Three weeks in the Congo

The fan overhead whirled slowly… Way too slowly to make any difference in this stifling humidity. In front of me stood two big white guys, obscuring my view of the rest of the queue, sweat patches already forming on the back of their shirts. They were chatting in Afrikaner and I couldn’t understand a word they were saying.

I was in a place I never thought I’d find myself in: Lubumbashi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Specifically, I was at the airport – a big brick fortress surrounded by black dudes with machine guns. As I’d walked towards them across the cracked, sun-baked tarmac, they looked bored… Perhaps a little too bored. It struck me that being that really bored with high-powered weaponry could be a recipe for disaster.

This big old room I’d stepped into was the customs area. It had a high ceiling, orange walls, uneven tiled floor and a couple of unhealthy-looking potted palms… Nothing like your modern airport with cordons, beeps and electronic gates. I was part of a long queue of expats and contractors sent here to work in the mines that dotted this minerals-rich, but otherwise dirt-poor, part of the world.

Next to me was the only person I knew for thousands of kilometres around – Peter, an IT consultant hired by my company, MMG, to accompany me into this heart of darkness. Our mission: to spend the next three weeks rolling out an intranet at Kinsevere, an isolated zinc mine some 50km away from where we were standing now.

After half an hour or so we made it past passport control and were promptly ushered into a tiny room to fill out a questionnaire in French, surrender our passports, show our Yellow Fever cards then get introduced to another Congolese man wearing a high-vis MMG shirt. The sight of this familiar orange apparel brought some relief, as it was dawning on me by now that this guy was pretty much the only thing that rendered us anything other than helpless fresh meat in what might as well be another planet – one with a fearsome reputation for crises and violence.

Andrey, as our man was called, then led us into another area – luggage pick-up. Suddenly there was yelling and shoving and body odour and confusion all around us: absolute madness. No gently whirling carousels showcasing the latest luggage haul… This was like a Black Friday sale from hell, except you’d already bought all your stuff and now needed to get it back.

I noticed that for whatever reason, my and Peter’s luggage had already been collected – by three very tall government dudes who were now standing beside it, demanding to see our luggage tags. “Ah, so that’s what those things were,” I thought, recalling how I’d thrown mine into a bin in Johannesburg airport. Andrey was not delighted with this information and proceeded to negotiate in French with the government agents. After some discussion they let us off, and we made haste for the door. “Next time you need luggage tag,” Andrey explained, sweating from a mixture of humidity and Encounter with Tall Government Dudes. “Otherwise, problem.”

“Problem” – pronounced with a French accent, “problemme” – is probably the Congolese’s favourite word. Everything bad is “problem”, everything fine is “no problem”. And when dudes with bloodshot eyes and AK-47s are involved, even the most trivial matter is “problem”.

Outside it’s comparatively quiet again. The air is hot but once again fresh. Andrey leads us across a carpark full of dusty, dirt-streaked vehicles. Congolese businessmen stand around getting their shoes waxed by teenage boys; big oafish expats trundle off to the respective mines which they’ll call home for the next fortnight, month or even longer.

Andrey puts Peter and I into an MMG mini-bus then returns to the airport to retrieve a third person. Eventually he returns with neither the person nor an explanation. “Maybe they lost their luggage tag one too many times” I thought, as he ignited the engine. And so began our long drive to Kinsevere mine, my own workplace and home for the next three weeks.

It was a bumpy ride, as tends to be the case on unpaved Third World roads. Along its muddy edge, locals walked with possessions stacked on their heads just like in National Geographic. Every now and then we’d pass a shanty-town; dwellings made of corrugated iron with rags for curtains and hand-painted signs indicating ‘hairdresser’, ‘restaurant’, even ‘first aid’… Something I guess you’d need in this part of the world. Just hours ago, in the pre-dawn quiet at Johannesburg airport, a TV was blaring one disturbing report after another about a rapidly-spreading Ebola outbreak in west Africa. “Perfect timing” I said to Peter as he watched, chewing his lip.

