A half dozen vans and motorhomes wait patiently at the northern gate to Exhibition Park. Most likely they are some of the 'regulars', arriving several days early to claim the best campsites in an annual pilgrimage to the National Capital. Those not comfortable without the physical fences of security, or latecomers with little hope of finding something a little more picturesque, find home in the steel corrals of the stockyard. Sounds of flute and fiddle escape through partially open tents as stars begin to appear in the skies of a cool autumn evening. This is the camping village which, for a number of days, is home to many of around 50,000 annual visitors to the National Folk Festival.
I first came to the National Folk Festival to be in the company of a lovely girl, but I fell in love, too, with the whole festival scene. The National, as it is affectionately known, was first held in Melbourne over two days back in 1967. Since that time it has grown to become an international event held annually in Canberra over Easter.
While an extensive mix of arts and crafts combine to make the experience that is the National, for most people it is primarily about the music. Most musicians perform at several venues around the site, anytime from about ten in the morning 'til late at night, which provides a great opportunity to "mix and match" the acts to see. Performers move through the busy streets, buskers play hopefully - sometimes a little shyly - on the grassy verge, while over at the Majestic it is full of (and I cite the 2011 program) "wild bohemian, vaudeville and circus-style performances".
Music may well be the main focus of the festival, but it is by no means the only outlet for creativity, nor the only source of enjoyment for those who attend. Dance, in particular, is a big part of the National. Morris dancers move through the crowded avenues, while Chilean folk and belly dance draw in the crowd at The Piazza. Fancy an Irish Ceili, an introduction to Tango, or perhaps a fun time bush or swing dancing? No problems, as there are regular sessions to which all are invited!
The festival offers patrons ample opportunity to develop personal artistic talents. Skill classes in music performance and writing are popular, as are alternatives such as felt making, blacksmithing, and sculpture.
Live @ The Lounge, hosted by the National Library of Australia, brings folklore to the stage, and, through engaging interviews, provides insight on many a well-known folk artist. Special for 2011 was the ANZAC Day afternoon concert, which included prose and music from returned soldiers, the Royal Military College Duntroon band, and tributes from many festival performers.
No matter how nourishing for the soul music may be, a guy's gotta eat, and the festival offers a smorgasbord of choices. Spanish, Vietnamese, or Ethiopian; vegetarian, organic or just plain decadent? There are far more food choices than there are meals over the course of the festival. I'd recommend getting to the site early at least one once during the festival to spend a little time at the Poet's Breakfast.
And to wash the meal down? Options here start with a good brew from one of several baristas on site, through to a range of beer and other alcoholic beverages, freshly squeezed fruit juices, Tasmanian ginger beer, shakes, and gluhwein. And if there's a bit of a nip in the air why not finish the night with a rich hot chilli dark chocolate drink?
All things going well, the National will host my Easter break for many years to come. Perhaps one day I will see you there.