I write from a dorm room in FNQ (far north Queensland). Four bunks, piles of scattered clothes, instruments and remnants of last nights’ slab. Above, the rattling fan spins interminably, blowing gusts of steamy air down upon me and coming remarkably close to my bandmate’s head. Whose brilliant idea was it to pair bunk beds and a low ceiling fan? Surely a recipe for disaster, but in a 120-year-old pub built to house miners heading north, OH&S was probably the last consideration.
Each subsequent publican retrofits a new concept to this heritage-listed building and we arrive at this sprawling mish mash of a death hole. The windows are slatted, creaking up and down with the hard handed jerk of a lever and in comes a flood of noise, the sounds of Yungaburra Fest.
This pub lies at the heart of the festival. Behind it lies the Garden stage where the local high school rock band kicks the day off at ten am with a set of heart-felt Missy Higgins covers. In front of the pub a farmers market, a kids DJ set, a stilted Poseidon rising out of the twirling crowd of rollerbladers to ring his town crier bell and heft his middle aged beer gut above the puzzled kids. Back and forth he sways. A precarious grip on his trident. A precarious grip on life itself.
In the heart of the pub itself a female choir. The phrase ‘Welsh Women’ sticks in the back of my mind, but the alliteration invents itself in my early morning daze. Excited elderly white women co-opt cinematized black dance moves and sing ‘African-inspired’ repertoire. Think Sister Act, but no Whoopi Goldberg. Possibly no planned choreography either, just spontaneous appropriations. Probably less trained singers too I suppose. Truly an act to behold.
Here in the middle I sit, seeking respite from the warmth (thirty-three degrees at ten am), the crowds (a thousand ticket holders invade a town of eleven hundred, imagine the outrage if Melbourne’s population doubled over night) and the noise (three concurrent performances competing in sheets of sounds destined to leave any puzzled in-betweener reeling).
These days are spent in indolent luxury. A pre-breakfast beer to fight the creeping heat. A meat pie from the supermarket for lunch is followed by another from the bakery for dessert and a third from a food truck as an afternoon snack.
We wake to music and sleep to music. Afternoon nap beneath a tree to music. The music pervades the landscape: a young girl busking in the shade outside a café while an enthusiastically scarfed accordionist plays for his supper within the café itself. When one act finishes a set, or a song, or even pauses to take breath in the midst of a vocal line, you hear a swarm of others in the background, competing for sonic domination.
Official festival venues are overrun by ecstatic grey nomads, sipping iced-soy lattes and scoffing scones to fuel the midday slumber. Sleep defeats all, the afternoon sun slowing performances and more than one gig has a snoring uncle-figure in the back row.
We wander in clumps. Singles and pairs meeting for a minute and heading different ways. We congregate for feature performances and to discuss day plans.
We hear rumours of nearby Lake Eacham, a dormant volcano/lake/crocodile sanctuary. Rumours turn to action turn to an afternoons’ entertainment by virtue of a chance meeting with Beeeedge (actual spelling unknown), a sprightly Irish lady playing the Bodhran in the Irish jam. The Irish jam begins on the first day of the festival and continues non-stop until late on the final night when where we are asked to move on by a group of European backpackers staying at the pub (not to attend the festival but to pick fruit on a nearby farm). Beeeeedge has a hire-car and a partner who helped to start the festival some thirty-eight years ago. She drives us ferociously to the Lake, tells us this is her third swim in the lake that day and leaves us clutching a box of dripping Choc Tops as she dives back in for an afternoon sojourner.
All around the heat permeates, seeping into the early evening, sucking the sweat softly from my skin.