Rustler’s Valley, Free State, South Africa
New Year and Easter are the big events, but there are two or three other parties held between September and April each year
Renowned even in South Africa for its smalltown conservatism, the province of Free State rarely lives up to its enticing name, but the excellent Rustler’s Valley Festivals are a notable exception – the parties feel and operate like true celebrations, and the revellers are experts at getting down to fine music in a stunning location. Held on a spacious farm in Rustler’s Valley, at the foot of the majestic Maluti mountains, the festivals span the summer, offering mainly D J’d sounds interspersed with live music, a muddy dam to cool off in, tepees and sweat lodges, plus accompanying devotees, good food and even stuff for the kids to do (not to mention babysitting) – all good, New Agey fun. The parties are just big enough to make you feel you’re part of a scene, but just small enough to keep it a family affair.
The Rustler’s Valley Festival started in 1992 as a small annual gathering of hippies who dreamed of a South African equivalent to Woodstock or Glastonbury, and the music was mainly South African white alternative rock. As the 1990s wore on, the music changed, with live music receding, and the dance scene – in all its mutations – taking over. The shift drew a younger crowd, though there were plenty of older hippies glad to discover that hallucinogens were back in fashion. At its height, Rustler’s was pulling in five thousand punters to its major events, but the start of the twenty- first century has marked a change in the festivals’ character. The growing corporatization of South African entertainment, with South African Breweries becoming the main sponsor of the once-alternative Splashy Fen, and the fact that South Africa now hosts around 85 annual music festivals nationwide (nine of these over the Easter weekend alone), have seen the organizers return to their roots, ditching their anthemic Easter Festival and taking to heart the “small-is-beautiful” eco-philosophy that underpinned Rustler’s in the first place. Now, several parties are held over the summer, but they are far smaller than before (500-1000 people) – and much mellower. If any event could be considered a highlight, then the New Year party would be it.
The focus of the Rustler’s Valley Festivals is the centrepiece World Stage, which has hosted a mixture of chart-topping headline acts, a bit of rock, and, most recently, a uniquely southern African blend of experimental jazz and folk. Whatever the tunes, there is always a heavy percussion element in the music. In the early 2000s, live music was ditched at Rustler’s because the organizers felt the same old bands were doing the rounds, and line-ups had become far too predictable. D J sounds now dominate, but as a new wave of local musos emerges, live bands, mostly from Cape Town, are gradually being reintroduced into the festivals’ programmes. For a break from the 24-hour-a-day musical action at the World Stage, the Saucery Restaurant doubles up as a chill space dishing up mellower sounds that include large dollops of music from across the continent. Part of the Rustler’s scene is the veritable New Age checklist of tepees, eclectically inspired shamanic ceremonies, healers, astrologers and crystals. In keeping with the eco spirit of the place, energy is provided by windmills and solar panels. At some stage during the parties a lot of people take to the surrounding hills to chill out, and from the festival site you can see dozens of small convoys traipsing over the beautiful Maluti sandstone.