You could see it from the sky as the plane descended towards Hamilton Airport, nestled in between a dry brown hill on the right, and the Waikato River snaking its way along the boundary to the left: a city of canvas sprawled across the fields, with little people scurrying through.
I was flying in for Parachute, the largest Christian music festival in the Southern Hemisphere – which, for someone who considers himself agnostic, didn’t really fill me with the greatest excitement.
The night before I left Wellington, a friend told me he’d heard Parachute was “the biggest den of drugs and poorly suppressed sexual urges in the nation”. “Many of my virginal days were spent wiling away at Parachute,” Radio New Zealand’s political reporter Craig McCulloch reminisced – which, coming from him, didn’t surprise me in the least.
Staring across to Mystery Creek as the plane landed, all I could think about was how the coming weekend was really a mystery to me.
After we landed, I picked up my bags and wandered past the poorly thought-out sign that read “HAMILTON AIRPORT SUPPORTS CHILD CANCER” and into the Waikato sunshine to find my ride.
“Where’re you heading?” asked the taxi driver leaning against the side of his car, as he folded up his newspaper at the sight of a customer.
Various commercial radio stations were parked up blasting their music out of their fancy 4WDs; I wish I’d brought the Radio New Zealand hatchback to blast Afternoons with Jim Mora
“Mystery Creek please.” You could see the interest drop off his face as he learned that he was only going down the road, but I was already putting my bags in the boot.
“Are you particularly busy with Parachute in town?” I asked. I’d read in my media guide that the three-day event attracts up to 20,000 people for music and mutual worship.
“Not at all,” said the driver. “Everyone comes up in bloody vans and the people who do fly in never tip. I get blessings, though.” That made me feel bad, as I was going to be paying by taxi voucher and didn’t have any loose change (I offered him my last M&Ms leftover from the flight, though).
“The only people who have a field day here are the cops – they drop the speed limit down to 30kph but only put a few bloody signs up,” he continued as we sped along at clearly more than 30kph.
After I was dropped off, I lugged my bags, sleeping bag and tent through the gates to Mystery Creek and down a gravel driveway that cut its way cleanly through the maze of tents. Apart from the one rule – no mixed genders in tents, unless you’re married – there seemed no order to how they were laid out. You found a patch of grass, and that was it.
I set about pitching my tent, cursing and using a certain someone’s name in vain. It took three attempts, but eventually I had a home, and it was time to explore.
The festival had five stages, and in between them was the space known as “The Village”, gazebos intertwined with fairy lights that served as Parachute’s main street. Various commercial radio stations were parked up blasting their music out of their fancy 4WDs; I wish I’d brought the Radio New Zealand hatchback to blast Afternoons with Jim Mora.
It had all your typical festival fare: overpriced deep-fried food, carnival rides, merchandise, even a dairy. You could get your hair braided at a stall called “Comb Over Hair” (say it aloud), or pick a temporary tattoo from a selection that ranged from korus and Chinese characters to “PIMP DADDY” and the more Parachute-friendly “JESUS <3 U”.
But there was also stalls I guessed were unique to Parachute.
As the sun buttered the hills in its golden glow and cast their shadows across Mystery Creek, the crowds started to move towards the stages, and some teens brought out their special ‘orange juice’
You could sign up to help cure leprosy, sponsor a child, or become a missionary in Rwanda (Parachute has a long-term commitment to the community of Tubehoneza).
You could enrol in a school that teaches everything from Bible studies to ministry, or enlist in the New Zealand military as a pastor.
You could sign up to play online games “based on the bible narrative”, or buy black, goth-y T-shirts with inspirational quotes on them in place of the names of heavy metal bands.
My favourite stall was Bible tent – the stuff of Ned Flanders’ dreams, stocking every kind of bible you can imagine, and some you probably can’t.
There were custom-made bibles, audio bibles, multi-coloured bibles, bibles in different languages, pocket bibles, waterproof bibles, quick-view bibles, denim bibles, and – my personal favourite – the “every MAN’S bible”. (Having “MAN” in caps really appealed to my masculinity, and set it apart from all the other bibles.) In the kids’ section, you could find comic book bibles, “baby’s first bible”, and “Glipit Bibles”, which had Tetris-like tiles on the cover that you could customise to “express faith in your way!”
The Village was the main hub of activity during the day, but as the sun cast its final burst of light from the west, buttering the hills in its golden glow and casting their shadows across Mystery Creek, the crowds started to move towards the stages, and some teens brought out their special “orange juice”.
The first of these stages was called “White Elephant”, a circus tent sat at the edge of the venue, jutting out into the carpark. It was a small and intimate space, bordering on claustrophobic, where all the indie acts on the bill would be playing.
Across the way was a large white marquee that was called “Massive”, ironically the second-smallest stage, where all the “urban” acts were to perform.
If the screaming and shredding was stirring Lucifer from the ground, then the passionate moshing of fans was pummelling him back under
If you veered left from Massive and walked through the sprinkler tent (heavenly during the heat), you’d find a monstrous warehouse, split in two. At the northern end was “Deluxe”, where it seemed the prevailing structure was “anything goes”. One minute it was playing host to a melancholy crowd, lazily slumped on the ground, absorbing the tones of Rhian and the Utter Strangers; the next, it was home to the circle of death, cyclonically swirling its way through the wall of sound, that was screamo band For All Eternity.