After some 40 kilometres of potholes and poverty, we turned into what looks like a high-security prison: MMG Kinsevere mine. As at the airport, armed guards man every entry point, and it’s hard to know from their demeanour whether they’re there to kill you or protect you. I have to say, in the daytime, the outside world they’re guarding against seems pretty harmless, even idyllic… An ocean of 6-foot grass dotted with wildflowers and fluttering butterflies. At night-time though, it transforms into a lawless pitch-black abyss, and you’re pretty happy you’ve got something between you and that unforgiving wilderness.

Even so, the barbed-wire parameter gets breached every so often. As luck would have it this happened on our very first night, not far from the dilapidated ‘governor’s house’ where we were staying. Some locals cut through the fence and stole several thousand dollars’ worth of industrial lawn-mowing equipment, as you do.

It was probably for the best that Peter and I slept soundly through this midnight raid. We’d had more than enough excitement already that day, what with flying halfway across the planet, losing luggage tags, meeting people and getting shown around this vast, strange new world… Then finally, upon sundown, being given reprieve to either catch up on sleep or go have a few drinks.

Naturally, we headed straight for the bar.

Oh, how well we’d come to know that outdoor boozing area. It was evident as we approached it for the first time that a solid drinking session was already underway. Jeers, yells, clinks and cackles cut through the steady chirping of crickets around the camp. Most of the men, still in their mining apparel, were just washing away the day’s hard yakka with frosty brown bottles of Simba, the local brew. But one Safa stood out immediately with his booming voice and presence. The next day, when I told a co-worker that I’d been dragged into an Olympic-scale drinking session, she immediately knew what had happened. “So you met Darren.”

Darren is one of the ‘characters’ on site, in much the same way Chopper Read or Charles Bronson are characters. Tall, beefy, tattooed, goateed and shaven-headed, Darren strikes an attention-commanding figure with the sort of unstable charisma that makes you want to get chummy with him but also observe anonymously from a distance.

I knew as soon as Peter and I perched on our stools that we wouldn’t be left alone for long. Sure enough, as soon as Darren downed his current glass of liquor, he strode up to his side of the bar and called loudly for “three drinks – one for me and two for those gents over there!” He’d been steadily knocking back tall glasses of Red Bull & vodka, and now decided these newcomers were to do exactly the same.

Neither me nor Peter were keen to accept Darren’s gifts as we desperately needed sleep – but Darren insisted and the barman began to pour. When Peter mumbled something about “having a quiet one” his joviality finally snapped. “Stop being cunts and come over here!” he barked – so all of a sudden, yes sir, of course, we’d love to make company of your good self and your band of merry men! In truth, I was secretly happy to be incorporated into my first authentic miners’ piss-up – unlike Peter, I felt – and joined the group with my complimentary albeit obligatory refreshment.

It was like some sort of testosterone-fuelled, audience-participation redneck cabaret. Arm-wrestling, arse-slapping and insult-trading formed the crux of the show, interspersed with regular intervals of Simba rounds. No-one kept track of whose round it was exactly: if you reached for a beer and there were bugger-all left, you got the next. “The spice must flow” on the planet Dune… and at Kinsevere, the zinc must flow by day and the Simba by night. At one point – it must’ve been close to midnight by now – Darren raised the ubiquitous RB & vodka in his hand and declared in his Safa accent, like some tribal warrior-chief:

“Welcome to Kinsevere, lad! Here, we work hard and we play hard. You can tell everyone back in Melbourne it’s a hell-hole… For us, it’s a paradise.”

***

The next morning I had diarrhoea. This was to become simply a part – indeed the very first part – of my day for the next three weeks: wake up, go to bathroom, take a liquid dump, then battle with the shower taps. I realised a few days in that this was being caused by the ice I was having with my whiskey every night, which also explained why everyone drank nothing but Simbas… Everyone, that is, except myself and Darren, who I later learned was single-handedly responsible for having Southern Comfort permanently removed from the bar menu. What a night that must’ve been.

