A wet blanket attends The Gathering

The Listener - 29 January 2000

Prior to The Gathering 2000, rumours were proliferating like over-zealous bacteria in the fertile Petri-dish minds of the young and impressionable.

Skinheads were going to massacre the neo-tribalists with a carload of guns, Takaka Hill itself was hollow and would collapse with all the dancing, and Oprah Winfrey was going to be the guest of honour. Although none of these urban myths proved to be in the least bit founded, The Gathering remained "larger than life", as numbers of attendees, mostly first-timers like myself, swelled dramatically at the last moment.

From an initial limit of 8,000, the organisers printed 500 more tickets so that forgeries could be replaced with the real thing. Add another 1500 crew onsite, along with plenty of gatecrashers who turned up on the night. Then there's the fact that The Gathering is only accessible via 6km of one-lane metal road on a winding mountain top, and you don't have a very safe or smooth trajectory into a pumping party. Local police were so worried about road safety that they ordered the organisers to admit everyone, fraudulence be damned. Crowd estimates range from 9,000 to 12,000.

Most people decided to get there early and, consequently, it was a five-hour wait up the hill for what would usually be a one-hour drive, with most arriving in the dark. Some 10,000 revellers woke to grey skies and a sense of anticipation, skulked around the food tent, and waited for the music zones to be officially opened, which they were, with due ceremony, at midday on the 31st. The theme to 2001 was followed by live Japanese Taiko drummers, and when the "crew only" ticker-tape came down, people streamed across the still-green fields in their thousands, and started stomping and gyrating.

The Gathering's setting is legendary... rolling hills giving way to rocky outcrops, with heather and kanuka, foxgloves and ferns creating a bizarre but lovely bi-cultural flora. To complement this natural beauty, numerous decorators turned each musical "zone" into an aesthetic statement. The drum and bass/hip-hop zone was conceived as a marae, with a pointed whare whakairo surrounded by a pole fence. The hardcore tent looked like the interior of the Mir space station, and the house tent looked like a nightclub, all white vinyl and disco balls. The trance zone, outdoors, sported an amazing sound system: eight huge speaker stacks set into blue funnels of cloth, like engorged trumpet fungi growing out of the trees. Dispersed throughout the dancers were giant lotus buds on huge green poles, a link to the Eastern mysticism that spawned, and still fuels, some of this music (ie, "Goa" trance). Even higher on the mystical stakes were the ambient and tribal zones, where designers integrated giant aliens, Japanese kewpies and tribal totems into the landscape in constantly surprising ways.

But the biggest surprise of all was the rain. Organisers had emphasised time and again to be prepared for wet weather. But noone was prepared for a deluge of biblical proportions. The Canaan Downs fast became a mud bath. Goodwill went a long way to remedying this, and people danced despite the damp. The countdown itself went like clockwork, with all sound pausing at midnight for a Maori welcome and some haunting flute music, before the hard beats came crashing back and surprise fireworks were detonated (proving that you don't have to sit through Christmas in the Park for a fix of celestial pyrotechnics). In the trance zone the lotus buds bloomed to reveal oscillating coloured lights, and videos and lasers went wild, while German DJ Antaro provided the right mix of primordial ooze and space madness.

However, Antaro was followed by NZ's OB1 who felt the need to put cloying female vocals into all his synth-heavy "anthems", a trend that was pervasive with many of the trance DJs. At this point, I felt the need to sample other tents, for warmth if nothing else. The house tent was playing Brazil-inspired techno-tropicalismo, while the hardcore tent played dippy pop at double and triple speeds, with pumping bass lines guaranteed to give anyone over the age of 16 an instant cardiac arrest.

Most people danced the night through, although I have to admit I was a wet blanket (or should I say wet sleeping bag) by 3.00am... no amount of "herbal fuel" could induce me to dance in the cold rain any longer. The Guarana stalls seemed to attract far fewer people than the coffee shops, which boasted queues almost as long as the one up Takaka Hill. As it was, the closest brush I had to drug-fuelled insanity was when a bearded hippie leapt out of a tree and talked in tongues at me for 10 minutes straight.

The first day of the new millennium dawned rather slowly and sadly with the realisation that the rain wasn't going to stop. The house tent had to shut down, due to electrical danger [see note 1], and many people packed up and left. But most stayed, and soon became fully fledged mud babies, daubing themselves in goopy brown from head to toe, or dancing in the mini-lakes that had formed in the once-green fields.

That evening I had been looking forward to some live hip-hop, and although Dean Hapeta (now known as Te Kupu) proved that he's still laying down some hard-hitting hip-hop about contemporary Maori issues, King Kapisi never showed [see note 2]. Which is a shame, as he had a huge appreciative audience waiting to lap it up. Instead, two freestyling MCs, Word Perfect from Wellington and Imon Star from Hawaii pepped up the beleaguered crowd with their goofy antics.

Parties are a state of mind and, on the last morning, while I mournfully swayed from side to side in the omnipresent drizzle, I bumped into a guy who could only smile and say, "Wicked!" It hit home for me then that these people had no concept of "missing out" on the big "moments" of history. Unlike those hasbeens that sit at home polishing their Hendrix box-sets, wishing that they had been at Woodstock, or Paris in '68, or London in '77, the Gatherers were living their own history in the present tense. Despite the fact that I had to wait for a bus for four hours in the cold hard rain, and that testosterone-fuelled organisers kept telling me and hundreds of others to walk up and down the same stretch of road several times for no apparent reason and that only those with hypothermia could get on the first bus, despite all this, I'm glad I went. It's a "living in the moment" thing. [see note 3]

See you and Oprah there next year.

Tessa Laird, The Listener, 29 January 2000
Photography: Michaela Jack

note 1

We closed each of the zones for a time on the 1st, to clear away excess mud, and to ensure that our triple-checked electrical systems were still 100% safe. Once each zone had been cleaned and its safety systems verified, it was reopened.

note 2

Actually King Kapisi did play - he was delayed, and his set kicked off about an hour after it was originally scheduled.

note 3

The reason why we were getting people to keep moving was to keep them warm. Although we provided dry and warm spaces for as many people as possible in the food and crew tents (and gave them food and hot drinks to keep them going) while they were waiting for buses, sheer numbers meant that some people chose to wait in the rain rather than lose their place in the queue. As for "testosterone-fuelled".... hmmmm... don't think any of us could be described as that... Oh - and the "hypothermia sufferers only on the first bus" comment.... er yes - what else would you suggest - that we make them wait until last?

... but overall, great article Tessa - we're really glad you enjoyed TheG - see you next year!

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