Lets have a music festival”, said Peter to his friend Bart. “Okay”, said Bart, “I’ll organize it.

That, supposedly, is how the Splashy Fen Music Festival began. Well, there is a little a more to it of course, and it goes something like this…..

Splashy Fen is the name of a trout farm about 19 kilometers from Underberg in the Southern Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa. The farm is owned by former journalist Peter Ferraz and - up until the point of the short conversation mentioned above - had been a simple farm with a couple of dams that attracted a small number of fishermen and some hikers. At the beginning of 1990 it was the 31st birthday of Peter’s friend Bart and one night while having a few drinks on the farm they began to reminisce about the great, past festivals such as Woodstock. And with the encouragement of a few more drinks the opening sentence was spoken.

Move forward several months and Bart had indeed organized a festival! It was held over two days on Ferraz's farm with artists such as Tony Cox, the Silver Creek Mountain Band, Plagal Cadence and Syd Kitchen and attracted close to 1200 people. Despite the fact that the facilities consisted of nothing more than ground to camp on, a tractor powered generator, a make-shift stage and a bunch of portable toilets the festival was a huge success and it was decided that one should be held the next year as well. So it has continued every since. Each year the event has grown in reputation and popularity, culminating in a Splashy Fen that now attracts up to 10 000 people, musicians from abroad and some of South Africa’s top artists. Plus it goes on for a full four days.

From the start, the idea of the festival was to include as wide a range of music as possible and of the type that did not normally get as much attention at the larger and more established festivals. In the beginning this meant a focus on styles such as folk and light folk rock, as well as black music styles such as mbaqanga, iscathamiya and kwaito. Lately there has also been included in the line-up more mainstream and alternative rock and pop, although it’s still known as South Africa’s gentler music festival. This has played a part in creating a fusion of styles and cultures and a feeling of shared co-existence between what would be thought to be fairly separate artists and fans. Many feel that it is the only festival in South Africa with a range broad enough to help shape an authentic South African contemporary music culture.

As the festival has grown, so the infrastructure of the farm itself has grown. Today there is direct power, water and telephones as well as permanent sanitation, medical staff etc. There are also four main stages and areas – a covered Main Stage where the headline acts appear, a covered Dance Arena, the Outdoor Stage and the Free Stage which allows any one to sign up and book a time to perform on-stage, the two best artists get a slot on the Outdoor Stage on the last night. All of the stages have now got professionally assembled sound and lighting rigs. There are also food and craft stalls and a market area. It has become the longest running event of its kind in the country, with media coverage by all the countries major newspapers and magazines as well as broadcasts from the national TV stations.

Due to the scenic nature of the surrounding areas (the Drakensberg is a top SA holiday/tourist destination) there are many B&B’s and self-catering chalets very close to the festival for those who prefer a slightly more civilized alternative to camping with the masses. Although if you do want to camp, keep in mind that most people start arriving the Thursday before the festival to bag the ‘best’ spot. And a handy hint for anyone who has a sneaky suspicion that they may not be able to find their tent at 3am – bring some sort of flag that you can see from afar to use as a marker, otherwise you might end up having to make very good friends with the people whose tent you stumble into.

There are also a lot of other activities to take part in either within the festival or on surrounding farms. If one is so inclined there is golf, tennis, horse-riding, hang-gliding and hiking offered in and around the Underberg area. For those who have never been to the area before or are visiting from another country it is well worth while to check out some of the surrounds, for example the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site is right there and shows off some of the most unique Stone Age cave art to be found anywhere in Southern Africa. Another bonus is that because of its close proximity to the Drakensberg one can go up the Sani Pass which climbs all the way up to the mountains of Lesotho and is one of the most stunning sights you’ll ever see (just make sure you have your passport with you). And for those who feel that all this may mean they’re just missing out on the beer garden back down at the festival, the top of the pass offers you the chance to have a drink in Africa’s highest pub – at 2874 meters up! And for those who are in no state to be too concerned about a leech or two, you are allowed to swim in all the dams and rivers on the farm.

The festival is usually held during April (mainly Easter weekend), by which time the weather is beginning to cool down during the day (although this means it can get very cold at night – beanie time!). Rain is also a distinct possibility, although usually only for a day or two, so welligtons and a sense of humour are recommended. Tickets cost about R300 (about $40) for all four days.

A worthwhile experience for anyone interested – it has been called “the perfect decompression chamber for overcivilized people.

http://www.splashyfen.co.za (pictures and directions)

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