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Unravelling The Gathering

Perry Williams goes behind the scenes to discover the magic and mystery that surrounded the event.

10 Mar 2003

New Zealand's largest outdoors dance music event, The Gathering, thrilled audiences and provided a platform for the emergence of locally produced world-class dance music. But when the last two events produced disastrous money losses, organisers were forced to draw the curtain on a six-year musical odyssey.

We are Gathering. In our homes and in their streets. On hilltops and beaches, in warehouses and Town Halls. We're doing this for the dance, not politics, religion, drugs, or any other agenda. This is pleasure, not business. A common unity, a community, a society of friends. A place to go to on a Friday night where you can be yourself and not feel like a freak.

<i>The Gathering Association 'From Our Mind To Yours' 1997 manifesto.</i>

PICTURE dancing in a luscious meadow surrounded by dense alpine forest with huge limestone rocks and a bright, blue sky providing the backdrop. Melodic trance and crisp techno rules the airwaves. Surrounding you are thousands of people united by a love of dance. Brought together by the freedom to experiment in an alcohol free, police free party in the middle of nowhere. In many ways it was no surprise The Gathering quickly became the largest youth festival of its type in the country.

The pilgrimage to the dance music lover's holy grail of parties was a crucial part of its mystique. Its remote location meant people went to extraordinary lengths to participate.

In the warm summer days between Christmas and New Year, cars, buses and house-trucks were loaded to the brink with tents, sleeping bags, hacky sacks, frisbees, tapes and, as Gathering Security kept discovering, a few bottles of champagne sandwiched between bedrolls and delicately placed in the spare tyre compartment.

Next, a daunting climb up Takaka Hill. Up the steep winding road leading from the Motueka foothills to its crest where gasps were heard as people discovered thousands already had the same idea.

Then a traffic jam of up to six hours moving at a snail's pace on a dangerous stretch of winding highway. Camaraderie among ticket-holders - later dubbed 'Gatherers' by organisers - more than made up for any restlessness.

Games of State Highway 60 hacky sack; strangers pitching in to push start old cars struggling in the heat; and smiles all round when each car was given the thumbs up past security.

Entry into the Canaan Downs site took serious concentration. Cars were directed down a 12-km heavily corrugated single-lane dirt road on a dusty, winding mountain-top.

After driving for an eternity, the first glimpse of the Gathering site was intriguing. In the midst of ancient beech forest in eerie lime karst countryside perched 2500 feet up Takaka Hill was a setting breathtaking in raw beauty.

Thousands of tents created a stunning carnival atmosphere around the fringes of trees. Huge dance tents and bizarre, colourful artistic installations dotted the main arena.

The screams of excitement that erupted from each car told organiser Murray Kingi he'd sailed through his first test. An alcohol free festival cobbled together with the goodwill of locals in the last few months of 1996 had captured a local slice of Woodstock.

Kingi hatched the concept of The Gathering while working on a smaller event, Entrain, as a sound engineer and DJ in the early 1990's. It was the idea of a lifetime.

Run by a Nelson-based hippie collective, Entrain re-created the magic of outdoor dance events witnessed by organisers throughout Europe. Two smaller, successful New Year's events at a Takaka Hill quarry were well received. Their third event in Golden Downs, 50 km south of Motueka, attracted 3000 people and highlighted the huge interest developing in dance music.

For Kingi the allure of Entrain was immediate.

"Yeah, it was pretty much a life changing experience straight off. The people there weren't violent. Everyone looked after each other. It was a good feeling."

Kingi started to DJ under the name Flux, securing a performance at the second Entrain, and playing the peak midnight to 2am set at the 1995/96 event. He quickly grasped the technical side of the event but didn't think the party was managed to its full potential.

"It was very stressful for the end result and I knew that if I was able to gather a good group of people and their skills together we could produce a great party."

