“Happy new decade!” Alison Wonderland shouted to me - and thousands of others. It was the first few minutes of 2020, and I was alone in the mosh-pit at Rhythm & Vines. Not technically alone, but I wasn’t part of a group. In fact, I had driven down by myself.
“…You’re probably wondering how I got here.”
Working for George FM, most of my friends were headed to R&V for new years to work or DJ at the festival. Not me though, but I figured I’d head down by myself, and catch them all after their shifts and sets… that’s not going alone… is it?
The six-and-a-half-hour drive from Auckland to Gisborne is sold as a rite of passage road-trip. For me, it was a silent reminder that I was headed to the biggest party in the country with no company. Doubts were beginning to creep in about not meeting up with my friends, and being the kinda random guy at the party.
Those doubts only got louder as I began the camping process. I showed up to the campsite half an hour before opening time, and there were no signs of life. To avoid being seen as a loner by potential camp neighbours, I drove to the nearest BP and waited. Driving back after what felt like only a few minutes, the line was already all the way down the road.
R&V: 1 - Shawn: 0.
The six-and-a-half-hour drive from Auckland to Gisborne is sold as a rite of passage road-trip. For me, it was a silent reminder that I was headed to the biggest party in the country with no company.
When it came time to erect (haha) my tent, I was well and truly in my own head. I initially thought all this camping stuff would be an afterthought, and I’d quickly set up wherever and then mission off to find my friends. But the whole process took a lot longer than I anticipated. Even getting in and out of the campsite with wait times and security was an unforeseen barrier. It dawned on me I had been alone the whole day and it was approaching late afternoon.
Although I didn’t have anything illegal on me, the security pat down was still very intimidating. I wasn’t prepared for the roasting I received by the aunties rifling through my stuff.
“Who brings a book to Rhythm!?” She said, holding up my copy of Anthony Kiedis’ biography ‘Scar Tissue’.
“Me! I’m here by myself. And I’m 26. I’m on holiday. [Leave me alone.]”
I was really hesitant to put my tent up. Everywhere seemed too close to big groups of friends, and I didn’t want to intrude. I ended up asking one person: “Hey, all good if I set up here?” That person met me with such welcoming energy, all my nerves evaporated. His name was Waleed, he had thick eyebrows and a very personable smile. “Yeah man all good! I’m Waleed, this is my brother Fahad, the bro Nemo down there in the big tent…”
Waleed and Farhad were two wind up toys, bouncing off the canvas walls, young and excited for another Rhythm. They were the perfect pair for me to meet, and along with their friend Nemo, I felt like there was space for a fourth.
Nemo was just as nice with slightly more reserved energy. After exchanging pleasantries, he straight up asked me “So where are your mates?”
They were the perfect pair to meet, and along with their friend Nemo, I felt like there was space for a fourth.
It wasn’t in a judgey way, he was just curious. Considering I had a long drive to come up with something, I should have nailed the explanation. Instead I got a bit flustered and said something like “Aw, ah my mates are all working, and um I’m gonna see them later, and I swear I’m not a loner, umm…”
On night one, we agreed to head into the festival together. I didn’t wanna burden them by hanging around all night like a bad smell. But there we all were, on the back of some weird ute/tractor thing, transporting us through the grapevines, having a great time. Laughing, swapping stories, and generally amped for the night ahead. We said "seeya later" as we entered the gates, and I then I was on my own again.
I didn’t realize how early I had gotten to the festival, which is so classic of me. I was one of six people at the first set of the secondary stage, where I saw my friend and R&V organizer Dylan DJing. I stayed until the end of his set so I could have a chat with him.
“Yeah we don’t like booking people for this slot, because we know it’s so early and such a slim chance anyone will actually be here. So I just do it most years.” Dylan explained. “I heard you’re here by yourself?”
I couldn’t believe word had reached Dylan about my solo adventure. He was mildly curious about how my time would be, but confident that I’d have a great time.
I spent probably four or five hours on my own bouncing around stages before I finally met up with my big group of George friends. The thing is, when people go to RNV to work, they actually have to work. It was deep into the darkness when I finally found them.
Yes, I was excited to see everyone. But I could tell this group was running on reserves. They were tired from the day, plus you factor in the 'over five group issue'. When you’re at a festival with a group bigger than five, it’s hard to get anywhere. All having the exact same bladder reserves and wanting to see all the same acts at the same time, basically doesn’t happen. We called it fairly early.
Waking up at camp, I had my friendly neighbours to debrief with. After God knows what for breakfast, I was invited to head into town with them to restock and head to the beach for the afternoon.
Waleed was blasting his ridiculously oversized bluetooth speaker at the beach as if he was trying to get some small side-stage going while we chilled in the sun. (I was under an umbrella, which annoyingly will become relevant later on.) Although I wasn’t with my usual friends, I felt like I was in a group who had decided to go together. Everyone had their roles to play. We had the two comedic brothers, the dad of the group, which left me as the new guy.
Back at camp there was something special in the air. The weather was perfect, we were all completely comfortable with each other, and the atmosphere was building. This time aboard the ute, there were no plans of separating at the gates. I had changed my attitude, and was happy to let the night take me to wherever felt easiest.
Inside the festival, I quickly understood why it's nameD the 'I Love You Bro' hill.
Walking in, a girl approached me.
“Hey, were you at the beach today?”
I was appreciative that a seemingly friendly person was keen to make conversation. This is what I hoped for, that it would be easy to make friends with whoever.
“You were under the umbrella aye?”
“Yeah…” Before I could ask why, she launched into her offensive.
“What are you a vampire or something?! Are you a vampire??? Can’t be in the sun like a vampire?!”
