It’s been said in the past that I am something of a hippie. Indeed, it’s true that I do burn the occasional incense stick and that I diligently recycle as much as I can. I did replace my incandescent lightbulbs with low energy cfl’s, and I do believe we should do as much as possible to take care of the earth. That aside, I’m no tree-hugging eco warrior or hardcore carbon neutral vegan pacing the earth in banana leaf sandals. However, I didn’t come to Australia to hide behind the barriers of my own comfort zone. So when a friend invited me to ConFest, Australia’s largest outdoor alternative lifestyle festival, I accepted the invitation and went in search of my inner hippie.
It’s a warm and sunny afternoon as we drive along the quiet road to Moulamein in southern New South Wales. In Australian terms we’re a long way from the middle of nowhere, but as we pass the Woorooma bus stop where the bus comes just one a week on Thursdays, it feels like the nowhere surely can’t be that far away.
Teepees and tents are visible from the road and a painted sign complete with arrows, hearts and stars confirms that we have arrived at ConFest. At the end of a short dusty road is the welcome gate. This is the threshold from the everyday world to the wonders of weekend in hippiedom.
We’re greeted by a woman smiling and waving at us wearing nothing but a smile and the word ‘welcome’ painted on her naked chest. Being a festival exploring the values and possibilities of an alternative lifestyle, there’s no dress code and it quickly becomes apparent that in many cases there is simply no dress.
We pitch our tent among others and within earshot of the muffled sound of bongo drums that’s emanating from the trees. A girl dressed as a gothic fairy walks past us as I push tent pegs into the sun-baked ground. I can hear chanting. A slow steady ooh ooh ooh followed by a much louder and prolonged aahhh. That’s the sound of a workshop, I’m told. An ‘Ooh aah chanting’ workshop it would seem.
With the tent in place it’s time to go and check out what the program of events is. The days are traditionally filled with workshops (the ‘conference’ part of the festival) with evenings made up of music, drumming, fire-twirling, a silent disco, and relaxing around fire-circles.
Anyone is free to hold a workshop, all of which are written on large chalkboards in the middle of the site. Workshops are held at various locations in areas with names like ‘Tranquility,’ ‘Bliss,’ ‘Love,’ Gyspy,’ and ‘Arts Village.’
Scanning the chalkboards I’m almost overwhelmed by the impressive selection of workshops and activities for the following day. I’m not as excited as some of the people around me who are torn between which workshops to attend. ‘Mind Power for Confidence’ clashes with ‘Chakra Toning’ while ‘Ground and Share Your White Light’ clashes with ‘Cosmic Orgasm’ and deciding between them is proving difficult for a couple of girls standing nearby.
I’m curious about a few workshops, but not particularly grabbed by any of them. I could chant with Lion Mother, go to an introduction to acrobalance, be tutored in life drawing, do some Bulgarian singing, try various forms of meditation, gyrate with hula hoops, learn about bee keeping, go to an ‘art empowers me’ discussion, take part in some express songwriting, or align my internal power through kung fu.
As I look at the boards I’m eavesdropping on peoples conversations about the various workshops and events. There’s a lot going on and so I’m hoping to learn things from the chatter around me. Maybe I should just go full-on hippie and jump in at the deep end taking up the opportunity to engage in some naked yoga, a ‘Sensual Healing Cuddle Party,’ or the tantric massage session which the board tells me is “rated R” and includes a “happy ending.”
I look around to see if there is anyone else looking as perplexed as I am. Sideways glances at the people examining the boards reveal no trace of any such bewilderment or ‘what-the-fuckness’ on the faces of my fellow ConFesters. In fact, everyone here is examining and discussing the workshops with absolute seriousness. I look back at the board and feel a little like a kid at the start of term in a new school.
In the end I decide that the following day I’ll just allow the wind, spirits, energies, or whatever to guide me. I’ll drop by the workshops as I find them. It might not be a methodical approach, but I want to get an overall taste of the workshops, and despite the opportunity to spend the next few days ‘au natural,’ I won’t be wandering around naked anytime soon.
That evening we prepare a meal in one of the community kitchens that are dotted around the site. I turn a blind eye to the fact that the community seems to place a fairly low priority on standards of hygiene and instead remind myself that in India I ate food prepared in a kitchen in which rats and cockroaches lived. Having earned those stripes a community hippie kitchen is no problem at all.
With warm food in our bellies and a hot drink in our hands we sit around a campfire and watch flames dance hypnotically around the logs. Guitarists sing songs and those who know the words join in.
Nobody is playing with their phone, the remoteness of the location has thrown us all into a kind of technological time warp that feels like an enforced and welcome retreat from the ultra-connected world we all now inhabit. The crowd grows steadily over the course of the evening and before long it’s the small hours and sleep in willing us to return to our tent.
A nights sleep has not left me feeling particularly rested, and so I decide to spend the morning relaxing and watching ConFesters walk by. I catch snippets of conversations that waft into the air like the wisps of smoke that trail behind a smoker as they walk. The sun warms my face and the sounds of a guitar somewhere not far away seems to fade in and out like Radio Luxembourg used to on my very first radio.
After a while I get up and go for a walk. I drop in on various workshops and listen to people talk about cosmic energy, sustainable living, the benefits of fasting, and how to communicate with ‘the other.’ I see various groups doing yoga, chanting, and some kind of slow motion tribal dance. There’s an area where a number of people, many of whom are naked, are giving and receiving massages. I have no idea what the sixties was like, but in my imagination it was just like this, only the people in my imagination are younger and better looking!
Continuing my stroll I follow the sound of laughter and shrieks of delight that lead me to the famous ConFest mud bath. I’m more than a little over-dressed for this particular location as there are naked people everywhere. About ten people are sitting in the grey mud, covering themselves and joyously waving their arms around like babies in a bathtub. It looks fun and I find myself laughing along with the people in the mud though I’m not tempted to join them.
As I wander around a very large lady is walking toward me and stopping to hug everyone who passes her. She’s as naked as the day she was born, which evidently was some considerable time ago, and across her astonishingly long breasts the words “free hugs” is painted in blue and red.
She spots me and opens her arms. “Come and get your free hug, love.” she says. I wonder what the protocol for refusing such an offer is. Would a simple “No thank you” do? Maybe I could say “Not today thanks.” In the end, though, I totally sell out and fake delight as she waddles toward me gathering me up like a road sweeping truck. ”
“Think of England” I tell myself as the hug goes on far longer than I expected. She eventually releases me and says “There. You needed that didn’t you?” No old lady, I didn’t need your naked hug, I think to myself as I nod agreeably and politely make my escape.
I spend the rest of the day simply meandering around until the evening when I meet up with friends who by all accounts are having a spectacular time. Another visit to the community kitchen leads to another night under the stars by the fire. Strangely enough, while I might not be particularly on the same level as many of the loved-up ConFesters, the camp fire seems to provide a space in which we’re all entirely at ease. I suppose that’s not really surprising. After all, when you think of it campfires have been doing that for as long as there have been campfires.
In the end I don’t think I really managed to find the ConFest sweet spot that so many others were clearly in. I enjoyed the opportunity to escape the city for a few days and relax in the warm Easter weather. I liked the campfires, the silent disco, and chance to unplug for a while, but it seems that ConFest didn’t manage to unleash my inner hippie.
If I’m honest it all felt a bit ‘hocus pocus’ to me, and even somewhat contrived at times. That aside, though, I’m glad I went. Even though I didn’t come back with crystals to put under my pillow, or the urge to hug every tree in my neighbourhood, I’m sure I did get something from the experienceeven if it was only a tan.