GETTING 8,000 PEOPLE TOGETHER 2,000 FEET ABOVE SEA LEVEL to party for three days and two nights sounds like a recipe for disaster. But when it's a dance music festival, the location is in the middle of nowhere at the top of the South Island and the weather is glorious throughout, life couldn't be better. The annual The Gathering festival of DJs and live dance bands at Canaan Downs near Takaka over New Year's Eve was the biggest - and most agree, the best - since the event began a couple of years ago.
Situated on farm land, which itself is situated on one of the most extensive networks of caves in the country, The Gathering site is a collection of clearings and natural amphitheatres which allow outdoor and tented dance zones to be set up and indulged in. Six zones (trance/techno; dub/hip-hop/drum & bass; happy/hardcore/industrial; house/funk/garage; ambient; tribal) catered to most tastes, with the outdoor trance/techno zone and tented house and drum & bass 'clubs' proving the most consistently popular.
Of course, with 100 DJs and 35 live acts - too much for even the most dedicated dancehead to take in - it's pointless singling out any one band or a handful of DJs. But with an event like The Gathering, which is like Sweetwaters without the sweathogs, it's actually the punters who make the event worthwhile. Hanging out with thousands of other campers is an incredible experience in itself. With most Gatherers coming from Wellington, the Nelson area, Christchurch and the rest of the South Island (with a healthy presence from Aucklanders) and fewer hippies than you are led to expect, The Gathering had a freshness and vitality lacking in other New Year's Eve events around the country, such as the rock fest at Paihia and the all-ages (but predominantly underage) Millennium in Auckland.
Unfortunately, The Gathering has an alcohol ban, which only encourages everyone to take drugs to compensate for the lack of 'socially acceptable' stimulants. This didn't stop a 12-year-old local who reportedly downed too much alcohol, mixed it with drugs, and almost brought about his own demise. Newspapers jumped all over the story, completely ignoring the fact that, unlike your average outdoor rock show, nobody was arrested for violent behaviour at The Gathering.
Ironically, dozens of undercover cops wandered around trying to bust nonexistent drug dealers while, not that far away, in the "quiet, tranquil, peaceful" Marlborough Sounds, two young people were being abducted.
Finally, a small word of advice to the organisers of The Gathering, who, admittedly, did a fantastic job; Pay the DJs and bands more for their time and talents. It doesn't take a mathematical genius to work out that 8,000 times $50 per ticket is a hell of a lot of money being made. You get Canaan Downs for a steal, so ensure you reward the people who actually attract the punters in the first place.
But from the punters' perspective, The Gathering is incredible value for money and easily one of the best places in the country to see in the new year. Be there (again) next year and party like it's 1999!