Wow. Curveball. It gave me a new appreciation for my group. These guys had gone out of their way to be accommodating and friendly, while this girl had gone out of her way to accuse me of being an undead blood-sucker. I cut that chat short.
Inside the festival, I quickly understood why it's named the 'I love you bro' hill. Sun setting, Dave Dobbyn absolutely slaying a cover of 'Old Town Road' - everything was perfect. I didn’t know it at the time, but those hours on the hill were the highlight of my whole experience. After the festival I checked through my camera roll, and Nemo had somehow gotten hold of a whole roll of industrial toilet paper, and rolled it down the hill. We cheered excessively.
I didn't know it at the time, but those hours on the hill were the highlight of my whole experience.
I was mid-conversation with someone when Wilkinson started playing 'Afterglow', and she said “Sorry, can you just…” and closed her eyes to bliss out. I knew I was having the quintessential Rhythm experience.
Months later, I learned these pristine moments were captured in the R&V aftermovie. My seconds-long cameo was an over-the-shoulder shot of me and a stocky guy I had just met taking in the main stage magic. That guy also made me thankful for my new mates, because after chatting for a bit, out of nowhere he says: “Fuck I’m keen for a riot, aye.” Not exactly my energy.
By now, I was confident. Our group was growing bigger, and I realised not everyone would want to see the acts I wanted to see. I knew I’d probably end up being a solo operator tonight, but was ready. I made another break for it and launched into the crowd alone.
I decided I would try to get close to the front for the new year’s countdown. I began chatting with the guy behind me, who was also from Auckland and worked at a café close to where I worked. That was cool. Maybe he’ll be my temporary mosh friend.
All I wanted was some people around me to exchange dirty looks with when the DJ played something wicked. I knew that I had to be the one to put out good energy if I was to be well-received this deep in the crowd. I needed to make inviting me into the fold an appealing option. So when the crowd was asked to "make some noooisee!" I decided to yell:
“Yeah the boys!”
It’s not a usual saying in my repertoire, and it felt weird. I was trying to fit in. Old mate café piped up from behind me with a surprising amount of aggression.
“Hey, let’s leave 'yeah the boys' in 2019 aye?”
To this day, I drive past his café in Auckland and give it the evils.
The countdown came and went, and yes this was the year R&V messed up the video. The sound would play with no video, the video would play with no sound and it just missed the mark completely. It was chopped up and all over the place, kinda like my night. The highlight of the working portion of the video was Coey the Rogue (the gang member that Guy Williams interviewed) singing his song: “When you’re married to the mob, baby it’s a fulltime job. Get down on your knees, and satisfy the dog.” That got incredible applause.
The night ended with a friend I had made on the hill the night before, Kawhiti. We went to the endless kick drum that is the cellar stage, and stayed until the DJs stopped playing. No one was really talking to each other by then. I remember looking behind me and seeing what looked like straight-faced goblins hiding amongst the trees.
A hint of morning light bounced off the thousands of tiny crushed cans in the main stage valley as we left the festival. Outside, there were hordes of 'taxis' that looked a lot like Gisborne locals cashing in to drive punters to wherever they needed to be. I did not expect to see a familiar face, however the unmistakable double swastikas of Coey the Rogue’s cheeks were peeking out of a white ute. Despite my campsite being a walk away, I jumped in the car.
“Five bucks to Woodlands?”
“Aw yeah, go on,” Coey said.
So much went through my head. I was in a car with a notorious gang member. Also as someone who is Jewish, I must be in the >1% of Jews who have willingly jumped into an enclosed space with someone who has swastika tattoos. I should be scared, but if anything I was a bit star-struck.
Coey had manners. Navigating the carpark with all sorts of people in his way, he only ever said politely: “Excuse me please”, as if he was a real taxi driver, and his eftpos machine was actually “not working tonight.”
“Coey…” I said. The fact that I knew his name startled him.
I must be in the >1% of Jews who have willingly jumped into an enclosed space with someone wHO HAS swastika tattoos.
“You know you were on the big screen tonight aye?!”
“Aww man!!!! Literally everyone I’ve driven home tonight has mentioned that. Except for one, but I thought you were going to be one too.”
“Aw sorry man, it was so cool seeing you up there, that interview you did was amazing,”
“Aw thanks bro, nah too much.”
It was a really positive exchange despite him being embarrassed. He wouldn’t have expected to have been on the big screen that night, but I think it helped him. He told me he had made about $1500 and counting this night alone. Not a bad haul.
I had about two hours of sleep before I awoke naturally. I had heard rumours of the terrible traffic as everyone tries to leave Gisborne at the same time while getting stopped for breathalysers. So I was out of camp before 8:30am. Just like that, on the road home. What seemed like an endless three days was instantly in the rear-view mirror, and I was back to the same downbuzz playlist that saw me through the first drive.
I took a huge risk in going by myself, but there were a lot of reasons as to why I did this. Wanting to make the most of my youth before it was gone was a real motivator, plus I’d never been to R&V before, and it seemed both well out of my comfort zone, yet achievable. Did it pay off in the end? Absolutely. I wouldn’t have done it any differently.
Going alone is not for everyone. I was prepared to have a fairly quiet and uneventful time in between seeing my mates. If someone told me I’d barely end up spending any time with people I knew, I wonder if I would have pressed play on the whole trip. But the unknown ended up being the best part.
Months later, word had gotten around to Dylan about my adventures. “Oh yeah I heard you had an amazing time. We need to do like, a video on you to show people what happens when you go alone. You’re the poster boy.”
The video never happened, so hopefully this article will do.