by Kara-Leah Grant
Wanderlust Great Taupo 2015 – everyone I spoke to agreed it was a resounding success and totally exceeded expectations, on all fronts – even the weather!
Despite a forecast that promised solid rain for four days, the festival was mostly dry and sunny, only succumbing to drizzle on the final day. Then, it felt therapeutic and atmospheric.
The finale event, Xavier Rudd, was held in The Greatest Place (mainstage) – a large tented space with portable flooring and stage props air-freighted in all the way from the United States in a forty foot container.
The last of the festival goers crowded in, mostly sitting, although a few die hards stood and danced along to the music.
Warm and dry inside the Greatest Place, the rain felt like it was holding us within a loving embrace while washing us clean to go back out into the wider world.
And Xavier. Wow. I’ve heard of this man for literally decades, as he was a mainstay in Whistler back in my party days at the turn of the millenium. My friends all raved about him, but I never made an effort to see him – a guy on the guitar with a didge? What’s the big deal?
Now, I see what the big deal is. Every song felt like a prayer dedicated to both humanity and the planet. The power and reverence of the man, his mana, his energy, was powerful indeed. It was a fitting end to a festival that often focused on calling forth the warrior power that lives within all of us.
Just before Xavier took the stage, I was lingering on the doorstep of the Mothership, a venue that took 100+ yogis, waiting for a break in the rain before sprinting over to nab a spot. Scott, a tall strapping young man who looked like a rugby player, and whom I’d met on the first night was standing beside me.
He was awestruck – completely awestruck about his entire experience. He said he’d thought the festival might be good – you know, some yoga, some music, some dancing, some hanging out with good people. But he hadn’t expected to be cracked wide open and dynamically activated the way he had.
Scott had come on a whim, initially buying just a one day ticket and then last minute deciding to pony up the full $500 or so for the complete festival.
“How could I have put a price on this experience?”
He was shook his head in wonder at it all as we watched the rain and the people strolling through with their umbrellas or dashing through holding jackets, towels or sarongs above their head.
And that was a common refrain over those four days. Most people had no idea what they were getting themselves into – how juicy, and profound, and heart-warming, and expansive a four day yoga and music festival could be.
The sense of community, of coming together, of shared experience, of heart-space and of power was palatable in all moments.
Many of the classes were offered as ritual experiences – like all of Ana Forrest’s. She was travelling with her partner, an Australian, and an Aboriginal Elder. Together, they started each class with traditional Aboriginal songs, dances and instruments including the didge.
Yet the classes were co-creative experiences – in at least one of Ana’s classes that I heard about, students stood at the end of class and collectively responded with a spontaneous waiata. The people of this land, calling to the people of the Australian land – the world’s oldest civilisation.
Ditto in the packed-to-the-rafters Warriors of Change on Saturday afternoon. Gabriel Francisco lead the charge at the beginning of class, to a soundtrack laid down by Dj Alexi, taking 100+ students through a dance warm-up to lighten the mood and get everyone moving.
Kerri Kelly and Cameron Shayne took us through the yoga portion of the class, calling on our inner warriors to stand for the change required in all of us so the world too can change.
Cameron took no prisoners, refusing to take anything less than our 100% effort, stopping the class at one point to rally our energy levels. Which, after three intense days of yoga, were beginning to flag.
When we’d finally sweated our way to the end, and come together in the centre of the room to share some love, and Cameron and Kerri had said their final pieces, a man stood up and said:
“I’d like to take up your challenge to be a Warrior of Change. Those are easy words to say, but it’s hard to embody them. And in return, I’d like to offer something back to you.”
As he spoke, a space organically cleared around him – we Kiwis all knew what was coming. But both Kerri and Cameron had missed the opening Powhiri with the Haka and Waiata.
Kerri’s eyes – already naturally saucer-sized – widened into dinner plates as this man from Hawkes Bay summoned the warrior spirit of his people from deep within and launched into a spine-tingling haka.
