Splendor In The Grass
Freeman contributor and creative partner William Hinkamp took a trip to Australia to find out what the land of summer could offer in the dead of winter. Here’s what he had to say…
Eighteen hours on a plane isn’t exactly an ideal travel time, especially when the alternative is happy hour and a night out with the friends you haven’t seen in seven months. But after seven months in Europe whilst being paid to party, it seemed that the paid-for flight to Australia was the obvious choice. I was pretty burnt out on the “get blasted and rage” scene anyway. Some travel of a different sort smelled good to the brain.
Words are cheap. I arrived in the airport with a decent buzz. For the previous five hours I had been diligently working down an eighteen-pack of Coronas, a couple pints and a cocktail at happy hour and about 24 oysters. I felt great, which made the flight relatively painless. If you go, go Virgin. Another serving: three Victoria Bitters in-flight and all gratis. Unfortunately the good feelings only lasted as far as Melbourne, wherein the airport customs and baggage-claim areas cost me 3.5hrs and a missed connection to Sydney. I dealt with all this while seriously hung-over. I don’t consider myself one for bitching, but that customs line was the most ridiculous line I’ve seen for such a standardized process in my life. Yes Melbourne, I am bitter.
My sister Emily offered to put me up in a hotel with my second sister Franceska for the better part of a week while we toured Sydney. After the week the plan was to fly to Byron Bay and attend the music festival “Splendor in the Grass”; an event composed of the newest, hippest, hippy bands from all the trending niches of the western world. Emily was interning with a fashion company that designed clothing for the Australian market equivalent of Urban Outfitters or Freepeople; the kind of clothes that the hipsters and the trending fiends eat up. Mustaches and Ray-Bans: Needless to say that the experience promised to be very much inundated with that demographic of popular-style types. I would be lying if I said that didn’t put me on edge, the aggressively alternative…
The first week was a whirlwind of tourist activities, consisting of very protracted days, dictated by my sister’s schedule. Early mornings and early bed times, though she was not working. She just preferred it that way. Way too productive. Get on my level… While this was quite a change, the angst caused by the situation was alleviated considerably given that the hotel had a gym, and we were able to see a decent amount of the city during the normal operating hours of civilization (a change for me)… It became extremely refreshing to be up when consumer establishments and public sites were actually open to the public. You forget how good it feels to be productive when you haven’t done anything productive for days.
The hotel was on the block next to Town Hall rail station. I was in the heart of the financial district of Sydney, but unless you’re wearing a suit, are actually conducting business or have a stick up your ass, don’t go the financial district. It’s tall office buildings with nothing to look at and no food except coffee beans for 20 square blocks. Not far from the hotel was China Town, which has a healthy combination off all the establishments you’d expect, or want to find in most China Towns. I was impressed. Coming from a man whose local China Town was San Francisco’s the reader would do well to go experience this one. There was oddly a lack of Chinese people in China town. Most, it seemed, were natives of the Indian subcontinent, running the Chinese shops. I have no idea… The area also has a massive merchant and flea market for your entire Chinese regurgitative industrial product needs. Being closer to the Middle Kingdom means goods are even cheaper than in China Town back home, so take advantage of the $50 blackberries.
A Westfield shopping center on the south end of the financial district is attached to Sydney’s TV tower. I had lunch at the top. The food was nice. The view was better.
