“They say Secret Garden is the best festival in the country,” it’s Saturday afternoon and Triple J darling Alex Lahey is occupying the Royal Court stage. Her words provoke a huge cheer from the crowd. “I think they’re right,” she says, grinning ear tp ear.
It’s easy to see why this is such a widely held opinion. The festival, held in Sydney’s South West, seems to have it all: A killer lineup, crazy costumes, a forest chock full of interactive installations, even a concierge desk at the entry to the campsite were bellhops excitedly escort you to your tent, all while screaming jokes from behind a megaphone.
There’s no denying part of Secret Garden’s charm lies in its size- around five thousand people attended the fully sold out event. Keeping it this small is what allows the festival to thrive in its beautiful Brownlow Hill Farm location and keep tickets in high demand.
Punters begin rolling into the grounds from 12pm, and by 5pm the wait to reach the police checkpoint for cars is around 90 minutes. Cars are checked by security contractors, police dogs and officers before being allowed through.
Excitement is high at the campsite, everyone is buzzing as they pitch tents, get in their costumes and apply copious amounts of glitter. The dress up theme for Friday night is ‘Royal Rave’, and attendees have risen to the challenge.
Secret Garden is renowned for how seriously it takes its costumes; this is plain to see as almost everyone is dressed up in some way. Many are wearing crowns, tiaras, carrying regal sceptres or tridents. A bunch of Royal Gala apples are seen entering the forest, followed by two or three elegant Marie Antoinettes.
Crossing the threshold from the Wrangler Pub area (where punters can grab some Avocado toast and coffee in the morning or dance on late into the evening), through to the festival site is an experience. The forest has been transformed into a colourful menagerie, with eye-catching art and interactive installations around every corner.
The stages are reached after passing a phone booth where revellers are standing on either side telling jokes to each other, enormous liquorice cubes and an actual house (for Dave’s House Party, of course).
The Carmen Verandah is an eruption of colour, accessed by walking between two huge bananas and a sign that reads ‘Carm’en Get It!’. Inside is the spectacularly decorated ‘Femme Movement’ stage, complete with a bar serving spirits and cocktails.
The bars at Secret Garden are yet another testament to how well the festival treats its guests, which of course encourages the guests to treat it with equal respect. Beers at the festival are $6, spirits $7.50, in a bid to discourage the sneaking in of outside booze. Profits are given to charity.
On the decks is Sydney native FlexMami who’s gifting the crowd a set full of iconic party hits. It’s very hard to stay in one area when there’s so much excitement happening all over. In fact, it’s difficult to even focus on the music in general, when there’s so much going on everywhere you look. Secret Garden would shake even the staunchest of festival timetable planners.
Urthboy delivers an incredible performance, rewarding punters who are able to focus on the artists. Fan favourites ‘Long Loud Hours’ and ‘Crashing Hard’ are received hungrily along with a speech about festival romance. He’s followed by Set Mo, over at the Camp Queen stage, who deliver banger after banger, closing out the night on a high.
It’s late, and the first night of the festival is drawing to an end. The party continues in the campsite, some keener than others are heard raging until dawn.
The next morning the muddy campsite is littered with tired looking revellers, rubbing their eyes and looking dazed. Soon enough the campsite is looking like a drag queen’s dressing room again, as everyone prepares his or her costumes for the long day ahead. Saturday is ‘Anything Goes’, and it seems that people are taking this quite seriously.
In the afternoon everyone begins to once again file into the forest. The installations continue to enthral everyone, particularly a seated area with a large sign that reads “APPLAUSE”. As people walk through, they are applauded and cheered by the folk sitting beneath the sign. It’s uplifting for everyone involved.
Saturday’s costume efforts are somehow even more spectacular than Friday’s. Simpsons characters in yellow body paint, the full cast of Wizard Of Oz, Alan from The Hangover (with baby attached) and full sporting teams are seen prancing through the site.
At 2:30pm in the Pink Palace, the timetable reads ‘Disney Choir’, which many are delighted to discover involves a huge sing-along to treasured Disney hits, complete with lyric sheets and a girl dressed as Ariel who is actually moved to tears during the closing notes of ‘A Whole New World’.
Over at the Camp Queen stage (which has been set up like a hotel room- the ugly wallpaper is the cherry on top), drag queens have been strutting the stage all day. It’s welcome knowledge that at any time you can go take a load off while feasting your eyes on their amazing moves and outfits.
In the evening it’s time for Gretta Ray who delivers a mellow set, debuting a song she’d written the week prior and belting out her hit ‘Drive’ to a crowd who screamed the lyrics back to her. The sun goes down, and those among the crowd who choose Japanese Wallpaper over the increasingly insane antics at the other stages are rewarded with a gorgeous set including ‘Forces’, ‘Cocoon’ and ‘Waves’.
As the second night begins to wind down, it becomes apparent that only at Secret Garden would you see someone carefully unwrap their last piece of gum, looking at it with wistful Violet Beauregard eyes, before proceeding to snap it in two and share it with someone they’d met just minutes prior. Only at Secret Garden would you be able to wander into a makeshift house in the forest at midnight to find the illustrious Dave and his harem of admirers stretched out on mattresses under a canopy of fairy lights. Only at Secret Garden would the torrential downpour of rain lift spirits, not dampen them. It’s easy to see why this festival is so popular and how they’re able to sell out tickets year after year. In a climate where music festivals are a dying breed, it’s a reasonable claim that Secret Garden will continue to not only survive, but thrive, and let their freak flag fly.