His frustration boiled over when a request to join the collective was denied. "I think it was pretty obvious to them (the organisers). I loved the idea of the outdoor party but I really felt just playing trance was pigeon holing people into a particular form. It excluded a huge part of the dance community."

The plan to run a much larger party in the Takaka region sprouted from that discontent only hours after the dust settled on the third and, as it turned out last, Entrain party.

Kingi and Entrain co-workers Mel Rutherford-Dower, Tim Owens, Grant Smithies and Smithies' girlfriend Jose Cachemaille devised the idea of a larger party on the car journey home.

All were dissatisfied in one way or another with aspects of Entrain. Kingi wanted a much bigger sound and lighting rig. Smithies was interested in uniting DJs/producers of different musical genres. All knew of a wealth of locals who could contribute to an exciting new event.

All drifted back to work but Kingi started working on the idea of a "special event" in his spare time. As winter started to close in he began to look for a site. The five agreed to start a collective to get the party going.

"We had no financial backing at all and it still amazes me that we even started it", Kingi reflects. "We had some seed money that was basically all our savings combined. I also pulled in every single favour in the industry. There was a lot of talking and a lot of promises and a big force of will."

THAT the first Gathering event at Canaan Downs even went ahead was a minor miracle.

With a total budget of $90,000 and mostly word of mouth advertising, The Gathering managed to lure over 4000 people to the two-day New Year's Eve festival.

It featured around 200 artists, technicians and organisers. Add to that over 100 DJs from around the country, 35 acts creating live electronic music, more than 100 performers and a team of 20 VJs performing in six separate musical zones around the site. Three themed marquees were home to hardcore, house and drum'n'bass/dub/hip hop/reggae. A large sinkhole hosted ambient music and was filled with cute bamboo huts and disco balls. The tribal zone was closer to the tents while the trance/techno zone, half circled by mature beech trees, was the crowning glory of the site boasting an incredible sound system.

It was a party where the music never stopped. The thump of the trance beat audible in tents kilometers away from the main site meant hundreds were always up and energetic while others tried to sleep. Communities sprang up in unlikely places. People wandered aimlessly in the woods and stumbled across tribal drumming circles or groups of strangers blissfully staring at the sky.

The vast tent-city worked incredibly well. There was an incredible sense of calm and peace over the entire tent site. No arrests were made, a feat organisers put down to the alcohol ban. Joints were passed around like cigarettes and it became obvious the freedom to experiment with drugs far away from the city was a massive lure. To their credit, police remained at arm's length recognizing they were likely to have more trouble from alcohol-fuelled youth at traditional haunts like Tahunanui Beach Holiday Park.

In more open areas massive 30 a-side games of soccer took flight over the farmer's rambling paddock. And as night began to close in on December 31 hundreds of people decided the excitement was too much and started an impromptu whooping and yelling camp-side frenzy. By dusk the feeling in the air was pure magic. Thousands knew they were about to experience the party of their lives.

None of the core crew or the hundreds of volunteers could have guessed what an emotionally draining experience it would be.

200 mostly unpaid crew shook off hangovers on Boxing Day to work 12-hour days on a farmer's paddock in tough conditions. A dozen stayed to clean up for two weeks after the event.

It was a mess. Used condoms, cigarette butts, chupa chup wrappers, nitrous bulbs and trash littered the site. Thousands swore off ever using a portaloo toilet again. Gates had fallen down and rubbish bins were overflowing.

The five original organizers took two more months to clean up the site. There was simply little experience about the best way to run a non-stop 48-hour party.

So in that great Kiwi tradition the crew made much of it up along the way.

Many of our country's biggest DJs proudly recount stories of digging enormous trenches so cables could be laid for sound systems just minutes before their DJ sets were scheduled to start. All hands were on deck as massive water reticulation systems were piped over uneven hilly terrain.

Hamish Bruce drove to the first event in his house-bus, kitted out with tools, on the off chance of a free ticket. Welcomed by organisers with open arms, Bruce was worked to the bone but thoroughly enjoyed its DIY ethic.

