Inside the Gathering

Nelson Mail magazine feature, 7 January 1998

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Nelson Mail reporter Deirdre Mussen, 29, stayed the duration of the Gathering from last Wednesday to Friday and writes of her impressions of the 48-hour dance party.

Almost 30 years after Woodstock captivated music fans, a 1990s' rave version near Nelson is causing a comparable feeling.

Last week, many of the 8,000 partygoers credited the Gathering, a 48-hour New Year's Eve dance party, with allowing them the chance for a wild experience reminiscent of the flower power era.

Freedom to experiment in an alcohol-free environment with their appearance, behaviour and possibly drugs while surrounded by electronic pumping music in stunning scenery is a major drawcard. It attracts a sell-out crowd from all over New Zealand, becoming the largest youth festival of its type in the country.

"This is what our parents would have experienced. I never thought I'd get the chance to experience something like it. Everyone coming together so hippy and free. Words can't describe it," says 22-year-old Diddy Woodward, of Christchurch. She and her sister Lisa bought a car especially for their pilgrimage to the techno music lover's holy grail of parties.

Sited in Canaan Downs, perched high on Takaka Hill and in the midst of ancient beech forest in eerie lime karst countryside, the arduous journey there seems a crucial part of the festival's intrigue. The fact it is such a remote location means people have to go to extraordinary lengths to participate - and it's far from the society some want to escape.

Long hours waiting in traffic jams give people time to relax, socialise and start psyching up for the fun ahead. By 9pm on New Year's Eve, a two-hour hiatus in traffic forces cars to line Takaka Hill for kilometers while an ambulance evacuates a 12-year-old Takaka boy, who is drunk and may have taken drugs, back to the Motueka Medical Centre and his parents. A stuck truck also blocks the entry road. Some partygoers wait five hours to get in the gate to start the tricky drive along the 11km, one-lane, winding gravel road.

An overwhelming calm prevails, which pervades the following two days. Not a single arrest is made in the whole time, a feat the organisers put down to the lack of alcohol.

Senior Sergeant Eric Stretton of Motueka police says it is incredible that no one was fazed by both the delays and the lack of reasons why entry to the site was blocked at the beginning. Security guards scan cars for alcohol and confiscate a multitude of unwelcome beverages. The logistics of stopping drugs infiltrating is clearly impossible and police have accepted that drugs are inevitable - but police will not be on-site, unlike last year's inaugural event. [Actually they weren't there last year either - WebEd]. By 10.30pm the last stragglers pitch tents in the vast tent-city, preparing to join the party that began midday December 31.

The reasons people are there vary - and not just to dance - and the event has a charged atmosphere as electric as the 110,000 kilowatts feeding hundreds of music speakers.

It's a stunning site - full of deep craters where water has eroded the earth, rocky outcrops, old tree stumps and surrounded by bush-covered hills, all adding to an other-wordly experience. DJs rev up the tunes in various areas. Three marquees are home to hard core, house and drum'n'bass/dub/hip hop/reggae. A huge sinkhole contains more peaceful ambient music and is dotted with bamboo huts, a mirror disco ball flashing lights in nearby trees and Asian-style illuminated paintings. The tribal zone is thumping along nearer tents, and the main area - the trance/techno zone - is packed with people writhing to the rhythms, lights flashing hypnotically.

At midnight a huge cry goes up, fireworks explode high above the crowd and the music picks up tempo. None of the usual mass kissing goes on - everyone continues dancing their hardest in the squeeze, often alone. People are having fun and most don't seem to be depending on drugs for an awesome time.

The booming electronic music vibrates deep inside you, unleashing a sense of drug-free euphoria which the Gathering's organisers want young people to feel. It almost makes you feel drugged - your body takes on a will of its own, synchronising with the thudding tones. "You don't need drugs to get that feeling. It's amazing to see young people out dancing freely, expressing themselves in broad daylight. It takes a lot to do that but here it's a safe environment to do so," one of the organisers, Jose Cachemaille, says.

Amanda Spiers, 26, of Christchurch, agrees and says her self-confidence is getting a real boost. "I'm going to go away from here feeling it has probably changed my life. I just feel a lot more positive, it's a real nurturing place," she says. "Before I came here I really wasn't feeling that great."

While the smell of marijuana swirls in the air, it seems no more than your average night on the town - but I suspect the more easily hidden tablets are there, just less easy to detect. Red Cross unit leader Mike Price reckons the control of alcohol and drugs is less stringent than last year but organisers defend that and say the crowd has doubled since then, which means a proportional increase.

Nelson Mail magazine feature, 7 January 1998

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However, Mr Price praises the organisers' structure to deal with problems, in particular the alternative health area. He ends up using it himself for some stress relief during the exhausting hours he spends patching people up. The alternative health area, set up especially to deal with people having bad experiences (personal, stress or drug-related) deals with about 40 people during the event.

