A Rhythm and Vines virgin's tale

23:13, Jan 08 2013
Rhythm and Vines
PUMPED UP: The crowds at the 10th Rhythm and Vines festival in Gisborne.

Back in the day, a couple of scarfies threw a party at a little vineyard tucked into the hills of Gisborne so 1,800 friends of friends could herald in the New Year.

Now celebrating its tenth birthday, Rhythm and Vines has sprawled into a rollicking three-night festival drawing in more than 30,000 punters from across the land.

Our little crew are all R&V virgins, and like anxious teens, we are determined that this will be the year of our defloration.

As we merge with a torrent of pilgrims arriving in droves from all corners of the country, the girls start coo-cooing at the eye-candy on offer.

The alcoholic haze has not yet descended, but our fellow festival-goers are surely the most gorgeous collection of human beings ever seen outside of an Abercrombie & Fitch commercial.

Designer sunglasses and smooth-shaved nut-brown legs are uniform de rigueur - and that's just the lads.

The muscle-bound big-rigs boom and squawk to each other like peacocks. They are draped in even gaudier glad-rags than the females, who are often wearing not very much at all. Of the acres of tanned skin on display, much of it is etched with tattoo collections that would put a biker gang to shame.

The pilgrims are all either young or young at heart. Some of the fresh-faced man-children have never been confronted with a razor blade and a few pouting girls look disturbingly Lolita-like.

Amongst all the excitement, the sickly sweet reek of swollen Port-a-loos fermenting in the sun mingles with the cut grass and sweat. It settles stubbornly on the roofs of our mouths, and will linger there indefinitely.

We tear the tabs from some beer cans and nestle in amongst the vines and flapping canvas.

December 29

The music stutters and throbs into life in the early afternoon. Sound check - one, two. Over the next three days, an immense all-you-can-eat buffet of more than 100 acts will be laid out across five stages on the sprawling festival grounds.

There's something to suit any musical palate, but most everyone is hungry for home-grown pop star Kimbra. With a few hours to go before her show, the jazzy little songstress is hanging out at the big farmhouse overlooking the estate.

I ask what sort of dynamic she wants from the crowd.

"I like people to be attentive," she says. "There are festivals where people are so far gone. We put a lot of thought into the layers in our music and we'd like the crowd to actually dissect that."

Thankfully the audience still appears to be conscious by the time she gets on stage. There are problems with the sound - equipment was damaged in a crash in the gorge on the way down - but nothing can put a damper on her feverishly energetic set.

By the time Perth rockers Tame Impala are blasting waves of psychedelic sound into the crowd everything starts to blur around the edges.

I keep my eyes fixed on frontman Kevin Parker and hope that he's enjoying the vibes.

 "When you're in the audience and you're looking up at these lauded rockstars up on stage with lights on them and everything, they must be feeling like they're on top of the world - it's really not like that," he told me in the band room earlier.

Apparently the moments of rock-god cosmic harmony are as fleeting as they are humbling.

"You either thrive on all the attention or it can bring back memories of having to do a science presentation in Year Four."

Nevertheless, the whole lifestyle is a source of endlessly amusement to the band. As we're talking, an ear-pieced flunky carries in a plate of cut sandwiches and a selection of cheese.

"We spend our lives realising that we are in Spinal Tap - you know what I mean? Someone has prepared this plate and we just walk in and peel back the Gladwrap. This is f***ing hilarious, man."

That applies to the hedonism side of things too.

"If we have a big night and there'll be drugs going round, or we took mushrooms in LA or something, we'll spend the next day laughing at how rock cliché we are."

Parker's not at all offended by the thought that many in the crowd will in all likelihood have ascended from planet Earth by the time he plays.

"If you need to get totally f***ed up to enjoy yourself, then fine. There's nothing wrong with it. In fact, it's totally romantic."

There are plenty of romantics out there.

It's the telltale pinprick pupils hidden in glassy eyes that gives them away, as they dance up a storm on the chalky mix of rat poison cut with a little meth known generically as "pills".

Back at the campground the lady and I drift into a fitful half-sleep, punctuated by the surreal conversation and sporadic chicken noises of two pilled-out campers separated only by a canvas tent.

"I've just been up to the moon, bro," says one. His friend is rightly sceptical: "I think you were just staring at it."

"Nah, I navigated my way there bro- you should come!"

I hope they make it.

December 30

A little rain brings some welcome relief from the merciless heat and soothes pounding heads.

The sun is back with a vengeance by the afternoon when I meet with A Hori Buzz frontman Aaron Tokona and his bass-player cousin Hori.

Backstage before their show, they're sublimely relaxed and giggling like a pair of schoolgirls. Hori cracks an unprintable joke about the kind of bodily fluids that end up in the Waiohika Estate tipple.

