Over the summer I spent in Australia, I had the chance to volunteer at multiple music festivals all over the country. These are the honest stories and awesome experiences I had. Check out my other segments about my summer of festivals here: That Festival Feeling: Part II & That Festival Feeling: Part III.
I’ve always felt a higher love for music than most anything else in my life. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that music runs in my veins, in my family. My dad has been in a band since before I can remember, I used to love listening to him play Fleetwood Mac or Jackson Browne from his office. The chords muffled behind closed doors, but still so lovely to my ears, my dad never missing a beat.
Whenever we would take a drive around town, my mom and I listened to Mary Chapin Carpenter, or Mariah Carey on long or short car rides, singing together to make the time fly by. There was always music around, every day of my childhood, and I couldn’t think of a better soundtrack than the inspiration that came within those moments of connecting to my loved ones through music.
The inspiration that still bubbles to the surface when I listen to music that moves me.
I had a fondness for attending concerts throughout high school and college. When I went to my first proper music festival in Indio, CA by the name of Coachella, it opened up my eyes even more to what I want my life and possibly even my career to entail.
Since that festival feeling, I’ve considered going into music event management more than a few times, and I finally put my thoughts into action when I arrived in Australia.
Australia may not have as many of the big ticket artists that play at American festivals, but it’s a culture that puts heart and soul into the arts. In fact, there are a whole lot of festivals year around that prove exactly that.
The thing I love about Australian festivals as opposed to American festivals is that a lot of them are “touring’ festivals, as in the festival tours to different parts of the country (and even internationally), to play multiple weekends, allowing a greater number of people to attend.
Of course, in America, the festival sites are almost as iconic as the festival itself, such a Coachella in Indio, CA, and SXSW located in the music capital of the world in Austin, TX.
A couple months after I arrived in Melbourne, and before I traveled to Southeast Asia, I looked up when all the application due dates were for the festivals, and applied to as many as I could. I heard back from two within the next couple months, and a third one when I was in Asia.
I also received a volunteer spot at Laneway Festival, but unfortunately the organizers weren’t all the organized and only let me know a few days in advance, and so I wasn’t able to attend that one. Regardless, I had an amazing and adventurous summer that was filled with new experiences.
I have to admit, I’m a noob when it comes to electronic festivals. So many of my friends back home go to EDC in Vegas or Ultra in Miami every year, but I’m relatively new to the electronic bandwagon. I’m sure you noticed the bands I grew up with delve far away from the electronic genre. However, going to school in San Diego, and going to various frat parties, opened up my ears to how awesome electronic music really is and how versatile it has become in the last decade.
When I talk about being a noob at electronic festivals I also mean in terms of the drugs typically taken at said festivals. I’m not claiming to be completely innocent in terms of festival drug intake, but I think all those psychology classes on what drugs do to your brain made me pretty content to not be hopped up on substances all the time.
I understand how substances can heighten your experience of the music, and I can definitely agree with that in some cases. For me, however, and hopefully this doesn’t come off as too pretentious, I don’t feel the need to take drugs to have a good time while I’m listening to music. I feel like in a way, it actually takes away or distracts me from enjoying music the way I like. Also, I like to remember everything about my festival experiences and not just hazy bits and pieces, but that’s just me.
The only thing I can’t wrap my mind around are the people who stay at their campsite the whole weekend, neglecting to see a single act, because they’re so drugged up. I’ve met more people than you can imagine who fall into this category at festivals, and I think of it as a little sacrilege, but everyone attends festivals for different reasons, and I guess it’s not always for the music. End rant.
Most festivals involve drugs of some sort, whether that be alcohol, to anything from weed, and upwards of acid. Electronic festivals, however, are known for being a bit more hardcore, and I knew that would especially be the case at Strawberry Fields – a festival classified as an “indie electronic” rave in the Australian bush. Also known as a “doof” in Aussie slang.
