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There are a lot of things to hate about the Woodford Folk Festival, Australia’s International Music Festival. For example, if you want to camp there for the week in a decent spot you have to be prepared to forego your Christmas lunch and instead spend the day queuing at the gate, which opens at 2pm, and then setting up not just your camp, but those of your friends who begged you to so that they could, for once, have Christmas with their families.
The other thing is the weather. Those of us who have “done” a few Woodfords have been through it all: torrential rain that saw us wading through ankle deep mud to the cold showers and blistering heat that only a cold shower, fully clothed, can relieve.
So why do we keep going back for more? Because it’s great! When you enter those gates for the start of the festival you leave the outside world behind and enter a bubble where (almost) anything goes. Strange things happen at Woodford. Whilst waiting at our table at the Common Ground Café (a whole story in itself) for my husband to order, I happened to look across at the table nearby only to see a girl sitting there who, whilst chatting animatedly to her friends, suddenly parted her legs to reveal that under her dress she’d decided to go for maximum ventilation that day. And she’d paid someone to help her if you catch my hairless drift. When I related this story to friends they expressed some surprise then all shrugged their shoulders: “Woodford”.
Only at Woodford would you see a cricket game played by the Woodford XI vs the Dreaming All-Stars where, when a goanna happened to take a stroll across the pitch, the indigenous team followed it into the bush with sticks raised to shoulder height. Oh and of course there was the inevitable streaker whom Ernie Dingo affected to smack on the bum with his bat.
There is of course the music, everything from Hanggai, a Mongolian heavy metal band fronted by the reincarnation of Genghis Khan, to the Emmanual College Scottish pipe band, 60s folk singer Buffy St. Marie to the Australian musical comedy trio Tripod. And some guy called Gotya. You can learn to swing dance or get in touch with your inner child/man/woman/goddess or listen to past prime ministers bang the rostrum and relive their glory days. You can spend the week living as a puritanical vegan, drinking drinks made from spinach, kale and broccoli (very pleasant actually) or drink yourself into an alcoholic fog each night and live on greasy Hungarian fried bread and cheese and tiny frozen balls of ice cream called Dippin’ Dots.
Altogether it’s a great big freelovin’ hippy scene. Except someone always gets something nicked.
On the last night of the festival there is a farewell ceremony that most people go to. Many festival goers participate, either singing or making and carrying lanterns. This leaves the campground largely empty. This year, on our way back from the ceremony we received a text from some friends who had left early to say some guys had been seen stealing from the camp. We returned to find that, as in past years, our grog had been nicked. We lost a bottle of champagne from our camping fridge and another friend lost the remains of a bottle of vodka, another some bottles of wine. Someone had seen some guys coming out of one of the tents and told us one was wearing a striped T-shirt and suspenders. We sat around gnashing our teeth for a while and plotting revenge for next year by way of various nasty substances added to some decoy bottles, then resignedly went to bed.
Next morning one of our friends went for an early stroll to see what she could see. About 50 metres down the track from our campsite she spied an old white Commodore station wagon with a small tent next to it, a young guy asleep on a mattress in the open and empty bottles strewn everywhere. What caught her eye was the empty red wine bottle on the roof of the car. What young guys buy red wine? And they were obviously young guys. So she walked back up and mentioned it to her husband, David, who took a look for himself. A young man with suspenders hanging off his jeans was up and about. David returned to our area and announced, “I think we’ve got the blokes who took our stuff.” What he hadn’t told us the night before was that he and his wife had had a $3000 camera stolen from their tent. This upped the stakes considerably.
So David and three of us marched down to the other site to see if these were our thieves. We let David go down on his own first, to make sure it was them. He strolled calmly down, a big man with some presence, and stood casually hands in pockets chatting to the guy with the braces. He then leaned over and looked in the back of the car and pointed to something. The young guy stood with his hands in his pockets and appeared to shrug. David then opened the rear door and reached around and pulled the object out. It was a large camera case. He pointed to it, questioning the young guy further while he continued to shrug gormlessly. When David finally slung the camera over his shoulder we knew we had our men and marched on down to sort them out. Matt, a feisty pom, who never minces his words, let them have it. “It’s people like you that ruin Woodford! This is supposed to be a f’in folk festival not a f’in thieves festival,” he yelled. And then he inflicted what was probably the worst punishment of all to come. He turned around and at the top of his voice announced to the whole camp ground: “Hey everyone, these guys are thieves! They stole alcohol and a 3000 dollar camera from us. So if you’ve had anything taken it’s probably here.” Hundreds of campers stopped what they were doing and stared.
Probably still drunk, four of them were up and blinking stupidly in confusion. The one on the mattress still slept. I decided that if they’d stolen the camera they could well have stolen other things, so I began tossing everything out of the back of their car with the same amount of respect they’d shown for our things. Lo and behold there was a laptop computer in a case. “What about this?” I asked the sheepish looking creature with the suspenders. “Oh, that’s mine,” he replied in a small voice. I didn’t believe him, but didn’t know better, so I put it back.
