t need to arrive too early, doing so ensures more space and the ability to combine campsites – his managed to claim enough for an entire dance floor. Like any music festival, the campsites are half the fun. But as the stars glittered above us and the neon glow of a Thursday substance test-run began to shine, Splendour began a test run of its own – three sets in the Red Bull Tent. The dance floor was small, a side array to the bar it joined with, but lacking the total capacity of the festival’s nadir, we had the space to form our own circles. Getting in, however, was a challenge – as a drink garden, there was a line, and not all brave enough to hop the fence could get in. This would become a problem when the festival was in full swing, and a stampede of the reluctantly sober came looking for a respite after hours.
Because once Friday, at noon, rolls around, everybody loses their damn minds.
The crowd at the festival is relatively laid back, being a hippy town and all, but there are a fair share of douchebags. Just look at how many skulk away from their trashed campsite, hoping nobody at the environmentally-conscious festival notices their shame spread over the space of 100 square meters. And when you’re being forced through the chokepoint of the Very Small Mall (see below) or dancing in the crowded Mix-Up, those fucking Native American headdresses become the bane of your existence, and all you’ll want to do is throw them to the ground and stomp on them while looking straight-faced into the eyes of the heap’s sobbing former owner. But you won’t. It’s a music festival. And to do so would make you one of those douchebags, and Splendour really does have only a few of them.
There are tons of musical areas at Splendour, but only four main ones:
- The Ampitheatre – a giant natural bowl showing the headliners. The pit requires waiting in a line to access, but because it’s an ampitheatre, there’s no bad place to stand. The middle area near the speaker provides good sound and ample room to dance, if you don’t mind being a bit further away. Since it’s at the far end of the grounds, there’s only two narrow entrances, which can cause congestion.
- The Mix-Up Stage – A gigantic tent showing the second largest names, especially the more electronically bent. It can get crowded, but if it gets too much, the nearby beer garden has a giant screen showing the current act in it.
- The GW McLennon Tent – A (much) smaller tent for the (not that much) smaller acts. The bleary-eyed singer songwriter who doesn’t need much production to captivate his audience. They’re just gonna be standing there swaying back and forth anyway.
- The Tipi Forest – The equivalent to Coachella’s Do LaB, the Tipi Forest is a stage nestled into the corner, surrounded by trees and art installations. It mainly comes alive after the rest of the festival has died down, and people still buzzing on whatever they take need someplace to continue dancing.
There are also numerous smaller stages, including the Red Bull Music Academy (electronic music gives you wings), the Mad Mex Fiesta Tent (more of a food stall, but with exactly the music you expect, ayayayayayaiiiI!), the Global Village (featuring more worldly music and thus less people), and the Smirnoff Cocktail Bar (where everybody’s too fucked up to care what’s playing anyway) peppered around, though the music is often secondary to a gimmick and/or food & drink vendor in those cases.
Each stage is placed almost equidistant from the next, but annoyingly, the two main areas (Ampitheatre and Mix-Up) are on completely opposite sides of the grounds. This normally wouldn’t be an issue – most music festivals do the same for crowd control and sound bleed purposes – but the Byron Bay Parklands have a small choke point right in the center between the two. Splendour puts the Very Small Mall (a little runway of clothing shops) there, which tightens the choke even more. So when a set finishes at the Mix-Up tent, there’s literally only one twenty foot wide path for those people to go in order to see another act. Congestion builds quickly and ferociously. And while the good vibes of a music festival are not easily trampled, not much can survive the jostling of thousands of feet at once.
But a day at Splendour can’t really be ruined, no matter how hard certain aspects try.
Like the campsite. As amazing as the social aspect is, the campsite itself offers little. It’s difficult to sleep in at any music festival, but by 6 am, the songbirds had already started laughing, and the steady thumping bass of an enthusiastic campsite rattled tentpoles. The smell of bacon drifted through – many people bring their own cooking stove. In fact, it’s necessary. There aren’t many places to get food outside the festival proper, and on the way to the bathroom, I spotted a line wrapping around the corner, waiting for a simple cup of coffee and breakfast sandwich. There were no other food stalls outside the confines of the not-yet-open festival grounds. Ice Break, the coffee company, had sponsored the festival and were handing out free iced coffees and sunglasses, which saved more than a few mornings.
Luckily, there were no lines for the bathrooms. As an eco-friendly festival, Splendour installed large drop toilets with deep enough bottoms to never fill, and sawdust piles to help – though not adequately – contain the stench of digested grease and drugs. After a few minutes inside the stall, the sawdust fell battered off the treadmill, told me it did it’s best, and promptly rolled over and died.
[alert type=”info”]Important Tip: Dump early, not often. The festival creed.[/alert]
The festival gates opened at 11, and after an early morning of substantial drinking to wile away the time, we could do nothing but flood in. I hadn’t eaten all day, and while the food in the campsite is sub-par, the choices inside made my stomach rumble louder than my financial sense could drown out. Grill’d. Moët Champagne. Truck Stop. Hawaiian pizza even better than Coachella’s legendary Spicy Pie. As piss-poor as the food options in the campsite were, walking through and seeing the line of stalls and trucks inside made me curse my meager breakfast of peanut butter and beans. I was so close this entire time. Eating at festival is rare enough as it is – you might as well treat yourself when you can’t ignore the pangs any longer.
