Six people wake up in a Newcastle hostel. One of them is sick, another is even sicker. The whole room is listening to a pair of congested lungs slowly rise and fall, sounding as sick as one might look—puffy, swollen, sore. All of them are dead-tired. They arrived at 12.30 the night before and had to ring the manager to leave the key outside. They plan on driving back to Melbourne, 800 kilometres away, by the day’s end.
It’s David’s heavy breathing they can hear. Daniel, on the bunk above him, sits up and shoves a comb into his fro before his alarm goes off for the third time. The bunk behind him sways and Vikuman pokes his head out from under the covers, running a hand over tired eyes and a thick dark beard, unkempt and unwashed. Gabi below is still, also sick and not bearing the thought of getting up. Adrian in the bunk above me is the first to jump down, his long hair shaking against his back as he lands with a thud. The wallpaper is peeling, there are sheets for curtains, and the wall beside me is loose plaster and framework. For a long moment I look around the room, casting a lazy gaze over my friends. It goes faster every time, whenever we do something like this. Eight days have flown by and we’re headed home already. Even though a huge part of me doesn’t want to leave, I’m looking forward even to this last leg of the journey if it means the company around me.
It was wild, it was filthy, memorable and touching.
It was Splendour in the Grass.
The weather was perfect. Of all the muddy Splendour’s that have passed before, this one delivered not one drop of rain. It was luck we couldn’t believe as we finally entered the grounds late on a Thursday afternoon, dust moving in waves around the cars as they filed in. Most had travelled a long distance and our group had driven for over 24 hours, so there was electricity in the air as everyone found their place and started setting up. New neighbours greeted each other, there were excited cries, music was already thumping around us and the sound of tinnies being torn open could be heard below the ruckus. Just before we rolled in we had rendezvoused with our final member, Natalie, and finally the crew was together.
The first night is a blur. As we began what would be a four-day marination process, four of us—Gabi, Natalie, Adrian and me—ran off whilst the rest busied themselves attending to the King (David) when his long shot of gin came back for a brief and potent protest. Nothing to ruin an evening, but enough time for the four of us to slip away and go gallivanting for what felt like all night. We later calculated that the night of running around, dancing, tackling, laughing, biting holes in t-shirts (yes, we’re still not sure about that one), more dancing, and politely goading the security, lasted just over one hour. This isn’t so shocking, really. When Adrian ran up the iconic hill where festivalgoers would cross over to the amphitheatre for the next three nights, dragging Gabi behind him, the security guard gave him a stern warning.
‘Get back, or I’ll stand on my head!’
‘What?’ yelled Adrian, a tone of honesty in his voice, ‘you’ll do what?’
‘I said—I swear to god—I said I’ll stand on my head if you come up here!’
At least, this is what we think she said. I know what you might be thinking reading this: just another jumped-up piss-up. Maybe at times, yes, it is a bit of that. But it’s not all that.
The drinking might start early most days, even with a breakfast beer, but it only ramps up late in the afternoon (at least for us). The rest of those days were spent exploring, eating, rejuvenating, and getting up to whatever mischief we could. Four of us took a bus into Byron Bay, taking advantage of the unreasonably fine weather, going for a swim and some lunch. The water felt good and it was strange to be enjoying an ocean swim in the middle of winter—Melbourne would never offer that in late July. By a stroke of what you’d surely consider good luck bad communication, we ordered too many pints at the pub with lunch and ended up delivering a boisterous performance in the back row of the bus back to the festival grounds. There were two or three sniffer dogs at the gate when we returned, the only show of them I saw all weekend. Ironically all this seemed to do was produce a marijuana deficit, yet getting your hands on pills and powder (just about odourless) was very easy. So easy that it would come to your campsite in the form of a friendly salesman.
On another day Adrian and I went exploring. You can do as much shopping you like, eat whatever you want. There are times when the place resembles (or just is) an outdoor shopping centre—expensive brand clothing stores along with the thriftier outlets. We pass one guy, about the same age as us, early 20s, giving a closed-eyed talk on spirituality and creativity, long gaps in his words, others sitting and lying around in the sun and shade listening, or sleeping.
