A Wide Open Weekend

 

Follow me on my first trip into the arid heart of Australia as I get my brains blown out at a small big festival and spit a doctor in the face before I finally understand what race an Australian doof’er belongs to…

 

THE REDHEADS MADE ME DO IT!

It was Ginger who invited me. I’d hardly ever spoken to her but I knew who she was and I knew she was a good one. Wired to the moon and family straight away. Voice like a cyclone. The Ghost by her side is another good one. Subtle smile, humble hat and a treasure-chest brain he has; music he simply is. More than performers, these guys together are passionate focus incarnate.

They were my neighbours in Sydney and they were playing their hypnotic show at Australia’s “biggest small festival” – the Wide Open Space festival. Since I both wanted to see Ginger & the Ghost as well as the famous Australian land mark Uluru in the desert, I decided to travel with them to the very middle of the oldest continent on Earth.

Now where did that image go?

In Australia they call redheads for “rangers” as in orangutang. Here are my two favourite ones, Beautiful Ben and Mish the Miracle, breathing meditatively at sunset over the MacDonnell ranges.

It didn’t take much convincing to get my two new best friends to come along. Ben – who runs an artisan warehouse space – Mish the Miracle, and yours truly had been working like beasts for weeks on end, and the sudden prospect of a festival holiday was beyond temptation. This was going to be epic!

Two weeks later, we were all on a desert-bound plane. None of us knew it then, but most of the passengers on that carrier were heading to that same little beautiful spot in the MacDonnell Ranges, some 80 km out of Alice Springs. On board was a motley crew of artists, volunteers, punters and organizers. Most were strangers to each other, yet only days away from becoming friends and future colleagues. No doubt Sydney’s warehouse scene got a network upgrade on that jet full of shakers and makers.

And although this was just another disgustingly early low-budget national flight, this trip into the sky was the first leg on a journey around the world for some, for others the last leg into the mystical heart of Australia for the first time.

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The incredibly talented and highly innovative Ginger & the Ghost had the honor of playing up an 800-year-old tree while a unicorn pole dancer performed on the ground. The ghost said the view was unbelievable…

DESERT IN THE PARTY

Outdoor raves around here are called doofs. Doof doof doof, you get it…. In Australia, throwing an outdoor party means negotiating merciless forces of nature, majestic logistics and kilometres of red tape, not to mention a corporate government’s corrupt law enforcement. But Aussies like a party and bloody oath if anything will stand between them and a good time.

From Victoria’s Rainbow Serpent to New South Wales’ ConFest and encompassing epic one-off super-doofs like the 2012 Eclipse Festival. Australia’s festival circuit is more than a string of parties; it is a modern day nomadic movement with strong family ties to overseas institutions like Boom in Portugal and Burning Man in the US.

The Wide Open Space (WOS) festival, although minimal in size, fits right into this tapestry of temporary, but tight knit, communities. In fact, its world class program combined with its smallness makes WOS feel like a supernova event that has harnessed all the energy of the most brilliant biggest festivals and crystallized it into this pretty little isolated spot in the middle of Australia’s vast desert. The name itself certainly alludes to the location, but beyond that it also implies a state of mind where possibilities are endless and where there is room for everyone.

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The Ross River Resort, where the festival was held, is a living piece of outback history with an old homestead full of memorabilia and these three old trucks that presumably used to service the farm and take the workers into town for their monthly piss-up.

The small size also allows for everyone involved to get to know each other easily. One minute you are getting your brains blown out by a marvellous act and the next minute you’re rocking out next to them at a different gig. And in the next morning’s one and only scruffy-looking coffee queue, there simply is no difference between artist, punter or organizer.

 

NIGHTS OF STARS AND STORIES

In exchange for a ticket I volunteered as a bartender for 2 out of the 3 nights. This obviously put a damper on my debauchery, but fortunately my one night off was right in the middle. Just in time for Saturday’s sunset, I therefore climbed a nearby hill to pluck away on my mandola strings in the last golden rays and to frank my mind with enough postage to mail myself up to the rising sliver of the moon and back. My impressions henceforth are somewhat biased for obvious reasons, but I can safely say that whoever made that evening’s program fucking nailed it!

While Ginger & the Ghost had already played in the canopy of an ancient tree during the opening ceremony, it was on Saturday night that they fully unfolded their magic carpet and swooped everyone up for a mesmerizing ride. It was a purging, joyous, scary and intimate journey and I don’t think I have ever seen anything quite like it – just “amazeballs!”, as Ginger would have probably put it.