On the other side of the peninsula is Circular Quay (pronounced ‘key’) where there are harbor ferries that’ll take you almost anywhere. Bondi Beach takes 20minutes but isn’t such a riot in winter. Jackets in lieu of bikinis. At Circular Quay the homeless and severely alcoholic digaree doo playing man represented the better part of the local entertainment. His buddy was sitting a block down painting a massive ‘Where’s Waldo’ scene for posterity, also drunk. Yet another block down and there sat the Sydney Opera House in its abstract-architectural glory. I took a tour that was extremely impressive and entertaining for those like myself, who are mechanically minded. The best part of the opera area is the Opera Pub. It’s on a lower deck under the opera house overlooking the harbor with live bands almost everyday, and reasonable prices. The other side of the Quay was an area called The Rocks. It’s the old part of town. Full of art vendors, coffee and pubs settled into old storefronts reminiscent of early 20th century architecture. Very Victorian. Full of the posh and yuppy types that take pains to alternate their alternative styles yet refuse to wear low quality thread. No bare feet or unkempt hair. I speak of the wealthy hipster; those familiar with the better-fed parts of Venice, California or Nashville, Tennessee have seen such types. The place gets interesting most weekends when the streets turn into an open market. Keeping in style with the area, the vendors carry mostly art and unique local goods. The guy with the honey shop is extremely nice. So is his honey. The area is a great spot to go out at night as well. So go.
My sister and I were in a pub, in The Rocks, facing a window as I sipped my pint of brew and she, hers of cider, when a familiar face walked by the other side of the glass. Sister runs out and a reunion takes place. Some girl from high school I’ve never met, but she’s beautiful so I’m the first to offer a chair and a drink. The girl’s a riot. Beer helps people’s smiles shine. Her dad walked in five minutes later, which switched the gears. The man was one of those rare ex-servicemen with a sense of humor. He was so humorous in fact, I say he could give Robin Williams a run for his money. I say Robin Williams, because of the similar humor, not because I particularly like his style; Jonny on-the-spot with jokes and a plethora of impressions, all disparate characters and voices. It was odd but worth mentioning because I laughed harder than I had in a while. Good things are the most worthy of note, and laughter is among the best of things. I’d like to repeat that I’m not sure if I even like Robin Williams.
In Sydney Harbor is Cockatoo Island. It used to be a prison labor camp and shipping dry dock. The buildings are converts from the days prisoners were held there, and the feeling around is thusly creepy. However, the land is constantly used as a venue for cultural exhibitions of various sorts. At the time there was an art exhibit showcasing art by Australia immigrants and naturalized Australians concerning the subject of displacement and national identity. Rich stuff. Go.
For a day trip I went to the beach, not because it’s particularly attractive in winter and the cold, but because it was the obvious choice on one of the only sunny days I had. Not too far out of the city is the small beach community of Cronulla. My sisters and I hopped on the hour-long train from the city and arrived around mid-day. The place has the old town feel of some 1950’s era Pleasantville. Shops and food lined the streets. A storefront town with more surf shops than people; summer brings crowds to the beach and the area’s various surf breaks, which are beautiful. Course grained sand with a sizable beach breaks pumping 50 yards out. Lifeguard towers every hundred meters or so and a park with nicely paved walkways serve as a buffer between the sunbathers and the commercial area. During winter, there were very few people on the sand, although there were some lifeguards on duty for surfers and any others with a screw loose who wanted to brave the water. Just around the point at the southern end of Cronulla was a grip of photographers snapping away at the scenery, many of them with lenses pointed at the point break which was supporting a swell of around eight feet that day, throwing out a barrel that looked hollow enough to standup in. Just for a moment, before collapse. Foam spit. The people were friendly and welcoming, as was natural for a town that was no doubt supported by tourists like us coming through year round. If it’s a nice day, the trip is well worth it.
We left for Byron Bay on a Thursday. We went to the concert with three-day passes the next day. The weather forecasted sun all three days, but the sunofabitch weatherman got it wrong. It poured all the first day and Splendour in the Grass became Splendour in the Mud. It was everywhere and knee-deep. The grass disappeared under a sea of boot-churn, and the churn claimed my shoes. Those Freemen reading who’ve been under the sky in the wet and cold, with wet feet and wet souls, will know the miserable feeling. Hating it and knowing that you’ve got hours before you can attempt to seek the dry, and the warm. Thank the gods for music. The music saved me.
I wont get into every artist I saw, you can find the set list online if you’ve half a brain, but all played well and played hard. It’s a great thing to see people project a passion, with passion, through any medium but especially music. The crowd absorbs the energy and you feel the crowd project it in turn. Out of their mouths, their eyes, and their feet. It’s contagious and it’s what I went for.
