Lost Paradise was like a big backyard party that just spiralled out of control; in the best way possible.
Sitting somewhere between a bush doof on a big budget, and a big festival but minus all the unnecessary bells and whistles, the New Year's Eve party in NSW's picturesque Glenworth Valley forest was a welcome change from eye-popping, sense-assaulting corporate mega festivals of the summer season.
A beautiful setting, a lovely cool river to swim in (or to hold an unofficial mini rave, as the case turned out), an entire corner of the grounds devoted to yoga and meditation and relaxation, and barely a bright neon flashing alcohol sponsorship logo to be seen, it carried the casual and laidback vibe of a much smaller festival -- while still attracting some of the country's most exciting and beloved live acts.
It's a long, winding drive down the mountain from the top road into the Glenworth Valley. Warning signs to watch out for passing wildlife and thick banks of trees line the dirt track that spirals deep into the giant bowl of the valley, where thousands of campers have pitched tents. There are the basic setups with small tents, the large and impressive bases set up by big groups of seasoned camping veterans, and (remarkably, for a festival with such a lineup) a large family camping area. We'll later find Lost Paradise is absolutely chockers with kids; tiny toddlers in industrial earmuffs, young ones being carried around the grounds on dad's shoulders, tweens hanging out by the kebab van and lazing in the river. We've got a lovely Rainbow Tipi tent, a giant pyramid that keeps us mostly cool and out of the heat for the weekend.
It's a beautiful, lush green site that people take full advantage of, seemingly just as happy tossing around a frisbee or footy on the wide open fields behind the actual festival setup or splashing around on an inflatable swan in the water as they are actually watching any bands. The fact you can even have a swim or dunk your feet in the river while listening in on the main DJ stage is quite an added perk. The theme is "back to nature", which fits well.
DJs and bands pumped early, starting from 2pm on the opening day. For those quick in putting up their tents and getting settled, Ocean Alley and Methyl Ethel got things rolling on the main stage with some bright, upbeat rock and roll into the early evening. Despite the hour, the heat didn't relent -- temperatures stayed above 30 degrees for nearly the entire festival, the afternoon and setting sun doing little to bring down the heat. People danced and boogied for the bands, for DJs Mike Who and Young Franco, some self-preservation came into play; nobody wants to be the one who parties too hard on the first day, especially in this heat.
The weather finally let up a little, well into the night, as Big Scary and Gang of Youths played back-to-back on the big stage. Both beloved Aussie acts have had massive years, breathing new life into the local rock scene for different reasons; Big Scary proved you can still be tender and a little bit kooky with guitars and people will still lap it up, while Gang of Youths proved emotion, passion and heart are still the bedrock of great music. The Big Scary crew got the crowd up and properly dancing for the first time all festival, their eclectic sound lighting up the big field. Gang of Youths, led by frontman Dave and his raw Springsteen-esque vocals and envious flowing mane of hair, blasted through a set of songs of love and loss and sadness, electrified by pulsing rhythms and unapologetically stadium rock choruses. Dave gets his rockstar moments tonight, a captivated crowd full of waving flags hanging on every note, as they close out the main stage on the midnight slot.
Over on the smaller stages, though, the party continued into the night. The larger Lost Disco stage, a beautifully constructed colourful pyramid enclosing a DJ booth, hosted Motez and Skream who blasted out sets of heavy electronic dancefloor fillers and party hits to a rammed crowd.
Up the back of the site, the bush doof of the Paradise Club stage -- a little wooden cabin set on a hillside -- kept people dancing on the slope all night into the wee hours, while the more exhausted punters took a rest on nearby hammocks. When the music finally shut off at 3am, people kept calling for more.
We ventured into the Shambala Fields yoga and meditation area on the morning of day two. They've got free workshops running from sunrise to past sunset each day, from laughter yoga to guided meditation and sound healing, to something called Yogapalooza. Unfortunately we missed that session, but we find an enterprising pair of very young bleach-blonde kids setting up stall under a shade cloth, offering woven bracelets and the like. They're available for $5 each, but the little girl -- five years old at the most -- is more keen for us to trade for them. How very anti-capitalist. The pair had no doubt come from the well-equipped kids area, offering movies and circus workshops and even karaoke and yoga for the young ones while mum and dad slipped off to get a drink or watch a band.
"We haven't got anything to trade", my girlfriend says, and she's not wrong. In our pockets are mobile phones, wallets, gum and lint.
"Yes you do, you've got all sorts of stuff," the precocious young businesswoman says, pawing at my girlfriend's bag.
We promise to find something to trade and to come back, and she gives us a little insect repellant as a parting gift. We later bring back noisemakers and glowsticks, but she had long sold out of wares.
It's hot. The cool river snakes through all the campgrounds and along the back of the festival site itself, and in the baking midday heat, people are cooling off. Many have brought inflatable couches, blowup toys and even surfboards. There's a rave happening down river from our campsite, a big group of people sitting in the water each day, drinking and partying to bass music pumped from nearby speakers.