I didn’t mind the daily squirts to be honest. But having to get up in the dark every day was brutal. Being a mine site, the shift at Kinsevere started early – me and Pete were expected in the IT building at 7am every morning, breakfasted and ready to go. The sun would just be easing out of its bed on the horizon as I stepped outside, adorned in fluorescent-orange apparel that reeked of anti-mosquito spray… A smell that stayed with you day and night in this godforsaken place, because there was one thing no amount of razor wire and weird-grinning machine gun-toting “security” could keep out: the mosquito.

The fear and loathing this tiny harbinger of disease inspires is evident all around the camp. Along the ceiling of the outdoor bar, blue halos of death glow 24/7, zapping any unlucky critter that comes into contact. Most afternoons, around sundown, a tank-like vehicle rumbles around the campground belching plumes of sweet-smelling citronella. And then there’s your standard-issue personal handgun in the war on mosquitos: fat green cans of Baygon Multi-Purpose Insect Spray, responsible for that smell which I’ll forever associate with the Congo… And which would probably be strong enough to fend off any more lawnmower robbers if, for some strange reason, there was no dude with a machine gun nearby.

Oh yeah – critically, there was also preventative anti-malaria medication. Everyone is issued these pink pills prior to visiting Africa and instructed to take one per night, or help you God. I quickly found that they caused insomnia and violent dreams about being crushed in rock-grinding equipment – which, after gruelling, 12-hour days of teaching uninterested, French-speaking, technologically illiterate miners on how to use SharePoint, made the whole experience slip from “out of my comfort zone” into “sanity breakdown incoming”.

So, I stopped taking the pills… And by George, you’ll never guess what happened next.

One lukewarm night as my second week merged into my third, I called it a day at the bar, flicked on my torch, and began walking towards my accommodation at the unlit far end of the camp. Suddenly, I plunged right into an ice bath – or that’s how it felt. I began shivering so uncontrollably I could hardly walk, and had to stop several times to squat, cradle myself and give myself little “you’re nearly there mate” pep talks.

I didn’t know it yet – and I think I was too mentally fatigued to really consider it – but sure enough, one of the little fuckers got me. I had malaria.

I survived, obviously. Exactly how I’m not sure, but there are different strains of malaria and while I never got proper medication (the pink pills aren’t much good once you’re actually infected), I did spend my return stopover in a luxurious five-star hotel, was miraculously upgraded to first-class for the flight home, managed to suppress my chronic cough and lie my way through the Zambian and Australian airport checks (“What, any of the symptoms on this form? Nope, never felt better! I’m not flushed, that’s just a bit of robust African sun on my pasty face…”).

Somehow I kept myself together until I got all the way home, then promptly collapsed into bed. I stayed there for literally an entire week, getting up only to visit the toilet… Or so I presume, since I don’t actually remember any of it. Six days of my life literally vanished in a fog of sleep and feverish delirium, before the sickness finally passed and normality resumed. Pete, I later found out, had contracted it too and was hospitalised two days after we got back.

***

On one of my final days at Kinsevere, I volunteered to be part of a group that was heading into town to host an Easter party for local orphans. We got there nice and early to unload presents, blow up balloons and distribute Easter eggs around the sports field/gardens/play equipment at the back of the restaurant. Then we waited until finally, in quick succession, three buses showed up.

I had no idea what to expect. Life outside the mine was pretty rough, after all, and these young’uns counted as among the most underprivileged of all. But as they stepped out and formed lines I was pleasantly surprised to see well-groomed teens and infants, with funky hairdos, clean colourful clothes, and – perhaps most surprisingly – remarkable discipline and manners.

Someone gave a brief welcome speech and then, without further ado, a bell started clanging and the Easter egg hunt was on! I had my camera ready to capture the joyful, manic shrieking and running around… but bizarrely, the kids didn’t move. We had to wave our arms and yell encouragement for them to break out and start scouring the ground for treats – which they did more like cats than dogs; carefully, uncertainly – quickening their pace only once they’d found a few and, of course, wanted more.

