THE PAGANS AT "CARHENGE" by Bill Leithhead, January, 1990.
I wrote this in 1991 after I attended an alternative lifestyle (hippy, if you like) gathering of about 9,000 people at a camping reserve near the little town of Walwa, just south of the Snowies, on the banks of the Murray River. At that time I had not long left my career as a chemistry lecturer after 25 years, having succumbed to serious depression, duodenal ulcers, etc in 1988.
Feeling rather bruised by life, I was engaged in explorations in the personal growth movement as well as New Age things such as channeling, spiritualism, reincarnation, meditation, healing, rebirthing, primal scream, altered states of consciousness, and esoterica such as the Kabbala. I was there with five friends I had met in this way. At Walwa I tried wearing a sarong, and learned to go naked. I had many other new adventures, too, but they are for other essays!
On New Year's Eve we experienced a fierce storm at dusk, which started a train of strange events which kept me awake all night. They, also, are for other essays to be posted here!
The menacing curdled grey veil gradually covers the sky. The sun dies, or so it seems. Early evening on New Year's Eve, 1990, at Confest, Walwa. We are settling down for whatever we want to do. The tent-dwellers in front have music playing, and are seated in a circle, lighting up grass convivially. It is still balmy.
Without warning we are all battling a fierce wind sweeping dustily, destructively from the northwest. Tents pull apart raggedly in the dusty torrent of cooled air. Pegs fly, flies fly, flaps rip, rips flap, people flap and fly desperately to save home and hearth. The pot-smokers dissolve into disorderly disarray.
I hold down a huge blue sheet flapping against a truck. This is a child's home; there are toys and soft little clothes there, but it is now only dry grass and dirt strewn with childish paraphernalia. Mum and Dad flop around to pin down the blue tent which I gather up grimly. The puny steel pegs fail to grip in the sandy soil, so a bumper bar becomes part of home, the slim line stretched fully. Maybe baby will be safe.
Our tent strains to sail away over the ridge. It starts to rain warmly. To avoid wet clothes, I opt for wet skin, so disrobe to face nature au naturel, feeling slightly silly but practical. I survive by some quirk of aerodynamics.
For obscure reasons, a police car drives past, down to the river, and I hear a shouting howl from there. I am perturbed, curious, but car and howl are not connected, for immediately appears a parade of pagans from their village down-river. A wild-looking straggling naked-decorated bunch two hundred strong carry a long snake-like object made out of perhaps cloth, its significance unknown to me. The unclothed column promenades noisily up and down the dirt roads, yelling and chanting with gusto, and they stop at "Carhenge".
Myself as hippy with sarong, 1991.
Carhenge simulates a stonehenge structure. Created from five old car bodies welded into an inverted u-shape, it straddles a main path. A large bell, some two feet in diameter, dangles centrally, and is often struck by people passing through; it is almost irresistible. Carhenge has been constructed by a group who make sculptures from society's larger junk, and has been painted with colourful patterns.
A cacophonous racket starts up from the assembled mob at Carhenge. Since our tent is safe, I don clothes and wend my way to the mob. Carhenge has become the centre of action at some witchy ceremony by the pagans. The central bell is now being struck once every second, in time with a bunch of drummers who bang on several large petrol drums, making a clangorous din which will rend the air fortissimo until about 3 am.
Surrounding the bell and drums is a multitude of dancers and prancers in various states of undress. All look wild and primitive as they jump and gyrate rhythmically, their shouts and yells in time to the drumbeats, creating a joyous hullabaloo that grips the soul.
Threading my way curiously through the crowd, I pick up the driving rhythm in my very bones. I want to be part of this! Grasping up two rocks, I join the din by clacking them vigorously to the beat of the drums and the great bell. I have become primitive, united with the sound and the thrashing of the wet, glistening bodies.
There is lightning now, and thunder rolls over us. Slashes of fierce blue rip over the hills which are covered by an eerie premature dusk. With each flash the crowd roars its approval, as though the very elements have been conquered by the pagan band. We all care naught for the steady light rain soaking us through and through.
By now some revellers have climbed up to the very pinnacle of Carhenge. A woman, strangely dressed in a kind of gown, stands triumphantly at the very centre of it, her arms uplifted to the blackened heavens. Each hand holds some sort of brilliant flashing strobe light, and her face is uplifted in apparent communion with the power above. Several companions cavort about her as she slowly revolves around again and again, and she has become the centre of the whole drama.
It occurs to me that we are all imperilled by the lightning and we could all be killed by one flash! Carhenge is metal, buried at its base, and is the tallest object hereabouts. we are all candidates for fiery death, especially the pagan priestess and her consorts above. But somehow, I decide it doesn't matter, and that if I am to die, then now is as good a time as any! Sensing a similar sentiment among my brother and sister revellers, I begin to glory, like them, in the elemental turmoil around us. With each flash we all howl in jubilant defiance, and we seem to be more and more exposed to the reaper, like a field of ripe grain to be felled by one sweep of his scythe. But the blow is not to fall tonight, for we seem to be one with the primordial forces around us. It is not our time tonight.
And then, in one climactic instant, the pagan priestess, the grotesque Carhenge, the musicians and the wet horde are all of us started by a breathtaking lightning display which rips through the blackness as a singularly beautiful pattern of three simultaneous arcs, overlapping each-other across the looming clouds.
At that moment we were transfixed by the truly awesome power in that sky, frozen for one second into a diorama of puny creatures that we are, like a single frame of the film of some costume drama: little creatures playing out our little roles.
A moment later we are all alive once more, and a tumultuous cry of wonderment and ecstasy bursts from our throats as one voice, and just the I could feel my hair stand on end, and felt goose-pimples all over my body. That one moment of my life is indelibly emblazoned into my memory, into my very psyche, as an instant when I knew the joy of living in the Now, when I felt the liberation of just letting go and just being, just for that moment; and when I felt my oneness with all the other souls there with me. The magical moment at Carhenge is with me so that I know I can draw strength from it, and more truly recognise who I really am.