“Last one there’s a used penis pump!” someone shrieks before trotting off into the distance, his booze-loaded backpack bouncing awkwardly behind him.
We can’t blame him for being so excited. We have, for the first time since our arduous journey along the dusty, 4km-long road began, just caught wind of the first pounding techno rhythm somewhere up in the distance. The trotting soon grinds to a halt as it quickly transpires that we are still miles away from the finishing line, though the sense of anticipation remains well intact. We are on our way to Dragon Festival, an annual, week-long celebration of the spring equinox, held in the rolling foothills of Santa Fe, southern Spain. A.K.A. the mother of all free raves.
At some point, we arrive. It is hard to pinpoint exactly where the festival starts. Cars, campervans, tents and snoring, drunken hippies occupy random patches of grass, and steadily increase in numbers as we close in on the first of the larger-scale pavilions.
“Dragon, at last!” someone proclaims.
“Isn’t it ‘Dragoff’?” queries another.
“It’s actually ‘Dragón’ – how the Spanish pronounce it” says one more.
Since the onset of its decidedly eventful life, the festival has accumulated various names – all of them just as tenable as each other. That there is no official title rather neatly sums it up.
“It was always called Dragon when it was in Ciggy (Los Cigarrones) and the Spanish translation is ‘Dragón’,” explains Miot, one of the unofficial founders of the festival who we run into at the first tent. “But when we were forced to move to Santa Fe because of flooding, people started calling it ‘Dragoff’. Honestly though, the name isn’t important. It’s what it represents that matters.”
What it represents is a widely shared, unyielding belief in freedom of expression, freedom of choice and freedom from outdated, fascist-decreed rubrics. It is a free rave as one is unequivocally supposed to be: no entrance fee, no pitching charges, no money-grubbing commercial stalls and no big cheese raking it all in at the helm.
Dragon – for the purpose of convenience – has been breathing fire into the life of free raves ever since a mass exodus of chagrined and so-called "new age" travelers took place from Britain to Spain in the early nineties. The first event was staged in 1997, attracting no less than 30 punters. Eleven years later, the figure was closer to 20,000. Its history is captivating.
“It just kept growing and growing, and there was nothing we could do to stop it, even if we had wanted to,” reasons Skott, another of Dragon’s ambassadors to whom we are later introduced. “Of course we didn’t want to stop it, but unfortunately a lot of the other residents and members of the local council did, but it was on our land so there was not a lot they could do.”
By 2003, these opposed locals gained support from the police and the notoriously heavy-handed Guardia Civil, who guarded the site in the lead up to the event. However, due to the impending war in Iraq, their aggressive stance had to be significantly curbed, and was further undermined by travellers who, dressed in pink, daily sang their way to the police to offer them tea and cakes. On the eve of the festival, the police begrudgingly stepped aside, allowing it to take place.
The most imaginative attempt came in January of 2009, when a determined group of anti-Dragon locals conjured up a cunning "tree-planting" project. Thus, when spring arrived, around 2,000 caravan-sized holes were excavated on the land of all other opposed landowners, meaning that if a festival were to take place, it could only happen on the land of pro-Dragon locals – Skott, Miot and the two other Brits. Just two days before the equinox, a prohibition order banning Dragon on grounds of health and safety was quietly strung up at a nearby petrol station. It stated that anyone found organizing the festival would be charged and, if convicted, face heavy fines.
“A few days into the festival, myself, Alex, Nick and Miot all got a letter saying that we had ignored this prohibition order and that we each had to pay €30,000. It was ridiculous. None of us had seen any prohibition orders and even if we had there was nothing we could have done to stop it from happening.”
Each case was taken to court and fought tooth and nail, though only Skott and Miot emerged victorious.
“What of the other two?” we ask.
“Ah. Well Nick bolted to Vietnam a few years ago, and Alex, who basically conceived the whole idea of Dragon, is sleeping in that van over there.”
“We’ll come back tomorrow,” we reply. “There’s a festival to be explored.”
We set out, meandering along the Dragon’s twisting, rock-strewn spine, its flanks lined with jewelry-flogging hippies and makeshift food stalls. A delicious aroma of migas and paella fills the air. We can’t resist, diving in at the first opportunity.
Ten minutes later and we are pushing our way into a damp, lively crowd to the sound of the same pulsating beat we had heard from the road. The sound system is a monster of a setup: a vast, brick-by-brick wall of joke-sized speakers, to which people are drawn like moths to the flame, standing shoulder to shoulder in an open-mouthed, trance-like state. The noise is deafening.
We move on, in search of some drum & bass or the like, but soon find out that all "that shit" finished last night. No matter, we will make do.
There are about four sound systems dotted around the site, each one continuously swamped with its own small army of ravers. The DJs are like ghosts, hidden behind their lofty apparatus. Elsewhere, people gather round cars with their own systems cranked up to the max, luring in passers by.
The rest of the day passes in a blur. Beer, which is sold at €1 a can, can take a modest portion of the blame, but there is not a lot else to do other than roam and rave. So that is what we do, until we can take no more.
The next day begins with a stroll up to Santa Fe’s very own hot springs. It’s nice, but the plethora of unshorn genitalia on show is slightly distracting. Further ambling leads us back to the Órgiva stage, where it turns out Alex is no longer asleep. “What does the future hold for Dragon then Alex?” we ask.
“Absolutley no idea. When it was in Los Cigarrones it had a future because local people were involved. Santa Fe is more like ‘surfing the dragon’, as we come and go. A lot of shit went down in Ciggy and it took time to get to its peak, so I expect it will be no different here.”
Dragon; Dragón; Dragoff. Call it what you like. The fact of the matter is that this is a free rave that has stood the test of time, politics and some pretty diabolical bouts of weather, and is still going strong. This is one dragon that cannot be slayed.
Words by Josh Taylor