Going down the rabbit hole

A few weeks ago (from the 26th-28th of Feb – which I guess actually makes it only two weeks) I was fortunate enough to get to run off to Secret Garden, an annual music festival held just out of Sydney. I wasn’t planning on blogging about this initially (which you can probably tell given that I’m writing about this 10 days after it actually happened) but everyone’s been asking me about it and I don’t feel like my responses really do it justice. Secret Garden is my favourite festival in the world, bar none, and I wanted to adequately capture just what makes it so incredibly amazing.

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To start with, it’s not just a music festival, it’s a music and arts festival. I realise this doesn’t sound that special these days because there are so many ‘music and arts’ festivals – Falls, Splendour, Subsonic, etc – but they just don’t compare. I mean all of these festivals are mainly about music, and then there’s art on the side which you can participate in if you want to.

Secret Garden, on the other hand, just create this whole other world for you to play in. The music is actually kind of secondary to the whole experience – which, just to clarify, does not mean that the music isn’t top notch, with past lineups featuring the likes of Andy Bull, The Rubens, Richard In Your Mind, Stereogamous and The Griswolds. Even with artists of that calibre though, the music is not the best thing about the festival.

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You see, Secret Garden is held on a private property near Cobbity, and they spend ages before the festival putting the space together. Just imagine this – expansive, grassy fields and lushly wooded areas deep out in the countryside with clean air and nobody else near by – but still just about an hour and a half out of Sydney.

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And when you get there it’s magical. A rustic wooden arch beckons you through, down winding paths amongst the woods, all decorated with pretty lights and whimsical paraphernalia like a canopy of upside down umbrellas or, another year, hanging bags of fish and giant green sequinned dildos. There are hidden nooks everywhere, where you can write postcards (which they actually post for you), play pool, or lounge around on bales of hay, people watching and making strange sounds through a modded megaphone.

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Along one path is Valhalla, where Vikings sit around a feast and fight and you trade tales of how you died and what kind of life you lived. Along another is ‘The Wedding Factory’, where the brides and grooms think up sweet, ridiculous vows and everyone else participates completely solemnly, some shedding tears for the newly weds, others celebrating joyously.

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In yet another space, some actors put on the tale of a spurned mermaid and her errant human lover, which ends with the ‘lover’ performing a strip tease with a dildo. At the corner of one of the fields is a kissing booth with an extensive and thorough menu – ‘eskimo’, ‘ear suck’, ‘nuzzle’ and a whole host of other options – which willing participants would hop in and out of, volunteering their time and their lips.

There’s so much more. There’s human foosball, Secret Garden Olympics, nail painting, a giant white structure that you can crawl into and around, a rave cave, a craft space, a riddle wall, body painting – and it’s all free. That’s part of what makes Secret Garden so lovely, you don’t go around getting convinced to buy things at stalls, it’s just all one immersive experience full of delight and cool little surprises – and it’s completely non-commercial.

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Where else can you get a festival like that? I don’t think you can even buy merch at Secret Garden – the only things you can buy are food and alcohol, and the proceeds of the alcohol go to charity. The food is delicious, with gluten free/vegan/any other dietary restrictions catered for, and each of the food stalls is so well decorated and pretty. It’s not the same rushed, stressed service with long waiting lines that you get at other festivals – here you go and have a nice little chat to whoever you’re buying your taco/other choice of meal from, then sit out the front and talk to everyone else who’s waiting, and it’s just so chilled and lovely.

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The alcohol’s pretty cheap too – $6 for a cider or beer, and $7.50 for mixed drinks. The bar is fully staffed with volunteers, so they’re super friendly and fun. And you can feel good knowing that it all goes to a good cause.

The best thing about Secret Garden, however, is the people. Even though it gets bigger every year, it’s still comparatively tiny and has the most relaxed, chilled atmosphere. It’s fancy dress so it’s not full of shirtless guys or girls in crocheted bras and short shorts. People go all out for their costumes – there was a Steve Irwin dragging along an inflatable ray, a bunch of guys recreating the running of the bulls (with both bulls and matchingly outfitted runners), space cowboys, mermaids, astronauts, grapes, and so many other random and fantastical outfits.

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It just seems to attract the right type of people too – the type of people who are easy to talk to and totally willing to get up to all kinds of mischief with you. Secret Garden’s the kind of place where you’ll meet someone and run off on little adventures together, and then eventually find your friends again. Nobody’s a stranger, which is such an amazing feeling.

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And then there’s the music – which is really just the icing on what is already an incredibly decadent metaphorical cake. This year’s line-up include Jonathan Boulet, Saskwatch, Montaigne, Mansionair, Raury, Palms and Motorik Vibe Council – and I’d argue that previous years’ line-ups have been even more impressive. I remember jumping up on stage and dancing with Jinja Safari a few years back, grabbing gourmet hot dogs with the guys from Fishing, and getting to hug Andy Bull.

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The sound quality is great, and there’s such a wide range of genres there – from house and techno to indie and disco, and even a little bit of opera sung by a drag queen. And when someone isn’t playing, they put on these awesome mixes – featuring the Spice Girls, Cheap Trick, Paul Simon and other faves from decades past.

To tie it all up, there’s camping right outside the festival and the cars are in a separate field, so there’s no long walks to the toilets or from camp-site to festival. There’s abundant free water everywhere, well maintained toilets, and tank showers. AND this year they took the festival cashless, so that you’d load money onto your wristband – which meant you literally did not have to carry anything with you. It’s just hella convenient.

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That’s the thing about Secret Garden – it doesn’t feel like they’re trying to make money off you. It just feels like you get to escape off to this amazing fantasy world where everyone is your friend and everything is full of wonder and just a little bit mischievous. I’ve honestly had some of the best days of the my entire existence at Secret Garden and that’s why I love it so much – there really isn’t anything else in the world that’s quite like it.

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