"We had no power gear at all - no sockets or plugs. So we actually made all the cables. There wasn't really any budget to speak of so we just made do. We salvaged switchboards from old houses, which we used and it was cool to see how Kiwi ingenuity was creating this pretty special thing in the middle of nowhere."

Everything had to be transported to the site via that one lane dirt road. From plumbing to power to sound; artwork; tents; fuel; records; generators; food; portaloos; computers; office gear; earthmovers; welding gear; fencing gear; DJ gear; water; sewerage tanks; scaffolding; quad bikes; utes and a few thousand other things.

And when your life savings are riding on the success and smooth sailing of the event it's hard to relax. Or sleep.

Kingi recalls two things about the first event. Not sleeping for six, maybe seven, days. And when co-organiser Cachemaille broke the news the party had narrowly failed to break even losing $300.

It was seemingly not a bad result. But Kingi was mindful of the work hundreds of people contributed to the party for free. He had quietly hoped to make money so he could pay back volunteers a modest amount.

The news came moments before Kingi's own hour in the spotlight. The infamous last set of music of The Gathering dubbed "The Last Trance". A time Kingi said he "could just forget the world".

At midday on January 2, the other five arenas of music (house, drum'n'bass, hardcore, tribal, ambient) ground to a halt so all could congregate by the trance stage for one final infusion of sound.

Several thousand danced in a sort of crazed delirium. It was a final chance to lose it in the sun with friends and howl like an animal when organisers sprayed cold water onto an ecstatic crowd.

But news of the shortfall overshadowed Kingi's moment in the spotlight and came as a crushing blow to his pride. After finishing his set he ran deep into the forest behind the towering trance stage.

"I couldn't help myself. I just hid under a log and cried and cried. I was sure we'd lost this golden opportunity."

In a debrief after the first event Kingi, Smithies, Cachemaille and Owens decided the event could not abide by the constitution of the trust.

"We didn't start out wanting to turn a party into a profit thing but we discovered it had to be to survive", Kingi remembers. "We had to pay tax, GST, PAYE and look at paying provisional taxes. We had to become legal and we had to become safe."

The four formed the company but left the younger Rutherford-Dower out on a group decision.

If the first Gathering tested the water the second event in 1997/98 proved a dance party had potential to become a sustainable business.

8000 people flocked to the party giving a host of DJs and live acts the biggest crowds they had ever played to. Salmonella Dub, hip hop MC King Kapisi, Auckland electronic outfit Pitch Black and Auckland's Kog Transmissions crew all played seminal gigs. Dozens of previously unheard bedroom DJs impressed with skills and technique. Many more musicians appreciated the chance to swap notes and listen to new sounds from peers who often lived at opposite ends of the country.

The spirit that developed between musicians and promoters was excellent, Smithies said on reflection.

"It was just a wonderful thing. A lot of people went to our first event and were so inspired that they'd put on their own party and maybe start producing music.

It ended up having a huge effect on dance culture in New Zealand." He was also chuffed to see divisions between different strands of dance music broken down.

"It was cool. You'd get some feral characters who were stooping around in the dust and others who'd flown down all fresh from Auckland and by the third day they'd both look exactly the same. They'd stagger into drum'n'bass from trance and all of a sudden discover a new form of music. People just got blown away by new sounds. For me watching that transformation happen was just magic."

For organisers, not everything was going to plan. Although attendance was increasing each year and the buzz around the party had become huge, organisers were struggling to cover costs. The second event only made several thousand dollars. For the third event in 1998/99 the budget had ballooned a massive 1000% to $900,000 in just two years. Everyone agreed the tiny budget for the first event was unrealistic but the massive increase started to worry some senior crew. Numbers for the third event were static at 8000 people yet this time the party lost $60,000.

Debate swirled through website forums about where money from ticket sales actually went. Rumours of an organiser running off overseas with a wad of money proved pure fiction. The reality was less exciting.

