In the humid, subtropical northeast of the State of New South Wales, Australia, in the Rainbow region, there’s a small town surrounded by enchanted forests, fairies, and creeks, that every year hosts the biggest gay New Year’s Eve celebration in the world: the queer town of Lismore.
When I moved to Sydney -back in September-, I came with high expectations of having an epic New Year’s Eve night. Being a world traveler, I’ve been following and hearing about the Sydney fireworks for years. This was it: the year I would finally sit down, front row, and check off from my bucket list one of the world’s most iconic New Year show.
There were so many parties to see the fireworks from, I was unsure which ticket to get, then I thought, “Gays always organize themselves; there has to be not only a gay party, but a gay party with the best views happening that night.” I had traveled long enough to never doubt the organizational capacities of our brothers when it comes to getting together for a good time. Points of Difference, an LGBTQ event organization, was hosting a party on the rooftop of the Museum of Contemporary Art! Gays and the best views: this was the place to be.
“The only three friends I had in the city, Vincent, Alex, and James, were all going to a festival called Tropical Fruits.” When they first told me I didn’t ask much about it; it seemed silly to me to go to some gay rave dance party in the middle of nowhere instead of fulfilling my dream of an epic Sydney night. I headed to buy the tickets…$500 AUD! In moments like this I rethink my whole existence: with that money I could fly to Bali, Thailand, New Zealand, freaking Fiji for mother nature’s sake! (I think of money in terms of plane tickets.) Why would I pay so much to see some fireworks alone? But then the romantic, Latino, side of my brain started working.
What if I met the love of my life that night?
The man of my dreams might be waiting for me on that rooftop for all I know! How perfect for a story, like a movie… I am there… alone, overlooking the Harbor, and there he is, across a sea of Burberry tuxedos. We look at each other and we both know, no need for words. He comes to me, grabs me by my waist, kisses me, and BOOM! Fireworks.
Before getting the ticket I started asking to the boys in the bars around “Where are you celebrating the New Year?”. And the answer was always “Tropical Fruits, mate”. In December, every single guy that I talked to was either going or planning to go. Why was everyone so excited for this thing? I went online and did some research. A big flyer with some sort of silver, futuristic alien writing with the word Glamatron was announcing all of this partying.
It all seemed to be happening inside a camping area and a public pool. Wait a minute! Camping…costumes…gays…speedos…sweaty, hot weather…middle of nowhere… just like at Burning Man! Well, I guess that could be fun.
How much would Tropical Fruits cost?
$225 for a 3-day party pass
$120 for 4-day camping pass
$400 flight to Lismore from Sydney
Plus camping equipment
Plus costumes for the parties
“It was an almost $2,000 AUD investment, and if $500 AUD was too much, this amount was simply crazy! I could buy an around the world flight ticket with that!” Best-case scenario we were talking about $1,500 AUD without costumes, just wearing a speedo for three days, and eating peanut butter and protein bars. Even that was too much. Right when I was losing all hope, in a corner of their web site I saw:
Volunteering at Tropical Fruits would cut my expenses in half. My friends Vincent and James offered to give me a ride once I got accepted as a volunteer, so no need for a plane ticket! I was ready to go and discover this exciting festival that everyone kept talking about, the mysterious Tropical Fruits. While we drove to it, during and after Fruits, I didn’t think of the Sydney Fireworks even once.
We arrived at sunset on Thursday the 29th after an uninterrupted, twelve-hour drive from Sydney into what seemed like a massive, football field parking lot. We were tired, hungry, a bit confused, and unsure what to do. There were hundreds of tents already set up, RVs with chairs and tables outside, cars with inflatable beds inside, people chilling on hammocks and in inflatable pools; it was such a calm vibe. Earlier that day they had held the opening parade for the festival, so the vibe was serene and laid-back. People were saving up their energy for what was to come.
At the registration desk I introduced myself as a volunteer, and promptly received a hug and a wristband. As we readied our tents, I watched the spectrum of body types gleefully welcoming each new arrival. They were big, small, husky, muscular, slim, fat, skinny, young, old. Perhaps my optimism created an illusion, but unlike most gay spaces I have been to, everyone looked so comfortable in their skin and with each other. I could already tell that this was a special place.
This annual four-day festival has been happening since 1988. The event has become a family reunion for gay Aussies, who visibly maintain their mutual affections throughout the festival. They hugged each other excitedly, as if hugging someone they loved but hadn’t seen for ages. There were guys from the big cities and the country towns. They hailed from New Zealand, London, and America as well. Perth, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Byron, all around the coast.
Tropical Fruits is just set in a field with tents. But it’s peoples’ energies that make it special. All together, charging the atmosphere with the intention of having and “more than that” knowing that they are about to live the best weekend of their year.
It all begins at Shirley Temple
It was already dark and people were heading to a party at Shirley Temple, a group of tents that had been camping together for years and had become an iconic party camp group inside of Fruits. That night, it was not about the music, nor was it about the drinks, it was all about connecting with each other and seeing all the faces that were going to be on site for this year’s buffet. That’s exactly what it felt like, seeing a bunch of gay guys window-shopping.