It was all a far cry from my Aussie childhood. I helped destroy several Pizza Huts and their immediate surroundings back in the day, but when the egg hunt was over and it was time for lunch, these kids didn’t so much as throw a cupcake or dunk it into their Fanta. Some actually broke up their cupcake into pieces for sharing, while others tucked away their soft drink cans for later. Thinking about it now, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised after all – food and drink are things to be savoured in a place like the Congo, not frivolously wasted.

The teenage girls were particularly funny and full of character. Both Peter and I were propositioned for marriage several times, and took part in many a “pich” – apparently the Congolese pronunciation of “pic”. These young ladies were sassy, lively and in as good shape as anyone you’d see in Lubumbashi or, for that matter, Melbourne. The orphanage matriarchs, meanwhile, sat under the cool fans inside the restaurant, knitting quietly and letting their ducklings have their fun.

The Easter day out, and the Congo experience in general, really brought home that cliched but undeniable truth – be grateful for what you have. As I sat in the taxi on the way home, looking out at all the lights of Melbourne CBD, I felt excitement and gratitude to know I’m back in this world-class city with endless fresh, delicious food options and miles of sparkling beach and ice cubes that don’t give you diarrohea. Best of all, I had opportunity and freedom from having to worry about whether the things I need to enjoy life, let alone stay alive, will still be there for me tomorrow.

So yes, the Congo was definitely an experience out of my comfort zone… and for that very reason, a unique and rewarding one I’ll never forget.

1522993_10152067880607058_5479901256314757392_oPete with some of his new wives.

1932594_10152067890427058_1421210177115795000_oMe with one of mine. Vanilla Ice got nothin’ on that hairdo!

10255160_10152067878997058_6461473518193513908_oCan’t believe I’ve already forgotten this guy’s name… A mine engineer and veteran volunteer who’s helped brighten many an Easter for these kids.

10256568_10152067877787058_5324547541166441120_oThe laydeez.

10269263_10152089185962058_8448930324007471294_oLubumbashi, regional capital of Katanga Province, south-eastern DRC.

841105_10152054337412058_324098098_o
Shanty-town along the road to Kinsevere.

10264064_10152064360392058_5568483471758676732_oTo be fair, some of the mining machinery was probably responsible for those violent dreams too.

IMG_1104Lifesavers. Quite literally.

10003708_10152054332052058_846381331_oAs much as I loathed the early mornings, the sunrises could be undeniably beautiful.

1979914_10152054329137058_1643385113_oThe big first night. Uncle Darren in centre.

1079009_10152064356202058_6636337269904821155_oMoi, sometime in the final week. The fatigue and sickness were starting to show – as was the lack of a razor – but I was happy to be having such a unique experience… and to be going home soon.

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A Very Big Day Out

I’ve realized that over the entire time I’ve had this blog, I’ve never really done the typical blog thing and just written about a day or experience in my life. Even my entry on The Prodigy, the night I went to see World’s On Fire, was kind of essay-ish in detailing my man-crush on the musical demigod and epitome of All That Is Cool, Liam Howlett. So I thought I’d write something refreshingly random and stupid and hopefully amusing, in keeping with what your everyday blog is about. I also hope no future employer finds this but if you do, future employer, rest assured those days are behind me. Ish.

So it’s January 2009 and The Prodigy, my all-time favourite band, are headlining Big Day Out. I’ve never seen Prodge live or even gone to a major music festival, but someone I know – let’s call her Tanya – convinced me to go along with her and some dudes she knew. So I did.

We agreed to kick off at Tanya’s house, have some late-morning predrinks in the backyard to chill out and get in the mood. So I rock up with a 4-pack of Smirnoff somethings, having not eaten any breakfast if my memory serves correctly, which isn’t a problem since in the kitchen near the back door is a massive tray of cookies to which people are periodically helping themselves. Except these are hash cookies. So full of hash they’re fucking green.