Now this class had run over and gone for two hours, it’s now 6pm. We’re all wrung out and exhausted. And yet this was one of the most powerful and heart-felt hakas I have ever seen or experienced. I had full goose-bumps running up and down my body.
Kerri’s eyes filled with tears as the power and magnitude of the offering hit her full force – she was only sitting about five feet away.
This moment was typical of the festival, where the boundaries were often blurred between who was presenting and who was receiving. As a teacher, I felt this too. It was such a humbling experience to be able to offer my experience of yoga to a room full of present, open, and eager students.
But full-spectrum, wild experiences such as Warriors for Change were only one aspect of the programme.
Mark was one of the highlights for me – he’s a Kiwi, but based in the States now and so not many people had heard of him at the festival. Less flashy than some of the other teachers, his class numbers reflected this at times. Yet those who made it to his classes were often profoundly and deeply touched by the simplicity of his teaching.
While classes like Cameron’s broke people out of their boxes, Mark’s touched the deepest heart of yoga.
Other personal highlights for me included Suzanne Sterling, a goddess who wakes people up through bringing out the wild, free part of all of us using dance, movement, asana and sound. She brings her students into the fullest expression of their selves, again breaking through walls and out of boxes.
Thanks to her inspiration, I lead my first ever chant at the end of the Bavana of Compassion.
Yet it wasn’t just the yoga that made the festival so extraordinary.
The opening Spectacular on Thursday night, which was free for all Taupo locals to attend, included a smorgasborg of theatrical acts including the talented Mr Cat – or MC for short.
The finale of the Spectacular took the audience to the edge of their mats and back as Alice in Wanderlust balanced in a handstand on her partner’s hands, holding a bow and arrow in her feet and backbended over to take aim at a giant heart.
Her arrow went wide the first attempt – which seemed to make Alice even more determined, and even though the music for the act had run out, you could visually see her set a powerful intention as she climbed back up onto her partner’s hand ready for attempt number 2.
The crowd hushed as everyone collectively breathed in, watching as she lifted into handstand, worked the bow and arrow into position with her feet, pulled back the bow string, and inched over into the back bend taking aim at the heart.
She nailed it. The crowd went wild. And the tone was set for the festival. It didn’t matter if you missed. It only mattered if you got up and gave it another go.
By Sunday, and on only three hours sleep after an epic evening of music and dancing, I’d had my fill of yoga. Fortunately there were a myriad of other offerings and I was grateful to go and chill in the Speakeasy to listen to Pete Longworth deliver his presentation Be the Artist of Your Life.
Again, the quality of offering blew me away – this is one seriously talented guy. And after his presentation, which focused on how to see the spectacular in the mundane and find fascinating features in every space, I was surprised to see how much my perspective on the world had shifted. Thanks to Pete, I’d found my artist eyes.
Thousands of people made it to Wanderlust Great Taupo this year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if numbers double next year. The festival organisers did an out-standing job on all fronts, and every single festival goer I spoke to had their expectations blown out of the water.
My only regret was that I wasn’t able to make it to all the events I wanted to – in particular, I never got to go to one of Jason Te Patu’s classes. And word around the festival was his teaching was powerful. Hopefully he’s invited back next year.
Finally, because I was at the festival before it opened and stayed after it closed, I had a real sense of the huge amount of work and money it takes to put Wanderlust on.
The forty foot container that was air-freighted in contained the Lululemon Dome plus a throng of other iconic Wanderlust props, including the main back drop for The Greatest Place. Air-freighting a 40 foot container? That takes some serious coin. The Dome also took something like 12 hours to erect and 16 hours to break down.
Some of the backstage staff had come over from the States as well, including Ail Kaukas the official Wanderlust photographer. She’s done all of the Wanderlust festivals and said the Taupo festival easily maintained the high international standard.
Cockatoo Island in Sydney is still to come, and if I’d missed the New Zealand festival, I’d seriously be considering flying over to make it to the Australian festival. Maybe next year, I’ll get to do that one as well.
See you in 2016.