Note: the reason for my drug tangent is a forewarning that there are a lot of drugs involved in this particular story – sorry parents and grandparents reading this. I include them because they are a big part of the festival scene, and especially for this festival, wouldn’t have been the same story without their presence.
Anyway, I digress. Without further ado, my Strawberry Fields anecdote.
Strawberry Fields was the most adventurous festival I volunteered myself for because a. I had never been to a purely electronic festival and b. I was going solo, and I didn’t know anyone else going.
The initial in-person meeting for the festival volunteers thankfully lined up with the one week I was back in Melbourne after traveling Southeast Asia and before moving up to Sydney.
As I started setting up my life in Sydney, and the festival date got closer, I realized how hard it was going to be to find a ride with where the festival was located. Although technically the festival is in New South Wales, along the Murray River, it is right at the border of NSW and Victoria. Meaning, only a 3 hour drive from Melbourne, and more like a 10 hour drive from Sydney. Hardly anyone volunteering at the festival was living in Sydney, which meant that my carpool options were limited.
I posted on the festival volunteer Facebook group with not much luck, until I noticed that another girl living in the Sydney area was in the same predicament. We soon contacted each other and decided if anything, we’d rent a car to make it to the festival. We were both adamant in needing to get to the festival someway or another, not only because we obviously wanted to be there, but because they charge you for the full admission price if you don’t show up for your shift.
Of course, she didn’t have a driver’s license, so it would be me driving on the opposite side of the road for the first time. Oh and did I mention, I hardly drive at all back home to begin with. Well…at least it would be an adventure.
Luckily, another guy ended up posting on the group, we’ll call him Steve. He wasn’t sure he had enough room for both of us, but would let us know. Thankfully, a couple of his friends bowed out and we both had a ride with a complete stranger. I soon found out that he is actually friends with the people who started the festival, which was pretty cool.
When the day of departure came, we decided to all meet at Central Station and leave from there. With just a couple hiccups we managed to all meet in the car, and a random guy also attending the festival joined us at the last minute to make it a full car.
Steve, as I learned, was studying to be a doctor in Newcastle, but exuded the complete opposite type of personality to most pre-med students I’ve met. He was the life of the party, and as I witnessed throughout the whole weekend, goes pretty damn hard at festivals. Within 30 minutes of hopping in his car, he offered to hook me up with some molly when we got there, which I respectfully declined as I really didn’t want to be rolling at a festival that I was going to completely on my own.
He smoked joint after joint on the long journey to get to our destination, but still managed to keep the conversation going and all of his random car guests happy in the process. I mentioned at one point that I was trying to figure out a ride back, when he promised he would find me a ride with one of his friends back to Melbourne, as he had so many going to the festival. Relieved I didn’t have to worry about that anymore, I was happy to start getting ready for the festivities.
We made one stop along the way to grab some food. It was apparently a famous spot for Aussies, he said he used to go there all the time on family road trips. His family house is right beside the festival grounds. It’s where The Dog on the Tucker Box monument is located, and to put it in his words, “about the most bogan spot you can find. ” It was very rural Australia, but I was loving it. That is, besides the enormous swarms of flies that kept trying to get into every crevice.
We eventually made it to his family house, where we were to wait until more of his friends showed up to caravan into the festival. His house was huge and had a startling gorgeous white exterior. Apparently, his dad built the house himself and it even had a pool which we all took a dip in. He graciously shared his beers to get things going, and we all got to know each other a bit more.
By the time his friends had arrived and had their own share of smokes and drinks, the sun was already setting, and we were all keen to head into the festival site to find a place to camp for the weekend.
Once inside, we spent ages trying to find where the majority of his friends were camping, but eventually realized they were on the other side of the site and made our way over. Now, it was clear that everyone in his group had pretty much grown up with each other, so it was a bit intimidating to be the rando that hitched a ride in his car, but I made sure it was okay for me to pitch my tent there anyway, and started to set up camp.