All the Gathering staff are briefed to be on the look-out for people having difficulties so they can guide them to the safety area. It boasts trained crisis and drug counsellors, natural therapists, anger management and a psychiatric nurse. Alternative therapist Graeme Clement says drug use is in the minority - organisers estimate about 90 percent are drug-free - although at times the five staff are stretched.

The initiative to have help on site is very important to the organisers. Ms Cachemaille says they are very anti-drugs and don't support their use at all but recognise youth culture and drugs go hand in hand. She promotes harm reduction rather than just saying "don't take drugs" to ensure the risks are minimised for those who have already made their minds up. Giving young people information on drugs, the dangers and ways to stay safe can also stop some people deciding to take drugs, she says. A pamphlet on how to use LSD safely is handed out at the Gathering.

She blames poor future prospects, in particular unemployment, that forces young New Zealanders to seek refuge in mind-altering substances. "They really want to get out of it to get away from the reality of life here at the moment." Dance parties or raves give young people space to be themselves and the organisers worked hard to make it a safe place for that, she says. Making the event alcohol-free is crucial in the event's success because drunk people can become aggressive.

Some learn the hard way how unpredictable drugs are - an avoidable situation Ms Cachemaille says harm reduction targets. One 24-year-old woman is visibly shaken and verging on tears as she recounts her petrifying first experience tripping on LSD. "I couldn't see, I couldn't control my movements - I lost control of everything. It was a total nightmare," she says. She planned to use the Gathering as a spot to try acid but says she will never repeat the experience.

Other than marijuana, LSD - acid - is probably one of the most common things here, but others Mr Clement says are around include the designer drug ecstasy, magic mushrooms and speed (amphetamines). Even the hallucinogenics cactus and datura make the odd appearance, he says, although I couldn't see any of it.

Tattoos and body-piercing are in - a mobile tattooist at the event is kept busy and temporary tattoos appear on the bodies of those keen to breifly change their image. Fluorescent clothes, paint and stickers look amazing at night, illuminated by flashing lights, while glitter, coloured hair, see-through dresses and tiny tops are popular. Beads and floral clothes - a remnant of the 1960s - and just about any clothes style imaginable are about, making it a very colourful place.

On New Year's Day morning the dance floors are sparse - a few are struggling to stay upright but most have collapsed in their tents, vans, house trucks or under the stars, huddling to keep warm because the mercury plunges at night. Some recharge at the multitude of food tents - cosmic chapatis, espresso coffees, bagels, berries and cream and Hare Krishna food, to name but a few of the tempting treats on offer. Vitamin drinks are the rage - people sipping on cans of Red Bull rather than beer is a curious site.

During the hot sunny day, people wander around the enormous area, meet old friends, absorbing the atmosphere, checking out the clothes stalls or massage tents. The music pumps on but only small numbers take the time to carry on dancing. The ambient "chill zone" is popular during the day. People sleep on its crater slopes, the slow music wafting around, relaxing minds and bodies.

"It was the best New Year's I have ever had," says Dunedin 18-year-old Lucina Mason. Her four Otago University friends emphatically agree: "Tha Gathering goes off".

The 60 port-a-loos are taking a real hammering - the only complaint I heard. There are a few children around but parents say it is no hassle at all. "Heaps of people offer to help us, which makes it really easy for us. It's fun," Nathan Murray of Auckland says. His 20-month-old daughter Isabel is being entertained by several bubble blowers playing with her.

By 3pm on New Year's Day the word is out that there is a small waterfall and pool to splash in nearby. The thought of washing sweat and grime off appeals to many and swarms of people take turns plunging into the muddy pool, keen to perk up for the night dancing. By evening, the dance floors fill up again but less than New Year's Eve. Some people even have earplugs in to protect themselves from the huge speakers surrounding the dance areas.

The next day, people start packing up early, keen to miss the crush of traffic. Some stay on dancing, desperate to get the most from their time in the unusual place. There is a tangible feeling of reluctance to voyage out into life again but the end is nigh. New and old friends talk about next year's Gathering and whether they will meet again.

Ms Cachemaille says the organisers are considering having it at Canaan Downs again, after earlier saying they must move from there because of the difficult road access. "We do love having it there but new strategies will have to be worked out if that is to happen." One possibility is having an on-site field hospital in case of any emergencies, she says.

One organiser, Grant Smithies, says it is important for Nelson to have such a culturally significant event for youth and many people have contacted the organsers pleading for it to stay at Canaan Downs. Debriefings will be held over the next month to see if it is possible to return to Canaan Downs. Discussions will also be held with Motueka and Takaka communities, police and Transit New Zealand to see if a resolution can be found.

Such a massive event took months of preparation by the four organisers and about 400 staff employed to help. The challenge of getting to where it is definitely is part of the experience and relocation to some easily reached site could steal some of its magic.

Deirdre Mussen, Nelson Mail magazine feature, 7 January 1998

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