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
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.)
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
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
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
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
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
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!