Every February for the last 11 years, costume-clad ‘Gardeners’ have flocked to lush bushland in Brownlow Hill near Camden in Sydney’s south-west to boogie their worries away in a 48-hour forest disco. Unfortunately for us, this year was the final instalment of the wonderfully kooky and colourful extravaganza that is Secret Garden.
The shindig first appeared in 2009 but the organisers never set out to create a festival. In fact, co-founder Claire Downes and her mates hosted the original event as a fundraiser for meningococcal sufferers, after their friend contracted the disease. 500 people rocked up to that very first party at Claire’s parents’ farm and the popularity of the event led to the boutique festival we have today, filled with magically dressed-up punters, live music and interactive installations that are peppered throughout the property. The one thing that hasn’t changed all these years later is that all profits from Secret Garden still go to various charities of their choosing.
In December last year, festival organisers announced that this would be the final year for their glittery brainchild. Over the weekend, Secret Garden wrapped up its final event and celebrated over a decade of dress ups, groovy music and its kaleidoscope of attendees. This is what we’ll miss the most about Secret Garden.
1. The Batshit Crazy Amazing Fancy Dress Costumes
You know when you attend a fancy-dress party but only a handful of people actually make an effort to dress up? This definitely isn’t the case at Secret Garden. Dressing up is a requisite and Gardeners have so much fun doing it. Friday night’s theme of ‘disco on a spaceship’ saw the forest and its inhabitants covered in head to toe glitter and all manner of sparkly accessories. Space cowboys, robots made from silver-painted cardboard boxes and disco divas roamed the forest.
Saturday was a damn people-watching delight. With no set theme, Gardeners let loose and rocked up in a bunch of excellent outfits. There were so many ace costumes this year that the number of finalists for the best-dressed competition was well over 60 people, who were all crammed onto the main stage for judging. The finalists included a bunch of Ali G’s, a flock of brightly coloured birdys, a Mrs. Whippy ice cream van and a couple of Bunnings BBQ dudes, complete with straw hats and silver tongs. The top award was taken out by the 40-person strong gang of ‘Deal Or No Deal’ briefcase girls and guys (think red dresses, pearls, and black bob wigs), accompanied by their host Andrew O’Queef.
Photo: Tim Da Rin
2. The Weird and Wonderful Live Music
One of the core tenets of the SG manifesto is the music lineup, which isn’t announced until after the festival has sold out. Despite having absolutely no clue what musical acts will be performing, Gardeners still snap up tickets as soon as they go on sale each year. This means that no one attends the party to only see one or two bands – everyone is equally invested from the moment they buy their ticket.
For its final weekend, SG delivered a bevy of musical acts from home and abroad including Ali Barter, Flint Eastwood and The Preatures. Sydney band Pist Idiots delivered a thumping set on Saturday afternoon and also complimented the audience on the rise of police ‘costumes’ at this year’s festival – a not so subtle dig at the extensive police presence all around the property.
Despite the rain which lingered on Saturday night, Gardeners had their dancing shoes on for The Preatures’ set and danced their hearts out to the band’s cover of Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ and their original bop ‘Is This How You Feel?’
Rising musicians are also given the forum to shine at a festival like Secret Garden and highlights included Sydney’s The Andy Golledge Band and the hazy sounds of Adelaide-born artist Moody Beach. Both played the SG Airlines stage, which featured a walk-through security scanner which checked your ‘vibe’.
3. There Is Always Something To Do/Look At/Listen To
There is actually no way you could ever possibly get bored during a stint in the forest. If you’re not keen to boogie along to a band, the property is a literal treasure chest – there is something around every corner. Over the weekend, Gardeners were given the opportunity to strut their stuff on a catwalk, steal a smooch at the Kissing Booth or take a seat at the Applause Theatre and cheer on anyone who walked by. This year’s annual Houseparty installation was hosted by long-time SG attendee Charlotte and took place in a purpose-built caravan where Gardeners could play their own music via stereo and much like a real-life house party, music tastes varied.
Photo: Tim Da Rin
4. The Gardeners Are The Best People You’ll Ever Meet
The ratio of nice, friendly humans to dickheads is always heavily skewed at festivals, with the latter firmly outweighing the former but SG manages to buck this trend. While there were a few arseholes roaming around this year, the majority were music-loving, costume-wearing, glitter-covered party people. Gardeners also love to dance. There wasn’t a moment where the hordes of attendees weren’t moving, swaying or dancing around the fairylight filled forest. Gardeners are a friendly and happy bunch and this year proved no different.
5. The Downright Lovely SG Workers
The volunteers really are the heart and soul of this festival. While you might not give them a second-thought at any other music event, SG volunteers and workers are always lovely. In the week leading up to the event, a horde of volunteers help set up at the stages and installations and on the weekend itself, they run the bars and assistant tents. Even when they are fully dressed up in costume and serving drinks behind the bar, they are happy to have a chat and a little dance.
Farewell Secret Garden. You’ve been pretty bloody wonderful.
Photo: Tim Da Rin