It seemed an odd place for a full-strength contingent of NSW police to set up a sobriety checkpoint, this long, straight, lightly travelled strip of bitumen bisecting the saltbush monotony to the west of Deniliquin.
But there they were, several hours before noon on Good Friday, their fluorescent vests and breath-analysers prompting some panicked reckoning before coming to a halt: several beers the night before, plus a bottle of red and, because the Barmah pub is such a pleasant spot after a long day behind the wheel, two or three ports to polish the night with a tawny glow.
‘You’re free to go,’ said the young constable, whose affability might not have been so pronounced if a good night’s sleep and still-robust liver had not removed all trace of alcohol from my system.
So what’s this all about then, I asked him?
‘Hippies,’ he replied with a jerk of the head toward a station wagon being methodically searched by several of the young officer’s comrades in blue. ‘There’s the hippie Confest at Moulamein and, you know how it is, drugs and that.’ Four youths stood in anxious silence beside their vehicle as I pulled away and the unpacking continued.
There are relatively few moments when I rejoice in grey hair, what is left of it, but this was most definitely one of them. If you don’t like uniformed strangers picking through your bags and boxes, then let me recommend girding yourself in moleskins, sober shirt and a deferential attitude toward authority. What officer in his right mind would consider a near-senior citizen with a 4WD full of swags and fishing gear to be worth the effort of closer examination?
Thank God the wallopers weren’t quite so well organised in 1977, when I still had hair (and lots of it), as I was most definitely transporting herbal contraband to the second Confest, organised by Jim Cairns and Junie Morosi on a property near Bredbo, to the south of Canberra. It all seemed so right and righteous back then; indeed, the 15,000-strong crowd at that gathering made it almost possible to believe the vaunted joys of the Aquarian Age were no less than inevitable. It was a simple enough philosophy: get stoned, get together, re-make the world. Some forty years later, an old friend’s chance remark that he would be attending Confest 2014 prompted the thought that it might be interesting to see what the counterculture has been up to in my absence.
Still hitting the bong apparently, if the hand-painted roadside signs announcing the festival site were any indication. The first proclaimed that Confest – the name fuses ‘conference’ and ‘festival’ – was six kilometres distant. The next banner, a minute or so later, insisted the traveller had 15 kilometres yet to cover, while a nearby third swore there were only twelve.
As it happened the site’s flag-festooned front gate appeared almost straight away. This was where I parted company with $100, which bought permission to camp for three days in a sheep paddock with some 5,000 rather more committed revellers, as well as a hug and a kiss from a naked man who, lacking a comfortable or hygienic spot to tuck the cash, trotted back to the gatehouse with money in hand.
Naked men were a roving feature of Confest, and some were remarkably determined to stay naked no matter what. One stalwart, more blue than pink in the evenings’ unseasonable chill, may have thought nudity an advertisement for manhood, but his billboard was no larger beneath that frigid moon than a classified ad.
Not that anyone would have commented adversely on his shortcomings, acceptance of weirdness in all its paraded manifestations being one of the conditions of entry to the site.
So I went with the flow, even when stupidity was rampant. There was the young bloke from Sydney, for example, who lectured a small ‘workshop’ gathering that red mushrooms with white spots are the trippiest, and if you happen to down the wrong sort, well that is a small but worthwhile risk.
Tell that to a dissolving liver and kidneys, I thought, only just managing to keep that piece of bourgeois negativity to myself.
It was somewhat harder to bite the tongue when a surprisingly aggressive survivalist, who went by the name of Adrian, harped about the preparations we all need to be making prior to the total economic and ecological collapse, which he prophesied as imminent. One hears much the same piffle, albeit somewhat more mildly expressed, day by day on the ABC, so no surprises there, but his boast of lecturing school children as ‘a guest teacher’ very nearly shattered my back-row silence.
It is one thing to aggregate idiocy in an isolated paddock, quite another to consider that the educational-industrial complex is peddling his nonsense far and wide. Are kiddies really being encouraged to inform their parents that the coming apocalypse will pit those ‘who grow and store their own food’ against ‘bikies with guns who will try to take it away.’?
In the chai tent, where I offered a Cadbury’s chocolate egg to a winsome young woman who was, alas, fully clothed, her reaction was ambivalence. Chocolate, she said, was a natural delight, but the corporate sort made her think of Tony Abbott.
I have no idea how many joints inspired that baffling connection, but the next number to do the rounds overcame her reticence. One thing that hasn’t changed since Dr Jim and Junie set their Bredbo caravan a’rocking is marijuana’s ability to promote the sweet tooth. Until the bikies come, that is, and tear them out with pliers for use as trade goods.
The biggest surprise, however, was homegrown. Before leaving Melbourne I received an anguished call from my friend, already on his way to Moulamein. Could I stop by his house and collect a box of camping gear he had left on the front porch? No worries, I responded, and stowed the box atop all my other gear.
‘You beaut!’ he declared when we met up at the camp site, only to lapse into a guilty silence as I told him about the police road block.
‘Sorry, I should have told you,’ he said after much throat-clearing, ‘there is half an ounce of primo hydroponic in there.’
So remember, until the Aquarian Age dawns in earnest, stick with the moleskins and Oxford shirts. They’re a big help at roadblocks.
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