Sound, lighting, portaloos (all 120 of them), marquees, fireworks and transporting water to the site were the big one off annual costs. One only had to look at last year's creditor list to see the big losers from the event were almost all large hire companies: Hammond Crane & Cartage, Chubb Security, Hirequip, Nelson Petroleum Distributors, Placemakers and Redd Acoustics were all owed more than $10,000, which they never received.

Perhaps Kingi had his mind on other things. Toward the end of 1997, he invited Wellington music promoter, Alison Green, to help manage the trance stage at the second Gathering and set up The Gathering's initial website. Within months they were a couple and Green subsequently became a minor shareholder.

Several months later Smithies and Cachemaille "bailed" from the newly formed company because they could see the potential conflicts of working with friends."It involved some pretty fundamental differences," Smithies laughs. "I was never a trance zone guy and I would have liked to concentrate on making the music on offer more diverse. That relentless trance on the main stage always really irritated me. I often compared it with the belligerent drunk in the corner of a party who just wouldn't go away."

Green quickly became Kingi's co-organiser.

"From the start it was a magical thing to be part of. But it was a big transition going from stage manager to co-organiser," she said. "I didn't really know what I was meant to be doing because I didn't know what my role was. The fact that Smithies and Cachemaille both quit meant that there was no publicist so I ended up doing both their jobs."

Green and Kingi spilt up in August 1998. They continued to work together but Green admits it made their working relationship "really dysfunctional".

Nelson record storeowner Greg Shaw became the third co-organiser, looking after finances. Although not a trained accountant, Shaw told the Nelson Mail in late 1998 that 12 years of working for New Zealand Railways had "taught me about business and how to deal with people".

Shaw was well regarded for pulling in favours in the industry but disputed the common perception the event was a major money earner for the organisers."Every year it costs more, as people expect more, and we want to provide more - we're our own worst enemies."

Others point out the company had surely reached the point of no return. The Gathering was a multi-million dollar business but still refused to employ a full-time trained accountant.

Many people I spoke to for this story said management was always haphazard because of Kingi's autocratic style.

Phil Williams, aka DJ Filter, co-organised the house music tent for five years.

"The Gathering very quickly turned into an outdoor party up there with anything else in the world. And that's why crew kept coming back. We created an amazing music event. But the issue of finance wasn't going away. We should have been succeeding with money in those middle years but there was no business or event management experience in the whole crew for a party of that size. A lot of people realised at the time but nothing was done."

Co-organiser Hamish Bruce admits the chequebook and credit card went wild in the middle years.

"It started to get a little crazy. People were sent to Motueka to get supplies and came back with double what we needed. Once the event kicked off Murray would think he'd lit a fuse - it had to get better and better. I never saw any figures on paper the whole time I did The Gathering. People worked too hard to always know what things cost and where things went. And nobody was looking at what was in the bank."

Many were also left wondering why The Gathering wasn't working more actively with sponsors after Coke, Red Bull, Telecom, tobacco and brewery companies all showed interest in the event.

"The event was inundated with sponsorship offers but the great majority were turned down on ethical grounds."

The Gathering had invested in marketing with annual CDs, t-shirts and videos all selling well. Kingi acknowledged it was difficult finding the right balance between commercialism and the event's humble origins.

"Some of our commercial decisions did change the ethos and yeah look I'm the first to admit it was a tough balance to strike."

Meanwhile, Kingi admitted being surprised by the $60,000 loss for the 1998/99 event. He now admits a lack of business experience and the high turnover among disgruntled staff played a big part in the company's money problems in the middle years.

"I'm still not sure if we paid anyone their worth but we couldn't. We were in the wrong business to do that. But yeah some sort of cycle did start to develop. Every year the party burnt us to pieces but we always came back."

