72 hours lost in the doof: The Rainbow Serpent Survival Guide

“My days have become nights have become days,” says Tim, 42 hours after the first official beats started rolling at Rainbow Serpent 2014. His shirt is discarded, replaced with a light cotton shawl loosely wrapped around his shoulders, a synthetic fedora with a Smiley face button shading his three-day growth, and Spacetribe pants covering legs that won’t stop bouncing. A young woman in impossibly short denim shorts and bikini top bends and twists nearby, her torso snapping side-to-side at 90 degree angles to her abdomen as her left knee lifts and right leg pushes her entire body skywards with the force of a high-jumper.

There are smatterings of people on the Main Stage dancefloor as the 10am Sunday sun peeks through the multi-coloured shade cloth spread sparsely above. A light mist rains down from the sprinkler system, dust kicking up from a thousand feet in return. Dreadlocks dance next to polo shirts; bandana-covered faces next to Native American headdress; sandals next to sandshoes next to feet that haven’t seen footwear in days. Four police stand at the edge of the sand as the natural amphitheatre begins to slope up, indulging the odd merrymaker in conversation but otherwise letting the scene unfold.

Kularis is on stage, mixing one off-beat psytrance bassline into the next with minimal fuss and occasional pantomime. “This island is the beginning of human achievement,” he seems to mime along, as the next kick drum onslaught arrives. You’re off the grid amidst rolling hills in rural Victoria and the proposition doesn’t seem entirely implausible.

Going to Rainbow Serpent is a lot like overseas travel – it doesn’t feel real until you pass through the gates to what comes next. We’ve got Michael Mayer’s Fabric 13 as the soundtrack while we drive west past Ballarat, through dry yellow fields and hills occasionally dotted with wind farms, before turning right at Beaufort on the final stretch. Over a rise and cars appear in a field in the distance. We turn into a road spitting dust into the sky, past a series of hand-painted signs setting the ground rules. “No Gas Bottles. No Animals. No Glass. No Fires. No Point Arguing.”

We’re ushered into the grounds past a battered white Kingswood wagon which has picked the wrong time to finally drop its clutch, heading to the north camping grounds in search of our totem – the Crackie Monster.

He’s tiny but easy to spot amidst the usual campground fare – the skull and crossbones, rainbow flags, the ubiquitous Britz camper van. Our site is not so much a pocket as its own loosely connected village, several degrees of separation linking these regular Rainbow families; Max – the Mayor-elect of Crackie town – rustles up the troops for a recce. There are whispers of a pre-party at Bean Bag Babylon, a Rainbow fixture which this year is the jewel in the south campground’s Theme Camps crown. The Crackie totem is removed from its perch and leads the tribe past the Market Stage, where the LED tubes hanging above its dancefloor give a brief tease of the cascading waterfalls of light they’ll be showering the floor with from 4pm tomorrow. The intimidating array of Funktion-One speakers currently sit at peace, but set to stun.

Nestled at the base of a natural amphitheatre, the Main Stage is still 46 hours from launch but the battle station is nearing completion, as is the understudy Sunset Stage, boasting a set-up that could’ve come from the imagination of Dr Seuss. A bike rider sits under a spotlight at Sunset, mesmerised by several thousand swarming insects that have been inexorably drawn towards its light. The usual campground sounds (the tik-tik-tik of hammer on tent peg) mix with the not so usual (for instance, the Solomun remix of Let’s Go Dancing) as a gentle throb rolls in from the south.

Bean Bag Babylon rises like a miniature version of Tina Turner’s battleground in Beyond Thunderdome: a honeycomb structure inside which four JBL speakers point at an intimate dancefloor covered in Middle Eastern carpets and already shoulder-to-shoulder. Uone is at the controls, delivering 110bpm house with basslines slung deep, low and long. It’s 10pm on the night before Rainbow and you can already sense the irresistible pull that lures people back year after year, like insects towards the light.

Max motions towards the bar. “Three words,” he says. “Free fuckin’ beer, on tap.” It’s home brew and the kegs are un-gassed and you’re shit out of luck if you didn’t BYO cup. The tempo slowly accelerates, the basslines shifting from chuggy to rolling sine waves. Punters are now standing five, ten deep around Bean Bag Babylon, the side flaps peeled back so the sound can escape. The clock is on the wrong side of 1am. Commonsense prevails.

The overnight drizzle turns to a deluge around 6am, drenching those still making it back from Bean Bag Babylon or any of the other myriad pre-party happenings. Laughter rings out across the north campground as cars continue to pour in, soundtracked by Sunset’s techs giving their system its first psy workout of the weekend.

