Located a few hours from Cape Town, this intimate, self-sustaining event ushers in the new year with a powerful display of community spirit.
The venue is a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Cape Town on a farm called Utopia, situated just outside the town of Swellendam. The farm is home to sheep, cows and plenty of trees, as well as several bodies of water, some suitable for swimming and others to be avoided. Over the years, the team has built a strong relationship with the farm owners, which has secured them the sole rights to the venue. This is almost unheard of in the South African events industry. The team chose not to sell alcohol at the event, instead allowing people to bring their own. A strict entry and exit time, with the gates closed between 9 PM and 9 AM, discouraged people from travelling on the dark, unsafe roads or from driving under the influence.
The camping was situated among the trees, with clearly marked paths making the area easy to navigate and free from chaos. A convenient bag drop area ensured you didn't walk too far with a heavy load. Lights were strung along the pathways with electricity points supplied in strategic areas. A campers' kitchen provided all the basics for food prep as well as a dedicated firepit area for cooking. This zone also played host to Restio Stage, which showcased an array of singer-songwriters and live performances.
The main stage, Palm, was set up on a field of lush green grass. During the day, it was a lovely place to listen to music while people played frisbee and swam in the river. The projection-mapped Rubik's Cube, which formed the stage's structure, presented playful visuals. On the first night there, I witnessed an inspiring scene, as a man walked around picking up cigarette butts off the floor, only for the whole dance floor to join in the clean within moments. This energy continued throughout the event, with very little mess on the ground at any point. The Search team was also excellent at monitoring people's behaviour—anyone who showed signs of over-indulgence or inappropriate conduct was taken aside.
Palm highlights included El Corazon, a heralded vinyl collector in South Africa, who captured the midday mood on NYE with her selection of reggae and funk, paving the way for a near-perfect day in the sun. Later, The Other DJs, a trio who have become stalwarts in the Cape Town scene, built a cohesive sunset set with a tasteful mix of house, disco and funk that kept the floor energized. Unfortunately, though, the midnight countdown was anticlimactic, with no one leading the count and the visuals only reflecting a clock from the ten-second mark. One thing you can't deny people is a crescendo to welcome in the new year.
The Chapel Stage was set up in the area traditionally used for wedding ceremonies. The stage design played with a more macabre aesthetic, accentuated by the looming tree branches overhead. The music skewed darker and more leftfield. Attendance, though, suffered at critical moments. Two live electronic acts, Jumping Back Slash and Rose Bonica, bore the brunt of this, which was a shame as they're pushing a more challenging sound in an industry that's slow on the uptake. On NYE, The Chapel emptied just before the countdown and never fully recovered.
The Search lineup was designed to run non-stop from start to finish, great in theory but in practice it may require some adjusting. For 2020, the team should consider staggering the lineup so that each stage graduates into the next, rather than having all the stages running at the same time. There's also an opportunity for the festival to nurture live electronic music. An attempt was made in 2019 by booking the right acts, but the programming could have been better. It should be noted, too, that, overall, the local acts far outshone the international guests.
Search Festival was well organized and considerate. Everyone was given the freedom to express themselves, each structure was built with love, and acute attention was paid to the safety of all involved, especially LGBTQ+ and women-identifying attendees. It's the first time in years that I have felt satisfied in my need for a place to feel comfortable, welcome and without pressure to conform to a prescribed structure or energy. Search was like a house party that you heard about, decided to crash and were welcomed at the front door with a friendly smile.
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