David announced to them that he would now be informing security and the police and we walked away. Five guys have never packed up faster, and they did it while the whole campground watched on, one guy taking photos. David asked security to make sure someone was on the gate to stop them, but when they got in their car and started moving, he quickly jumped in his own car to make sure. I jumped in the back seat and we took off. As we came down one track they were coming down one that joined it. We just managed to get in front of them. As I looked back they suddenly stopped and threw the laptop out of the car and sped off. I made David stop so I could run back and grab it.
A man who was wandering along near his tent cleaning his teeth stared in amazement. I took off along the road after David until the security vehicle, which was heading back from their site having arrived too late, came along. I flagged him down and hopped in beside him. Unfortunately the security vehicle was a golf cart. It put-putted on through the dust with no hope of catching anything, and we were just in time to see David’s car speed off down the main road, obviously still in pursuit. We then spotted a policeman in another golf cart on another wild goose chase trying to catch the thieves. With no horn on the cart it was impossible to alert him to our presence and so began a ridiculous chase of our own as we hung U-turns and bounced painfully over potholes trying to catch up with the policeman. Eventually as he turned we caught his eye and he stopped. He radioed his mates and I handed over the laptop.
Meanwhile David was still in hot pursuit. He followed the Commodore at enough distance that they wouldn’t twig until they turned down what he knew to be a dead end that led to a swimming hole. They obviously thought they could hide there until the coast was clear. They were bitterly disappointed when two police vehicles arrived.
David had to return to the swimming hole with the camera so it could be photographed and I went with him to tell them about the laptop. Just as we were leaving they were about to be breathalyzed. One of the youngest looking guys had changed out of his dirty T-shirt into a long-sleeved button-up collar shirt. No one was smiling. The festival was over.
“Why, we’ll be like the Famous Five, setting off on a lovely train journey to the seaside,” I said to our three teenage boys the morning of our departure. “It’ll be simply splendid!” My eldest son regarded me with scornful disbelief. My middle son gave me a wry humouring smile and, raising his eyebrows, turned back to regard the contents of the fridge. Baby son said, “Yeah!” He didn’t mean it.
We arrived in good time at Roma Street Station, Brisbane, but the power lines on one of the tracks had fallen down and all city train services had shut down.
“Will the Sunlander still be running?” my husband asked one of the rail staff.
“Yes, but there’s an electric train in front of it that’s going to have to be moved first.” Oh.
The train was due to depart at 1.25pm. We finally boarded at 2.30 and some time after 3 we began to move forward. We had two sleeper cabins each with three bunks. My husband and I checked into ours while the three boys got settled into theirs next door. I had in my romantic head some mahogany lined room with shiny brass fittings—not large, but something you could at least breathe out in. Instead of warm mahogany, the walls are Soviet grey. Where there should be brass, there’s chrome or, worse, plastic. But it was clean and there were sheets, blankets and pillows. And it did have one of those little sinks that fold out of the wall. Having accepted that we would not exactly be experiencing the romance of rail, I decided to see how the three boys were adjusting to their austere accommodation.
I opened the door to their cabin and three faces turned to me in disbelief. I told them weren’t they lucky to have parents who gave them such interesting experiences and closed the door to let them ponder on this. “I’m missing Neil’s 18th for this,” was what followed me out the door. Thirty seconds later I opened the door again and they all had their laptops out. Virtual escape.
Movement brought on hunger, so we wobbled our way up to the”Tropical Club” car. We bought coffee, soft drink, muffins, cheese and crackers and sweet biscuits and finally started to have a whizzer jolly time, just as I’d predicted. This was also a perfect chance to observe our fellow passengers. As rail travel is heavily subsidized for them, most passengers fall into one or both of two categories: aged or infirm. “Why are we the only normal people on here?” asked my youngest. I left it as a rhetorical question.
Some passengers, rather than take afternoon tea, decided not to wait for the sun to be over the yardarm and started instead to drink. I didn’t think it normal to start drinking cans of Carlton Midstrength before 4 in the afternoon, with the clear intention of continuing to do so for many hours to come, but I suspected it was pretty normal for the person doing so.
At about 5 pm , the children having been sufficiently fed for now and returned to their laptops, my husband turned to me and said, “Would you think any less of me if I had a drink?” as though I’m some right-wing teetotaler.
“Oh why not. You’re on holiday after all, “ I replied.