At the southern end of the warehouse was “Palladium”, the multi-purpose section, where you could do everything from watch a band, attend a ball, or watch Parachute’s answer to New Zealand’s Got Talent, Parachute’s Gotta Lotta Talent.
And then there was the main stage, host to all the event’s headliners: Stan Walker, The Devil Wears Prada, Gungor, NewWorldSon and MXPX, to name a few.
As darkness set in, the light, family-friendly atmosphere established during Kiwi electro-pop artist (and X Factor NZ judge) Ruby Frost’s set gave way to the hormonal angst of Friday night’s headliner, the Ohio hardcore band The Devil Wears Prada. The older revellers fled the main stage en masse, taking their children with them, as a sea of black skinny jeans and straightened fringes surged forward to the front – although not until half of them had turned around to take selfies.
The band ripped into life with thunderous applause. If the screaming and shredding was stirring Lucifer from the ground, then the passionate moshing of fans was pummelling him back under. The cloud of Lynx spray wafting through the air was almost suffocating, leaving the Hamilton air reeking of the country’s largest high school gym.
On Saturday, I attended a range of seminars, kicking off with “One Voice: The bullying epidemic”. Pop singer and former Australian Idol winner (and X Factor NZ judge) Stan Walker spoke about his experiences as both victim of bullying and bully in what seemed to be quite a moving speech for the audience.
At Jay Lucas’ presentation, ‘Christianity 101’, the question was posed: “What do you do when you realise ‘Man, I have a suckful relationship with Jesus?’”
Following that was “Is Christian music dead?”, where Gungor frontman Michael Gungor and Parachute founder Mark de Jong confronted a seemingly controversial topic for a panel discussion at a Christian music festival.
“There is no such thing as Christian music. It’s like saying that a house is agnostic because an agnostic built it. It’s just music,” said Gungor, who described himself as a musician who happened to be Christian, and who enjoyed a lot of secular, even “atheist” music.
De Jong admitted that he felt slightly uneasy about the success Parachute had enjoyed as a “Christian music festival”. “Maybe we’ve been part of separating them [Christian artists] from the world…I don’t want us to put walls around ourselves. The mainstream industry looks at us and says ‘Oh, Parachute. That’s all the Christian bands’.”
I also went to Jay Lucas’ presentation, “Christianity 101”, in which the question was posed: “What do you do when you realise ‘Man, I have a suckful relationship with Jesus?’”
The answer, Lucas said, is to “get on your knees and say, ‘Jesus, I don’t have the capacity to be like you!’ He will help you … you just need to fill your heart with him.”
“Jesus, I give you my life man; I will follow you, fo’ shizzle my nizzle,” were Lucas’ closing words – and with that I’d had enough seminars for one day.
Sunday, the last day of the festival, began with worship sessions at the main stage led by De Jong and Los Angeles-based pastor Erwin McManus. There were even communion tables laid out on the grass in front of the stage.
Later in the day, the heavens opened, unleashing a downpour that drummed against the canvas city, forming its own pleasant rhythm of pitter-pattering over the chatter. The ground – which, that morning, had been so dry it unleashed a puff of dust with every step, as if gasping for its final breath – turned into a slush of mud and discarded lolly wrappers.
The spirits of the fans weren’t dampened as the rain continued to cascade. Those with raincoats whipped them out and those without improvised ponchos out of tarpaulins for The Parachute Band and ultimate Jesus fanboy Aaron Gillespie, who duly noted that the steady downpour was “the presence of God reaching down and touching us”.
Arms were outstretched, bodies swayed, and tears flowed with the rain as Gillespie’s gravelly voice reached out for the crowd to sing along:
Your plans are still to prosper;
You have not forgotten us;
You’re with us in the fire and in the flood;
Perfect in your love;
You are sovereign over us.
As Gillespie finished his set, the clouds began to part, a glimmer of light shining through, and the realisation dawned that I hadn’t zipped up my tent that morning.
Having wrung out all my clothes and sleeping bag, I returned to the main stage for the final act of Parachute 2014, long-time local music legend Dave Dobbyn, who’s been keeping it “Loyal” for 40 years.
But Dobbyn at an outdoor music festival in New Zealand is a bit like potato salad at a barbeque – it’s always there. I decided to take one final look at the Village instead.
Though most of the shelves had been cleared by the 20,000 punters over three days, the gazebos glistened as the fairylights strung between them shone onto the raindrops.
I walked through the lanes, chatting to stallholders and reflecting on my weekend. Sure, I’m not a believer, and three days at Parachute hadn’t changed my views. But to me, that didn’t matter. The people were friendly; quite a bit of the music was good; and nothing was shoved down my throat that I didn’t willingly participate in or go to see.
In all honesty, I wouldn’t have checked it out if it wasn’t for work, but I had been a guest at a Christian music festival; I’d had fun, and I couldn’t have felt more welcome.