Published March 3rd 2016
Having recently returned from Rainbow Serpent Festival, I feel compelled to share the best and the not so best bits of this stupendous event.
Ordinarily the festival is held over Australia Day weekend and is located near the Victorian towns of Beaufort and Lexton. Next year will be the festivals nineteenth.
Rainbow is predominantly a festival of electronic dance music, arts and lifestyle. Not a singular lifestyle, though that might be interesting. Why not set lifestyle rather than costume themes? Force everybody who attends to adhere to a chosen form of living. Might I suggest ‘The Amish’ for a trial run. We’d all be in bed by 10 pm, then up at 4 am to milk the chickens and plough the hedgerows (it’s true I didn’t grow up in a rural setting).
Whilst the festival’s roots are ‘bush doof,’ it’s come a long way in the last two decades. In 2009, the playground tent was introduced, offering up credible live bands as a welcome alternative to the dominant repetitive beats. The fiasco tent appeared last year (I think), and the acts that perform in this ‘little top’ are of a circus and cabaret variety. There’s a solar-powered Luna cinema, a village that consists of yoga, meditation and presentation areas, a sacred indigenous zone and a sweat lodge.
Without a doubt the most impressive aspect of the festival is its atmosphere and the vast majority of patrons adhere to the ethos upon which it has been built. A strong sense of unity and respect (mostly) prevails.
The music, in all its forms, is generally of an incredibly high standard. Performers are international and homegrown and this year some fella called Digweed headlined. With a name like that, he could have been booked to give a talk at the Permaculture Centre. But the true purpose of his presence was to play danceable beats to the adoring masses.
There’s always a great mix of people here too. The young and old were present and incorrect. The older ravers tried to prove that age is a state of mind, whilst ignoring evidence of waistline and bum expansion, plus deterioration of hairlines and basic faculties. I don’t know what the young were trying to prove because I’m not one of them, and when I asked them I couldn’t understand what they’d said.
The musical highlight for me was a band called The Seven Ups. These white Melbourne kids played brass driven funk witchcraft – Bootsy Collins and George Clinton would be impressed. I couldn’t take my eyes off the drummer, he was incredible. Other notables included The Opiuo Band from New Zealand. A genre-bending live/electronic unit that opened proceedings on the main stage on Saturday.
The main stage is open for one night, and one night only. I’m not going to attempt to put into words the incredible visual and sensory experience of the lights, sound, fire, and 3D holograms (I think that’s what they were), because words wouldn’t come close. The only way to experience the spectacle is to see it, hear it, feel it and smell it for yourselves.
Despite its incredible-ness we quickly became accustomed and went in search of something better. That’s just human nature. This desire led us into a cyclical zone where we went from main stage to market stage, to chill stage, to playground tent, to food stall, to market stage, to coffee stall and back to main stage. We danced, danced, chilled, danced, ate, danced, drank coffee, danced then collapsed.
Eating at Rainbow is one aspect I most look forward too. Meals are priced between ten and fifteen bucks and the pizzas at Elfik’s are fabulous, traditional and thin wood fired bases with vegetarian toppings. The psybus makes a wicked breakfast quesadilla. There’s a host of coffee outlets which mostly charged five bucks for a coffee with milk and four without. There’s also Mexican, Asian, Indian, burgers, chips, smoothies, churros, crepes and a Hare Krishna food tent. It’s a feast of food from around the globe.
Sunday for me was mostly spent loitering around the playground tent, due to my love of dub reggae. Jessie I and his little beardy friend did a great roots reggae set, though I felt compelled to run away when they began playing dancehall. I dislike dancehall immensely. For me it’s an inferior form of reggae, partly designed to enable men to touch (or at least gawk at) women.
Traditionally we pack up on Monday morning because we’re a bit ‘over it.’ This year was no different. My brain could no longer cope with the incessant dance music, the smell and the constant mess. The only time the music stopped during the whole event was for the opening ceremony, which took place at about six pm on Saturday evening. This small window of calm amongst a banging storm was most welcome, offering an opportunity to slow down, sit and chat or perhaps sleep well. My partner greatly values the endurance aspect of the event, though she grows tired of it too.
From the outside, the festival appears to be extremely well organised. Each year new initiatives are introduced to improve the experience and lessen the impact on both the punter and the environment. We queued for two hours to get in last year, this year it took about thirty minutes.
To reduce the amount of cars attending a shuttle bus runs from Beaufort station. This seems like a fine idea, but consider the basics you need for a five-day festival. For starters there’s the tent, mats, tarp, water, bedding, McVities Digestives and costumes. Plenty bring sofas, real and inflatable, then leave them behind-presumably for the sheep to sit on whilst watching T.V.
Unfortunately you don’t get Sherpas with your shuttle bus ticket. The system works nicely for people who fill their cars then realize there’s no space left for passengers. We were only four bananas and a blow up Morrissey away from that scenario. It also works brilliantly for people that don’t have cars. The organisers expected three hundred to use the shuttle bus this year, a five hundred percent increase on last year.
Now for some shadows. Firstly let’s talk rubbish. Yes there’s a great recycling program and lots of signs that inform us that, whilst recycling is great, not creating waste is better. I applaud the effort, but fail to see how they can convince people that don’t use bins to not create waste. I’m consistently shocked by the disregard people have for this beautiful landscape. If the trash fairies didn’t pick up after the trashed ravers the site would resemble a landfill.
There are issues with drugs too. Nitrous oxide is nearly three hundred times more polluting than carbon dioxide. The organisers of Rainbow have repeatedly asked patrons to refrain from bringing Nitrous Oxide Gas (hippy crack), yet the site was covered in small NOS canisters. Others brought larger canisters (but not on the shuttle bus) to fill balloons. This is pure noise pollution, which seems odd for me to comment on this given the music is playing 24/7. But after a couple of nights of hearing balloons being inflated (every thirty seconds), I wanted to suggest the NOS users dispose of their canisters as one would a suppository. Not just the little canisters either.
I’m not the only one that has a few issues. The Ballarat Courier have reported that the police are becoming increasingly weary of the challenges they face at Rainbow and are unhappy with the number of drug-related offenses. Forty drivers were caught under the influence of various substances, which is incomprehensible. Drug testing is available on site to make sure individuals are safe to drive before they climb behind the wheel and risk their own and others lives. The police also reported four sexual assaults.
The Ambulance/paramedic services are a bit fed up too. They treated around nine hundred people over the course of the festival. Most of those were for minor incidents like soft tissue damage, dehydration, sunburn and disco fever, and inevitably there were some drug and alcohol related treatments. Some of those patients even exhibited aggressive behaviour toward medical personnel. The festival organizers say that only around five percent of the medical treatments were drug related and argue that these kinds of problems exist within normal society, not just at festivals. I take their point and I imagine that the police and paramedics also feel ‘weary’ after a Friday or Saturday night in the city. Yet I haven’t heard them talk about withdrawing their support from the pubs, clubs, bars and restaurants.
These kinds of issues between the police and festivals have always existed. It’s a real clash of cultures after all. I’d like to see the patrons of festivals take more responsibility, and so would the organisers. The Rainbow website says ‘it hopes that we’ve noticed the increased health and safety messages encouraging everyone to be looking after each other during the event,’ but I’m afraid I didn’t. I’ve seen signs about creating no waste and signs about not bringing NOS canisters, both of which were ignored by a large number of attendees.
But I’m going to heed their call. Each one of us should be an integral part of what occurs at Rainbow. The next time I see someone being disrespectful, I’m going to tell them to pull their head in. Will I get punched in the face or applauded? I’ll let you know next year, if it hasn’t been shut down by then.