[alert type=”info”]Important Tip: On the first day, as early as possible, your first stop should be the drink tickets line. Before anything else. If your favorite act is playing, catch the end of it after buying your drink tickets. While the food stalls take money, the beer gardens operate on a ticket system (1 ticket = $2, 3 tickets = 1 beer, 2 tickets = 1 water), and since they can only be purchased at a few specific spots, the lines become ridiculous. When I first hopped in line, the guy in front of me popped a pill – “It’ll kick in once we get to Peking Duck” – only to bop in place, frustrated, 45 minutes and thirty feet later. Plan ahead.[/alert]
But don’t be afraid to say “fuck the plan.” There are too many things to do to choose with steadfast determination.
I originally bought my ticket on the the strength of the lineup. I had already seen OutKast at Coachella, but found their performance to be a little too mellow for my liking. But I was excited to see Darkside, whom I’d heard so much about, and I was about past due for a music festival anyway. Alec invited me to go with his friends. That’s the kind of festival Splendour is – the kind where you can approach just about anyone and start a conversation, make a new friend. It’s an atmosphere that makes me rave about Coachella so much, an atmosphere sorely lacking from many of the larger EDM festivals nowadays. Maybe it’s just part-and-parcel with the camping aspect – it’s difficult to get lost in your own little world when your neighbors intrude on your proximity by sheer virtue of their existence. In that first Thursday night, we learned the names of people we could point out in the crowd in the following days, lock eyes with and smile.
And when you make those new relationships, when something is fostered so efficiently, you learn more. At Future, I jumped from set to set with rigid prudity. I saw who I wanted to see, and went home. At Splendour, by virtue of being in a place with more to offer, more to see, I allowed myself to get lost, and therefore find more. You should see how large my iTunes library has expanded since returning. The prospect of downloading so much new music was the only thing that made the frigid walk back to the tent bearable each day.
[alert type=”info”]Important Tip: By nightfall, you’ll be dirty, cold, and sore. The heat generated by a warm day spent gyrating wildly easily evaporates in the cold Australian winter. You’ll want to bring a jacket in with you (just tie it around your waist). And don’t forget to bring several layers of warm clothes for sleeping in.[/alert]
All in all, Splendour is one of the best music festivals. The inclement weather and the odd layout don’t sully the experience of standing on a hill dancing your guts out with your best friends, with a beer in one hand and all the excitement you can muster in the other. Feeling fist. When you pull out of that parking lot, after hauling all of your junk back out with you, you won’t even mind the traffic jam. The weekend was just too splendid.
Your packing list, from somebody who loves you
- Tent – Duh. No car camping here, folks. The ideal one will sleep everybody in your group and then some. Unless there are couples in the group. Keep that shit isolated.
- Air Mattress/Air Pump – You’ll be so tired you could sleep on broken glass at the end of the day, but glass isn’t allowed in the campsite, so this will have to do.
- Sleeping Bag/Heavy Blankets – It’s winter here in Oz, ya numbskull. It gets cold.
- Pillow – Come on, it’s okay to admit you like to pamper yourself.
- Canopy – It’s like a tent people can see you change in. The sun doesn’t get particularly bad at this time of year, so you don’t really need it, but it’s nice to have for a bright morning.
- Tarps – It’s Splendour in the Grass, but if it rains (it usually rains a bit), it’ll be Splendour in the Mud at your campsite without one.
- Folding Chairs – Sit on these. Or just look at them. I don’t care.
- Folding Table – Sit on this, if you’re cool with breaking it and having everybody laugh at you, fatty.
- Camping Stove/Cooking Utensils – As mentioned, the food options in the actual campsite aren’t great. But hey, you don’t need to cook your…
- Food – Honestly, who eats much at a music festival? Just grab a few cans of beans an an avocado.
- Power Pack – There are charging stations in the campsite, but they usually have long lines and require up to $30 for the weekend to use.
- Wet Wipes – The bathrooms here are actually really nice, but it’s usually too cold to take a full shower – clean off with these.
- Sunscreen – That Aussie sun will bitchslap your skin straight to cancertown.
- Ibuprofen – This year, a drugged out dude kicked a giant rock straight into my shoulder because he thought it was a beer can. You’ll never know when you’ll need it.
- Earplugs – The campsite is relatively quiet, all things considered, but it never hurts to have.
- Duct Tape – Just in case.
- Trash Bags – Don’t be that guy.[/accordion_section][accordion_section title=”To Enjoy Living” active=”true”]
- Lanterns – The campsite isn’t well illuminated and it can be hard to find your tent in the middle of the chaos.
- Inflatable Toys – Totems aren’t really a thing here, but if you want to have one anyway, go for it. Just don’t be a dick and block other people’s view during the actual shows.
- Body Paint – It’s a festival full of hippies… why not? It’s better than a stupid bindi or headdress.
- Cards – For those early morning drinking games.
- Speakers – Somebody around you will have louder ones, I promise. Don’t give in.
- Camera – Because things are only fun if other people know you were there.
- Condoms – Because “fucked up in a tent” isn’t a great story of your child’s conception.[/accordion_section][accordion_section title=”To Carry On You” active=”true”]
- Phone – Coverage is pretty weak, but it’s your phone, ya know?
- Money – Your ID is checked in the campsite and you won’t need that skydiving coupon, so leave your actual wallet back.
- Closed Shoes – It’s not warm enough for sandals and you won’t want them stepped on while dancing anyway.
- Jacket – The weather varies, but you’ll almost certainly want something warm for when the sun goes down.
- Sunglasses – Duh.
- Hat – It looks cool.
- Lighter – Even if you’re not smoking, it’s nice to keep one around for other people.[/accordion_section]