Smoking Dragon Festival – My Experience


It’s difficult to imagine a better spot for a Festival than the Amphitheatre Backpackers, with its amazing backdrop of the Northern Drakensburg mountains and the fact that it is almost exactly half way between Johannesburg and Durban, it is an easy choice as a New Year Destination for people from across the country. Greeted by the friendly and helpful staff at the entrance and then treated to a beautiful view of the Amphitheatre, this must be one of the most unique places in the country to have a few nights of music and whole lot of fun while issuing in the New Year surrounded by like-minded people and just a general vibe of acceptance and integration. With music ranging from Traditional African music to Ska, Indy, Rock and even EDM, Smoking Dragon has something for everyone.

What went down

During the day a lot of people were found between the Fringe tent, where people enjoyed seeing artists like Nicky B and Deejay Mcypo Ngobese, and the Ripple zone, having a swim in the dam and in the shade of the Pink tent, or taking a hike through the farm along the many hiking trails and there were also lots of drinking games taking place in the sun. DJs an bands played throughout the day as people sat and ate from the food stalls, had a slushie or even just relaxed on the grass. Many festival goers also headed up to the Royal Natal National Park and took in the beauty of the Drakensburg from a more hands on angle and also to swim in the lovely cool water of the falls known as Cascades.  Evening Showers on the First and Second night provided a nice break from what was otherwise gorgeous all day sunshine whilst the third, and final, evening sky stayed clear and allowed everyone to enter the new year relatively dry! The pink tent is a fun and friendly area where all must feel welcome, a space where “the LGBTIAQ community are able to be visible and be acknowleged as a vital part of what makes Smoking Dragon so fantastic” and was powered by PROUD INITIATIVE, an organisation that celebrates diversity and uniqueness by  promoting awareness and acceptance. It had artists such as DJ Biskit, TheMusikal Frik and DJ Showtee on the decks playing for everybody around the tent during the day and everyone who wanted a swim and chill by the dam.

Todo Mundo were one of my stand out acts of the Festival with their influences ranging from Colombian to Korean. They really got the crowd going through their own energy on stage, obvious musical talent and the smiles on their faces, all coming together as a tight band who really love doing what they are doing. The singer, a Colombian chap, had such lovely words to say about our country, calling it one of the most beautiful places he has ever been, inspiring a proudly South African feeling to all who were present. The Dandies were also brilliant with such an energetic performance on stage that even seemed to get those who had had too big a night the night before, up on their feet partying. My old favourites, The Rudimentals, were bang on as always providing a wonderful show for the crowd and doing so in a way that one could see how important their music is to them and how important their fans are to their music. The headliners, the Kiffness, put on a mammoth set. Their energy on the stage difficult to rival even by the crowd, which was packed into the massive main tent, nobody wanting to miss any of the music and seemingly everyone having the jol of their life. BCUC were also amazing and Veranda Panda unsurprisingly drew the crowds to quite an extent. The Electric Jungle tent was also extremely popular as each night set in and artists like Basso and Ang were around playing music for those who weren’t quite ready for bed yet, and weren’t planning on being for some time. I stayed up on New Year’s day to see my friend Jungle Foxx play with J White for the final folks who weren’t ready for the festival to end and they got the crowd moving all the way until 5 in the morning.

My key experience

My key experience of the festival is the love that everyone involved has brought to the table from the Organisers, the bar staff, security, caterers and cleaning staff, all of whom had a smile and were willing to help with almost anything when needed. There was a special feeling of freedom and acceptance as people of all walks of life came together to enjoy their time with one and other and experience people and genres they might not get to experience in their usual hangouts. It brings together good hearted, warm people who seem to want to get everyone involved and having a good time. Another thing that really stood out was the amount of smiles that were on show walking around the venue, lots of people just having fun in a location that is free from judgement and stereotypes.

Interview with Ilsa Roberts, Organiser

I was lucky enough to catch up with Ilsa Roberts, the Organiser for the event, and get some insight into the festival itself and other projects she is involved in. She was a fine arts student who started in the backpacking industry 18 years ago and through organising tour groups for mainly foreign guests she gained great insight into the organisation of events, knowing what people’s expectations are and also how to manage staff. They are very community based and hire people from the surrounding areas, giving a basic wage and supplying incentive based commission structures. The community projects even included building a school in Lesotho. Her associate Linda has previous experience managing whole farms and has a firm grasp on organisational skills, of which Ilsa couldn’t speak highly enough about. They built almost everything at the backpackers themselves and they would organise a New Year event every year for their guests which grew and grew until Smoking Dragon became a much bigger event.

As a lesbian woman Ilsa has been discriminated against in life and she has taken it upon herself to provide support in the communities of the area to the LGBT people who may have been taught that their way of life is incorrect and they try teach people that there is nothing wrong with their attractions or dress sense. What strikes her most is the awful self loathing of the individuals who have been told that their lifestyle is wrong and the guilt that they are made to feel for the way they were born. She wants to gain extra funds in this endeavour so they can reach more people and be more effective in their efforts. It’s not only the LGBT community that they are targeting as she states that her biggest aim for the festival is to make it a place where people of all races, class groups, ages, Nationalities, gender and sexual preferences and music taste can come and feel that they are around people who not only accept them but embrace their lifestyle and to ultimately create a safe zone where people who discriminate against others are not welcome. She sees Music and Art as a language that connects people even bridging language barriers, she even spoke about some of the deaf guests who dance along to the vibrations from the music even if they can’t here the beat. She spoke highly of her parents who she says were very progressive, from a Political Father to a mother who ran AIDs clinics.

She speaks about how they like to mix some big band names with lesser known artists and give a stepping stone to good new music. She loves lots of music and enjoys to stop and listen to new bands when she isn’t busy running around the event trying to organise! She spoke about how her favourite part of the event is the countdown, the fact that at many festivals people do their own thing and rarely all come together at one place but the new year countdown brings everyone to the main tent and there is a beautiful moment where everyone is together and having a party. There is a wonderful thing about perfect strangers hugging and smiling as they issue in the New Year together.

All-in-all an epic festival and I look forward to the next!

Photo Cred: Chris Buckels