Wild Honey, Mosquito Coast and Mossy continue the trend of having some more laidback, chilled bands starting out the afternoon on the main stage as some respite from the heat and pumping DJ stages, but even the baking heat doesn't discourage the dancing electro crowds.
DJs get the nightclub-style house and party tunes cranking from early afternoon, and even as the temperatures linger past 30 degrees, the tiny scraps of shade at the Club and Disco stages don't seem to bother the dancers. People are here to party, the second last day of 2016, and they're making the most of it.
Elsewhere, the cabinet circus tent hosts speed dating, story time, variety shows and even a shotgun wedding. It's the one totally dark, cool spot in the entire grounds, so people are there just as much for the shade as for the entertainment. There are games dotted through the festival site, giant jenga and badminton and horse shoe and croquet sets to play with, and a volleyball net or two that seem to have lost their accompanying balls way too early.
Bad Dreems kicked things up a notch on the main stage as the sun finally gave way. The Adelaide rockers, with a heavy 80s Australiana sound somewhere between Midnight Oil and The Go-Betweens and The Saints, are currently the best rock band in the country right now; that's just my own opinion, but watching them jump from little venues to large theatres and now onto key festival slots late into the night with heaving throngs of passionate fans losing it to their retro working-class rock and roll, it's hard to deny they've tapped into something. Something harsh and raw and angry, with songs about Australian masculinity and bloke culture, love, and oblique references to dissatisfaction with government and society in general.
The four piece are dirty and loose and downright menacing at points. Frontman Ben snarls and barks into the microphone, chugging away on his guitar as he prowls the stage. He bangs his head with his hand, with the microphone at one point. This is actually how he normally plays, but tonight he's angry about something, yelling at the crowd between songs. Towards the end, he says something about a fiance. But it all works to make their sound even stronger, more unhinged, more compelling. Just months ago, they were playing small gigs, now they're commanding crowds on big stages and making an outdated, very 80s sound work in 2016. There's not a more vital and exciting band in Australia right now.
But the night belongs to Sticky Fingers. The Sydney reggae rockers arrive drenched in controversy, their frontman Dylan's problems with substance abuse -- and well-publicised allegations of at least two tirades against indigenous musicians -- preceding them. They've planned to take an indefinite hiatus, and Lost Paradise is one of their very last handful of shows before disappearing for a while.
Judging from the crowd reaction, an absolutely packed moshpit with barely a spot of room in any direction, their fans don't want them to go. Their set is a pretty standard formula they've been churning out for several years, opening with favourite Land of Pleasure before a long set of their dreamy, groovy rock'n'roll tunes, but even considering their somewhat predictable stage show and the controversies threatening their future, they're still one of the most entertaining live acts going around.
People dance, girls swoon and jump on shoulders as the five boys from Newtown -- each with a uniquely bad haircut, each with their own garish 70s-tinged dress sense -- have one of their last real rockstar moments before heading off into the sunset.
The familiar twinkling synth lines ring around the valley, the groovy bass and guitar rhythms seemingly put out their own dance-inducing energy, and Dylan's entrancing, haunting voice echoes for what could be the last time in their home state. They play the headline slot, deservedly, on the big stage and send punters off with one last reminder of why they made it so big in the first place; they're just a super solid, impressive band.
Even if they've got the worst haircuts in Aussie music.
The promised heat respite didn't come on the festival's last day. As the last morning of 2016 came on, the sun remained. It's still hot. It's still beautiful in the valley. The river rave crew still aren't letting up. And we've still got some laidback pop-rock happening on the main stage.
Up and coming Triple J favourites Allan Smithy and Flower truck kept things laid back and relaxed, with cruisy and upbeat pop-rock songs starting the day off well for many who just wanted to sway in the sun and breeze as they warmed up for the night's celebrations.
Luke Million brought a decent crowd to his afternoon set, all anticipating his disco hit 'Arnold' sampling a Schwarzenegger workout tape. We boogie to the Prince-tinged grooves of Harts and get a bit silly to the rhythms of Kiwi reggae favourites Fat Freddy's Drop before the midnight hours is suddenly upon us.
It's down to dance favourites Flight Facilities to get us there, and as they walk on just 20 minutes before midnight, they take up their spot inside a mammoth metal structure of their own design. Huge LED screens play the biggest moments and characters of 2016 -- the Trump victory, Pauline Hanson, famous sporting victories and losses -- as we countdown to the magic moment. Flight Facilities' shtick of dressing up as airline pilots, and theming their sets like trips on a plane (complete with safety announcements) has done them well for years, and with huge tunes like 'Crave You', 'Heart Attack' and 'Foreign Language' under their belts, they're a fun and bright way to see in 2017.
Midnight hits, there's a countdown and a celebration, and the crowd just gets back to dancing out the old year and dancing in the new.
Lost Paradise was not what I expected.
By far the most relaxed and chilled out camping festival I've yet been to, it held the authenticity and genuine carefree abandon of a much smaller festival yet offered the weight of a much larger one.
Hopefully, as the festival continues to grow, it hangs onto that vibe of a massive party and doesn't just slip into the trap of overcomplicating things, or slapping a large neon alcohol logo on anything that stands still.
For more photos, see the gallery below
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