There’s magic in the air. How do I know? Because I can see the glitter floating past my window. It’s from the girl up the road who is painstakingly trying to put together the most outrageous space cowboy outfit the world has ever seen. There is glitter. There are sequins. There are frills. All that’s missing is a chorus of birds and mice to help string it all together. But she’s not going to the ball. No, she’s going to something far, far better. Her destination is Secret Garden, and there the fun will last long after midnight.
One of Sydney’s best kept secrets, Secret Garden continues to build upon it’s foundations of community spirit and fun times.
In all fairness, the word that comes to mind when you think of Secret Garden is wonder. It’s the kind of festival that has managed to stay tucked away in the leafy suburbs of Sydney’s west and still manages to flourish like all the bigger events. Just an hour from the hustle and bustle of the city you’ll find an oasis of shady trees, open fields, and some of the best themed costume days an Australian festival has seen. As festival director Clare Downes likes to call it, “Secret Garden is a playground for adults.” The festival began life quite simply, Clare and her friend Matt Emsell had the goal of putting on an event like no other. “Aged 22 my friend and I thought it would be fun to put on a festival for all our mates. An event entirely made up of everything we consider to be fun. My parents said we could do it on their farm and that’s how SG began.”
Clare had always wanted to hold a big event at her parents’ farm. She’s the kind of person who loves big events and being part of an audience. What gives her the biggest rush is the feeling of coming together with a few mates (or new potential mates) to cheer and laugh in unison. “Mum used to love taking me to sports games when I was a kid, because I’d just loose it when thousands of people would all laugh at the same time” she says.
With her love for good vibes leading her vision, Secret Garden took shape over the last few years to become one of Sydney’s favourite annual events. Her playground for adults is one made up of “secret parties, pop-up performances, games, surprises, hidden nooks, banquets, dancers, cocktails, comedians, local food, drag queens, speed dating, and of course our huge mystery lineup… all held amongst the most beautiful, overgrown wilderness.”
Needless to say, putting on the festival every year has been a dream for her, something she calls a genuine joy. “The SG team is made up of about 100 really good friends. We get together and brainstorm ideas. Its great because Gardeners entrust us to curate the perfect 48 hours. We get better at knowing how to do this every year. Last year was incredible and this year will naturally be better.” Those aren’t just the words of the festival director, their achievements speak in volumes. The growth of the festival has been considerable, yet it still maintains that same, small charm, something the team has been very conscientious about. “Every decision we make is based on whether it’s going to make the festival experience better for our guests. We have certainly grown over the years, however we have only done that so we could add more areas, more performers, more surprises, more art and so on. However we have now hit the sweet spot with our size. We have so many things happening All. The. Time. I’m not sure we could add anything else. It isn’t possible to get bored at Secret Garden.”
Of course, as things are when you’re 22, planning a festival isn’t without its challenges. Clare admits in their first year they had no idea what they were doing, but eventually they got the magic happening and they found the foundation for their future success. “Putting on a festival is bloody hard work and an epic undertaking” she says. “But we have a blueprint now, so we don’t make those mistakes anymore we just keep getting better at what we do.”
One thing that sets Secret Garden apart from other festivals is their focus on charity. It began when a local girl Sarah Hilt was struck down by meningococcal about 10 years ago, and since the festival’s inception they’ve sought to raise money for the Sarah Hilt Foundation. So far they’ve managed to amass over $200 000 for charities. This year the Sarah Hilt foundation and Oxfam will be the major beneficiaries, the festival supporting Oxfam’s work with educating farmers in Timor.
With their plan for success in place, the Secret Garden team are forging ahead with this year’s festival, and given the theme is Space Cowboys, it’s gonna be another winner. “Each year we theme day one of the festival. Secret Garden is a collaborative effort, so naturally I handed it over to the team to vote on the theme” Clare says. “One of our Creatives, Ned Long, who made the bamboo temple last year, came up with Space Cowboys. It was a highly competitive race and there was some serious campaigning from within the team. But how could the theme be anything else? Space Cowboys is so darn good. Aluminium foil is going to be a key feature of my costume“.
Limited tickets for Secret Garden are still on sale, you can snap them up from the festival’s website.