Talk under the Crackie totem turns to the weekend’s survival guide. With four official stages running at any one time over four days, Rainbow Serpent requires a precision tactical assault. Acts are circled on the timetable. Pockets of sleep time are identified. Must-sees are set in stone: The Orb, Sensient, Meat Katie early Sunday morning; the Max Cooper/King Unique/James Zabiela triple-threat that’ll close the Market Stage on Monday afternoon.

There’s a restless tension in the air; not nerves, but something just short of anxiety. We’re 200 metres from four dancefloors that sit idle, taunting us. Someone asks for some music to be put on. An elaborate game combining frisbee, cricket and target shooting breaks out on a nearby road. Crackie is unfitted from his stand to lead the group to a sister campsite, where a guy has flown in from Amsterdam and will fly back when the festival is done. Inflatables are inflated. The 4pm kick-off comes and goes. Even the cicadas above Sunset are getting impatient, mimicking a hi-hat pattern: “tk-cht-tkka-cht.” Johnny Mac rolls the first tune, a filtered kick eventually becoming Turn The Tide from Involv3r. It’s showtime.

[Sunset pic]

It’s not so much a day at a festival as a series of absurd vignettes. A gentleman in faux-leather tights and leopard print singlet paces urgently, chanting “it’s Rainbow, it’s Rainbow!” as his jaw tenses and his circle work becomes more erratic. A ‘normal’ looking couple of middle-class thirtysomethings dance with their two pre-kindie children on the Sunset floor fringes. It’s the whole family’s first Rainbow, the festival winning the long-weekend toss of the coin over Noosa. In two days the kids will be dropped off with the grandparents in Avoca so Mum and Dad can return to finish what they’ve started.

A meet-up is missed, Crackie is lost, then two hours later the group reforms just as Thankyou City ease into their spacey prog-tech creations.

Darkness slowly descends. It’s cold, then it’s hot, then a wind blows in from somewhere near the South Pole. Several thousand are kicking up dust at Market as local live duo Staunch deliver glitch hop with the emphasis on the hop and hints of G-Funk. Elite Force plays like his life depends on it, opening with a fresh remake of Underworld’s Cowgirl before rolling relentlessly through the tech classics. Is that Man With The Red Face? It is, with Downpipe to follow. Gandalf stands impassively in the thick of it, a gentle sway, a subtle foot tap, the occasional closed eyes to soak it all in.

The music on the Chill stage stutters and swoops like a system error; one of those happy accidents of sound that somehow works for both couch dwellers and interpretive dance enthusiasts. The Playground stage is already an hour behind the timetable. From the campsite the sound systems fight a battle in the distance, BPMs and sonic swirls colliding and combining like a soundclash amongst the gods.

Most of yesterday’s affirmations on the Before I Die I Want To… board have been refreshed, replaced by “Draw A Dick” and “Plant 1,000 Trees”. A survivor from Friday stands out: “See My Sister Happy!” A couple fire past the shower queue on a motorised two-seater couch, red velour, good vintage.

At Market, Sensient’s spilling out rivers of minimal psy, the bass so thick with just a few hundred people to absorb it that it penetrates earplugs with ease. The Rainbow crowds have thus far been enthusiastic but not overly responsive – a gypsy holler here, the occasional mass hands-in-the-air there – and this morning it’s easy to see why. Males and females alike bound across the dust like sprites, eyes closed as indescribable scenarios play out behind their eyelids, or perhaps they’ve turned off their mind to relax and float downstream as Sensient’s set flows on. Or maybe they’ve also had a visit from the pirate who stuck a fake pistol in my Rainbow co-pilot Eliza’s back last night before whispering in her ear: “Just keep dancing.”

There’s some stirring under the Crackie totem. The ‘glampsite’ now has a star tent as its centrepiece, tarps of many colours spreading out from the central pole, a disco ball totem, laptop and controller plugged into a pair of JBLs for a DJ to flit from P-funk to glitch hop to the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Aeroplane. Suitcases and crates are opened up, plush animal hats and wigs and every conceivable fancy dress item spilling out of them. Fluorescent lycra tops and bottoms are donned, fake eyelashes with the wingspan of small butterflies are applied in elaborate ceremonies, and a march begins to Playground for a Rainbow institution: Rockerobics.

Time is fluid. An email address becomes an actual human becomes an awesome chick and her cool BF. Names on a thousand interstate flyers become DJs you’ve seen. The Crackie crew ebbs and flows as the village becomes a tangle of interwoven tarps and tent pegs. Then it’s 8pm Saturday and the Opening Ceremony has arrived. Rainbow main man Tim Harvey talks about taking the energy from the party with you when you leave. A representative of the Dja Dja Wurrung people, traditional owners (along with the Wadawurrung) of the Rainbow site, acknowledges elders past and present – not just his but Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Yunupingu. You remember that it’s Australia Day tomorrow and our country needs a human of that calibre right now.

