Up the Creek is a biannual music festival held near Swellendam in the Western Cape, South Africa.
Drive along the N2 towards Swellendam. About 10km to the Cape Town side of the town is a turn-off for Cape Infanta. Take this turn, and immediately after turn left. Travel along this dirt road for a few kilometers and take the first left again. Travel along this second dirt road for quite a way and you eventually reach the gates to the farm, Up The Creek.
What is it?
Up the Creek is one of two farms (the other being Round the Bend) on the banks of the Breede River owned by Felix Unite. They are usually used by their River Adventures wing, for river rafting trips and corporate team building events. Two weekends a year, Up the Creek hosts the Western Cape’s largest music festival.
The summer festival takes place in late February or early March, while the winter one is some time in August.
Briefly, what can I expect?
Excellent music, fantastic atmosphere, a weekend of wanton hedonism.
About 2000 people, 25 local bands on the main stage and the river stage, stand-up comics to fill the gaps, local DJs in the Beat Barn, arts and crafts stalls and plenty of food and drinks on sale.
Sneak preview: http://www.mweb.co.za/events/upthecreek/pictures.asp and http://www.mweb.co.za/events/upthecreek/live.asp
Go on, wax lyrically, we know you want to…
The fledgling South African Music industry first emerged in the early 90’s, with bands like No Friends of Harry refusing to give in to public pressure to play cover versions. By the mid-90’s, the industry had reached a level where there were enough supporters of local music for festivals to become viable. The development of the music industry mirrors the development of democracy in the country. In the 80’s, under the near permanent State of Emergency, large gatherings of people were rigidly forbidden.
In the mid-90’s, some festivals came and went, like Wingerdstok, in Worcester, which featured bands like the Springbok Nude Girls and The LED, long before they got airplay beyond university campus stations. Moving into the new century, the established festivals are now OppiKoppi (the ultimate: over 100 bands on 4 stages over 3 days), Splashy Fen and Up The Creek.
In the early years, sound quality was poor, power failures were regular, hiccups occurred. Nowadays, the management is slick. The ladies toilet at Up the Creek last March never once ran out of loo paper! OppiKoppi attracts in excess of 10 000 people, while recent alterations at Up the Creek have allowed the capacity to double from 1000 to 2000.
In the early years, money was tight. The organisers were unsure whether they’d be able to sell all their tickets, and scrimped on band fees. My first Up the Creek (August 1998, when I’d caught a free ticked flung into the audience at a Battery 9 / Boo! gig the night before) was a weekend of Just Jinger-bashing. The band was at the time the leading local rock sellers, and had hiked their gig fee accordingly. The organisers had approached the band, explaining that if they paid the fee, they would not have been able to afford any other bands. The band refused to compromise, earning the scorn of their compatriots. Many people would have come to the festival just to see Just Jinger, and would have discovered many other bands who were just as talented.
Once the organisers realised that the festival would continue to sell out, provided that they produced the goods with the line-up, they began to spend a bit more. The Springbok Nude Girls, far and away the most successful local rock outfit, returned to the event in 2000. (Just Jinger had by this stage moved to London.) The Nudies didn’t play in 2001, playing a gig in Melkbosstrand (Cape Town) on the Friday night, but lead singer, Arno Carstens, arrived on Saturday and stayed for the remainder of the festival.
The format for the festival is loosely: rock in the evenings getting progressively heavier as it gets later. The afternoons are strictly laid-back, with a distinctly African flavour. Langa Steel Drums played at the River Stage last March – a welcome addition since low river levels had created an island to accommodate it. Jazz/Blues legends like Vusi Mahlasela and Louis Mhlanga are regular features as well. The Blues Broers set around midday on Sunday is worth setting an alarm for (if you can find one).
Expect a good mix of established bands (Sugardrive, Fetish, Sons of Trout, SNG, Henry Ate), emerging bands (SemiSane, Brasse Vannie Kaap, Boomslang), new bands, Afrikaans music (Koos Kombuis, Valiant Swart), hiphop (Firing Squad), moshpit madness (Not My Dog), and one or other incarnation of Nine.
SA Music fans travel from far and wide, and come from many different walks of life. With a broad brush, I’ll try to paint the demographics:
- Souties 5: 45%
- Dutchmen 6: 55%
- Sober: 2%
- Drunk: 5%
- Stoned: 5%
- Drunk & Stoned: 73%
- Tripping happily / loving everybody / speeding off their tits: 15%
A notoriously laid-back nation of people, at our music festivals we redefine the term. Somebody has a clock, but I’ve never seen it. Nobody gets uptight about anything.
You can safely sit chatting around your campfire until 5am, beating away on your African Bongo Drum, and nobody will yell at you to keep the noise down. You can sleep-off your hang-over under the shade at the main stage in the middle of the afternoon, taking up prime space that 4 bums could have fit into, nobody will disturb you. You can light your joint in the middle of the mosh and nobody will mind, so long as you pass it around. If you stagger around drunk and trip over a tent rope, pulling it down, the occupant will simply help you to your feet and point you back on your way.
