It’s the time of year where even the hardiest of expats experience the pangs of homesickness. It’s my first festive season away from home, and all December I’d been preparing myself to be hit with it. But while everyone is sobbing into their eggnog missing their friends and family, it’s not Christmas that’s making me feel homesick this year. It’s the Woodford Folk Festival.
Two hours and an entire world away from my hometown of Brisbane lies Woodfordia, 250 hectares of unassuming land nestled between two hills. For the majority of the year Woodfordia sits empty, until the week between Christmas and New Year’s when 130,000 people converge on the site for six nights and seven days of music, theatre, dance and a celebration of all things slightly absurd.
I’ve been going to Woodford since I was eight years old, when my parents took us for day trips where we would learn how to juggle and play Diablo (remember those?). As we grew older and more independent, the day trips turned into week-long jaunts. We couldn’t stay away. Years started to be measured in the amount of months until we could pack our tents and gumboots and head back to Woodfordia.
Woodford is not your standard music festival. It’s a place where you can happily let a seven year-old child roam around by themselves all day without worrying if they’ll be safe. It’s full of colour and creativity, a cacophony of street theatre, noise and art. It’s full of hippies, but more so the ones that generally have 9-5 jobs for the other 51 weeks of the year, who come to Woodford to let loose and leave the daily grind behind.
The festival doesn’t do things by halves. There’s been years where it’s so wet people practically disappear in puddles. Years where the heat is so unbearable we spent the days sitting in the shade on the hill trying not to melt. Years where the nights were so bitterly cold we stole blankets from the circus tent to keep warm and then guiltily returned them the next morning when we realised what we’d done. But the one thing that unites all Woodfordians is mud. Even in the driest years its inescapable; the best thing to do is give in and embrace it. It will get in your hair, on your face, in every crevasse on your body. Months after the festival you’re still discovering mud in places you never thought possible. But there’s nothing more exhilarating than a mud-dance in the pouring rain.
The centrepiece of Woodford and its main attraction is the festival amphitheatre. A natural clearing on the side of a steep hill, the ‘Amphi’ plays hosts to the festival’s biggest bands and reportedly is home to the loudest sound system in the southern hemisphere. I’ve discovered so many of my favourite bands on that hill that I’ve lost count. On nights there’ll be close to 50,000 people in that amphitheatre, sharing in the love and singing along to two and a half hour sets from the Cat Empire.
I had my first kiss on that hill. Walking the back roads drinking butterscotch snaps from the bottle with him and discovering that we had similar tastes in music. Most nights are blurs of alcohol, drugs, rain and music, but snippets of the amphitheatre will stay in my mind forever. Using umbrellas as dancing props. Holding hands with strangers like you’ve known them for years. Losing your shoes and not even caring. Sly looks at that attractive boy across the hill while you’re gettin’ down. Normally my ridiculous dance moves scare people off, but not at Woodford. There are no inhibitions.
The music is great, but Woodford is about so much more than bands. Each day there are circus performances, political talks, art installations and spoken word poetry. Psychedelic films showing in space pods constructed from alfoil. Bulgarian dance workshops. Sword-swallowing magicians performing nail-biting tricks. Food from every corner of the globe (I first discovered Langos at Woodford, my main purpose for first visiting Hungary). There are workshops where you can carve your own brick that will be used to pave the roads for next year’s festival. Every year you can sponsor a tree so Woodford remains carbon neutral.
One of my favourite things about the festival is the street theatre. You can’t walk down the street without coming face-to-face with fairies, Egyptian goddesses, gigantic jellyfish, rainbow serpents or one-man bands. I remember being scared to death by the monsters on freak street as a kid, and being enthralled by the dystopian puppet show playing out the back of a caravan. Most of it is completely absurd but entirely awesome.
But it’s the little things that really make Woodford. The pun-tastic street signs in the camping area. The mime artists acting out the Boxing Day cricket in real time by the lake. The squeals of women when a man ‘mistakenly’ walks into the female showers stark naked. The toilet cleaners who are the happiest people you will ever meet despite having to deal with the excrement of 130,000 people. The man in the Pineapple Lounge pedaling a bicycle furiously to power an overhead fan so punters can keep cool. Luigi the corn man who remembers you every year and asks for your best dad-jokes at 3am. Becoming best friends with your camping neighbours and helping them out when a wayward branch slices open their tarpaulin during a storm. Woodford isn’t just a festival, it’s a community.
“Let’s meet at the Chai Tent!” It’s a sentence on almost every festival-goers lips. The Chai Tent is the social hub of the Woodford. If you’ve lost yourself the night before, you’ll find yourself in the Chai Tent the next day, lazing around on the hessian pillows and drinking endless cups of tea. By the evening the tables are moved to one side and the tent becomes one big party; there’s been many a night that I’ve danced until 4am in the packed confines of the Chai Tent, only to return mere hours later the next morning.
By the sixth night of mud and a lack of showers, everyone generally looks worse for wear. Somehow though we always manage to find extra reserves of energy for New Year’s Eve. The festival saves the best bands for the evening, and Woodford turns into one giant party. Just before midnight there’s three minutes of silence across the entire festival (no small feat for a crowd this size), and everyone is given a candle to hold. Seeing thousands of specks of light flickering on the side of the amphitheatre is a sobering experience and a perfect way to reflect on the previous twelve months. Minutes later the party returns to welcome in the new year in style. By 5am, when the first streaks of light are appearing in the sky, we traipse up the hill and watch the first sunrise of the year over the Glasshouse Mountains.
The week culminates with the Fire Event, a grand ceremony in the amphitheatre that involves BURNING THINGS on the evening of New Year’s Day. I’m an immediate fan of anything where the sole purpose is to BURN THINGS but the Fire Event is so much more. Throughout the week festival-goers help to create lanterns in the shape of everything from a pirate ships to dinosaurs, which get paraded through the festival and into the amphitheatre. Every year a talismen designed to represent the theme of that year’s festival is constructed to the side of the stage, and after the ceremony a flaming arrow shoots across the crowd and ignites the construction, burning it to the ground. Fireworks burst into the sky and Woodford is over for another year. Back home, the post-Woodford blues inevitably last weeks while you adjust back into so-called ‘real life’.
There are times when the future of Woodford is uncertain. A event on such a massive scale as this takes the work of thousands of volunteers willing to put their heart and soul into making the festival something people will never forget. Every year the festival improves and gets bigger and better, but a particularly rainy or hot year is enough to throw the next festival into doubt. So what can you do to support it? It’s easy. Make your way to Brisbane, jump on the bus and experience Woodford for yourself. It’s a week you won’t soon forget. Even though I’m eight time zones and thousands of miles away, for this week at least my heart is there with my friends, dancing the night away on the side of that hill.