‘And now… I want you,’ he smiles, ‘to harness that… that creative spark for… it could be anything, for designing a… building or… painting portraits.’ He placed his hands together, head craning towards the sun, ‘or growing a hydroponic marijuana crop or… just being naked, free in your own skin… or rearing hamsters.’
I kid, mostly. The rest of the days were relaxed. We sat around together, others went off on their own, friends bumped into friends, and there was enough shit talking and story telling to make your eyes water. Each day was a day in the sun.
The three nights were filled with music. I finally got to head-bang to Violent Soho, to dance around with the Avalanches, old enough now for me to make my parents jealous for having seen them. I stomped in the dust to Gang of Youths, frontman Dave Leaupepe letting us know that he too is afraid of the world. I hummed along to the DMAs on the hillside and swayed and jumped to the Strokes and let go to SnakeHips. These experiences to me were tiers of excitement, of synergy, even a feeling of spirituality and connection that music breeds and imbibes.
‘This is what I love about music,’ Daniel tells me one night. ‘No matter what you do, who you are, it lets you be yourself, to let loose.’
This is one reason why 32,000 people came together: love of sound. And all the while, by my side, are my friends. Sigur Rós, my most anticipated act, played the last show I saw. Adrian and I wasted no time getting there early, knowing we were in for something not often seen. As I stood and listened to the most ethereal, superb sound I’ve ever heard live, I was struck deep and hard. It reminded me, made me feel great heights and deep lows, put sweet and sombre pictures in my mind, and sent tears down my face. I couldn’t turn away. There’s a photo of me, teary eyed, Natalie under my arm, Adrian beside her, and I’m smiling. This is another reason: love of love. As we, a motley bunch of friends, gathered again, we embraced.
This was one moment among many when we felt especially close to one another. These moments spread over the weekend—as we danced together under the stars, as we drank and sang at camp, as we dove into water, as we burst with the giggles and howled with laughter, as we screamed for more from the stage, as we walked together early in the morning, in the middle of the day, in the dust and dusk. One scene represents many: Daniel might be giving an impromptu DJ set out of Vikuman’s car, Adrian is snapping photos of us all, Natalie and Gabi are laughing as Dave delivers a comedic routine and Vikuman is revelling in us all, pouring drinks. I stand amongst it, look up at the blue sky and bleeding clouds, and I am happy.
All good things must come to an end, so they say and insist, and although many of us talk about the urge to stay forever, I dare say it would become rather tiresome. What would the 275th trip to the drop toilet feel like? What would the 854th night sleeping on a thin, damp mat be like? Surely scurvy would settle in. Could you dance for that long? Maybe, maybe not. And this is not to mention the environmental degradation such a high-octane concentration of humans can cause. That all being said, just a little while longer in the field with my friends would’ve been good. Couldn’t we stay, I wondered, just a little while longer?
No. The splendour was just a pause in the day-to-day. It’s back to university, back to work—normal things, expected things. Yet I’m sitting here at my desk, the post-Splendour blues still rolling around in me, and all I can do is think back.
We arrive home that night, earlier than expected. We made good time and the drive was easy. We are tired and sick (another typical post-Splendour symptom) but even this, this last piece of the journey, I had enjoyed. It’s almost nasty to be surrounded by your beloved friends for so long to then be suddenly alone, driving late at night, having dropped the last one off home. It’s lonesome, crawling back into your own bed, no one beside you, no one close by to call out to for a joke, no one to whisper to for a hearty giggle.
The festival experience might be thrown around as simple youthful excess, maybe even something to be laughed at, ridiculed. But who could care less? It’s memorable, and this is what you’re paying for. Music, for any one person, is saturated with associations, and these memories are for each of us now in the music we heard and will keep listening to. There’s the music, the attractions, the drugs, the drinking, the journey, and then there are those glorious moments, huge and small, burned into my brain like a hard love bite on my skin.