And so did the Gatherers. As Smithies noted a big difference between dance culture and guitar culture was participation. Hundreds of people realized The Gathering was the sum of its parts. Hence the volunteer ethic where hundreds of people worked to earn the price of a coveted ticket. More often than not the joy these people got from this behind the scenes work was well worth it.

And thousands more were drawn by the location and the slow realization New Zealand DJs rated up there with any others in the world. It was also a great excuse to party for two days and two nights and forget about the world - surprisingly hard to do in the city as anyone who stayed there discovered.

The collapse of Auckland's Sweetwaters Festival in January 1999 further soured the atmosphere for ambitious outdoor parties. With promoter Daniel Keighley clocking up $3.5 million in unpaid bills, small New Zealand bands trying to present cheques for less than $1000 were turned away from banks. The result for The Gathering was that in the wake of Sweetwaters suppliers subsequently demanded payment up front.

A compounding problem for the 1999/2000 event was the huge hike, up to 250 per cent, for the cost of hiring equipment brought on mostly by millennium hype. Many of the tech crew were incredulous at prices quoted by Nelson hire companies who often held a monopoly on supplies. Scaffolding rigs were eventually ordered via Wellington and came at a quarter of the price that a Nelson scaffolding company quoted.

Even the enterprising Canaan Downs landowners, Tim and Jane Greenhough, got in on the act. After asking a mere $500 for the first event, the couple saw their own millennium opportunity reputedly asking $50,000. Kingi was flabbergasted and eventually Tasman Mayor John Hurley was called in as mediator to help negotiate a lease, with the Greenhoughs' eventually pocketing around $40,000.

Kingi was forced to increase the ticket price from $65 to $105 with the price increasing to $125 after October 1, at the same time reiterating that "making a profit was secondary to the aim of The Gathering". Tickets were to be limited to 6000 to make it a "smaller, easier, tighter event". Paid crew, which numbered about 1000 the year before, would be reduced to try and fit the budget.

But trying to make the millennium Gathering small that year proved near impossible. Millennium fever set in. Rumours also circulated the length of the country that a white supremacist group from the West Coast was planning a mass murder at The Gathering. One of the more popular variations on the theme involved police uncovering a stash of firearms at the Canaan Downs site. The rumour gathered such momentum that several senior detectives were asked to investigate yet attempts to track its source invariably petered out. Green, a former web-master for The Gathering's site, said she counted 40 different versions of the rumour over the three months before the event. Meanwhile, Green repeatedly stated throughout the year that the millennium Gathering would be the last. For thousands, that marked it as the place to be.

The initial offer of 6000 tickets was snapped up quickly. 2000 more were released and then, finally, another 500 for people who weren't selected to DJ at the event. Add 1000 crew to that and the party was looking bigger than any before it. Plans to cut costs had seemingly been forgotten with the budget skyrocketing to $1.44 million in anticipation. The party ended up doubling the previous year's attendance attracting a record 15,000 people making it the largest ticketed New Year's Eve event in New Zealand that year - a far cry from the initial desire for a cosy 6000 person party.

Kingi estimates around 4000 mostly unsuspecting people entered with forged tickets. Green shudders to remember the logistics of trying to sort tickets at the gate.

"We had one ultra-violet light and up to six lanes of cars coming through the paddock. Our own tickets were pretty patchy so it was hard to tell any differences."

Fake tickets were later traced to an Auckland printing firm after a runner selling tickets was caught by organisers. Kingi estimates a group of people made up to $500,000 from forged tickets yet although the Fraud Squad was notified there was little for them to go on.

Adding to confusion was a directive from local police that every car in the massive eight-hour traffic jam must be allowed in.

"Yeah it started to get very confusing and very, very stressful," Kingi laments. "Police told us they didn't care if people had tickets or not. We had to let them in."

The Gathering was now hosting a party with no idea of how many people to expect. The number of attendees, many first-time 'Gatherers', had dramatically swelled at the last possible moment.

Then the rain set in.