Now, I’d never had a hash cookie before. Like any teenager, I’d ripped a bong and puffed a joint – in fact I’m being pretty misleading in making those experiences sound singular. But generally I don’t do weed if for no other reason than 9 times out of 10 it does very little for me. Only two exceptions come to mind – the first, a predominantly Christian house party at which a few of us strategically retreated to a car, turned it into a Bill & Ted’s-style gas chamber and I lost all feeling in my feet, so that I tripped over while stepping out of the car – since I could no longer feel the ground – and spent the next couple of hours walking around like an astronaut, trying to convince the Christians that I’d just played soccer a bit too vigorously that morning. To the point that it made my eyes turn pink, yes.

The other time was… well, I can’t even remember where I smoked the stuff but we ended up at Southland Macca’s, as you do, and I got the giggles so bad I couldn’t look at anyone in a McDonald’s uniform and not see a clown. Since I’d been bitten by the munchy bug though, I lined up in the queue and kept my eyes fixed on the impossibly perfect burgers on the overhead menus, hoping the giggles will have dissipated by the time it’s my turn to order. When I got to the front though, and saw a chick forced to wear a stupid brown hat and a stupid brown shirt with a stupid little name tag pointlessly telling the world her name – well, I couldn’t handle it. I literally burst out laughing – a genuine LMAO – and ran straight for the door and out into the carpark where I let it all out til my sides hurt, like a fucking lunatic. Eventually I got my breath back, calmed myself down and re-joined the queue. A few faces I’d previously lined up with were now seated with their fries and Coke, eyeing me warily as again, I stared as if hypnotized at the impeccable photogenic burgers above the counter, trying hard to Think Serious. Finally it was my turn to step up and interact with another girl in a ridiculous uniform she had to wear just to confirm whether some deadshit wanted fries with that – and again, my brain just couldn’t process the surreality of it. Unable to even form my first sentence, which I’d been mentally rehearsing for at least five minutes, I bolted out the door and ROCLed (Rolled On The Carpark Laughing). I didn’t dare go back a third time in case someone called the cops or a padded white van.

But like I said: these were exceptions. I didn’t get high and stupid off weed as a general rule, and don’t like smoking full stop. As I’ve said to friends before, I’m the opposite of your everyday smoker. Most smokers seem to hate themselves for being “smokers” with all of its social stigma – helpless modern-day lepers forced to bear the cold and wind and hostile glances from menstrual asthmatics  just to get their hourly puff of death stick – but they love the reassuring warm tingle of smoke as it pours down their throat, fills their lungs and enters their bloodstream. Me, I’d love to be a smoker – standing outside like James Dean, wrapped in a thick black coat with the collar up like some Nordic detective from a film noir movie – but I hate the taste it leaves in your mouth, hate the smell it leaves on your clothes, and hate the abrasiveness as it scrapes down your protesting, moist pink respiratory cavity like the hot fine dust out of a vacuum cleaner bag. I digress, but I think my point is made. I don’t smoke and, as a result – since it’s usually ingested that way – I’ve rarely consumed weed.

So I’m sitting in Tanya’s backyard, twist the cap off my first Smirnoff and have a hash cookie with it. Not bad. I don’t need to inhale it, and it tastes exactly like you’d expect: the sweetness of cookie cut through by the herbal tang of hash – a bit odd, but it makes a nice contrast to my lemony overly-sweet beverage. I have another bottle, and another cookie. After maybe an hour and a half, I’m done and I’m bored – there’s just Tanya and 3 or 4 stoner dudes sitting around on plastic chairs, talking in their stoner voices about stoner stuff that doesn’t interest me or, for that matter, even make any sense. It’s only about 11am at this point so I decide to quickly head back home, seeing as its on the way to Flemington, and tell Tanya I’ll meet her & the bongheads at the Showgrounds. No worries.