The ablution blocks are now marked, male & female (I have an anecdote from my first visit), and are open 24h and clean!!! Use them or don’t, we don’t care.
Often, the person you were chatting to down in the river, the person who offered you a beer around the main campfire at 3am the night before, the person who borrowed your toothpaste, the chap you whacked in the jaw in the mosh, will suddenly appear before you on the main stage as one of the main acts. This is my favourite part of Up the Creek: Up the Creek is about the music. Nothing else.
Do not arrive late. Arrive after 9:30pm on Friday and you will find yourself pitching your tent on a stony slope 400m from the toilets to the sounds of an excellent band going off on the main stage. The festival kicks off at 8pm, try to be there with your tent pitched. It’ll also help you avoid traffic!
Don’t stay up too late on Friday. You really don’t want to feel too rough on Saturday, it’s a long day. Let the smell of neighboring skottelbraais 8 sizzling with bacon and eggs lure you from your slumber. Spend what’s left of the morning down by the river or relaxing under the shade of the main stage.
Make your way to the main stage by 7pm to get your spot. It gets very full by 8pm, and you’ll be on the fringe of the best action because people do not leave! Not even during the band change-overs: there is stand-up comedy to entertain you, or maybe ReadyD on the decks. The main act takes to the stage at around 11pm, after which things get pretty heavy and moshing begins. It that’s not your cup of tea, now’s when to head for the Beat Barn or the campfire.
Saturday night is the night to go huge. Fire up your spliff, stoke your campfire, shuffle in and look up at the brilliant African night sky. Listen to the wood sizzle and pop, the crickets in the distance. Relax.
Things get underway a bit earlier on Sunday. You’ll be roused by the sounds of the first band at around 11am. Do not miss The Blues Broers’ set! No matter how stoned you were when you went to sleep at sunrise. I’ve warned you twice now!
Sunday closes with acoustic sets from one or two of the bands who played earlier. These are worth staying for, even if it means sitting in a traffic jam on the way home. The last band packs up at 4pm.
A friendly but very serious word of caution
The Swellendam police do not get out much. Up the Creek is the most excitement they have, and they make the most of it. They arrive early, and bar a skeleton staff in the station, are out in full force. Their roadblock is on the last public road: the second dirt road you turned into. They have sniffer dogs. They stop every car. They are thorough.
My friend and I only got through with our bankie of dope because the very Afrikaans policeMAN was too embarrassed to investigate the large sanitary towel that it was under in my friend’s hand. If the policeWOMAN had gone to her side and not mine, we would not have been so lucky.
A weekend tripping off your tits or being stoned to oblivion or making a few quick bucks in sales is not worth spending the weekend in a Swellendam jail over. In fact, I don’t see the point of extreme chemical alteration to the senses because it detracts from the music.
If you must, the safest way to be stoned the entire weekend is to bring cookies or muffins. Gently fry your weed in butter – too hot and you ruin it – then strain the butter and bake with that. Getting the butter trick right takes practice, so a few trial runs are recommended to avoid disappointment. (Or buy from the stall near Greenmarket Square.) If you’ve never eaten dope before, steady on! It takes longer to hit but it’s well worth the wait! One. At. A. Time.
Further: you are on a farm at least half an hour by dirt road from Swellendam. The nearest hospital might actually be in Riversdale, 190km down the road from there. This is not the place to experiment with drugs. You do not want to OD here, you do not want to try out cocktails here. You do not want to drown in the river (even though they have lifeguards during the day).
The festival has not yet had a tragedy. Do not be the first.
I'm dying to go, what do I do?
Hop along to www.felixunite.co.za and you should be sorted. You can book online and they'll reply to your e-mails swiftly. They can organise car hire for you too. You'll want to fly into Cape Town and spend at least two weeks in the country. At more than R10 to the US$ at the moment, this festival is well worth the R220 outlay!!
1. Capetonians are simply people from Cape Town
2. Marties are people currently or previously attending the University of Stellenbosch, here extended to the Stellenbosch community at large.
3. Vaalies was a term for people from the old Traansvaal, which was broken up into Mpumalanga, the North West Province, the Northern Province and Gauteng (essentially, Johannesburg).
4. Plaasjapie is the Afrikaans word for hillbilly, here intended more with affection than insult.
5. Soutie is the derrogatory Afrikaans term for English speakers.
6. Dutchman is the derrogatory English term for Afrikaners.
7. "Almal Kaffirs" is a Koos Kombuis hit, poking fun at the term kaffir.
8. A skottlebraai is a portable gas wok, popular with people who can't be bothered to light a fire for a barbeque (braai), or where fires are prohibited.