The sun hasn’t even set, yet the ever-swelling queue has been sweating it out for hours already to the likes of Pascal & Pearce, Richard Marshall and Protoculture. This is Day One of Ultra South Africa, the country’s biggest dance festival, and more than 17,000 hardcore, trance, house, grime, dubstep and bass fans – some of whom have saved for months for this – will pass through the gates at Cape Town’s Ostrich Ranch. Hard beats from DJ Fresh & Euphonik now rumble from the speakers: the beat winds up, holds, elevates some more and, as it drops, anticipatory fist pumps spread down the queue.
Ironically, backstage is not where the glamour lives. It’s an open field dotted with tents and portaloos, with engineers calmly moving mixing desks and cables from flight cases to the stage; there’s no party here. Up on stage, it’s a totally different story as DVBBS, the Canadian electro-house banger merchants now based in California, whip the crowd into a frenzy in the fading light. In only its second year, Ultra South Africa is already a massive success.
The VVIP area is swarming with the slickest members of Cape Town’s house-music jetset, replete with entourages of Amazonian models and Lenny Kravitz lookalikes, shirtless in leather jackets. DJ Fresh and Euphonik move among the throng, getting into the spirit of things. As DVBBS finish their set, Fresh exclaims, “They were astounding! They were on the mic throughout! The crowd was eating out of their hands. It. Was. Awesome.”
From the elevated perspective of the Red Bull Flight Deck, Ultra resembles an underwater world - glow-in-the-dark creatures swirling in the darkness, with the stage scaffolding looming above them like some kind of superstructure from The Lego Movie. On the Main Stage, Hardwell – DJ Mag’s No. 1 DJ of 2013 and 2014, and one of Forbes magazine’s dance-music top-earners – drops a hard-style remix of Spaceman as blinding pyrotechnics blaze into the night sky.
Goldfish are owning the Electric Stage. The duo look out into the crowd and big-up each other as wave upon wave of ravers raise their hands, melodic house washing over them. Their feat may look easy from the dancefloor, but Dave Poole and Dom Peters have to contend with the fact that while the stage is really big, it’s also very crowded – seems like every DJ’s manager is on stage, too, Instagramming the crowd.
“Frothing, ous are frothing!” says Dom as the Goldfish boys settle into their seats for the flight to Johannesburg. He and Dave finished their set at 1:30am and are due to play the second date of Ultra South Africa, in Jozi, at 3pm. Dom’s talking about the fans they’ve just encountered at the airport. “Little laaities,” he continues. “They were taking photos, and we were like, ‘We’ll see you there!’ And they were like, ‘No, we can only go next year because we’re 17.’ But they’re still frothing. They had CDs and they were waiting for everyone from Ultra, standing there all day taking photos.” Dave nods. “There is such hype among the youngsters when they get close to 18,” he says. “That’s the power of Ultra’s after-movies. You watch them and think, ‘I have to go to this!’”
At the Jozi venue, an old amusement park, Ultra feels like it’s doubled in size – it’s definitely going twice as hard. Standing beneath the abandoned monorail and looking across the Main Stage to the defunct rollercoaster, it’s easy to spot the punters who are at their first rodeo. A scruffy blond dude in a checked shirt is hugging a two-storey-high inflatable cell phone and crying. Two girls are holding their friend’s ponytail back from her face as she kneels in the middle of the food court, looking like she’s about to be sick.
“The disco nap is a powerful tool in the Goldfish pre-match arsenal,” comments Dom, lying on his back in one of the interview rooms in the warren-like structure that is the media area. Queues of journos wait outside for their chance with any of Ultra’s star performers. “We’ve got this thing,” says Dave, “that any of us can command the others to do sit-ups or push-ups.” Dom elaborates. “Wherever we are, anywhere, any time, on a sidewalk, in an airport, in a hotel lobby, or sometimes behind the DJ booths just before we go on stage, we’ll do some push-ups. If you’re feeling really screwed, doing a little exercise does zip you out of it.” “Sometimes you also just need a shot of tequila to help you understand people,” offers Dave. “I don’t mean you get hammered; just one drink to get you in there.”
The crowd are losing their minds to Dutch DJ Martin Garrix. In the photographers’ pit at the front of the stage, it seems the job of security is not only to hold back literally tens of thousands of people, but also to prevent the snappers from having their heads blown off by pyrotechnic cannons. Every time the 18-year-old Garrix executes a drop, a blast of flame goes off and a bouncer pulls a photographer to the floor. Down here in the pit, the music sounds strangely muffled. Gradually, it dawns on us that no sound system on earth would be able to force its way through this dense mass of thousands of ravers’ bodies.
Three beautiful women with fantastic afros are hoisted onto the shoulders of boyfriends made invisible by the crowd grooving along to Black Coffee. There are no fireworks here at the Electric Stage, but their faces glow a magnificent bronze from the occasional burst at the Main Stage.
Armin van Buuren moves through the crowd, flanked by his massive crew, who carry all manner of magical black boxes. Van Buuren is focused on his destination – the Main Stage – and, miraculously, the crowd parts for the entourage.
In an inflatable tent that was used earlier for handing out free vodka slushies, a young couple roll around, oblivious to the ice emptied out of the machines, making out like the end of the world has just been announced.
Axwell^Ingrosso have taken the stage, and the pyrotechnics crew seem to be competing with the former Swedish House Mafia duo to see who can pound the crowd harder. Drop after punishing drop is countered with balls of fire; thousands of arms are in the air. The spectacle is like some giant cultural rite of passage: ravers becoming ultra-ravers through a baptism of fire and some of the most intense EDM known to mankind.
Reluctantly dragging their bare feet, high heels in hand, drenched with the residue of euphoria, the crowd weave their way into the parking lot towards taxis and Ubers. As the many hours spent at South Africa’s biggest dance party start coalescing into vivid memory, all that now competes with the muffled 130bpm thuds is an over-revved engine as another car-load of exhausted ravers slips away into the remnants of the velvet night.
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