It's been nice to come and chill and "enjoy the spoils a bit", says Aaron. His main gig is his role as one half of Cairo Knife Fight, and he says this cheeky good-feelings band is not out to impress anyone.

"If you hung out with us long enough you wouldn't smell any ambition around us," he deadpans.

"We don't give a f*** about it. We're just a band of friends that love each other. That sounds corny and cheesy, but it's true."

"Haere Maiiiii!" As if to prove a point, Clarke Gayford ambles in through the vines and wraps Aaron up in a big bear hug.

It is truly the festival of brotherly love. Later in the evening we stalk through the Tepee village, where some of the resident savages are passing the peace pipe. A passing stranger, offended by our non-herbal smoke, presses a generous marijuana cigarette into my hand.

"When I get out my wanger, the club goes BANGER!" he bellows at the top of his lungs, then lurches into the darkness.

It's not just the resident army of friendly security guards that are maintaining the spirit of camaraderie.

There's a relaxed vibe that you would rarely find - for example - on the streets of central Auckland, where you can barely step 100m without being challenged to fight by some frothing hard-eyed goon.

Tairawhiti District Health issues a press release praising the behaviour of the crowds. So far, so good.

December 31

The big day has arrived. It's late afternoon and Dave Dobbyn's beloved ballads are whipping the crowd into a patriotic fervour.

Dunedin golden boys Six60 step on stage soon afterwards and take things to fever pitch. The crowd roars their lyrics back at them.

It's just before 9pm - still light - but the most tragic souls are already starting to fill the St John tent. One young lady has sacrificed the celebrations to stick by her friend, who is doomed to bring in the New Year comatose and daubed in her own vomit.

During the peak traffic of her four-hour vigil, around 15 people loll on the ground covered in blankets, each with their own little spewbag.

"It looked like the scene from M*A*S*H- except less war wounds and more self-induced alcohol poisoning," she says.

Throughout the night the staff and volunteers escort the slobbering zombies in and out, tending to them with the endless patience of those who have seen it all many times before.

Our insider is taken aback by the sheer tenacity of one spew-encrusted lad -always on the clock - still trying to pull a New Year's pash.

"This guy was absolutely hammered. He was out of it, out of it, out of it, then he sat up and taps me on the shoulder and goes, 'Hey there...'"

She tries to rouse her friend for the countdown but she grunts and goes back to sleep.

Outside, the orgiastic masses are in fine form, rolling and grinding towards the moment of release.

Five, four, three, two, one. Hugs and kisses all round. Fireworks tear through the sky.

January 1

The music pounds away all night and morning, until past 8am. Earplugs are futile, and by this point the penetrating bass has become a second heartbeat.

It's 2013, and with the relentless energy of the chemically-enhanced, a ragged bunch of about 60 or so are still flailing away in the sun outside the Vines stage.

It's a mixture of wiry young bucks and hardened veterans. They have bare feet and scabby knees. A man licking his sunburnt lips tells me that "only the toughest survived". He heads for his tent and collapses, utterly spent.

Back at the Rhythm stage, now closed off to the great unwashed, the aftermath of last night's revelry is being vigorously cleansed from the land.

I walk across a crunching carpet of human detritus in front of the deserted arena - forlorn footwear, undergarments, cans and bottles.

A wave of blue-clad worker bees armed with rubbish bags sweep the ground. The distant insects scramble up and down the hill, bringing their bountiful haul back to the waiting skips and trailers.

One of the ever-present security guards is dutifully standing watch over the industrious scene.

She says it's been a good, chilled-out crowd. The few aggros just had too much to drink.

But it's been four long days, and she can't wait for life to get back to normal. She's looking forward to getting home and having a big feed of roast pumpkin and pork.

She's not the only one. A diet of energy drinks and cigarettes has kept sleep-deprived brains ticking over but we're running on fumes. Our battered bodies have picked up a collection of mystery bumps and bruises, and every muscle and joint aches.

Around the sleeping revellers still conked out on mattresses, the chaotic canvas city is being systematically dismantled almost as quickly as it sprang into life. The exodus has begun.

Tairawhiti police's Inspector Sam Aberahama describes the New Year's eve party as "outstandingly successful", marred only by a few minor incidents.

The lessons learned over 10 years of trial and error has clearly greased the groove for everyone involved. The organisers have pulled off what must surely be a logistical nightmare with barely a blip.

It's not hard to see how this grand-daddy of New Year festivals is fast becoming an institution in New Zealand's youth culture. It's unbridled pleasure-seeking of the most wholesome kind - just bloody good fun.

In the rear-view mirror, the sun-soaked rows of vines soon dwindle away to nothing. Like the tens of thousands who have come before us, we have survived the rite of passage.