Organisers had always stressed the possibility of extreme weather conditions- often down to freezing at night and up to 30 degrees during the day. But when the site became a mud bath, Green recalls hundreds were caught out unprepared."For the first time, people turned up without a sleeping bag or a tent. Or they had a tent but put it in a hollow that subsequently flooded. From that point on it became a sheer test of endurance."

An estimated 5000 drenched and irritated Gatherers left on January 1, 2000 easing the strain on resources considerably. The rest huddled together in trying conditions for a muddy and cold second night. Throughout the party about 40 people were evacuated to Motueka suffering exposure.

And thousands more were coming down off drugs. It was accepted by local police and council that one of the reasons for the peaceful atmosphere at the event was because many were stoned.

But it took a informal Nelson Mail poll at the millennium event to stir media attention. The newspaper's survey said 93 out of 100 Gatherers surveyed admitted taking some type of illegal drug with ecstasy by far the most popular. If there had been any doubt about the extent of drug use at the event it became obvious at the millennium event on January 1. Thousands were in a fragile state after a big night and became zombies when surrounded by rain and mud.Strangely enough many talk about the party as perhaps the best of the four events held at Canaan Downs.

Green said the extreme conditions brought people together and tested Gathering themes of love, peace and harmony.

"If there had been any other crew that year it would have been a disaster. I think what we learnt is there's always an element you can't control. You can control the road but you can't control the cars on the road."

The event's Eftpos terminal also crashed meaning hundreds were unable to get money for a bus ride back to town. Organisers came to the rescue paying for partygoers' bus fares and extra buses.

Despite the chaos, Kingi says the party only marginally failed to break even losing $7500.

No one was focused on huge profits for the millennium party but it became clear The Gathering would probably never see such crowds again.

Privately, crew were furious a professional forger had made half a million dollars out of the event.

People were making money from the event but it wasn't the organisers. Once again The Gathering had lost a golden opportunity to make a healthy profit and safeguard the event.

It came as no surprise when organisers announced in August 2000 that The Gathering would move to a new site at Cobb Valley, Golden Bay citing environmental and safety reasons.

The $130 tickets were also changed to prevent a repeat of the millennium debacle. All tickets were electronically coded, available through The Gathering's website or a 0800 number, and limited to 10 tickets a person to thwart scalpers. The event was also extended to four days and three nights.After cleaning up the mud bath at Canaan Downs, Kingi obtained his first passport and travelled to parties and festivals in Europe in search of ideas on how to improve The Gathering. Despite visiting seven countries in six weeks including the UK's famous Glastonbury event, Kingi said he didn't learn anything.

"We could not do anything better than we do here in New Zealand," he told the Nelson Mail.

Back home the move to the new site predictably split many of the loyal crew.

Most were still incredulous the millennium party had lost money and were wondering how Kingi financed his trip. Several of the crew I spoke to wryly noted the Gathering bank account was actually Kingi's own personal account for the first three years of the party.

Hamish Bruce, regarded as one of the hardest working crew members, struggled smiling after working out he had been paid $2.50 an hour for months of work on the millennium event.

"A lot of silly decisions started being made with that millennium event. Murray was doing little contra deals left, right and centre and trying to keep track of them was a nightmare. I saw cheque butts in the vicinity of $50,000 but there was no attempt to reconcile accounts."

Others began to get fed up when the same costly mistakes were repeated.

Organisers were pushing bodies and minds to the limit and it was taking its toll on crew morale.

"After a few days without sleep the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing. After you've done it for a few years you see a lot of the same mistakes being made," said one senior crew member.

But the major fall-out from the millennium party was Green's resignation in September 2000. She said one of the catch phrases of the event, 'be nice humans', simply didn't apply to The Gathering by that point.

"I really felt it was a party I couldn't sell. I felt it was high time we paid all our very loyal DJs and live acts more and sadly that's not how it turned out."

Green is immensely proud of her efforts but concedes it was sad to leave on such a low note.

