Womad and 48 000 people on grass

There I was a mere two weeks ago thinking that summer had come to an abrupt end. Plummeting temperatures, grey days and rain had me thinking that a dreadful cold spring, followed by a less than memorable summer was about to end with an early descent into autumn. Maybe I should have guessed that it was merely some unkind anti-Taranaki power that wanted to convince thousands of out of towners who descended upon our city for Womad, along with hundreds of international performers, that we have a brilliant venue but weather that is less than kind. The fact that it was just as bad everywhere else will have escaped most visitors.

Along with the masses, we went to Brooklands to enjoy Womad. Sunday morning had us worried. Torrential rain in the morning at home amounted to around 7.5cm over a short period of time. We wondered how the grass areas would stand about 15 000 people milling around after that sort of downpour.

In the end, we concluded that there can’t be many places in New Zealand which could cope with a festival of that magnitude after rain. Coastal Taranaki, coastal Wanganui and maybe parts of the Bay of Plenty. I have walked on lawns in Palmerston North after heavy rain and the clay and mud squelched up around my shoes, leaving puddles behind. One year we went to the Ellerslie Flower Show after rain and whole areas had become clay slides and no-go areas. Even exiting some of the marquees meant that to stay upright was a challenge. But not so the Bowl of Brooklands where festival goers could still sit on grassy banks without sliding down in mud and where there were remarkably few boggy patches and almost no slippery areas. There is a lot to be said for free draining soils.

Like other locals, we felt a huge sense of pride when Womad star Bill Cobham proclaimed that the Bowl was the most beautiful place he had had ever played in. But we also pondered whether it isn’t time now to get rid of the lake in front of the main stage. Over the years, countless performers have complimented the beauty of the setting but also indicated that they struggle with the separation from the audience. The stage is too far removed to allow them any feeling of connection. The so-called lake may be an attractive design feature when viewed from afar, but it is really only a murky duck pond. It fails to meet our criterion for a lake (a body of water of sufficient size to permit water skiing). The ponds to the side could be retained with the water piped by narrow canal or large culvert in front of the stage to enhance the primary function of the soundshell as a performance venue without compromising the attractive setting.

We took out hats off to the Park staff charged with the task of preparing this space to cope with an onslaught of up to 48 000 people over three days. It can’t be easy to balance horticultural values with the massive amount of wear and tear from a major festival. Considering the Gables area has only recently been cleared and sown in grass, Park staff must have worked like Trojans to get it ready and able to cope with both the inclement weather and the crowds. No doubt they are now working like Trojans again to repair the damage and reinstate the area for its more sedate existence for most the rest of the year.

But how lucky we are in Taranaki to be able to combine an exceptionally beautiful and well prepared venue with an international event such as Womad. It is combination which lifts us out of being just a parochial, provincial city like many others around the country. Long may this liaison continue with goodwill from the key players in the event. The original visionaries of the Bowl must be smiling at the magnitude of the success of their dream.

We are lucky that the founders of Pukekura Park and Brooklands gave us an inner city sanctuary able to provide the intimacy, detail and charm of the lower area of the gardens but still linked to the space and flexibility of the upper areas. And we are lucky that over the intervening years, there are many who have been and continue to be actively involved in protecting the integrity of our park. Without that passion to retain the best of what we have, it could have suffered many incursions over time.

So it is bouquets all round and may the weather gods smile on the event next year. But at least we can celebrate our good drainage – a legacy of our mountain’s many eruptions giving us friable volcanic soils and sharp drainage. It is one of the reasons we can manage good gardens and parks here.