Indigenous women do a cleansing dance, the men do a dance for the creator, and Rainbow Serpent is officially open 28 hours after it started. OTT commands a sand-covered floor, several thousand people thick, with wafts of heavy ambient dub. A procession of fairy-lit umbrellas floats through the crowd like jellyfish from another planet. The Orb appear and threaten to build an epic set, with crazy effects begging for a quadraphonic system, but eventually their dubby house grooves are too deep for Saturday night patience.

Opiuo beckons and the local hero has the biggest crowd of the entire weekend spilling out of every side of the Market’s circumference and into the fields beyond. His elastic basslines snap and pop and he only does his sound, but he does it well. This is the new sound of doof and his time is now. Over at the Main stage trance has taken over, whatever nuances are hidden between Manifestor’s pummelling synth lines lost in a tidal surge of bottom end. Freq Nasty’s trip through ragga jungle and dubstep has lost half of Opiuo’s crowd; Meat Katie’s solution is to pound out abrasive electro-tech riffs that make Market feel less like a dancefloor, more like a brutal assault in the Ultimate Fighting Championship Octagon. Someone plays Knights Of The Jaguar. Someone plays I Heard It Through The Grapevine and Radiohead and Walk On The Wildside in quick succession. It’s 9am Sunday and you wake up with a head cold.

Dousk’s closing set on Main throbs and swirls and appears ready for take-off…and then it’s 4:30pm and Sunset tags in over the top of the amphitheatre. A woman of European descent approaches you on the dancefloor, ties a rainbow-coloured wristband to your arm, says “I think you need this”, then melts into the crowd.

Felguk unleashes electro-rave fury. Michael Mayer’s opening hour on Market as the sun drops below the gums is such a masterclass of programming, from swirling mists at the dawn of time to melodic techno magic, that its essence needs to be distilled, bottled and sold as part of all DJ starter kits. The prog never stops at Crackie’s DJ booth, but it’s no match for the dark psy that rumbles across the skies from Market, like warring dragon armies shooting fire and ice and venom as their screams pierce the night.

Market stage and its surrounds are a wasteland of detritus, human and otherwise. The showers are closed until further notice. The compost toilets are four days old and still don’t smell like pits of despair. The layers of mud caked on your feet could’ve been sprayed on by Jackson Pollock himself. Eskies are packed with the remains of various liquor cabinets, topped with ice, then wheeled to the tree at the centre of the Market dancefloor just after midday. Mad Monday has arrived.

The shade canopy which has previously moved up and down like an organism is still today; there’s barely a breath of wind as 30-odd degrees of heat bears down. Max Cooper sets the scene with a set that delves into deep/tech territory before meandering into IDM land. It’s the perfect primer for King Unique, who lays down garage-tinted house (Ben Pearce’s What I Might Do), party-starters (Tiga x Audion x Solomun, again) and progressive stormers (‘2000000 Suns’).

Then James Zabiela steps up for three hours of power. He scratches and tweaks as the sound chugs and builds but never quite peaks. Love is all around us. Blue Monday is the encore, but it’s a misnomer. Empty cans are crushed, forgotten clothing piled up, fruit scraps binned. The Sunset psy fiends still aren’t done, nor are the campgrounds as renegade parties kick off and roll into the night.

Forty-three hours after the first beat officially rolls, a woman, clearly upset, walks under the star tent and demands the DJ stop the music. A friend has had a rock thrown through her car window and purse stolen. “We’re Rainbow,” she says through tears. “We’re a community.”

After a few minutes of venting, a guy pipes up in devil’s advocate mode: “There are arseholes everywhere.” The topic isn’t up for debate and she departs the scene as quickly as she arrived. The DJ holds up his drink, says “Cheers everyone”, and hits play once more.

It’s a rare moment of frayed tempers in what is essentially a 10,000-plus self-regulating society. Security and police are present, but almost blend into the scenery.

Out on the dancefloor, Rainbow has that first-time feeling you spend a lifetime chasing; through nightclubs and warehouses, stadium techno extravaganzas and city-bound mega-festivals. It’s a lingering memory of when raving felt like a big secret; when you’d spot a familiar face across the club and think, “I can’t believe they know as well.”

It’s just you, your crew, the music and the sun/stars, stripped of the artifice of Like buttons, cricket scores, mirrors, deadlines, operational matters and all the other extraneous clutter that constitutes #life.

(Photos by Ivanna Oksenyuk and Kris Swales.)