"You can't create magic forever and in my view the event lost its magic. I actually ended up going to the 2001 party at the new location as a Gatherer. It was weird. I got a bit bored."

The Gathering also faced its first serious competition from Visionz for its 2000/01 event. Run just 20kms from The Gathering's new site, there was little love lost between Kingi and Visionz promoter, Richard Lochner. Kingi accused Lochner of attempting to extort money after he visited The Gathering's office offering to "change the dates of his party in exchange for a donation of 10 per cent of our budget". Mr Lochner later said he used the offer as an example of what other organisations did to support non-profit events like the Vision party, which was managed by a charitable trust that supported community development.

Despite many of the first wave of 'Gatherers' opting out of the new site (this writer included), there were thousands of others keen to try their first Gathering experience.

John Kane had been helping out in the lead-up to the event but says he knew after he came in the gate late on New Year's Eve "we were screwed" because there did not look to be even 10,000 people present.

"I went up to Murray and just asked the simple question. How many people had come in?

Murray looked at his computer and said at least 12,000 tickets had been sold. That's when alarm bells started to ring."

As it turned out Kingi was looking at the number of distributed tickets. Only 9000 had actually been sold leading to a difference in revenue of between $450,000 and $500,000. The mix-up centered around a secure website run by Online Reservations that Kingi used to get instant updates on ticket sales before and during the event.

Kingi claimed the Wellington based company led him to believe the website figures stated the number of tickets sold but he later discovered the figures were for the amount of tickets forwarded to distributors. Thinking he had an extra $400,000 he increased his budget by $200,000 hiring more camping space, security staff, crew and medical teams and buying more signs, plumbing and sewage equipment to cater for the extra party-goers who never showed up. After checking the site and seeing that 12,400 tickets worth $1.785 million had been sold he felt confident they would be making a $200,000 profit. When the money stopped coming several days after the event, Kingi began to feel sick.

He immediately contacted Online Reservations chief executive Teva Loos to have him admit liability for the mix-up and repay the $420,000 he lost. Loos denied all charges and despite a number of legal threats from Kingi the matter was never resolved.

Loos left Online Reservations shortly after the incident and several months later Online Reservations and its subsidiary, 2BookIt, closed down. Parent company Netlogic Holdings, run by Wellington businessman Bryce Dixson, had decided to downgrade a number of its ambitious hi-tech ventures and Online Reservations was one of the first to receive the boot.

Loos, who now works as human resources manager for Frucor Beverages in Auckland, sounded weary when I called on a spring morning to ask about the confusion. He conceded doing "a couple of things that weren't as clever as they could have been".

Online Reservations normally installed a booking system on event promoters' web pages giving them a condensed update on ticket sales. Loos said Kingi was different because he used a sizeable number of tickets for contra payment to suppliers and crew and needed more detailed information on exactly where all tickets were and how many had been sold. Online Reservations granted access to its own more complicated website interface and while "we made the difference very clear", he said Kingi didn't have the skills or training to properly interpret the figures. "We were very clear about the difference between tickets and distributed tickets. And I think Kingi conveniently forgot perhaps didn't want to remember our advice after the event."

It was the beginning of a downhill slide. By March 2001, Kingi owed $250,000 to contractors, performers and crew members. He re-stated liquidation was not an option as there was an 80 per cent chance of saving the event.

While most creditors were supportive many were becoming increasingly angry, particularly those owed less than $1000 each. Kingi said one had threatened him with violence over the telephone.

"He said he was sending a guy round to extract the money or a pound of flesh, whichever came first."

Compounding problems were stallholders refusing to pay stall lease costs after they failed to make a profit. They left The Gathering further out of pocket by about $20,000.

Debt stretched to $300,000 but in June 2001 creditors resolved to let the company try to trade its way out of the red. Kingi needed 12,000 people at last year's party to pay back creditors and initially sales looked promising. 2000 were sold by October but sales started to trickle to a just a handful a day after advertising for two rival parties kicked in. Several enthusiastic but young staff left the Gathering's Nelson office preferring to spend time on the beach. Tax forms weren't filled out when a full-time accountant abruptly quit just days before Christmas 2001. Several days later the stallholder manager also quit her position.

