Odyssey ON the beach: Splore music and arts festival 2016

The crowd goes wild and free. PHOTO: Splore.

The crowd goes wild and free. PHOTO: Splore.

ONmag’s ANNABEL WILSON gets whisked away to a far flung bay on a journey of discovery at Splore 2016.

Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow… the first music I hear upon arrival at Splore 2016 is Fleetwood Mac‘s song sung exuberantly out a car window. Belted out by the guy driving ahead as we entered the campsite, the lines are an apt precursor to the three-day escapade I was about to embark on. From February 19 – 21, around 7500 attendees came together to celebrate life within the welcoming arms of Tapapakanga Park, home to what many call the best boutique festival in the world. As the Festival Director John Minty explained from the stage at the end of the event, “Splore is not just about the music”. It’s so much more than that.

The magic of Splore is the place, the people and its vision for opening up a world of possibilities. The event’s kaupapa emphasises sustainability, education and community. This means that being part of it feels like you’re briefly part of a utopian society by the sea. For a short while, we shrugged off convention in pursuit of an extraordinary, immersive experience. Whether dancing in the ocean to a new favourite band, watching circus acts from the boughs of a 100 year old pohutukawa or hula-hooping under the stars, Splore delivers a plethora of unforgettable memories. Memories which will remain long after dusting off the glitter and grime. Snapshots of a brief flirtation of what life could be like in paradise.

Every year, the organisers think hard about the theming of the event. Last time I attended, the theme was Love. In 2015, it was Home. This year, the theme was A Summer Odyssey. This was a broadly interpreted concept, lending itself to multiple readings. From the wrist bands given at the gate to the decorations linking each zone and the re-usable ‘globelets‘  issued at the bars, the idea of the odyssey rippled through the many facets of the festival, making the weekend adventure even more special. People dressed up as either Blastonauts, Odd-yssians or Exsplorers, personas provided from the mind of Performance Director Emma Herbert Vickers.

The event is a journey on a number of levels. Here’s my take on how they can be defined.

Love letters straight from the heart. PHOTO: ONmag.

Love letters straight from the heart. PHOTO: ONmag.

Splore is … a personal journey.

Everyone’s Splore is different. There is just so much to see and do, it pays to be flexible and go with the flow. Losing your friends and making new ones is all part of it. My journey started when I hopped onto the Splore Rideshare page and nabbed a lift with a kind person who picked me up from the airport, hung out at the event, and dropped me at my door afterwards. That’s the kind of goodwill that radiates through Splore. Getting to know each other on the one hour drive from Auckland, we chilled out in the traffic jam on the way in, had a ‘carty’ (car party) and chatted with Exsplorers who had evacuated their vehicles to stretch their legs. So from the get-go I made a new buddy who I partied with intermittently over the three days.

Setting up for a jousting match. PHOTO: ONmag.

Setting up for a jousting match. PHOTO: ONmag.

Coming away with a snaffle of grand times along with a healthy dose of inspiration is what Splore promises every open-minded individual who attends. I shared some wonderful moments on a boat called The Flying Carpet with my hometown crew, listening to the music waft across the waves from the main stage. I befriended a fake safety officer who sported a high-vis vest and a wizard stick. On the banks of the bay, we made up a spell then boogied down to the throbbing wonky DnB offbeat swing of The Correspondents. I had an impromptu spoken word session on the branches of an ancient pohutukawa which we named of course, the Poet Tree. I hugged strangers, sent notes to secret crushes at the Love Office, destroyed footwear, dined on Turkish gözleme, churros and Waiheke Island wood-fired pizza. I stumbled across the Show Me Shorts film showcase on my way back to my tent. I saw a paddle-boarding jousting match, a troupe of roving acrobats and 25 people floating on a giant gym mat. I swam, laughed, imbibed, wandered and danced. Other people’s stories will be different, but we probably crossed paths at some point and we all have a tall tale or two to tell about Splore.

Lady Emma Herbert Vickers and fellow performer. PHOTO: ONmag.

