The Gathering Festival NYE 1996/1997. The Canaan Downs. Welcome Home.

The use of the phrase welcome home is splashed around the phenomena called Burner culture, or Burning Man when you enter the playa or the paddock (if you’re going to Kiwiburn) but I feel that it is more appropriate for this festival for it changed the landscape of the festival culture in this country like no festival ever did, or has since. It was the birthing of so many other festivals that came after it. The conscious movement festival in my perception rose out of it, and the big electronic festivals followed in its wake paled by comparison. I think that so many of the iconic festivals in this country owe a great debt to the organisers of the Gathering. Splore, Shipwrecked, Phat Party, Rhythm and Vines, and Luminate all came in the bow wake of this pioneering New Year’s Eve experience. For me, it was the consummate experience of spirituality, dance, altered states of consciousness, and meeting some of the most influential people in my life who, to this day are still some of my favourite souls incarnate.

I had heard about the festival from friends in the Tasman Bay region and having been to many dance parties in the bush before this one I was always a starter. So much fun. I was skint at the time, so decided to go up there early (around a week before) to see if I could work as crew to set up the party to get a free ticket. Being successful, I spent my days hauling and pulling ropes to erect marque tents, setting boundary markers in the forest, erecting structures and lighting, and generally helping where I could. I spent around a week working all day, every day. At night, the crew would get together and we would share a basic meal and spend our moments getting to know one another. There is no feeling like being on top of that mountain. I was consciously aware of energy, and that piezoelectric field on that gigantic crystal mountain is insanely powerful. Some of my friends who were healers talked to a man in the Tasman region about the sacred geometry of the site and brought it to the attention of the open-minded festival organisers that they could do an energetic grounding around the site to protect the energy field for the revellers and crew alike. Anchoring a protective bubble around the entire festival site, they walked around the perimeters of the festival, through the forest, along the roads, in a light trance state. When they were done, they called a meeting of all crew to one of the marque tents.

I’ll never forget the energy in that tent. I feel my skin covered in gooseflesh as I write this. Lee, one of the healers, said that they had been guided to walk around the festival site in a particular way, and they had used an aerial map to show where they had walked. The shape they had mapped on the aerial shot denoted where they had walked to. As they ‘filled in the blanks’ with each segment they realised they had walked in an enormous heart shape! The cheers, the exuberance, and joy in that marque after she told us that spilled into the festival setting the energetic confluence that would be the foundation of the whole duration of our collective experience. I had bought a fat Freddy (a double sliver of LSD) off one of the crew when a friend of mine told me that she had secured her ‘entertainment ticket’ for the NYE show, and to my surprise, I didn’t take it, need it or want it. The stimulation I had at that festival altered my consciousness like no festival did before or has since. Thanks to the music, the connections with people, and the sheer love that I felt from strangers and friends. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING has come close to my festival experience at the Gathering 1997. I have been to some incredible festivals around the planet that blew my mind and heart open, but the Gathering 1997 was special. It broke new ground in ways that no other festival has done for those who attended it I believe. It shaped the festival culture for a generation.

It’s all a bit fuzzy now, the moments between moments of poignancy. Countless hours talking with people, connecting, watching shows, performances, and the music itself. Two of the memories stay with me, both life-changing. Receiving the trigger for remembering my lifetime on Atlantis and learning how to bring energy into the chakras on the soles of my feet and draw it up from the earth, into my chakra system and going into deep trance. I’ll espouse the latter before the former. I was in the tribal area for a lot of that festival. The drummers there were some of the finest I have ever seen globally. One man stood out amongst the rest due to his ability to hold and create rhythm, but also go into a trance around the fire. Sam Tatau. He had lived with First Peoples communities in Arnhem Land for around nine years. Vanishing from the country of his birth (not many people knew where he had gone to) and making a surprise re-entry into a full moon drumming in Wellington at the former Cuba Cuba Garden Bar full moon drumming circles in the mid-1990s. Here at the Gathering, he was the tohunga (expert) who held the tribal area as a living entity. Whenever he came there the energy lifted and changed, and the scene got truly wild. Walking away from the tribal zone on NYE to go to the more electronic stages for a dance and drop my acid, he came up beside me and saw me pulling out the blotted paper. “What’s that?” He asked me. I told him what it was, and how it would keep me awake and allow me to connect to the music on a deeper level, give me energy and alter my consciousness to a level of greater expansion. “Put that away man!” He said with a laugh. “Come with me. I’ll show you how to get energy from the earth and change your consciousness, and this will take you into a trance… naturally.” 

Sam and I walked over to the trance area, both of us had been in bare feet for most of the festival. There was little or no alcohol present, and this shifted the energy of the people there, already elevating them to a higher style of connection. There were plenty of psychedelics there and more than likely loads of pills (ecstasy), but with a lack of booze there wasn’t an issue with broken glass, or bottles anywhere. Sam said, “Watch me, copy me, and listen to my words.” He began to stomp on the ground, his stance wide, his legs splaying out a little. I followed suit, and then he said, “Visualise white golden light coming up through the soles of your feet, up your calves, up your legs, and then BOOM! Exploding in your base chakra! The red sun! Feel it!” I did what he asked of me, and sure enough, I felt a surge and warmth come up my legs and a rush that gave me more energy. He told me to continue the process through to the top of my skull, drawing the energy up, up, up, until my third eye blew open and I was connecting beyond the body and feeling the expansiveness of all of creation. Sounds easier said than done. I persevered and sure enough, I felt my entire body fill with energy that blew my identity, my ego, and my sense of self out of the limitations, the confines of what I believed to be my ‘body’ into dust. I was part of the whole, the collective sea of consciousness around me. Sam could see it in my eyes and started to howl when he knew I had got it. I danced for eighteen fucking hours with no sleep. I danced through the night and most of the next day, going through this process Sam had taught me when I felt tired. Truly incredible. It changed my attitude to music, and how music felt to me and showed me that as much as taking drugs was ‘fun’ they were obsolete.

It would be the next morning, around sunrise when one of the crew members who I had worked with before the festival came dancing up next to me to wish me all the best for 1997. He looked at my left upper arm and asked if he could read the tattoo. This Englishman had lived in India for quite some time and learned how to read Sanskrit while there. “Vrikaha,” He said. “What does it mean?” I told him my Native American totem was a Wolf, and I was drawn to the Sanskrit language so got the Sanskrit word for Wolf (how perfect that a ‘Wolf’ was also considered a womaniser, that was the life I would embody after receiving this tattoo in the early 1990s) instead of an image. “That’s Lycaeus in Greek.” He said, hugging me, and then dancing away. I knew this, I had a double major in Anthropology and Classical Studies (Ancient Greece and Rome), but what I heard in my head was a name that sounded like someone repeating a mantra in my skull, ‘PHA RAE US’. It was distinct in the fact that it was in three split syllables. Not one word. The mantra rumbled around in my skull for the entirety of the final stages of the festival. It was a truly bizarre experience. It stopped when I found a friend’s car and climbed in the backseat and passed out, only to wake up around nightfall in Nelson outside my friend Gabby’s place. Months later I would take on this new (old) name as my christened name, and the being who identified himself as that man was no longer here. The years, months, days, and seconds lived under the label of Paul Ronald Reid were a figment of the imagination of the awareness in the vehicle that has written this blog.

What a strange old trip it’s been… indeed.

One of the most memorable experiences my life incarnate. The Gathering NYE 1996/1997 This festival experience changed the festival culture of this country forever, and for the better. It also changed my life in so so many ways.

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