But what to drink? There was beer; that was enough choice for my husband. But my visions of lounging elegantly with a glass of champagne in hand amidst the mahogany and brass evaporated once again when faced with the menu. There was chardonnay or shiraz or premixed cans of spirits. Kath and Kim turned me off Chardonnay and I don’t like to drink red wine without a meal. It did say spirits were available in 60ml so I decided to go retro and order a vodka and orange, a good old seventies Screwdriver like my mother used to drink when in the summertime she felt like letting loose. Alas, such an exotic drink was not possible. Would I like premixed vodka and lemonade? Hardly. I suppose I could have had a shandy but I wasn’t that desperate to drink. So I sat drinking nothing and watching those around me become rosy-cheeked and garrulous (except for the Carlton Midstrength drinker; I looked at his bloodshot eyes and wondered rather how long before he would need dialysis).
The dining car is strictly for “those guests partaking of a meal” so we seated ourselves at two laminex and aluminium tables and awaited our meals—three roasts of the day and two steaks. While we were waiting I went back into the bar to get two half bottles of Shiraz. By this time the Tropical Club had begun to smell like a pub and the Carlton Midstrength drinker had been joined by some premix rum and coke drinkers who were verging on rowdy.
“For two people are they?” said the woman serving me, who my children later christened “The Dog Lady” on account of her poodle-like hairdo and her officious manner.
“Yes,” I replied, a little surprised.
“Not taking those back to your seats are you? Because you know you’re not allowed to.”
“No. The dining car,” I said pointing in the opposite direction to the seating carriages. What did she think I was? It was my first trip to the bar.
The meals filled the whole plate, which wasn’t hard since the plates were only a little bigger than a bread and butter plate, but the food was quite good. Well at least I thought so.
“Mum, is this powdered mash potato?” I tasted and considered. It was certainly very smooth.
“I don’t think it would be,” said my husband.
“No probably not,” I added, shoveling it in and finally sipping my Shiraz. At the end of our meal I asked the boys how they’d enjoyed their meals. “The mash potato tasted powdered and the mint sauce tasted like toothpaste.” There was mint sauce?
Dessert was “Chef’s choice of cakes”. He’d only made one choice, an almond cake. It looked very edible for a slice of cake in a plastic container, so we ordered a couple. It was delivered in a bowl with a small tub of ice cream and a tiny plastic container of thick cream. It was deliciously moist. We washed it down with cardboard takeaway cups of tea and I walked back to our cabin feeling satisfied and ready to crawl (literally) into my bunk bed and let the train rock me to sleep.
After approximately three hours sleep I awoke to misty bushland rushing past the window. Several kangaroos stood to attention and watched us go by. A Brahmin cow stood by the shriveled body of its dead calf while other cows grazed with their healthy living calves. My husband’s head appeared from the bunk below and I tapped three times: tea and toast…tea and toast.
“It won’t be open yet.”
“Well I can wait then.” So I dozed a bit trying to gather a few more minutes sleep to add to my meager total. Eventually the dear boy did venture up to the dining car and soon returned with tea and toast. Alas, no silver tray with china cups and a toast rack, but a plastic bag to carry two cardboard cups of tea and two paper bags of toast, foil-wrapped butter pats and tiny packs of vegemite.
I dozed a bit more then we headed up for breakfast. And it was good: muesli and fruit salad, or the Canecutter’s Breakfast—bacon, eggs, sausage and tomato. A young mother with a boy of about five came in and, there being no tables left, perched herself and her son on a spare chair and tried to butter some toast. There were five of us spread across two tables, so we offered to share one of our tables. She thanked us and sat down, then asked if we’d managed any sleep.
“I slept from 9.30 to 7,” boasted my eldest
“Yeah, I slept from about 10 til 6,” said my husband.
“Do you have sleepers?” she asked. We nodded. She screwed up her face with envy.
“I’m back there,” she pointed back to the seated carriage. “Some woman got on at about 3am with a kid, and every second word was F or C and she was punching the walls. And the people in front must have been on something because they were awake all night talking.”
After all the delays leaving Brisbane, the train was running about three hours late. There was a long day ahead. As I watched the endless cane fields rush by the only appropriate song sprang into my head and lodged there in 11/4 time: The Go-Betweens, Cattle and Cane.
I recall, a schoolboy coming home
Through fields of cane, to a house of tin and timber
It seemed to be getting hotter outside; the landscape looked dryer and more battle weary. Patches of ash and blackened trees showed there’d been burning off. Hazy blue mountains rose in the distance behind the green cane and the houses of tin and timber with their tripod windmills. We passed many dry river beds, some with a trickle of water clawing its way through the tinderbox dry scrub.
As the day wore on, to prevent a riot by impatient passengers, tea and coffee were provided complementary. And since we were all still going to be there at dinner time, we were going to have to be fed. Someone must have made a quick dash to the local supermarket while we sat at Mackay station waiting for a derailed cane train to be moved, because the resulting meal was a meager portion of penne pasta in a greasy meat sauce. On the house.
At last we wheezed and lurched into Cairns station at 11.15pm by which time I’d finally fallen fast asleep.
For more on Australian trains and options, click here.