Performance Director Lady Emma Herbert Vickers and Ramana Harknett of the Cuda Sisters. PHOTO: ONmag.

Splore is … a journey through time.

The festival takes place on the ancestral lands of Ngati Whanaugna and Ngati Paoa. A reverence and respect for the first people to inhabit the site is felt throughout the event. Lining up for tickets, iwi were issued their passes first – “Are you iwi? Come through!” A moving powhiri by tangata whenua added their blessing for the weekend, traditionally acknowledging the iwi’s taonga and ancestors, the ethos of Splore, welcoming guests and kicking off festivities in an appropriate manner.

As well as honouring the site’s heritage, Splore looks to the future by imbuing a culture of sustainability into its ethos. A leading member of the Sustainable Business Network, it was awarded the ‘International Greener Festival Award‘ in 2013, a first and only for a New Zealand festival. The #LeaveNoTrace recycling hubs were manned by schooled-up volunteers and Zero Waste experts who were quick to educate attendees about reading the code on their rubbish to find out if it was recyclable or not. This is how I learnt that biodegradable straws exist, and glo-sticks are truly evil. With an aim to divert 85% of waste from landfill, all vendors dished out their wares on compostable serveware and signage prompted responsibility, reminding campers ‘There Is No Away’. 

The Dub Pistols enthralled. PHOTO: Splore.

The Dub Pistols enthralled. PHOTO: Splore.

Splore is … a musical journey.

Every year, Minty heads to niche festivals overseas on a mission to spot hot new talent in order to curate an eclectic line up. He’s particular about seeing acts live before signing them up for a slot. Some of these acts (like Weird Together) come back year after year. On stage, a recurring sentiment from the performers was just how awesome Splore is. Hiatus Kaiyote (Melbournite future-soul gangstas and first timers to the NZ festival scene) peppered their set with shout outs to Aotearoa! and Splore Festival! with honest and heartfelt appreciation.

It’s the epic nature of the festival which means it’s now the longest running of its kind in New Zealand, and a huge drawcard for musicians. This year, 16 international acts joined over 20 Kiwi performers. Highlights included headline act Leftfield who had everyone stomping as they submitted to the sounds of hard out futuristic tech, complete with a mesmorising light show. On Saturday, Neil Barnes played a dj set, masterfully splicing kick-ass tunes that wowed the crowd like Josh Wink’s I’m Talking To You.

Other stand-outs were when Scribe’s Not Many track rocked the Sun Shack. When The Cuban Brothers dropped Poi E. The crowd chanting along to Dub Pistol’s remix of Limp Bizkit’s My Way, roused by the prancing and leaping of the ultimate showman, Barry Ashworth. Those guys really nailed it – they had the masses super amped. And they popped down to the Lucky Star for a killer spontaneous dj set around 3am Sunday.

Aroha chilling ON the beah at Splore. PHOTO: ONmag.

Aroha chilling ON the beah at Splore. PHOTO: ONmag.

Aroha and Tali bringing the beats coupled with slick MC-ing. I chatted with Aroha as we looked out over Tapapakanga Bay and she spoke about what keeps bringing her back: “The thing about Splore is… it’s more just about the vibe of the festival. And the moment we’re on the beach, people are swimming in the ocean, there’s music pumping, there are kids running around – it’s an inclusive, non-judgmental festival, which I really appreciate.”

Nightmares on Wax who sent it with his lush, bass-heavy hip hop soulful party sounds. The Correspondents‘ main man Ian Bruce whose nimble moves are matched by the duo’s swoony tunes. How does he jump about and sing like that and not get out of breath? (Plus I swear I saw him dancing to The Funk Hunters in a yeti suit later.) Oh! The Funk Hunters, who bursting over the DnB put on after the previous act exclaimed ‘We’re just four minutes twenty away..” then busted out their life-changing blend of funk-infused remixes and originals. Sunday’s distinctly dub, roots, reggae feel thanks to Dubhead and Jafa Mafia Sound System then Katchafire‘s extended set. Ideal for grooving to whilst dancing in the ocean. Phew! What talent – and my list is just a glimpse of the musical smorgasbord offered at Splore.

