Looking back on five years of wandering

Heading into the fifth wanderer, we take a look back at how it all started.

“When we were kids, my sister and I were rifling through a drawer and found some old photo albums. One had pictures of what appeared to be a festival. We asked Dad about it and he said, ‘Oh, well, back in the day, we used to hold the Yin Barun Beer and Wine Festival,’” explains Mark Foletta, sustainable farmer, winemaker and forager. “It had music, and a big tent and everyone swam in the river. There was even a slippery log contest, where you had to walk across the log and try not to fall in. It was always a childhood dream of mine and Sally’s: ‘Oh, one day we'd love to get that up and going again.’ Then life gets in the way...”

Mark travelled and worked in California and Canada before moving back to Benalla. “When I moved back here seven years ago I ended up with this rough housemate called Bodin Campbell,” he jokes. “I showed him the photos and I said, ‘We used to have a festival here back in the day, and I’ve always dreamed about putting it back together.’ And he said, ‘Well, let's just do it.’”

Mark now owns the farm next door to his parents’ property in Benalla, and Happy Wanderer Festival is held on the same site where his father and uncle held Yin Barun Beer and Wine Festival in the late 70s.

A rough flatmate

“I met Mark totally by accident, really there's no good reason why I should have ever met Mark,” explains Bodin Campbell. “I was doing a grad program for Fire Management and one of my placements was in Benalla. I emailed the whole office and said ‘Hey, I'm coming for eight months, if anyone knows of a share house, I'd love to hear about it.’ An hilarious guy called Ian emailed me and said, ‘Look, my next door neighbour just bought a farm, he's a young guy and he's probably looking for someone to help him pay his mortgage’.” 

Bodin took a trip to Benalla to meet his potential housemate. “I had a look at the property and realised how stunning it was and got that feeling that we all know now – you just feel good. I turned to Mark and I said, ‘Yeah, I'll move in’. Then I jumped back in the car and drove away - and to this day he brings it up every time I see him: ‘You never gave me the option.’ He’d just bought this house and I didn’t even give him a choice about whether I was moving in.”

Nonetheless the move was a smooth one. The next seed for the Happy Wanderer festival was a working bee at Mark’s property where one of the jobs was to reign in the Happy Wanderer – a climbing plant that was threatening to engulf the homestead garden. “The working bees were all about bringing people to the farm,” says Bodin. “We suddenly had 18 people at Mark’s place camping in vans and in tents and on the floor in the lounge room and in swags in the shed. We figured that if everyone brought a friend and we invited a few bands - then that would be a music festival. And naturally it could be called the Happy Wanderer.”


Apart from the festival being a good time. Bodin was keen to ensure that Mark stayed connected with his Melbourne mates. “I suppose what I realised was that the house was chaotic in the sense that there were lots of WWOOFers and people coming and going, but in terms of consistent friends and networks that Mark could lean on in more sustainable way - it wasn't that. I started to recognise he had a core of really strong friends that made the effort to come up but I think he did feel isolated from that broader network of friends that he has in Melbourne.”

The festival not only brought friends up to the farm, but forged new friendships. “I've met some amazing people and they're now very, very close friends,” says Mark. He also works on the festival with Bodin and other friends. “There are times that are challenging, but I think when we get through on the other side, it actually strengthens the relationship. And the other thing the festival does is gives us an excuse to catch up as a group or even just check in, which has been really important. Obviously being on the farm can get a bit isolating, so to have that kind of thing in the background that's completely different to farming has been really good and really rewarding.”

Over the years the organising group for Happy Wanderer has changed – most notably when long-time director Evan Lewis moved to Africa. “I think that's one of the most important things that the Happy Wanderer has achieved - is bringing this amazing bunch of people together to create this thing. And ownership definitely doesn't sit with just a few people. It's much broader,” says Bodin.

A different time

Although Mark’s dad had had a great time at his festival in the 70s, he wasn’t so sure about Happy Wanderer, explains Mark. “He said, ‘Well, things were different back in the day’. And my reply was, ‘Yeah, they were, there was a lot less regulation.’ I suppose Dad was a bit reluctant but couldn't really say no, and I think he's come to the realisation that we're doing an alright job in what we do. I think it's proven in the people that we've attracted. They respect the property.

“After the last festival Dad came down, he was talking to the electrician, Luke Johnson, and something caught Dad’s eye. He said, ‘Oh, there's a bit of rubbish over there.’ And wanders over, and picked it up and it was $10. And that's the only rubbish that was left over,” shares Mark.

Mark’s parents are the closest neighbours, but in total there are about 14 neighbours of the property and the festival wouldn’t be possible without their support. “All the neighbours seem to sit out on their porch and enjoy the music,” says Mark. The festival is incredibly appreciative of the support of the neighbours and the local council. In fact Holmes camping ground is on land owned by neighbours, the Holmes', and Ian Holmes is the one who originally introduced Mark and Bodin.

Risk and reward

The first Happy Wanderer (really a birthday party with some bands) was organised in six weeks. “Honestly they were the worst six weeks of my life. Horrible, just so stressful,” says Bodin. Every year Wanderer takes work, a lot of work, to produce. But there are thousands of moments that make it worthwhile.

There have been huge moments, a marriage proposal, incredible bands, nights of dancing, days of swimming in the river and over one hundred artists who have gone on from Wanderer to achieve great things. But counting up the most special moments, they’re the small ones. Mark reflects on his, “I think I had to go back to get something from my tent, and I remember walking back and one of the bands was playing and I just had this capture of the whole amphitheatre. It was packed, everyone was enjoying the band, and I was observing it from afar and just going, ‘Wow, we've created this.’ I still remember that moment just thinking, ‘Well, that's pretty wild.’"

Bodin remembers his at an early festival, “It was Sunday afternoon and Esther Henderson, Emi Day and Al Parkinson played together and they're not really a band - but they're friends. One of my dearest friends, Steve, was feeling a bit shabby and decided that he would lounge in the bower stage. So he was in behind the girls. It was the most glorious thing - it was so low key. It was bliss, absolute true bliss. The feeling at the end of that was that we'd done something really special and I don't think I expected to feel that, I didn't think I'd ever feel that. It was like risk and reward stuff. Sometimes you don't know what the risk treats you to at the other end.”

Year after year, Happy Wanderer gives more than it takes. “I mean we're just so lucky, so lucky to have friends who have become partners in crime in this thing called the Happy Wanderer,” says Bodin. “I’m trying to make an analogy here for the Happy Wanderer [plant] spreading… When Mark and I conceived it and asked Evan to come and be the sensible one amongst us, we were just sprouting a new idea, but 14 or 15 other people have been deeply entrenched in this with us and have made it actually a sufficient ground cover. There you go that's my analogy.”

Well, if there’s anything to be said about Happy Wanderer, it certainly grows on you.


Image credits: professional images - Pippa Samaya, 70s festival images courtesy of the Foletta family, other images, various.