It takes a village to raise a music festival. Here we highlight seven of the wonderful women who make Splore the extraordinary experience it is today.
Less than three weeks before Splore 2021, I was still in the midst of London’s seemingly endless lockdown. Jacinda Ardern’s praises were sung every time I spoke to anyone, my Kiwi twang a reminder of a country enjoying the freedom other nations could only dream of. One of the only places in the world able to hug each other, have a drink with friends, or stroll mask-free through the mall. And, of course, the only place in the world able to enjoy large-scale music festivals.
And so, from March 26-28, Splore was a fully-fledged hurrah of freedom. The all-ages music and arts festival is colourful, eclectic and conscious; since 1998, “Splorers” have descended on Tāpapakanga Regional Park – in Auckland’s southeast – to dance, let loose, rest and rejuvenate for three days of oceanside bliss.
But it would never happen without the strong team of people behind it. Here, I speak to seven wāhine who are the behind-the-scenes brains, hands and minds of Splore, and ask them why the festival is oh-so magic.
FRONT OF HOUSE MANAGER
“Every time I go over that hill and look out to the boats and see the main stage going off, I just think to myself, ‘Gosh, I’m home at Splore,’” says Prem Tyler, the festival’s front of house manager of 10 years. “Everybody’s partying and you can see all the different art installations and the lights are on. It really comes alive at night.”
For Splore’s front of house team, arrivals and departures are the big part of the job. From people turning up in decorated vans to costume-coordinated families and hilarious attempts to bring in banned items, Prem sees it all. She’s staunch, but feeds off the excitement people arrive with.
It isn’t until about 11pm on Friday night that she’s able to head for a proper boogie, and that’s when she crosses the hill from the entrance to the beguiling bay of Tāpapakanga Regional Park, soaking up her annual homecoming.
Splore’s known for the weird and the wonderful, but sometimes people forget that with any large-scale festival comes a certain set of safety rules. Over the 16 years she’s worked at the festival, Prem has had to intercept everything from a vintage knife, complete with carved handle, to full-length glass mirrors. There’s a glass ban on site, so kids can run around barefoot and carefree, and it’s Prem’s favourite thing to see a family in unison. “Some of the teenagers that are coming have been since they were little, so we get the same families every year.”
Family is the name of the game at Splore, with the whole festival promoting a sense of community, friendship and unity. Prem’s found her work family in her Splore colleagues. “I’m very grateful to be part of the Splore crew,” she says. “I’ve now got all sorts of new friends in my life. When difficult things happen during the festival – which of course they do, with an event of this size – everyone has always got your back, and that’s a very amazing thing.”
While the crew were hard at work during the festival, Prem made sure she fit in time for a good groove on the dance floor. She busted out some moves and then reached for a hot lemon and honey drink from one of the many food stalls. “At two in the morning when you’ve almost lost your voice, it’s perfect.”
Festivals are meant to be fun and energetic. They’re all about adrenaline and letting go of our inhibitions. But what if you simply want a moment to yourself to recharge? That’s where Wendy’s Wellness comes in at Splore; a space for workshops on the likes of breathwork, meditation and yoga, and for holistic modalities such as reflexology, massage and tarot readings.
“Sometimes festivals can feel overwhelming,” says Wendy Douglas, Splore’s wellness coordinator. “It’s awesome to have a space where people can just come and decompress for a bit. The Splore audience isn’t just into partying, they’re also into health and wellness. I think that’s why the wellness area has grown and become a really important aspect of the festival.”
Wendy’s life is all about balance. She’s a yoga teacher and has a meditation practice, but she’s also a DJ. This duality is important at Splore. “People want to be out late at night and do whatever they’re doing, but then get up in the morning and do some meditation or go to a yoga class or a talk. If we are to be healthy, well people, it’s about having balance and the intention to look after yourself.”
Wellness has become a bit of a buzzword over the past few years, but Wendy likes to keep the essence of what it means simple. It’s about community and connection. “We’re not just offering this to the punters, but we’re actually creating a Wendy’s Wellness family out of it,” she explains. “Connections and relationships are made not just during the festival, but for life.”
Testament to this, at last year’s festival a couple actually got married in the wellness tent. “The weather closed in and the bride and groom got stuck, so we ended up hosting the wedding in the tent. Someone was doing a workshop and we had to say, ‘Sorry, you’ll have to stop, because Wendy’s Wellness has now turned into Wendy’s Weddings’. There were tears and it was awesome for us to be a part of it.”