I get in my car and drive back to my flat. It’s once I’m back in the cool, curtain-darkened ambience of my abode that I realize I’m starting to feel a bit under the weather – tired, but not in your regular sleepy way – in a bit of a sick way, weak and dizzy, unsure of yourself. I put it down to having alcopops in the sun less than an hour after waking up, and climb into bed to doze for maybe half an hour.

Midday arrives and I know I have to make a move, but feel like I’ve gorged on a bowl of sleeping pills. I scull a Red Bull – there’s always a trusty titanium can of that shit somewhere in my fridge – then hop in my car and drive to Windsor station. It’s only about a 10-minute walk but I can’t be bothered walking in this state, which I still blame – for now – on alcohol and the sun. I’ll be right by the time we get there, I reason – the Red Bull will have cut through the vodka, I’ve put my sunnies on, and the gluggy aftermath of a 20-minute nap will have been thawed by the hustle & bustle of Chapel St. My head’s starting to spin though and by the time I park my car, step out and amble towards the platform, a realization dawns upon me. I’m fucked.

The problem was, this was the first stage of the day where I was out in public, rather than a private backyard or the confines of my car or flat. So I noticed – abruptly, as the effect of the green cookies escalated in a J-curve – that I was actually paranoid as hell. Standing on the platform with at least a dozen other people around me, I couldn’t contain myself after a few minutes and power-walked – trying to look natural, but probably looking like I’d just shat myself with explosive diarrohea – back to my car where I locked myself in. “Mateusz,” I told myself, “you’re being a freak. Snap out of it. The train’ll be here soon.” I psyched myself up to step out of the car again and walk back to the platform – this time with an exaggerated calmness and slowness, like I’d had something very large and uncomfortable inserted into my rectum. You’re just standing on a fucking train station like you have a million times before, I told myself. No-one’s even looking at you. Again though, the spooked-out ganja fairy on my shoulder convinced me to hurry back to the car. I knew from the announcement that the train was only a minute or two away now, and had no idea what I’d do if I missed it. Realizing it was now or never, I stepped out of my car and walked briskly down to the platform for the third time. Anyone paying attention to the CCTV cameras that day must’ve thought I was one of those insane public transport types – or on quality narcotics, I guess, in which case they’d be spot on. My one redeemer was that I had my sunnies on, and somehow those tinted eye-shields made me feel at least a little bit protected from the suddenly very hostile, unstable outside world. The train slid in and I stepped on. There was no going back. I was now locked into a fast-moving, cramped steel tube full of young people in loud clothes jabbering in loud voices. And I came upon a second realization: I’d made a very bad move.

In retrospect it was amazing I lasted as long I did. I got all the way to Melbourne Central, which was still short of my intended stop but about 5 stations (I think) from Windsor. When I got on board, the seats were all taken (not that I would’ve sat next to anyone probably) and so I found myself standing by the door opposite the worst possible person, someone who even dead sober would’ve made you look twice. He was wearing very tight jeans almost definitely not intended for men, some kind of ultra-shiny black boots, and a ridiculous little vest over his baby-smooth, otherwise naked chest. The whole time he stood there in a stupid pose that reminded of the box art on the original Sonic the Hedgehog, thumbing away at his phone like the security of the country over the next few hours depended on him getting these texts out. Again, even sober you’d be drawn to a character like that – with a head full of drugs, it was like being faced with a fucking gigantic walking banana or something. I had to get out.

I remember being extremely thirsty by this point – unsurprising considering it was hot and I was no doubt dehydrated from my alcohol + hash cookie happy meal – so having escaped the train at Melbourne Central, I wandered into Coles to get a bottle of springwater. By the time I was in its shiny, numbered bowels though, the drug suddenly peaked like a massive wave, crashing over and submerging the last vestiges of my mind that hadn’t yet succumbed to its powerful reality distortion filter. I literally forgot where I was or what the fuck I was even doing here.