It was already completely dark by now, so it was a fun experiment trying to successfully pitch my tent. Luckily, the quiet guy that jumped into our car at the last minute saw my struggles and shined his iPhone light to help me out, and after a little while it was all set up and habitable.
With the tent behind me, we were ready to get to the festival and headed out to check out the art installments and stages. I hung around with Steve a bit and he introduced me to a few more friends, but I soon took off to explore on my own, not wanting to be a clinger.
That first night was pretty relaxed, I was taking it all in, dancing a bit, drinking a bit, and enjoying the music. The music hardly every stopped, maybe for an hour or two at 4am, but otherwise it was the constant fist pumping bass beat throughout the night. Needless to say, I hardly got a wink of sleep the whole weekend, but that’s to be expected at festivals.
The second day I spent much of the afternoon checking out more of the art, listening to more music of course, and meeting new friends. I found myself in the meditation or craft tent, I don’t remember which now, just that it had really comfy couches and bean bags in which to have easy conversation. I started talking to a 19 year old with dreads, who was a whiz of sorts with music acoustics, and volunteers at a bunch of the festivals. The girl next to him looked like she had been up for at least two days, and had more than a few different drugs in her system. Bloodshot eyes, eyeliner smeared, it was like she couldn’t stop talking, it was frenetic.
The guy next to her was stoned out of his mind, and could barely keep his eyes open. Yet he still managed to whip out his stash of coke and made four lines with his student ID card for the four of us in the circle. The girl looked at the coke greedily and rolled up a $20 dollar bill to get started. I again respectfully declined, as did the guy with the dreads. The girl laughed and said “I don’t understand how people can turn down free drugs, well more for me”. I watched her snort all three lines and run off into the distance, yelling something I never heard.
The guy with the dreads and I kept chatting until I excused myself awhile later to check out some more DJs. The vibes and the acoustics coming from each stage were incredible.
That night I had a grand time at the main dance tent. Dancing by myself, I ran into a few of the guys from our camp, but I soon lost them in the craziness. I shrugged, and made my way to the front of the stage. The music was so loud, it was vibrating through my whole body, I couldn’t think of anything else accept the constant beat and how awesome it was to dance to.
The guy in front of me, clearly having a good time, stumbled a bit and ran into me. He apologized profusely and started dancing with his friends, but kept making side glances back at me. He eventually took a step back and struck up a conversation with me. When he found out I was American, he couldn’t believe it. He thought it was the coolest thing in the world, and how crazy was it that the one girl he runs into is from California!
He was from Melbourne and seemed funny and cute, and strangely reminded me a bit of a guy I was dating before I left San Diego, except with an Australian accent. Anyway, we started dancing for awhile until he grabbed my hand and said he wanted to buy me a drink. I told him I was fine with just a beer, but he said he wanted to get me something “nice”, and led me over the cocktail booth.
We sipped our sweet yet surprisingly strong cocktails and made our way back to the dance floor. And that’s where things got weird. He suddenly became much more forward and kept leaning in close to whisper in my ear. He started kissing my neck, and that’s when he started biting me. And no, I’m not talking about sweet little nibbles, or even a hickey status suck, he was actually biting my neck. As in, I’m surprised he didn’t break the skin or find an artery, he was actually a vampire, it was that painful. And he kept doing it, I kept trying to pull him away and just dance, albeit a little further away now, but he kept grabbing me and trying to bite me.
I lied and said I had to go find my friends who disappeared on me, I could tell by now he was so out of it, he couldn’t see through my lie and squeezed my hand and told me to come back to him. I decided to call it a night and crashed in my tent, my neck still stinging painfully every time I touched it.
Of course I managed to run into him multiple times the next day, but we pretended like we didn’t know each other, or maybe he really didn’t remember, he was so gone.
