Apocalypse NOW NOW

22 August 2010 - 02:00 By Nechama Brodie

With the music festival sold out for the first time in its 16-year history, writer Nechama Brodie and photographer Nadine Hutton join the great unwashed of Oppikoppi

'So, what have you heard about Oppikoppi?" I ask Narch, Mike and Disco of Cape Town-based rap-electronic outfit PH Fat. It's four o'clock on a Sunday afternoon and it's their first time at Africa's biggest rock festival. It's my first time too, except I've already been in camp for two days and have the dirty boots and hangover to prove it.

"Uh, we heard it's really dusty and cold. The messiest, biggest festival in South Africa," Mike, or maybe Narch, says. "We heard it gets messy in a brandy and coke kind of way," Narch, or maybe Mike, adds. "And that everyone shouts 'Oppikoppi' a lot," they finish.

Mike has arrived with exactly two sandwiches (he later gives one away to the crowd during the group's set) and without a tent. He's hoping to crash with some friends later. "We did get a tent," the boys tell me, "but no one knows how to set it up and, anyway, we lost the poles."

I say "Oppi", you say "koppi".

On the first day of the festival, Friday, the crowd already smells of booze and dagga and people who haven't showered. Girls pose in their sunglasses and boys preen, cock-a-hoop. They stagger between spaces, play fighting. It's Shakespeare, in the heat and dust and sweet thorn: "I do not bite my thumb at you, sir, but I bite my thumb, sir." Juliet meets Romeo. He is wearing a Jack Parow hat and carrying five litres of beer on his back.

At the Kreef Hotel, where I am staying (a "point five-star tent hotel - the calm thing is to remain important"), photographer Liam Lynch has set up a portrait studio with his accomplice Rudi Cronje. Lynch, who knows everyone, is staying in a camper van called Martha. He has three bags of coffee and a fridge full of Red Bull and, predictably, sleeps very little. At 4am, the first night, he posts Bob Dylan lyrics on Twitter: "Outside in the cold distance, a wildcat did growl."

Oppikoppi has a reputation for being one of the toughest music festivals in the world. It's hot by day, even in winter, and the shade disappears by noon. The nights are bitingly cold. And then there's the dust, which covers everything in a fine layer of pigment.

This year Oppikoppi sold out for the first time in its 16-year history, drawing over 15000 people - most of whom set up camp on the surrounding farm. The main camping area is not for sissies (I'm a sissy, and so don't venture past the barricade). Toilet and bathroom facilities are provided. Outside of that it's every man or woman for him or herself.

Unofficially, the campsite is nicknamed "Chaotiville". Nadine Hutton, photographer and collaborator on this story, says the main camping grounds are unapologetically "post apocalyptic. Oh wait, hello Mel Gibson." Beyond Thunderdome. Tents are pitched wherever there is space. And if there's no space or you just can't find your tent after a late night out, you sleep wherever you are. Of course, it helps not to sleep. This last bit is included in the kind-hearted survival tips provided by festival organisers, which also advise: All music leads to the road that leads to a heart; On the way a policeman will care to stop you. Care to be nice to him/her. He/she was once also young; Look out for the cowboy riding by your side. He is your friend and you will need him in the next valley.

There are no rules, really, except: no guns, no pets, no bad "isms" (racism and sexism should be checked at the gate; hedonism, however, is permitted), no bikes, and no big fires (it's the bushveld, it's dry; cars have burnt out).

It's this wildness that draws people to Oppikoppi, keeps them coming back. The opportunity to drive home with "Naai is lekker" written in dust on your windscreen. And, of course, the music.

If the main campsite is incoherent, anarchic, the festival programme itself is superbly constructed, brilliantly managed. Headline acts include Jack Parow, Gang of Instrumentals, Radio Kalahari Orkes, BLK JKS, Die Heuwels Fantasties and Canadian band Billy Talent. Performances are staggered across three stages on one side of the koppie, heavy metal to the right, smooth rock to the left, the big acts on the central James Phillips "Mane" Stage. On the other side of the koppie is a Red Bull "studio" stage where DJs and live electronica acts perform until the early hours of the morning, sending out wild music to the stars, bass notes so heavy you feel them in your throat as you reach the top of the hill.

There's an invisible apartheid of sorts between the sides of the koppie: white Afrikaans-speaking students hanging out by the main stage; integrated indie rockers tripping out to the beats on the other side. On the first day of the festival, a pale and eloquent Gil Hockman plays on the main stage - named after the late, great musician James Phillips - and closes his set with a cover of [Phillips's band] the Cherry Faced Lurchers' classic Shot Down: "I'm a white boy who looked at his life gathered in his hands and saw it was all due to the sweat of some other man, the one who got shot down in the streets."

Most of the kids who are half-listening weren't even born when Shot Down was recorded in the early '80s; hell, even I was a kid then - but I remember things like the State of Emergency, and conscription, and Whites Only. I think how far we've come, as a country; but, looking at the crowd, I am startled by a complete absence of visible transformation, of integration. I send out a panicked message on Twitter at 2.41am: "You probably know this, but it is very white here."

The next day, I raise the issue during a conversation with Hunter Kennedy from Die Heuwels Fantasties. "It's an age-old white South African tradition to f**k off into the bushveld for a long weekend," he says. "Oppikoppi is a music safari. But it's also a good place to start - look at the acts the festival organisers bring in. That's where education happens." It's a point several other musicians bring up over the weekend: how, although Oppikoppi is largely an Afrikaans rock event, the festival programme has always included other South African artists - from Sipho "Hotstix" Mabuse to Mafikizolo to Freshlyground. There's nothing contrived about this. Oppikoppi is a festival for musicians themselves. An opportunity to hook up once a year, to meet colleagues, comrades, and to see great performances; the diversity offers the chance to engage and collaborate with legends, icons.

Late afternoon on the final day, Vusi Mahlasela plays a mind-blowing set with blues guitarist Albert Frost. We sit on rocks on the side of the koppie, the sun in our faces and grass on our jeans.

"You are in the right place. At the right time," Mahlasela says to the crowd, as the sound of his voice, his guitar, finds a counterpoint to Frost's. And just like that, the transformation happens.

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