So picture this: you find yourself, all of a sudden, in what appears to be a humongous space lit by oppressively bright white lights like you’re under interrogation from God. Along the two walls either side of you, stretching as far as the eye can see, are cans and bottles and packets and jars and tins of food – hundreds of them, for no discernable reason at all. Why all this food? What’s with all these fucking baked beans? Who needs all this powdered milk, I screamed silently to myself, and what sort of deranged psychopath has taken it upon himself to sort all this shit by size and brand and colour?? Even under my sunglasses everything seemed way too bright, like when you’re badly hungover, and all I know is I have to get out to that other area I was in before, where it’s comfortably dark and relatively quiet. But I feel literally like a rat in a maze, and have no idea how to leave. The usually-so-familiar aisles of Coles have become a bizarre labyrinth from which there’s no apparent escape – no landmarks in this environment; just rows of red-labelled tins and bottles full of black liquid and bright orange packets with shit like a grinning Negro and ‘Uncle Benny’s Egg Fried Rice’ written on them… a demented Andy Warhol-themed maze surrounded by a vast outer wall of refrigeration. Jesus, how the fuck do you get out of here? And how come everyone else’s so calm when we’re so obviously trapped?? I still faintly remember passing a woman with a pram and being tempted to ask her if there’s an exit. Not where is the exit. Is there one. Thankfully I didn’t want to interact with anyone any more than I wanted to spend the rest of my days with Uncle Benny and the Coco Pop monkey for company.

Eventually I stumble across the checkout area, with the dim-lit world of Melbourne Central beyond, and immediately realize there’s a ritual to be followed. Bolting out, hand covering eyes even though you’re wearing fucking sunglasses, is not the protocol and may not end well. So I stand in a line with a bunch of other customers, trying to stay cool and not attract any attention. In my hand I have a bottle of water, my primal thirst having asserted itself somehow in my search for the way out. Watching the other people, I remember you have to go up to the counter, hand over money for what’s in your hand, wait for change and smile. For some reason the smiling seems like the most important part: I keep telling myself to look friendly, at ease, because I know I’m anything but – and who knows what the consequences might be if you’re not these things. I step up and to my relief, the Asian checkout chick doesn’t seem too perturbed by me – either that, or she’s doing very well at masking any discomfort at this nervous idiot wearing pitch-black shades indoors. Money exchange over, I rush out with my bottle and fistful of change.

I have no recollection of anything between that point and Big Day Out. At all. By some absolute miracle that must’ve involved getting in touch with and getting instructions from Tanya, I manage to catch another train, not freak out or kill anyone and arrive at the Showgrounds, teeming with more people than I’d ever seen firsthand, with Tanya and the Hampton Stoners Club at the gate – by arrangement or coincidence, I can’t remember.

The drug then shifted gears in a way I find difficult to explain. On one level I was still pretty paranoid – not so much in a scared way anymore, but just unwilling to engage with anyone unfamiliar. At the same time, I felt extremely restless – the desire to lock myself in a safe, silent place had disappeared, and the positive, lively festival atmosphere had altered my attitude so that while it was still definitely abnormal and anti-social, I was happy, even eager to be a part of this vibe, albeit anonymously and on my own terms – like a kid who’s warming to his first day at kindergarten, but still far from ready to socialize and play carefree with the others. With everything appearing extremely intense – that super-heightened awareness of every single moment and its possible opportunities that only a drug can instil – my normally limited attention span had been decimated to zero, and I physically couldn’t handle the slow, inane conversation of Tanya’s group that even after a couple of chick drinks that morning had become painful. With an uncertain look, like she was letting a teenage koala out into the wild for the first time, Tanya let me go and I lost myself in the throng, a lone buoy adrift in a sea of humans.

