The Nambassa Experience

Nambassa was 'New Zealand's Woodstock' though it occurred ten years later and was also sustained successfully over several summers by its youthful promoter: Waihi's Peter Terry. Certainly he was out to rock the country, but broad consideration was given to ways of promoting alternative lifestyle options, as we'd describe it these days. Back then it was just hooking the hippies. But rock it he did. On each occasion, enough of the 'sex, drugs and rock 'n roll' culture was disported over a couple of nights of late television news to predictably outrage the red-necks - and prime the participants for the next one.

There were previous music festivals; and subsequent ones of a similar scale - notably the Sweetwaters series. There were, and are, a multitude of smaller festivals held all round the country. Perhaps being there has caused some bias, but in my view none have matched the Nambassas for size, cultural inclusiveness and spirituality. I gather this sort of mix still happens in England (Glastonbury) and Australia (Confest), and possibly in the Burning Man festival in the USA.

Early on here though, I noticed the efforts made to cater for the widest possible audience - from kids to pensioners. Well, almost!

I think the eventual failure of the later Sweetwaters festivals was largely due to a required emphasis on the sponsor's products. The predominance of alcohol, it seems to me, both encouraged the gangs and alienated those who were, spiritually, still 'in the closet' - the many who were happy to use the cover of a music festival to seek or explore the options for satisfying ways to live; were, eventually, simply overwhelmed by the unenlightened and the uninteresting.

There are, and were, spiritually-focussed festivals, like Te Wairua - a mid-eighties gathering lead by our most prominent Sufi, Halima MacEwan (who was in her seventies then - and is still going!). Although Te Wairua could have evolved into a local Glastonbury, the hosting farmer died. So the focus remained on just health and spirituality - with no 'bands' as such, leaving any 'closet seekers' uncomfortably naked in such an atmosphere! Worse, from the sustainability angle the focus narrowed mainly to seminars for facilitators - something which is rather better nourished by the permanent Tauhara Centre in Taupo. In the end - nowhere but at a Nambassa-style event is one likely to find a Roman Catholic service conducted under a yin-yang symbol or, for that matter, a bunch of Sanyasins demonstrating one of Rajneesh's seventeen forms of meditation! (Perhaps The Gathering on Takaka Hill fulfilled some of those needs, but now that's gone too.)

All of these photos were taken at one of the three Nambassas I attended. The 1979 Nambassa, my first, was held in a farmer's paddock near Waihi, just above Homunga Bay. The last was held in a farmer's paddock near Waihi, with the Ohinemuri River (or perhaps a tributary thereto..) running through it.

Strolling casually around the stage areas it wasn't exactly obvious there was a beach not far away. Well - sort of... After a bit of a wander around the outskirts of the paddock, I found an ant-like trickle of humanity seemingly bent on a lemming solution! Closer inspection at the edge revealed; yes, there was indeed a track down the cliff to follow.

Homunga Bay is a good half hour trek down - and rather longer going back... even for the fit. But a good number made it down for a rewarding sea dip.

The most obvious aspect of the beach culture, was the number of togless people. About 70% was my guestimate - and it was fairly clear from the tell-tale 'cotton-tails' that for most, the paradigm of togs as a normality had been changed.

Notable at these festivals was the general air of happiness, relaxation and trust. It is quite a revelation to actually experience those 'random acts of kindness' the cliché promotes. I suppose the quick fringe trim in the car park was for a partner, but more than once I was passed a joint by a complete stranger! I don't know if the police were officially instructed to 'stay cool' but they certainly were - and the effect was wonderful.

The freedom splashed all over the beach was reflected around many of the stage areas, during the day. This was what Neil Finn would come to mourn 20 years later, at the last, ill-fated Sweetwaters. "Where are all the nudes?" he lamented from the stage. At that event, held in South Auckland, the police seemed to be out to prove how random acts of cruelty will stifle a community. The attitude of Auckland's police was overwhelmingly intimidating for no obvious reason. They certainly breached the Bill of Rights Act, often - but who is likely to take on the police to prove it?

Although both uniformed and mufti police were on hand at all the Nambassas, they clearly elected not to 'spoil the party' unnecessarily. In fact, they demonstrated a genuinely helpful and conciliatory attitude to all - something that changed significantly after 1981 Springbok tour, we may remember... From hauling an overdose victim up the cliff from the beach, to softly, softly but nevertheless effective confrontations with gang members, the police at Nambassa were a definite asset - not the liability they have more recently become.

It seems to me that these festivals point clearly to two types in the wider community: those that know only their own 'self' (me) and those that have discovered the unifying: 'Self' (I). Awareness of the singularity, Self; gives rise to the spiritual recognition that 'we are all one' - a true freedom. 'Control' is no longer seen as a personal, dominating need. Knowing only one's own self leaves the individual open to the generic fear of 'other' - making 'control' (of other's selves) a perceived necessity. In the playground, it's called bullying. This sort of message was delivered by some high profile gurus who showed up. (Whatever happened to Baba Ram Das, I wonder...)
I have sometimes been fascinated by the personal fear exhibited by an isolated, patched gang member when confronted by an isolated, confident Naturist. They simply turn and run! When it comes to a weight of numbers, though, it is the head-count which tends to hold sway.