Whenever one act was over I didn’t even have to think about where to go next; the music and the lights and the swaying crowd would gently pick me up and drop me off at the next amazing scene. From the raunchy cabaret, showcasing mostly local (and very hot) talent, over the Brisbane based beat-box boss Tom Thum, boom-beep’ing away with a happy family of singers and rappers, to the incredibly engaging Drazic’s Girlfriend, I never had a bored moment that night.

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Despite the remote location and the relative harshness of the area, there was a pool, and as we all know; you can’t have a pool without a pool-party!

Something else kept engaging me too; the random but intense and deep-felt conversations I had with many a stranger turned instant friend: There was the young Frenchman who was now living in Alice Springs trying to pick up the pieces of a shattered life on the drugged streets of France, savouring the non-judgemental embrace of the desert; there was the cynical Dutchman who was awkwardly trying to reinvent his hardened, racist self by surrounding himself with happy hippies with their hearts still intact; there was the gorgeous mountain girl who had one minute been an alluring sex bomb on stage and the next minute turned out to be a (still really sexy) sweetheart of a family-girl who dreams about community and growing her own food. Those of you who know me, recognize my insatiable appetite for conversation, but rarely have I had such ample opportunity to live it out!

 

DAYS OF WONDER AND THINGS TO PONDER

But it wasn’t all bright lights and psychedelic sounds. Daytime had its own agenda and for those who managed to recover before night fell again, many a delight could be savoured. Not just real food (which was above and beyond your standard festival fare) but also food for thought. I had the luck of stumbling into the Lounge That Time Forgot when a girl in a bush-hat read out this amazing poem about Alice Springs. And it just kept coming. One poet after the next. People of all ages and genders took the stage and proved to the happily surprised poet inside me, that the great Australian tradition of bush-poetry, is still alive and kicking up a storm of words.

Another time I walked right into an unrecognisable stream of words that sounded like a bubbling creek. Watching the aboriginal woman speak was a story in itself. Her mouth seemed to shape itself around the sounds rather than the other way around. She was telling a story. I was confused. So was the dumbfounded crowd of young white people paying close attention to a mystery.

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If it wasn’t for the fact that 90% of the books were crappy nurse-meets-doctor-novels, I would have called this cool installation “the Tree of Knowledge”. At least it looked great.

It was possibly an act of teasing, perhaps a manifestation of original power over place, but her subsequent Q&A session proved her to be a competent combatant for change; her life seemed to revolve around translating her local culture to the ever-arriving culture of white men and women. She made fun of us and wagged a finger at us. She put us in place and patted our back. She leads a way for a better kind of white, all the while bettering her own black community.

 

THE DOOF RACE

To any of you non-Australian readers by the way; black is not offensive to use in this context. Most of Australia’s original people actually don’t like being called Aboriginals. According to those I have met, they are black fellas. And I’m a white fella. Simple as! The interesting colour to look at here is, of course, gray – always changing hue: Gray as a gap that wants to be closed. Gray as not one, but two doors shut. Gray as a blend of half-hearted talk. Grey as a pool where past is forgotten in temporary trance. I never knew that hope could be grey. Anyway. Back to the story.

I spat a whole mouthful of vodka directly into the face of a North African doctor who had just punched me on the jaw. A slap-shot I think they called it. I was too high to realize that I wasn’t being offered a regular old unassuming drink and my reaction was therefore immediate and instinctive, almost aggressive. A moment of awkward suspense ensued and everyone went their way. The Ghost witnessed it, however, and the next day his reminder made me find the doctor to give him my apologies.

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Just because you are at a doof, it doesn’t mean you can’t order a pizza. I wonder what the 80 km delivery run would have cost. Someone seriously loves pizza…

He’d apparently found it quite hilarious and so we quickly got into a qualified banter over the discourse of doofs in Australia’s racial landscape. I told him how I felt that the story-telling woman had made me feel like the festival community was one of the places where black and white could reach each other. “Nonsense”, was his reply.

“This is not about bridging the gap. Sure, you have your aboriginal kids perform at the opening ceremony, there’s the ‘welcome to country’ speech, and pretty much everyone here has an open mind for racist issues. But these festivals are about young white people taking drugs in remote locations and having a great time doing so. Nothing wrong with that, you and I are enjoying it, no harm done, but don’t tell me it’s about understanding the Aboriginals”, he finished with a smile while offering me another beer. Touché.

His statement got me thinking. Wide Open Space is a great little gem of a festival but it seems to be deliberately void of a message or ideology. A lot of festivals invoke all sorts of new age imagery and inspiring politics, but not WOS. “We are here to celebrate”, said the master of ceremonies when it all started, but he never told us what exactly we are celebrating. Part of me is upset with the lack of direction considering the energetic potential of a gathering like this, but at least it seems better not to fake a philosophy if there simply isn’t one. If it really is just about plain entertainment and good times, so be it.

