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Diary Of A Wheelie: Camping at Bluesfest

Music journalist and regular Travel Without Limits contributor, Marlena Katene, gives us a day-by-day account of what it's like to camp at Byron Bay's Bluesfest music festival, with her wheelchair.

Day 1: Thursday

As we head down the highway towards Byron Bay, in northern New South Wales, my anxiety starts to creep in.

I don’t camp much, and if I’m honest, I’d much rather stay in a nice hotel. I camped a few times with my family as a child, but as an adult wheelchair user, the logistics of transporting my equipment and my appreciation for a nice bed and buffet breakfast have kept me from ‘roughing it’.

Just as we pull into the venue, it starts to rain (typical of Easter weekend!). Ahead of us is a massive sign with two arrows: ‘Campers Only’ to the right, and ‘Exit’ to the left. It’s not too late to leave!

But I look back at our packed van and reassure myself that we’re prepared. We’ve brought shower chairs, manual chairs, beds, doonas, a fridge, and (most importantly) a suitcase full of outfits with matching Doc Martens for each day.

We proceed to our campsite, located next to the accessible bathroom. We struggle with the tent for a while (with me barking instructions and laughing at my companion’s efforts) before some people come over to help us. Once we’re set up, we head over to the venue to get my media pass and have a look around. Already, we get to see Cat Empire, the Wailers, and a few other bands.

A partially-set up tent next to an accessible van at a grassy camp site, with Marlena in the background watching on
Marlena supervised the set-up of the tent at Bluesfest.

Day 2: Friday

We wake to sounds of the festival coming alive and more campers arriving.

One of my biggest concerns with camping was always toileting and showering. I couldn’t really see how I could use a Portaloo, even a wider-access one. My mate jokes: “Worst case scenario, you can really embrace the festival spirit and have a shower in a can,” (i.e., just spray deodorant every day).

To my surprise, we find that we’re right next to an amazing accessible toileting block with a full ramp. Inside is a proper toilet, wide shower, and even hot water. I relax a little, knowing that I can do my business in peace and shower every day.

The sink inside the accessible bathrooms at Bluesfest with grab rails and power points on the wall next to it
The accessible bathrooms at Bluesfest were a pleasant surprise.

Bonus: there are charging points that another wheelie and I can use to charge our power chairs overnight.

Day 3: Saturday

Our second night’s sleep isn’t so good, with torrential rain, air beds deflating, and feeling the cold. Still, we get up and enjoy a great feed. We brought our own breakfast and snacks from home, and the fridge was perfect for keeping our pre-made food cold.

The grounds are very wet, and I’m thankful for my Magic Mobility X8 off-road electric wheelchair. Without it, I would be in a sticky situation. Festivals are great fun, but with the rain and thousands of people treading the grounds, they get very muddy.

There are other wheelchair users attending the festival who have to carefully navigate the grounds, and have others light the way with torches so they can avoid puddles. With my Magic Mobility X8, I get the full festival experience and face those puddles head-on.

Marlena in the Magic Mobility X8 on muddy ground, pictured from behind
The Magic Mobility X8 made navigating the muddy puddles at Bluesfest a breeze.

Day 4: Sunday

As a ‘media’ festival attendee, I get the opportunity to watch the shows from the photo pit or the side of the stage. I make the most of it, and really enjoy myself.

The Midnight Oil performance, however, is a closed stage, meaning no one is allowed in those areas at all. I still want to see them, so I head up to the wheelchair platform, which is positioned right up the back.

Unfortunately, the platform is tiny, and it’s hard to manoeuvre my chair with other people around. Being so far back is also disappointing. The set-up might work for smaller shows, but for such a big-time popular band, it would be nice to be closer to the action or have it displayed on a large screen so that people with a disability can see the show better.

Others on the wheelchair platform don’t seem to mind, though. I also notice that Bluesfest organisers don’t seem to have a problem with wheelies getting amongst the action in the crowd or on the front barrier. Other festival-goers make way to give them a better view. I commend the Bluesfest team for that.

Marlena in her wheelchair with communication board above her lap, with a Bluesfest marquee full of people across the lawn behind her
Marlena had a great time watching shows from the photo pit and the side of the stage at Bluesfest.

Day 5: Monday

We’d planned to stay one last night at the festival – I wanted to stay for Pete Murray, whose set didn’t finish until 11:30PM – but after a few restless nights, we decide we’re better off pulling up stumps and heading home, despite the late departure time.

Camping at Bluesfest as a wheelie is certainly an experience, and a great test-run for the Glatsonbury Festival I hope to attend next.

Would I camp at a 5-day festival again? I don’t know. I’m looking forward to a night in my warm and comfortable bed at home too much to make the call right now. Ask me next time Bluesfest rolls around – never say never!

Marlena in her Magic Mobility X8 wheelchair next to a man in a Tellytubby costume giving a thumbs up to the camera at Bluesfest
Camping at Bluesfest as a wheelie was certainly an experience for Marlena!

This story first appeared in Travel Without Limits. You can subscribe to the magazine here.

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