Byron Bay BluesFest with the kids
As the Antipodean winter draws slowly draws to a close, the prospect of warmer temperatures brings thoughts of outdoor activities, events and the summer festival season.
Some of the most outstanding festivals though, happened while Kiwis huddled by the fire and upped their TV viewing, with one of the best being Australia's Byron Bay BluesFest.
I have wanted to go to BluesFest for years, so 2014 was finally the year! A few weeks ago myself, my husband and our two young children flew out to the Gold Coast, picked up a campervan and joined the blues pilgrims heading south to Tyagarah, near Byron Bay, where we would find a massive but extremely well organised setup as the festival behemoth cranked into life.
Billed as Australia's premier blues and roots festival, the event offers a staggering array of both Australian and top level international music which is presented over five days and six stages in what I would discover to be one of the most chilled and relaxed festival atmospheres I have ever experienced, despite the tens of thousands of people in attendance.
This year the lineup included octogenarian blues icon Buddy Guy, guitar maestro Jeff Beck, and other musical heavyweights like the Dave Mathews Band, Elvis Costello, John Mayer, Jack Johnson, The Doobie Brothers, Dr John, Gary Clark Junior and Erykah Badu.
In an unusual twist, three of the bands performing were legendary 60s and 70s groups who have since lost their influential frontmen but seem to be enjoying a new lease of life and touring successfully. The late Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart and Bob Marley may have been present in spirit only, but their groups The Mothers of Invention (renamed The Grandmothers of Invention),The Magic Band and The Wailers were crowd favourites.
For us the Australian "winter" was a treat, with temperatures in the 20s - just right to feel warm but not get fried. Large events with thousands of people can be unbearable with a midsummer sun beating down, so it seems BluesFest is held at the perfect time of year.
It also made it much easier on the children who, being naturally short of stature, are likely to feel the heat of the bodies walking all around them and tend to wilt more easily in the sun, defaulting to whinge mode. (Although I think I would too if I was below armpit height!)
Luckily the balmy climate, coupled with the sights and sounds, rendered the whinging almost non-existent and we found the well planned flow of the foot traffic and the general relaxed vibe of the crowd made bringing the kids quite an easy experience.
Massive tents with colourful flags atop designated the different stage areas, all with bluesy names like Mojo, Crossroads, Delta and Jambalaya. However, festival organiser Peter Noble pointed out that many different kinds of musical genres are represented over the five days.
"We couldn't do a strictly blues festival on the commercial levels that we do Bluesfest at," he said.
"Bluesfest has many streams, you can look at the schedule and say you're going to go down the alt-country path or the blues path, or the contemporary music path or the funk path, or you can mix them all up. We've brought a lot of different threads together and spooled it up into this magic fabric of…Bluesfest."
Between the stage tents, rows of colourful stalls selling everything you would expect at a music festival, and more besides, made pathways around the site, many lit up with colourful lights making the place totally magical in the dark. Costumed circus performers and buskers roamed and a huge covered foodcourt tent offered kiosks selling traditional food from so many countries that a walk along it was an olfactory journey around the world.
Musical highlights for me included Gary Clark Junior's stunning mix of deep blues influenced guitar licks and hip modern soul style, the crazy uninhibited journey the crowd was taken on by The Magic Band, and ultimately, my front-of-stage Buddy Guy experience where I could see the sweat on his brow, the blur of his fingers on the fretboard and the wicked glint in his eye as he showed why he truly deserves his legendary status.
Morning visits to some of the Byron area's many attractions made for a great balance, with the festival starting around lunchtime each day.
We managed to check out the wildlife park at Macadamia Castle, a beachside tea-tree infused lake at Broken Heads and the best calamari I've ever had at Brunswick Heads, where an enormous, shallow estuary offered warm, safe swimming for children.
Byron Bay itself is a busy, tourist-driven town full of surf shops and restaurants that used to be a much more hippy-style affair than it is now. The views from the lighthouse are stunning though, and the highly dangerous King Brown snake we saw cruising through the grass there was an adrenalin-filled highlight.
I loved how the Aussie approach to it was a conservation ranger wandering up and nonchalantly putting a little yellow sandwich board warning sign with a picture of a snake on it next to where the creature stopped to sun itself. Kind of like cleaners do when the floor is wet, and probably with about the same level of concern.
Each time we returned to Bluesfest we felt the excitement and buzz of the place, and despite doing this for five days in a row, it didn't wear off, nor did we feel we had had enough.
By the last night, there was a nostalgic feeling as we guided our sleepy children out through the festival gates and back to the campervan for the last time, and as I turned around to see the lights, I felt that great feeling that I think all travellers must be in pursuit of - a sort of disbelief that you are actually standing where you are standing, coupled with trying to mentally capture and store everything around you to remember and, if you are lucky enough to be in my profession, share with other people later.