I lost my sister after she got into it with some strange bearded man dancing to our immediate front. I left them to it, but was separated from them by the end. She never made the rally point and I lost my glasses and rental car keys in the mud. I hoofed it back, got a shuttle and promptly passed out. It was a bitch getting new keys from the rental office. The things have individualized chips in them (evidently), which made the replacement as expensive as the weekend rental of the car itself, or a three-day ticket to the festival. It couldn’t be helped. At least the sun came out to play.
Saturday and Sunday went off without a hitch. Like most festivals of the sort, the open-air feel is half the draw. Much of the time I wasn’t near a stage but wandering around the myriad of vendors that had set up food and/or merchandise stands. They sat in the middle of the various stages, between them and in the slowly, fruitlessly drying mud. There was no going around the mud.
The people were standing in condensed masses balled at a stage, gradually dispersing and lessening in density as they radiated outward, toward and into the muddy fields until they again condensed around the next loitering area, merchandise stand, or stage. Stepping-stones in the mud. Checkpoints for supplies on the arduous and filthy journey to the next performance. Alcohol. The people were distraught at the lack of Blue Ribbon tallboys.
The crowd was a parody of itself. I envisioned a scene in this parody of a camera on tracks moving down one of the massive lines to the entrance of the venue. The people waiting and chatting, conspiring about whom to see first, hiding contraband in their clothes, judging the people next to them, who were in turn, judging. Everyone with their own brand of hip. This was happening in front of me, captured by the lens of my eye. You had to look the part to participate, but to look the part you had to look like you didn’t care. Those that really didn’t care though didn’t quite have the ‘right’ “I don’t care” look. All of hipsterdom is a double standard in this way but it makes for some beautiful eye candy. I laugh, but I’ve been labeled as one of them. Long hair, don’t care. I should say to the credit of the festival, that the setup and execution was such that the general feeling of the demographic was not the focus. Having said that, I’m not sure the music is either. There’re too many attractions and gimmicks for it to be. Stands offering everything from body paint and tattoos, food and clothes to Buddhist chanters, palm readers and a Red-Bull tent; playing loops of action sport clips while pushing their stimulants to the masses for $5 per can. There was a fishing trawler sitting in between stages and set up as a themed bar as well as a full-blown tent-Mexican restaurant with seating for over 100. If you got lost around this area, it seemed as if one was attending a sporting event and flea market combo with a serious sound track pumping from some gigantic, hidden amp. Such was the general environment and feeling.
I was to come back from Byron Bay to Sydney as a one-day stopover on my way back out to LA. Barring some reading, drinks and wheeling my bags down transit hallways blacked-out, my trip down under was essentially over.
A parting story.
The airport in Byron is small (two gates). We had the last flight out and because of this, the attendants thought it either unnecessary or too much effort to security screen us, or our bags. While waiting to board, after the luggage had been loaded onto the mini looking turbo-prop, an attendant came off the plane with my checked bag and asked whose it was. I stepped forward. Evidently a vibrating object inside required them to remove the bag. Policy has them let the owner of the bag remove the item in question for liability/safety reasons. It was a hair trimmer. I knew this but none of the 20 other passengers knew that. It was definitely a great moment for my sisters, giggling like maniacs behind me. This was the cue needed to infer to the rest of the people around what the item might actually be, and they all started with the muffled laughs and whatnot… “In the event of a finding, we must always use the indefinite article; ‘a dildo’, rather than ‘your dildo’ so as not to implicate possession in the case that the item is in fact, a dildo.“…
It really was a trimmer.
 Victoria Bitters or ‘VB’ is a staple in the Australian refrigerator. It’s everywhere, unlike Fosters, which strangely isn’t anywhere in Australia. Fosters actually owns VB, but VB tastes better.
 Similar establishments actually sell faux Ray-Bans with fake mustaches already attached
 Having been entertained before by watching a clock taken apart puts my entertainment preference in relative perspective.