Written by Erik Skoog
Photos by The Secret Garden’s Facebook Page
An hour drive outside of downtown Sydney, down a dirt road leading to the Downes Family Farm, rests a hand painted sign that reads “No Dickheads Past This Point.” Past that, the entrance to the last ever Secret Garden festival, beckoning you into the forest with faint disco bass lines. Bring your glitter, your sequins, and your dancing shoes – we are so ready to share this party with you.
Secret Garden Festival came to be back in 2008, when director Clare Downes joined forces with six other co-founders to throw a party “for mates by mates.” What started as an elaborate 21st birthday for Clare quickly grew into an Australian staple. The success of this quirky forest disco is easily seen by its habit of regularly selling out tickets before a lineup is even announced. This is in part due to the excitement of the attendees, but also a calculated move on the part of the organizers, looking to attract those drawn to the experience more than the lineup. That’s not to say they don’t deliver, previously bringing in acts such as Band of Youths, Hayden James, Rufus du Sol, and Alison Wonderland. I’ve always subscribed to the idea that the price of a ticket goes into far more than simply the artists performing. What you’re ultimately paying for is a crafted experience in a specific environment. Everything from the lights to the people to the vibe to the ambiance, Secret Garden is a good example of this as anything. While much of this is meticulously planned, a lot of it also happens organically, surprises occurring in the moment when everything comes together and you just let it happen.
It would be hard not to compare the entire experience to Electric Forest – a broad selection of musical acts playing across a magic forest setting, odd and trippy art installations, and lots of little attractions to get you sidetracked. Secret Garden, complete with homemade decorations and offbeat humor, is a little rough around the edges in a very endearing way, layering everything in a sincerity you can only achieve through making something with your bare hands. Outside of the obvious visual comparisons you can find at Electric Forest, there is also a similar vibe permeating from the people walking around the festival. Everyone is just glowing. Supportive, friendly, and genuine. Being out in the woods clearly does something to us, stripping it all away to a very real and authentic place.
Other festivals I’ve worked at in Australia have felt a little more mechanical – book artists, build stages, sell drinks. It’s hard to go wrong with live music, but they seemed to lack the heart that breathes life into Secret Garden. This is the kind of vibe you long for in a festival. Camping neighbors that feel like family after only two days. Random encounters with people who become friends. Good energy from happy faces looking out for each other. Of course the lineup never fails to comes through either, but it’s everything else that has allowed the festival to sell out before a single artist is revealed.
It’s been a while since I’ve gone to a concert or festival without knowing anyone on the flier. Often I’ll need to do a bit of homework beforehand, trying to use any gaps in my knowledge as an opportunity to discover some new artists. I think this is the first time I’ve ever gone in completely blind. To add to this, I was working behind the bar for a significant portion and a little too busy to look at who happened to be playing on the stage I was next to. But I do know that the bartenders never stopped dancing.
I did end up going back through the set times in a hopeful attempt to remember where I was when certain artists stood out. Look up Melbourne-based Kayroy, master of all things disco and funk (seriously try not dancing during his sets), Rash Bandicoot, who you should absolutely be paying attention to so you can say you were listening to her before she blew up; Ebony Boadu, queen of nostalgic hip hop throwbacks; Spit Chewy, channeling a No Doubt-era Gwen Stefani; and The Dollar Bin Darlings, the team behind a wild disco-infused drag show.
The mainstage delivered what you would expect from a decently sized music festival, with acts like the Preatures and a Daft Punk tribute getting to showcase how many people had come out for the weekend. But where Secret Garden truly excelled was with everything waiting to be discovered in the forest – demonstrated perfectly in Charlotte’s Trailer Park Party, a dance party hosted in the small house constructed specifically for Secret Garden. Decorated like the living room of your parent’s house, an aux cord allowed anyone to throw on their own music and be a temporary master of ceremonies, spinning everything from garage house to sing-a-long party favorites for an ever evolving crowd on the prowl for a dance floor. That energy, as if your friends happened to throw a really great party with a killer turnout, created a perfect snapshot of the rest of the experience – a festival “for mates by mates.”
Other attractions of the forest included The Partynon, the hip-hop and trap stage to honor Bacchus, god of wine and fertility; a 360° stage with the DJ perched above the dance floor in a treehouse; a pop up buzz-in game show; the Secret Garden’s Got Talent Show; and a movie theatre tucked up on hill that only showed this black and white film about ants. My personal favorite, and probability the best representation of Secret Garden’s energy, was the Applause Zone Bleachers at the entrance to the forest, where other attendees would sit (sometimes for over an hour) and display their love and appreciation for anyone who happened to be walking by. There was plenty more do do and discover, but ultimately you just go where the Garden calls you.
On Saturday night, somewhere around the crowd enthusiastically joining in on “Total Eclipse of The Heart,” The Preatures brought out the Clare’s Downes’ parents and owners of the farm to give them a warm, long, and well deserved standing ovation – a thank you for the memories and magic of the last eleven years. It was clear that people were sad to witness the end of an era. When previously asked about 2019 being the final year Downes quoted a friend as saying it’s “good to always leave a party when you’re having fun.” I can certainly appreciate the sentiment behind this, often having been a self-inflicted victim of staying up until way past sunrise. Though if I had to speculate I’d say that the overwhelming police presence has also played its role in Secret Garden closing its doors.
To be frank, the level of security at Secret Garden was obscene. All cars were thoroughly searched with sniffer dogs on the way in. Police would stop attendees in the middle of the festival and ask them if they were on drugs. Plain clothes officers patrolled the ground with guns strapped to their waists. People were subjected to random drug and alcohol tests leaving the festival, and in some cases detained in a police van to run secondary tests – despite not having taken any illicit substances. These operating procedures didn’t go unnoticed by the artists, all of them also being treated to the search and security protocol, and many making their voices head on social media or on stage. The same weekend was Ultra Music Festival in Sydney and Melbourne, and I was told by several sources that people were being stopped mid festival to have their bags checked, or in some cases, even stripped searched.
As mentioned in our Rainbow Serpent review, there is a serious problem facing music festivals in Australia. What is being described as a “war on festivals,” was protested at a Don’t Kill Live rally in Sydney the week before Secret Garden (which also had a strong police presence). Liquor service laws are already very strict in Australia and the government recently imposed new regulations that classify certain festivals as “high-risk,” requiring exorbitant fees and security to operate, including FOMO Music Festival and the Aussie hard dance icon Defqon. With insurance premiums reaching up to $200,000 in some cases, several festivals have already been forced to cancel, including Mountain Sounds Festival a mere week before the event. Any conversation surrounding harm reduction and education is dismissed, claiming that it only encourages drug use. Peer mentor and harm reduction program DanceWize is fortunately still permitted to operate at festivals, though part of me fears that might be the next thing to go. All of this seems to be done with the intention of making it unrealistic for the organizers to put on a festival and frustrating for the attendees. The government simply isn’t interested in working together on regulations, and while they can’t quite go full Footloose and ban music outright, if they make it unrealistic for organizers and frustrating for attendees, they can just exhaust people enough that they will do it themselves.
After eleven years, plenty of awards, adoration, and raising nearly $500,000 for charity; Secret Garden (in the current form at least) celebrated its final year. As I mentioned earlier, the forty-eight hour forest disco is exactly what you want out of a festival. All parts come together perfectly, and radiate through the energy of the people, proudly put on display in the effort of their costumes, the joy on their faces, and love in their hearts. “For mates by mates” is a pretty spot on description, and it would be hard to walk away without feeling a friend to everyone there. It’s a shame that this is the last one, but if this is what Clare & Company have been able to deliver after more than a decade, I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.