Disco balls in the trees. PHOTO: ONmag.

Disco balls in the trees. PHOTO: ONmag.

Splore is … a multi-sensory journey.

One of the factors that makes Splore unique is the attention paid to the art and performance. 29 artists contributed to the Odyssey of Art, creating interactive installations that reflected the theme in imaginative and innovative ways. Highlights were the Bush Disco jukebox playing beneath a kanuka tree, all the pretty lights, the plaster bed, the postcards to children, elders and Syrian refugees, and the myriad mirror balls suspended from branches. The Art Trail was a sweet spot to go for a wander, day or night.

Vickers was flown in from the UK to look after the performance aspect of the festival, and ensured the Living Lounge was vital with all manner of surprising delights on stage, from handbalancing, poi and voguing workshops to a wedding party and crazy cabaret, culminating in The Travellers’ Ball on the Saturday night. Emma’s mission this year for the Living Lounge was to make it “so it wasn’t just another stage. I wanted to make it so there was a party vibe in there where anything can happen… There’s all kinds of acts from flamenco to contortion to punk to street dance to aerial acrobatics. It’s everything and … it’s a creative vibe. Everyone that’s coming in there dresses up and adds to that vibe it becomes a little party zone of it’s own. It’s an alternative – an alternative within the alternative.” She also made sure teenagers were well catered for, with the Lagoonatics zone featuring circus skills, flow parkour and tricking workshops as well as a cool tunnel to play and hang out in.

So much love at Splore. PHOTO: ONmag.

So much love at Splore. PHOTO: ONmag.

Splore is … a mindful journey.

As much as Splore is a party, it’s also an insight into a way of life. Rolling coastal headlands, cicadas singing in the heat, blue skies overhead, and a goat track through the bush to the shallow sheltered bay and fresh water lagoon provide a natural space within which to think, deeply. Les from Bramble FM (who earnt their cult status by burning a wicker man at Glastonbury) explained “I’ve been to a lot of festivals, and I’ve never been to a festival in such a beautiful location. It’s the best location to have a lot of fun in. You can get up and go for a swim. You’re able to dance in the ocean.”

Organisers tweaked the awareness factor of the festival by presenting panels lead by Russell Brown of Hard News, an in-situ talk about the Million Metres Streams project and a series travellers’ adventures led by volunteer ‘navigators’. As well as these scheduled sessions, the park lends itself to taking time for reflection, whether under a tree, on the sand, on a rock, by a river, or in the sea.

Splore as seen from The Flying Carpet. PHOTO: ONmag.

Splore as seen from The Flying Carpet. PHOTO: ONmag.

Splore is … a communal journey.

From newborns in prams to old rockers in kaftans, Splore is a cultural event which embraces all ages. The Rumpus Room was a dedicated kids’ zone, where children could craft supercapes and mad hats, experiment with bubbles and glowing playdoh or just enjoy some time in the shade. On Saturday night, they screened Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) there, and the place was packed. Having alcoholic drinks restricted to the bar areas means the festival maintains a friendly and safe vibe at all times. The way the event is run incites a sense of togetherness that many describe as transformative. It’s what makes it so sad to leave, and urges us to return.

Floating on my back as I had my final swim in the sea after all the stages had been shut down, someone onshore played George Michael’s Careless Whisper on the sax. Reluctantly I headed back up the track, the lyrics of the last music I heard at Splore bouncing around my brain… I”m never gonna dance again / These guilty feet have got no rhythm

Blissed out, dusty and pleasantly exhausted, I resolved I’d come here again. I’ll be back to “enjoy the process” (as the fake safety officer/wizard instructed me to do) and to enjoy the journey of Splore.

  • ANNABEL WILSON

For support with previews, promotion, advertising, interviews, reviews and photography for your cool happenings and concepts, contact annabel@onmag.co.nz.

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