The chaos started early. Fifteen-plus-hour waits – with no food or water provided – to get into a campsite that was mostly under water. No staff on site to lead cars through. No information from anyone with authority. As news outlets started relaying the miserable conditions of this year’s Splendour in the Grass festival, the event’s latest Twitter update read: “You won’t see any disposable cups at Splendour bars.”
Friends of ours who drove a campervan from Sydney couldn’t even get through the gates; after 20 hours behind the wheel, as other cars ahead of them in the line ran out of petrol and/or got bogged in the mud, they called it a night at 3.30am and slept in a Woolies underground car park.
We were staying in an AirBnB, and as we headed down to catch a bus to the venue the next morning, news filtered out that day one of the festival had been cancelled – despite assurances hours earlier that it would go ahead “rain, hail or shine”. The poor campers who braved a night of water sports on site were appeased with a few DJ tents throbbing repetitive beats into their sleep-derived brains.
“Day two is a go,” read the chirpy message posted to Splendour’s socials at 9.45am the next day. “The site is weather affected! However, don’t let it wash away your spirit.” The update described the grounds as “soft” and recommended gumboots – but locals told us shops had sold out weeks earlier.
Underplaying the reality of the situation was a constant theme that seemed deceptive at best, and bordered on dangerous. The festival had been cancelled for the previous two years and, as the weekend drew closer, it weathered major last-minute lineup changes and a liquor licence controversy. The scrapped Friday lineup had included headliners Gorillaz and the Avalanches. It’s understandable the festival would want to scratch back as much money as they could.
The party line was that there was a completely unforeseeable one-in-50-year weather event. But Byron was underwater just a few months ago; there was clear risk involved in hosting 50,000 punters on the grounds.
At 9:45am on day two, Saturday, we were warned to prepare for bus delays – with some advice from the mega-pumped Splendour socials: “Rideshare or taxi are great options too!” This was particularly infuriating: Splendour had sold bus tickets in advance, at a cost of $20 a day – they had a literal count of how many buses they needed to provide. It would have cost us $304.70 to grab an Uber XL from our bus stop.
Still, we persevered. I was preparing for the Strokes to be replaced by a local slam poet, and Tyler the Creator to be subbed out for a jumbotron screening of The One Where Ross Asks Out Rachel – but the sun was threatening to burst through the clouds and the wind had died down to a dull roar, so spirits weren’t washed away as yet. Who knows, maybe we wouldn’t even be strip-searched upon entry. Optimism is a hell of a drug.
By mid-afternoon, it became clear the buses weren’t going to arrive for hours. It took energy drink V and their merciful party bus – with an onboard DJ, free glitter makeup and drag queens handing out hats and branded beach balls – to actually get people to the festival. But they weren’t allowed to drive the bus on to the grounds: Splendour was officially sponsored by a competing energy drink, the one that purports to give you wings. Wings would have been handy: some music tents were inaccessible due to the sewerage-smelling creeks that pooled around them.
When we finally arrived, the Splendour organisers were struggling to rein in the chaos. As we hopped off the party bus and wandered down the street, a staff member yelled at us to “get off the fucking road”, pointing for us to instead wade through shin-deep mud as to not block the nonexistent buses.
Once through the gates, there was no way to get into the grounds without wading through a slippery blend of mud, vomit and piss, a knee-high horror bog that smelled of death and made you wish for it. People were openly pissing into the mud between food stalls – which poses a few more health and safety questions.
As we walked towards the main stage areas, I passed by people on their way out. I saw tears. I saw blood. We looked to the Splendour socials for guidance. “We’re all here for the love of music! Be patient, be kind and be safe.”
We had Gold Bar tickets, which promised some shelter from the storm for an extra $220 a pop. Alas, Splendour oversold these tickets – and the line to get in was more than a hundred metres long. When we told a security guard we had paid for access, he told us to “line up or fuck off” – angrily yelling the final two words.
We gave up on the Gold Bar, and it turns out we didn’t miss the Avalanches – but instead of the band, it was an avalanche of humans, slipping and falling down the steep muddy hill, that noxious mud all over their faces, in their eyes and in their mouths.
The bus situation out of the site on Saturday night was even worse than on the way in: seven-hour queues for some, with people not getting home until dawn. Their stories littered the comments under well-lit photos of the fun, fun day that were posted to Splendour’s official Instagram feed. “We got home at 6am from the bus disaster!!!!! Ruined so many people’s day!!!” wrote one person. “Queued for a bus at 12am and as I type this is 4:20am and I’m not even close to the end :(” wrote another. And, from a third: “No water for 3 hours. Couldn’t get to toilets because we were packed in like sardines. 0 communication from any staff. Freezing cold. We know there’s lines and that festivals aren’t always glamorous but this was unbelievably awful for everyone involved.”
The Strokes finished at the stroke of midnight. There were reports of people still waiting on the site at 4am – with hordes of others – for buses they had already paid for.
“We hear you and we understand your frustration with our bus services last night,” the festival posted on Instagram on Sunday, blaming bus driver shortages for some delays they claimed affected around 1,000 people. Their statement said that 90% of bus patrons were off site by 3.30am after the festival finished at 2am – but in the comments underneath, people who had been there called those claims a “serious downplay” and “absolute bullshit”. Splendour in the Grass didn’t respond to Guardian Australia’s request for comment.
Natalie Mikkelsen waited five hours with her 16-year-old daughter for a bus to Murwillumbah on Saturday night. They had left the festival before 11pm and missed the Strokes in an attempt to beat the crowds – but didn’t get home to Burringbar (a 10-minute drive away) until 4am. “They can’t control the weather, but they just don’t have the infrastructure in place … and they didn’t have enough buses,” she told the Guardian. “There was no communications … it was just bleak … it was cold, people were hungry and thirsty.”
We bailed long before that – at 9pm – after seeing just one band, Violent Soho. They played an excellent greatest hits set, with almost every song sung back at them at top volume; all the frustrations of the weekend expelled in an energetic “hell fuck yeah”. Many punters were determined to enjoy themselves – and news footage shows some of them even succeeded.
Not my friends and I. Our bus back to Byron was like a war hospital. Bloodied, muddied, shell-shocked people, sitting in silence with thousand-yard stares, shaking their heads every now and then. Nobody was talking; the only sound was that of a quiet rage. We didn’t return for day three.