The third day was my volunteer day. I was on “green duty”, which basically meant picking up trash and recycling, and it was the 8am shift. It had been searing hot and so incredibly dusty the whole festival, and that day felt like it had raised even higher in humidity and temperature, regardless of how early it was in the day.
I accepted my trash bag, and picked up trash and recycling for an hour and a half, at which time we had a little break, so we could get out of the heat. No one in the group was very talkative, and they clearly didn’t want to be doing their shift when they could be partying, and we were all dying from heat, so no one said anything much to each other. I do have to note, it was the most antisocial group I volunteered with out of all the festivals.
During my break, sweating profusely, I went to lay down in my tent. I noticed that most of the group from the campsite was hanging out under the canopy so I went to go join them. When I sat down, one of the girls offered me a balloon, she was dressed in ridiculously cool face paint and a Pocahontas get up. I hilariously thought she was just handing me a balloon, not realizing that it’s a popular thing at electronic festivals to do “hippie crack”.
One by one everyone in the group inhaled nitrous oxide through the balloon, and laid down on the ground to let the high take over. I let my balloon deflate by my side, hoping no one would notice, as they all sat up again. I soon left for the rest of my shift, a bit embarrassed and realizing how out of the loop I am with some of the festival drugs out there. Whoops.
I had another 1 1/2 hours to endure of trash duty, but as soon as I was done, I hightailed it back to my tent, drank a lot of water, and ran out to enjoy the last of the festival. When late afternoon hit, I made my way back to my tent to start packing. The ride Steve promised me, was from an Aussie guy I met the first day, who immediately took a disliking to me when I told him I was American. He tried to ignore me at all costs when I was hanging with the group, and made it pretty clear I wasn’t welcome.
However, it was my only option for a ride and I was desperate, so I was to go back to Melbourne with him and his girlfriend around 4pm when most people were leaving or had already left the festival site. At 3:30pm he comes up to my tent, and says in a condescending tone, “look, we’re not going to take you back to Melbourne. We want to spend the night half way there with some friends…so sorry about that.” I was just gaping at him not believing, that he was actually bailing on me 30 minutes before he was supposed to take me back.
All I could manage to say is “cool, well hopefully I can find a ride back.”. He went off on a rant about how many times he had hitchhiked back from the festival in the past. Keep in mind, he’s a burly 6’5 Aussie dude, it’s a little different for him to hitchhike, but I didn’t say anything, just watched him drive off in his pickup truck with his girlfriend.
Almost the rest of the camp had already dismantled by now, the few that were left behind already had full cars. I was stranded and knew that I had to hitchhike, something I’ve only done once, but never by myself.
I went to the info desk for one last check to see if anyone had posted anything about a carpool back to Melbourne. There was nothing.
I walked all the way to the entrance of the festival, a good mile or two, with all of my camping gear. The security guy at the gate wasn’t happy with me waiting there and told me I needed to find a ride asap. I flagged down the first car wishing for the best, and they thankfully had one spot left. I was just hoping for a ride to the little town near the festival, where I would take the train to Melbourne, and catch my flight in a couple days, but they insisted on giving me a ride the whole way.
They were an unbelievably nice group of people, something I really needed at that moment. All from the UK, all living in Australia either permanently or on work visas, all in their late 20s. They said they could drop me off at Southern Cross Station, which I was more than happy with, I would just take the tram to Richmond where I was staying with some friends for the night. But once we got into town, the guy drove all the way to Richmond anyway, and refused to let me help pay for gas. They wished me luck on my journey as I hopped out of the car, and I felt so grateful to have found such kindness in three complete strangers.
I had one day in Melbourne to catch up with friends and hit my favorite spots and eateries, and left early for the airport the next morning. Flying away from my beloved Melbourne, I remembered my favorite memories from the 4 1/2 months I lived there, as it grew into a tiny dot in the distance.
Here’s some footage from the year I went on the festival’s FB page to give you an idea of the festival:
[vimeo 81794998 w=500 h=281]