When Emma Vickers was just 19, she joined a flying trapeze school in Paris, going on to tour Europe, squatting in warehouses from Berlin to Barcelona. Aerial acrobatics were her life, and now she’s drawing on those years of raving and performing for Splore, as the festival’s performance director.
The English-born artist came to New Zealand after landing a contract with Weber Brothers Circus, and she’s spent her life absorbed in the local art scene here ever since. Splore’s famous for its Saturday night cabaret, and that – alongside all roaming and immersive performances – is Emma’s domain.
“I put on the first cabaret in 2006, co-producing it. It was called ‘The Butterfly Zoo’ and was a pivotal moment for the performance at Splore and a turning point for me as well, moving from performance into production,” Emma recalls.
For her, the excitement happens when she witnesses how the show affects festival-goers. “Once the show is up and running and you’re standing at the back, watching the audience’s reaction, then it becomes really exciting.”
Every year, the cabaret is arguably the most spectacular part of the festival and is the place where the theme really comes alive. Emma names the cabaret in relation to each year’s theme, but makes a “slightly twisted” version of it.
“So this year, as the theme was ‘Mother’, I called the cabaret ‘Blood and Milk,’” she says. “Another year the theme was ‘Mystic Ritual’, so I called my cabaret ‘The Temple of the Midnight Mantra.’”
Emma doesn’t take the theme lightly when it comes to her own outfit, either. She’s hilarious and fun, with a dark twist. For Splore 2021, she went as a vagina.
“I had a vagina dress and a clitoris hat. It’s a costume I had already, it’s quite handy,” she laughs. “I wore it for my 50th birthday a couple of years ago as well.”
It’s not until the early hours of Sunday morning that Emma is able to knock off work, so she puts her costume on at 3am to get “a couple of hours of partying in before I go to bed and have to work on Sunday”.
Splore’s so dedicated to waste management, you wouldn’t even know if the person dancing next to you was a zero-waste staffer. That’s because it’s all integrated. As Splore’s sustainability manager Anna Mathieson explains, normalising being eco-friendly is key. “Their job is to normalise being a tidy raver,” she says. “We thought we’d get a group of people together who would get dressed up in cool costumes, then at the end of the set or closing of the stage, they whip out a recycling bag and start picking up cans.”
Taking care of the ancestral land of the site’s mana whenua – Ngāti Paoa and Ngāti Whanaunga – is paramount.
Anna’s passion for and career in sustainability goes back to 2010, when she started working for clean-up charity Sustainable Coastlines. “I had an ‘aha’ moment when I was crouched down in Wellington Harbour, pulling out bits of rubbish from between the rock walls, and there were hundreds of local school kids around and I thought, ‘This is what I want to be doing.’”
Splore is ever-evolving, but the health of the planet is at its heart. “A really cool thing about Splore is that it’s a little microcosm. Everything we do here and everything we learn we can actually apply to life outside Splore as well.”
The standout achievement for the festival this year was its carbon neutral accreditation. For all carbon the festival produced, they’ll offset with reforestation and rewilding projects around the country.
Like everyone in the Splore whānau, Anna’s a doer. She tells me that, during the festival, she’s so busy there’s not a lot of time to relax – but she still keeps an eye out for fabulous costumes.
“Last year the theme was ‘Infinity’, so one guy came as a Rheem infinity shower box. He had a shower curtain around him and you could pull the shower curtain aside and get in the shower with him,” she chuckles.
Becoming more sustainable is a phrase on the tip of everyone’s tongue right now, but Anna has some simple thoughts on achieving this. Consume less, she says. “If there was one thing I could impart to Splorers: start thinking about how you can move away from disposable stuff. Start buying second-hand. Rethink your consumption habits. We don’t have time for big business and government to legislate our way out of this. You’re important and the things you do actually matter at scale.”
“As a foreigner in New Zealand, it makes me feel at home,” shares Splore’s business manager, Mariana Jiménez. She’s referring to her job and her colleagues at the festival, who’ve been a part of her life for eight years now. “They’re the closest thing I have to family here,” says Mariana, who moved to Aotearoa from Mexico a decade ago.
Splore’s supportive, free-spirited environment is a stark contrast to the reasons she left Mexico. As a woman, she felt her safety was constantly at risk in her home country. “You always have to look after yourself and defend yourself, it’s just very tiring,” she explains. “One of the reasons why I keep working at Splore is because I feel it’s such a safe environment for everyone, and everyone actually looks after each other.”