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The boys who ran this makeshift breakfast bistro sure made a killing of a profit. The queue practically never ended at the only fast-food joint on site – Waky Waky Egg ‘n’ Bacy…

GIMME A GOD DAM CUPPA JOE!!!

I really have only two complaints to make. Not enough to even dent the can of goodness I took away with me from Wide Open Space, but anyway here’s my one and only paragraph of grumpy ranting:

The music didn’t stop. I mean, at 4.30 am there were about 975 people scattered around horizontally in various tents and campers, trying to get some well-earned rest and only around 25 munted punters chewing off the inside of their cheeks on the dance floor while shouting reptile remarks at whoever DJ thought it was ‘just the thing’ to shred the morning air with hardcore techno at highest volume possible. Yes, I know this was after all a doof, but when you’re down to 25 people out of a thousand, just before sunrise, I feel like it should be time to put on the headphones or just give up filling the floor. That and the fact that there wasn’t a single god damn decent cup of coffee to be had all friggin’ Sunday afternoon, really rustled my feathers and stroke my hair the wrong motherfucking way. Apart from that, I loved every minute of this festival.

 

BOOZE IN THE BATHROOM

Something that I always enjoy at this type of festival is the complete absence of physical aggression. WOS was no different in that sense and even though the security guys were big enough to impress, their smiles were even bigger. A major factor for this, I think, is that alcohol isn’t the drug of choice for most doof’ers. As a volunteer bartender at WOS, I can attest to that. I did the very last shift in the bar, and I was quite shocked to see the organizers struggling to find anyone to come and empty the beer kegs and booze bottles for free when we closed down. Everybody was too busy getting their boogie on to even consider getting more hammered.

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Not everyone abstained from alcohol. Here you see a thoroughly and deliberately inebriated band trio of hard workers enjoying a well earned break from the city.

At Wide Open Space I found myself wishing that I was a woman. Not for want of having a different set of genitals or some such, but purely because of the elaborately decorated and plush ladies’ toilets. Apparently, someone had found last year’s toilet hygiene so bad that they had taken it upon themselves to make the rest room an actual place for resting your weary behind. If that behind was appropriately female that is. I saw women coming out of the dunny with a freshly wiped smile on their face, chocolate in hand and even a cocktail. The men’s loo was in stark opposition to that, but I wouldn’t be surprised if next year someone will one-up the girls and offer you a foot massage while you’re letting go of your excess biomass. Challenge anyone?

 

HOW TO GROW CHANGE

At the end of the 3-day festival I found that what I had enjoyed the most by far, was making new friends. As always, a festival is an amazing place for meeting people outside of conventional small-talk and lowest common denominators. Obtaining facts like profession and birthplace, marital status and even name, just doesn’t seem that important when you’re getting your rocks off in an alpine ski lodge in the middle of the desert while dancing with a girl dressed like a banana, trailing a wig with eyes on a leash behind her. She poured a mean drink that one.

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I caught this lovely bunch of friends on the final morning before everyone went back to wherever they came from or proceeded to go wherever they were heading. Ain’t nothing like a good ol’ group hug…

There is a very strong cohesive factor in sharing a festival with each other. Everyone is somewhere different to where they normally find themselves, everyone has made an effort to get there and everyone is there to have a good time. That sort of environment makes for an ideal breeding ground of friendship, mutual respect and deeper understanding. Perhaps that is the ultimate message a festival will ever carry – the message of togetherness. And for every festival I have ever attended, my life has been at least a few friendships richer. Not just for meeting up at the next big party, but for taking the whole experience of unity with us as we connect the dots of a global network of hopeful people, ready for the change and ready to be it.

 

Thank you Wide Open Space, for providing such a formidable and unassuming platform in this important movement of modern day ceremonies.

 

Keep up the good work!

 

(And get that coffee machine fixed now, ya hear me?!)

 

Come back soon for more stories from my trip to the magic rock of Uluru, where I get stuck while hitch-hiking in the desert and find myself face to face with wild dingoes and drunken ghosts at night in the streets of Alice Springs.

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. desertdates
    May 16, 2014 @ 00:00:29

    glad you had a good time in the centre!

    Reply

  2. Paul maurice
    May 25, 2014 @ 17:04:31

    Just reread your words about W O S you do write beautifully many thanks

    Reply

  3. Trackback: Love & Loathing In Alice Springs | Impromptu Immigrant
  4. Rhys
    Jul 15, 2014 @ 10:15:59

    Great post Cornelius, you capture the festival well!!

    Reply

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