Summer of my disco-tent

Nelson Mail, 12 January 2002

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The Gathering dance party held in Golden Bay has had an attraction for Nelson Mail reporter Dave Williams for many years. He gives his account of finally getting there.

Driving through the checkpoints to get into the Gathering is a pleasant experience. All the security people wave and grin at you, and it's heart-warming.

The scenery is beautiful. The Arthur Range stretches off to the left and the rest of Kahurangi National Park lies in the sun. The Takaka River flows alongside the road up the Cobb Valley, inviting swimmers to escape the afternoon heat.

When it's not a picturesque New Year dance party site, the area is a dairy farm. I tested the bottom of the work car out on the uneven paddock and pitched my tent on a cowpat.

I had always wanted to go to the Gathering, because I was once in love with a flatmate who goes every year. I stayed in Wellington and got drunk. If my flatmate went to the Gathering and loved it, logic said that it must be a bloody good thing.

So I jumped at the opportunity to go to the Gathering for work. I knew I would be out of place at the alcohol-free shindig: I am not in my 20s any more (now 32), I don't know the music (I still think Dunedin bands are the best), and I knew I would be dying for a drink after just two days.

I had prepared myself by purchasing a CD by the headline act, John Digweed, voted the best DJ on the planet by British dance fans. I never got around to listening to the whole thing, because I found it boring.

On the second night, I stayed up until 5am in the hope of getting an interview with Digweed - in an odd way, I was relieved it never happened. God knows what I would have asked him.

So there I was, trying to see what everyone was raving about and looking forward to the good times.

But I hated it. The music was grating and the people too young, beautiful and cool. And I was working.

Most people seemed to be on some sort of stimulant - and if they weren't, they were pretending to be. There was the occasional smell of cannabis in the air, but it must have been something else that was making them dance like that.

I had signed a form for my media pass. I then read the form, which was actually a contract that said I was not to write anything that portrayed the Gathering in an "unfavourable way".

The organisers are sensitive about the drugs thing, after a Nelson Mail poll last year said 93 out of 100 partygoers claimed to have taken party drugs while at the Gathering.

Despite the contract, I was hauled aside by the media liaison person because someone was upset about a story I wrote about a bloke testing people's pills.

The Gathering's organisers say they do not condone the use of party drugs but that it is the partygoer's choice.

I had chosen not to. I tried ecstasy once, at a club about three years ago. I briefly appreciated the music - I danced like a lunatic for about five minutes - and then it all went wrong. The back of my head fell off in a blaze of skyrockets and sparklers. I believed my trousers were sealed at the bottom and I had soiled myself up to my belt (I hadn't, but that's what it felt like). The 10-minute walk home was the longest two hours of my life, and I have never taken another pill since.

So, I had to listen to the music in the dance zones with a sober, straight ear. There were eight dance zones playing different kinds of dance music - I struggled to differentiate most of it. The ambient zone was okay - the mellow sound of whales and electronic bits.

More acoustic sounds could be heard in the G-Spot marquee but the interesting sights were in the main dance zones.

The campground was about half an hour's walk from the dance zones, but this was not too onerous. For $2, I could have taken the bus.

The road along the valley gave every clapped-out jalopy a new lease of life. Some of the vehicles would have been happy in a landfill.

Throughout the Gathering, the ticket holders wear wristbands and troop away from the dance zones like zombies.

In the campground, more dance music is being played but there are also familiar sounds coming from campers' stereos, such as Crowded House and even Bob Dylan.

However, I can't whinge about the music all day. The atmosphere was pretty good.

Apparently, the kind of people going to the Gathering changed this year. But people still smiled and said hello. Even beautiful young women who don't like wearing much were there, and some of them smiled too. This would have been worth the ticket price ($130 to $160) alone.

I enjoyed the swim in the river on a sweltering New Year's Day. At the food stalls, the sushi was delicious and the coffee was good.

The punters seemed to be having a good time. There was the odd family with toddlers and older people, but most of the faces were young.

Late on New Year's Day, a man in his late 30s - bare-chested, wearing just black running shorts and a backpack - ran around the periphery of the trance zone. He looked like he was going for a run. He then stopped and started dancing. He should have known better. Anywhere else he would have been labelled a prat, but no one minded and he was slowly surrounded by other dancers.

The great thing about the Gathering is that there is no underlying hint of violence. There were no groups of blokes acting staunch, no drunks making fools of themselves. Women wandered around by themselves on a dark night without nervousness, and there were thousands of grinning faces.

I met up with a friend on New Year's Day. She had been up all night and was now sitting under a tree talking about how wonderful she felt.

She said there had been a "classic e-experience" when she bumped into her flatmates and they hugged. Urghhh.

She sympathised with me that I was working and not having a good time.

I had bought a packet of cigarettes and smoked them over the three days I was there, because I needed something to do with my hands without a glass to hold. That undid three months of good work giving up the fags, but it made sense at the time.

My old flatmate was there again - I'm not in love with her any more, and now I also know that the Gathering is not for me. I am glad to have discovered these things.

I spent the previous New Year's Eve in Westport, where I had a nice long bath - I might try that again.


Caption: Photo PATRICK HAMILTON PUMP IT UP: Brigette Older of Nelson in the Hardcore Zone at the Gathering on New Year's Eve. Photo PATRICK HAMILTON New Year's Eve

Dave Williams, Nelson Mail, 12 January 2002

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