Mariana’s in charge of accounts, but that doesn’t mean she’s stuck in an office off-site. In a typically Splore, communal way, she moves into a remote office for the duration of the festival, using an on-site building to be part of the action. The main perk is she has the ocean to stay fresh. “We try to go into the ocean as much as we can, because sometimes it’s hard to take a shower. It’s probably gross, but I’ve got to be honest,” she laughs. Her other festival must-haves are sunscreen, biodegradable baby wipes and dry shampoo.
I ask Mariana if she gets a chance to head out of the office and have a dance. “I guess so, but I’m not a great dancer,” she says. “When people ask where I’m from and I tell them Mexico, they think I’ll dance salsa really well. But I actually hate salsa!” What really makes her joyful is on the Saturday night when she sees people dancing at the main stage. “It makes me want to cry, because I think about all the effort that’s behind it and all the people who work so hard to make it happen.”
Splore means so much to Mariana, she’s actually turned down job offers because the festival is so close to her heart. “I’ve been offered other jobs, but I’m just so happy at Splore. I feel so comfortable, and I feel that’s more important than anything else.”
When most festivals start selling tickets, people seriously care about the line-up. It’s the acts that make the festival, and generally, the bigger the names, the better. But with Splore, tickets sell like hotcakes without a single act being announced.
People want in on the experience, so a selfie with their favourite band is at the bottom of the list of priorities. Splore’s artist liaison, Shirley Allan (Te Rārawa and Ngāpuhi), tells me the festival has sold out for three years running without even announcing the line-up. “What’s important is we have this amazing arts and cultural experience, so people just come and have a good time,” she says.
Shirley’s role is making the musicians performing at the festival happy, organising the logistics and their needs down to the finest details. But of course, with New Zealand’s borders closed, we’ve only got each other, and big name bands couldn’t make it into the country. Splore missed out on some of its regulars.
“Dub Pistols are pretty much Splore resident beings. They come here because they love it and put on an incredible show. We missed them very much this year,” she tells. But even though their absence was felt, Dub Pistols singer Barry Ashworth put a video together for the Splore family. Thankfully, we’ve got an abundance of incredible local talent. Big name local acts in 2021 included Shapeshifter, Benee, Theia and – one for the history books – Clarke Gayford, aka Jacinda Ardern’s other half, DJing.
While the artists are important, the energy of the crowd is even more so. Splore has a strong moral compass, but Shirley puts her trust in the community to be kind and keep each other in line.
“I saw a young man strolling down a hill with an [indigenous] American headdress on. Myself and one of our site managers were watching him, and we thought we’d wait and see what happened. Out of nowhere, this fella came over and, because he was so tall, he just plucked the headdress off, pulled it into little bits and put it in the bin as he walked past.”
That story, in essence, is what Shirley loves about Splore. “It’s important for people to understand that events aren’t just about going and getting munted. Unless you’re approaching the event with the idea of collective transformation, you’re really just selling tickets for the money.”
PR & MARKETING
“It’s like a slice of utopia,” gushes Suzanne McNamara, Splore’s head of PR and marketing. “It’s a space for people to be their creative selves. People have these lives where they’re nine-to-five, or mothers and fathers, or caring for an elderly parent or whatever it is, and they can just let loose, experiment and be their authentic selves.”
For Suzanne, being her authentic self at Splore has meant juggling lots of roles. One year, it was working mum and festival mum. Total chaos, but she remembers it with laughter. “I mistakenly brought my son, he was about eight or nine. Fat Freddy’s Drop were playing and he was falling asleep, and even though I really wanted to see them, I ended up backstage with him in the green room while they were playing.”
Splore memories are endless for Suzanne, as she’s worked at the festival for 16 years. She came to the team when she was “at a loose end” and happened to bump into festival founder Amanda Wright at a café. “We had a massive download on the couch at my place. She told me what she was trying to achieve with Splore and the kaupapa, and I was instantly engaged.” Suzanne started off just doing the marketing, andƒ over the years her role has expanded to working on the PR, marketing and sponsorship deals all year long.
Nowadays, strong leadership from the likes of festival director John Minty inspire her daily and make her buzz with pride. “John’s held his nerve through a whole Covid year to be able to put on this festival. It’s amazing that we’re the only country in the world to put on a festival of this type,” she says.
Aside from the Covid-free element of 2021, Splore is unique on any given year. There aren’t many festivals of its size where you can watch a band before jumping into crystal clear waters. Glastonbury has its flooded tents and Burning Man has its desert mirages, but Splore sees people going for an ocean dip whilst watching the main stage.
“Each Sunday, I’ll have a swim and watch everybody mellow and chill,” says Suzanne. “Watching the main stage while you’re swimming in the ocean is always a really special thing.”