Two festivalgoers make the best of Splendour in the Grass (Image: Amber Schultz)
Two festivalgoers make the best of Splendour in the Grass (Image: Amber Schultz)

I’m up to my shins in mud, suctioned in, listening to live music. I turn to the man next to me and ask if I can use his shoulder as leverage to pull my boots out — I have to do this with three different people to advance 10 metres. My toe throbs with an infection caused by the muck.

Splendour in the Grass is Australia’s largest music festival and is crucial to our entertainment industry. After being postponed four times due to COVID-19, with cancellations across 2020 and 2021 at a huge financial cost, it finally went ahead last weekend.

But many punters questioned whether it should have gone ahead at all. Messy porta-potties and mud are expected at festivals. Knee-deep water, trenches of sludge and six-hour bus queues to leave the event are something else. Safety was a major concern.

I’d been invited to speak on a forum panel about the invasion of Ukraine — a terrific line-up of experts. I am grateful for the opportunity but also aware I may not be atop the guest list next year after this reporting.

The event was off to a “bumpy start” after the first day’s main acts were cancelled due to severe weather. Rain lashed the region as tents floated away in floods. La Niña destroyed what should have been grassy plains and turned them into swamps. Hundreds of campers spent up to 12 hours in a gridlocked traffic jam to enter the event, running out of fuel and food.

I have sympathy for staff, who worked day in and day out, dealing with strict government rules and adverse weather conditions to make the event happen, sleeping in nearby tents (the same tents offered to me that, after one very wet and cold night, I refused to stay in again). Organisers scrambled to find me last-minute accommodation, which I am very grateful for.

Their hard work resulted in a fantastic lineup, incredible grounds, and an amazing mix of performances, from a woman painting her vagina to make stamp art, to major acts like The Strokes. The production value was incredible and musicians were grateful to perform in front of such massive crowds — the first time in a long time for many.

But it was surprising that extra preparations weren’t made after months of heavy rainfall, given the region had been flooded just two months prior. Instead, 10,000 more tickets were sold this year than usual, maxing out at 50,000 attendees.

After Friday’s cancellations, gravel was trucked in and water pumped out, but it barely made a dent.

Foot infections were rife, with medical staff raising concerns to me about mud-borne viruses, with one comparing it to the fecal-infested flood waters in Queensland. I bonded with others over our Savlon-slathered feet. Five paramedics attended to a woman who slipped in the mud and whacked her head on a metal barrier.

Staffing was a major concern: COVID-19 decimated the Gold Coast’s supply of labourers, from cafe staff to bus drivers. Bar staff pulled out due to the horrific weather, meaning there were huge queues to get a drink — crucial to help attendees forget about the mud. Staff were working 15-hour shifts to cover the shortfall. Arriving at certain bars required a dangerous trek down a steep slope. One misstep meant either faceplanting in mud or sliding down a gravelly slope. Porta-potties were overflowing with mud and rubbish with no staff to clean them.

The desperation of young people to enjoy themselves was admirable. People were keen to make the most of it — but enthusiasm waned as they waited up to an hour to get a beer.

It waned further after thousands were stuck in lines to leave the festival (officials blamed this on ordered buses not showing up). They were the lucky ones — those camping faced a unique and very wet set of challenges as sites flooded. Those who brought their cars in were told they weren’t allowed to leave until Monday, despite many sleeping in puddles.

Limited fresh water in the campgrounds and queues dampened spirits — and hangovers — further. When a woman suffered what presented as a seizure in front of me during Saturday’s bus line, police refused to provide medical help — and when questioned, they shone a torch in patrons’ eyes and accused them all of being on drugs (the woman was taken away in a golf cart and appeared to recover).

Despite having an app that could send updates and notifications, there was zero real-time information about entry or bus delays. Chirpy messages attempted to downplay the issues, incorrectly insisting just 1000 people were affected by the buses.

Organisers didn’t welcome criticism. One other performer told me he received an email in May, when he was invited to speak, requesting guests not refer to the event as “Splendour in the Mud” (the phrase was later embraced and signposted above main stages). I was questioned over my social media posts.

It was important Splendour went ahead, to support local artists and performers. But that doesn’t mitigate the experience of attendees who paid up to $399 for a three-day ticket coupled with camping fees, inflated food and drink costs.

It’s unlikely organisers raked in cash after two years of rescheduling, but it’s questionable whether, amid the chaos, confusion and cancellations, punters made a bang for their buck.

Supporting the arts industry is vital. Doing so with adequate transport and safety measures is too.