Yet despite the obvious chaos it was too late for Kingi to find suitable replacements.

Despite cutting the budget in half to $760,000, adding a new zone and arguably the most well known DJ in the world, John Digweed, The Gathering attracted only 6000 people - half of what it hoped for. Rival party Visionz lured almost 2000 to its Pakawau site while 3000 people danced at new outdoor party Alpine Unity, complete with bar and only an hour from Christchurch.

That a good number of crew from the old site still volunteered to work on the final Gathering said a lot about the magic of being involved with the event. This time however the magic faded as quickly as the party was dismantled. No-one would be paid.

Many became outraged after learning of the $75,000 fee paid to Digweed for his four hour set and saw it as the ultimate betrayal of the party's commitment to New Zealand DJs and producers.

Others argued his presence attracted hundreds more to the event.

And for other loyal crew The Gathering's popular DIY ethic on some of the most basic aspects of the party had evaporated. Hamish Bruce recalls his horror at Kingi's "crazy decision" to order a mix of flush toilets and portaloos on site."Straight off I told Murray I could get 40 portaloos or six flush toilets on a truck. I explained the mechanics of the cistern and that it only takes a certain time to fill up completely. I was over-ruled on that. Then we were asked to provide a personal toilet for Digweed. None of the crew liked elitism but that's what the party turned into."

Within four hours of the event kicking off all flush toilets were blocked prompting The Gathering's health and safety officer to consider shutting the party down. An unlikely saviour came in the form of a local man known only as Steve who was employed as "shit-picker" or more accurately according to Bruce a "shit sucker". He worked clearing toilets for the entire event and was the only staff member paid for the event.

The Gathering's recycling policy also came under attack when onsite coordinator Duncan Eddy accused Kingi of being "way out of touch with reality". Eddy said the recycling crew were told they were "just rubbish collectors" three days into the event meaning no materials were recycled.

"The Gathering supposedly promoted positive ideals, but this is just a marketing ploy. This year's Gathering was only an attempt to get the organisers of this

On January 3, 2002 Kingi left his party for the last time and drove to Nelson. Crew was left to clean up and it became abundantly clear the party was over for good. The crew's catering immediately stopped leaving dozens of workers in the humbling position of borrowing money for food and expenses from friends.Sadly, many of The Gathering's remaining possessions were picked over and stolen by disgruntled crew.

Water tanks; pumps; reticulation systems; tools; utes; radio tuners; microphones; styluses and turntables were all stolen. Massive storage containers left on site for eventual collection were broken into in February while the entire contents of the art department were dumped at the tip. The Gathering's Nelson office was also broken into, according to Kingi, with most office equipment stolen and computers stripped completely of ram.

He claims to know who stole much of the material but says he cannot prove it.

In mid February Kingi re-surfaced and told the Nelson Mail he had been "lying low" since the 2001/02 event after threats of violence from unpaid creditors. It had quickly become a desperate situation.

News came in mid July The Gathering had been placed into liquidation with debts of over $400,000. And the debts kept coming. Liquidator Richard Ineson from Markhams MRI in Christchurch estimates liabilities now total $684,513. Mr Ineson hopes to sell Gathering assets for around $80,000, meaning creditors can expect just six cents in the dollar after preferential claims. The National Bank, with whom Kingi signed a personal guarantee, is the largest creditor owed $186,000. Others, including the caterers who worked tirelessly to feed Gathering crew, did not rate a mention.

Kingi, now looking for DJ work in Wellington after employment dried up in Nelson, admits all he has left is his dignity "because the bank has taken everything else".

"All I can think is there was an awful lot of bad luck surrounding the event. Our karma was in the negative for some reason. I'll always wonder why."