Feature acts like Split Enz, lead the nightly raves - and were inclined to attract the heavies! So there were occasional incidents to spoil the day - or evening, in our case. A rather uncomfortable night trying to sleep in the car was the result of our little group all heading off on the quest for free hot soup during a main stage interval on the first night. We gave no thought to guarding our sleeping bags. After we told the police next day that some gang members had been seen with the bags, a sole mufti cop conducted some low profile negotiations with said gang members and the remaining night was rather more comfortable, for us. That's what I call 'police power' - not the laws of dubious necessity they insist on pushing for these days. The police appear to no longer see themselves as a part of our community; only theirs. We are now other: Tazer fodder.

Being able to enjoy the summer with thousands of others in a carnival atmosphere wasn't spoiled at all, even by that other group with a penchant for control: the evangelical Christians! They seemed a bit overwhelmed, actually; by the apparent love and happiness already abounding, which must have made it hard for them to proclaim a point of difference...

Among the great variety of those attending one might occasionally discern some of the 'usual suspects' like Tim Shadbolt (now where did he get to...). But there were other compelling sights, like an aboriginal, complete with boomerang, in the semi-bling version of a Ron L Hubbard outfit. Wherever one looked, there seemed to be a continuous parade of the itinerant - purveyors of snacks and treats - escapees from the mud-bath - always something of interest for someone.

It was nice to see the kids not forgotten in the planning. They had a supervised, shady sandpit; or clowns to find and a Pied Piper to follow. But that was in the days way before cell-phones made keeping tabs on the kids, um, easier.

Apart from a random collection of wandering minstrels, the special kids' stage was an ever-popular attraction for them.

It was interesting to note how the various stages didn't interfere with each other, visually or aurally. During the day we tended to have the 'dad's bands' - big ones like Roger Fox, while many little ones featured an array of folk singers.

One of the pleasant discoveries at the last event, held by a river, were ethereal tunes issuing from the depths of the bush, occasionally. (There was no accessible bush on the previous two Nambassas which were held near the beach.) I found I wasn't alone in finding pleasant bits of bush to be a lovely escape from the heat of the day.

Accessible bush also meant an availability of streams and creeks in lieu of more formally provided ablution arrangements.

Driven by the discomfort of a crusty salt layer from the beach or from working up a decent sweat from bopping by a stage, quite an array of curious washing options are unearthed.

For the shy, there were some (more or less) screened showers - no hot water, as I recall. But at a place like this there would always be alternatives. Though where those of an inventive bent found the alkathene pipe and wood to devise their handy contraptions, was one of life's little mysteries we just have to live with.

All in all, the events were obviously well received by virtually everybody - I never heard a bad word about any of them - at the time, or since!

My experience here confirmed for me a delicate transformation in the psyche which can occur when one is not separated from others by clothing. There is both a warmth and deep, subtle sense of connection when those artificial barriers are disolved. Certainly, that is not the experience of every body, apparently; but being here showed that in an accepting atmosphere, it wasn't just me that felt the value being simply and naturally at one with all.

What confirmed clothing as the causal barrier, was the way the level of warmth matched the ratio of those naked to those dressed. Where the numbers clad were greater: the sense of warmth declined - or was subtly transformed. The greatest sense of 'unity with all' occurred at the beach.

It's not hard to see that there is absolutely no reason to be dressed in the water, other than shyness, perhaps. Who wants to shower in their gumboots?

At my first Nambassa, down on the beach waving a 400mm lens; I was eventually approached by a woman asking what I was going to do with the pictures. "Not a lot," I said, a little apprehensively, "They're just a record."

"Would it be possible for you to take some of our group?" she asked, "We all forgot to bring a camera!"

I no longer have those particular pictures. It only took me about a year to deliver them to their place near Tolaga Bay, north of Gisborne. They were a group of half a dozen trying to sustain themselves as potters. Our subsequent friendships lasted rather longer than the potting business...

It would probably not escape the notice of some, that women tend to feature in these pictures. Evidence of a sexual preoccupation, maybe? Well: evidence that I'm a male, yes. But I certainly don't see eroticism in these images.

Forms of beauty, or beauty of form? For me - both. These are simply examples of how we could (should!) be. Homo sapiens is the only species that may deliberately thwart its offspring from knowing its own generic form - and that has consequences. It's a low-level, normally unidentified, stress. You might not know that you've been banging your head against a brick wall for ages - but no one denies the relief when they stop. Being able to socialise naked (where the nudity is merely incidental) is a confirmation of 'Self.' To know thy Self thus, engenders happiness, trust and relaxation.

In short this wasn't only a pleasant family event, it was also a spiritual experience for many and possibly an epiphany for some. Any relationship must surely have benefited, just from being here

There were friendships that budded here and friendships that flowered here. Certainly it's hard to see anything but good in an event like this. Maybe in the future we'll have another Peter Terry to take a punt on enhancing our collective happiness on a grand scale... Currently, there is the much smaller 'Splore' option, held biennially in reserves around Auckland.

Meantime - the price of freedom remains: eternal vigilance. We still need eyes in the back of our heads!

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© 2011 Copyright, Nambassa Trust and Peter Terry.