The worst was over, but my memory again becomes hazy. I remember dancing with a group of girls at one point that, in retrospect, were clearly underage. At another point I wandered over to a distant area where a Pendulum-style drum-&-bass band were performing (hell, maybe it WAS Pendulum, I wouldn’t know). I stood behind a pack of typical festival dudes: all baseball caps, peeling tanned skin and wifebeaters, one of them a particularly boisterous wanker who’d nod and make dumb-arse hand gestures every time the beat kicked in. He noticed me standing quite close, staring at the stage, and whispered something that could only have been uncomplimentary to his friend, who turned around but as soon as he saw me, looked wary, turned back to his mate and brushed off whatever suggestion or observation he may have made. In retrospect I can probably see why I caught their attention, standing there in my plain black T-shirt and sunglasses, dead silent, dead still, by myself, gazing at the stage like I was monitoring rather than appreciating the band. Even Finnish gunmen show more expression than that, and possibly Finnish gunmen is precisely what flashed through the friend’s mine when he turned around and looked at me.

Shortly afterwards I passed out on a patch of grass for a while, feeling sick again – the weed, booze, chilled water and absence of any proper nutrition was taking its toll on my stomach. I desperately wanted to see The Prodigy and if nothing else, not waste my $100+ ticket, but whereas before I’d just been mentally wrecked, I was now starting to feel physically wrecked. Without even notifying Tanya, I walked slowly all the way back to the Showground gates and up to the train platform, the last frontier before the Point of No Return, where I asked a security guy if I could get a passout. No. Fuck.

In the end I didn’t leave, even though my knees had now decided to stop functioning. At some point I found Tanya and sat with them on the grass near the food stalls. I ate a shitty baked potato washed down with 3 or 4 gin-and-tonic cans, whose cheap, bitter flavour I found comforting and even head-clearing. A couple of attractive blonde chicks some way away waved to me and motioned for me to join them. Again – and I know all male readers will want to slap me for this, coz I sure as hell do – I just stared out at them blankly through my sunglasses, til they ceased and no doubt said to each other “Right, he’s some kinda freak.” I was grounded enough by then to know I was probably being a bit weird, but far from straight enough to regret it or care. Interaction with strangers – even blonde hotties – was still very much unwelcome. I had no qualms with grinding flesh in the midst of a pounding trance crowd, but anonymity was all-important. I didn’t want to talk or identify myself in any way. I was happy to enjoy the throng, be swept up in the collective worship of music’s abstract, wordless energy, but I wasn’t ready for individuals and chit-chat. So I sat there and sipped silently like a robot, like a human version of those novelty Coke cans that only come to life when you play music to it, my zanged-out brain now nearing the city limits of normality, but still with a good hour or two to go.

Anyway. Sure enough, I more or less returned to normal around sunset (8pm), with just a pleasant buzz remaining to keep me going for The Prodigy at 9pm. In a nutshell, it was amazing – one of the best nights of my life. Even though I was now without friends – Tanya and her buddies were seeing the festival’s other main act, Eric Clapton or someone at the opposite end of the Showgrounds – I had an awesome time, dancing like my life depended on it not far from the stage, to the earth-shattering boom of Voodoo People, Their Law and all those classics, played loud enough to give you bowel movements. When Take Me To The Hospital came on early in the set – the first time I’d ever heard its rave-anthem chords and rastafarian chipmunk vocals – it blew my mind and I felt like I’d taken a whole new drug – like 10 Jager bombs, Asterix’s potion and that green ‘ooze’ shit from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles all in one. I vividly remember one moment in particular, between songs, as Maxim was doing his thing and yelling at the crowd, calling us his “warriors”, and ahead of me in the summer heat and blaze of lights an Australian flag was waving (it was Australia Day that day), and I offered a cute girl I’d been dancing next to my bottle of water, which she accepted with a big smile – that moment I felt in love with life in a way not even the finest MDMA could achieve. At the end of it all, elated, drenched in sweat and feeling like the Energizer battery after an electronic gadget orgy – whatever that may mean – I caught the train home, drove my car back to my flat from where I’d bravely parted it with earlier that day, and crashed onto my bed for a very, very deep sleep.