The sexual energy was bubbling up; most guys were shirtless, some with speedos, some with jockstraps, some of them nude. I was feeling like a small fish in a tank full of sharks, and I knew I needed to be strategic here. After all, we were all spending 4 days together, and by the end of the trip I knew that each one of these faces was going to be a familiar one. It was the first night, too soon to commit. But just as I had that thought there he was;
Across a sea of speedos and naked men,
6 feet tall, perfect smile, blue eyes, blond, slim but cut, gorgeous body, perfect swag, cool man. Sweet magnetism that always connects me with these beautiful minds. The man was a world traveler, Australian in exile that had just returned, full of dreams and passion, just as I was.
It makes me nervous every time I meet a guy that I like and have to tell him that I’m sober; it feels like coming out of the closet all over again. Like having to explain why you’re gay, no one really enjoys explaining themselves, but with him it was easy. He seemed happy that I was and even told me, “You know what, today I’m not drinking.”
And you can imagine what happened next
All of the naked speedo men disappeared, a spotlight shone on him from the sky, birds started to sing, and a cloud formed on the grass lifted us both from the ground. “Do you want to come and cuddle?” I asked. “Not tonight, boy, not tonight.” Of course not tonight! It’s only the first night Raf, too soon to commit! What was I thinking?
Even though I knew what his answer would be before I asked, I still asked. I ignored my intuition and went for it. Rejection is a strong habit we are constantly fighting with. Sometimes it becomes a second nature in our lives; some of our brothers have to deal with it daily. But I was not here for the boys, I was here for me. The rest of the night I danced and met amazing guys that ended up becoming new friends. This was just the first night and I had a blast. There was so much more coming ahead of us.
Wake up with the sun
By 7:00 am I was already burning inside my tent. The sun was so strong, the night before I couldn’t find a place with shade and now I was all soaked in sweat. When I got out of my tiny, one-person tent the village was already on. There was a public kitchen area where guys were getting together to prepare and eat their breakfast; most of them subsisted on peanut butter-jelly sandwiches, protein bars, or apples and berries…I was not alone in this. I needed to take a shower before doing anything else.
There were two options to shower: one of them was inside the public bathroom in two little cubicles that offered privacy, and the other was an outdoor, improvised shower in what looked to me like an abandoned horse stable. I went for this one. 7:30 am and the showers were full. In line, one next to the other, just like in high school gym class, only that this time I was in the middle of a tropical valley surrounded by naked, hot men, spreading soap all over their warm bodies in an abandoned horse stable. I showered as quickly as I could and scurried to the kitchen. I went straight to my friends after breakfast; “Where are we going?”
To the beach!
If there’s a gay heaven on earth, it would be Kings Beach, a clothing-optional beach that, unofficially, the gays have made a cruising, gay oasis. It was an hour drive from the town, on an incredible scenic road. The beaches have stunning, white, soft sand, and crystal-clear, turquoise waters, with plenty of palm trees to hug and be hugged. Kings itself curved into a U form, with rock formations on the sides that you could climb to enjoy the views and a littoral rain forest on a hill in the back that shields us all from the rest of the world; Kings beach is a hidden paradise.
For the last two days of the year, Tropical Fruiters come here to hug each other in the trees and chill. When the sun starts to dip below the horizon, they head back to camp to shower, and ready themselves for the party of that night. To break it down, the rhythm of each day went something like this: Shower, protein bar, beach, hug in the trees (or read a book if you don’t feel like hugging), shower, protein bar, chill at camp, party, repeat.
After a relaxing rub down at Kings, my companions were readying to leave the beach to go on a little adventure. Before heading back to camp we were going to make a stop at the fairies gathering secret spot. Yes, the fairies were real.
A group that has been gathering for over 30 years. Their Australian home is the northern river area that we were in. Created under the ideal of merging spirituality into gay liberation, they pondered what kind of society would emerge if Queerfolk were together by themselves, set apart, in order to investigate the inner voice in a completely submerged, gay culture. Such exploration led to Faerie Gathering in outdoor and natural settings. The Faerie communities have created sanctuaries in many rural places around the world, and my friends and I were on our way to one of them.
A deep hole in earth in the middle of the tropical jungle, surrounded by a wall of stones, filled up with water by a gentle spring, the place was breathtaking. The Faeries, like Fruiters, came in all shapes and ages, but they can be identify by their tender stare and playful smiles. When we arrived to the spring, the Faeries were leaving. With greetings and kisses, they left us alone in their sacred place. It was getting dark and we didn’t want to miss the foam party and the Miss Tropical Fruits pageant, so after a quick swim we left as well. From now on there’s going to be a lot of partying, so it’ll be better if I just show you.
Miss Tropical Fruits pageant was ridiculously fun
There was a jury
But the crowd had the last vote
The girls were brilliant…
Maybe I should compete next year…
The Foam party after the pageant looked like this
This one was having the time of her life
And these two were too tired to bother…
The last day of the year
I had an 8-hour volunteer shift to attend to, so I couldn’t join the boys for the beach. It felt pretty symbolic to me to end and start the year on volunteer work after spending pretty much my entire life avoiding it. Volunteering was great, I got to meet the people backstage that made all this happen. They shared stories with me, fed me food and watermelon, and every couple of minutes we would take pool/outdoor shower breaks. If this was work, I could be up for full-time.
The night was here, the New Year’s Eve party that brought all of us here. Guys started to get ready around sunset time, lots of group costumes, couples costumes, naked people without costumes, all of them were working and ready to have a memorable night. We walked across the fields and entered through a gate that had been closed up to this moment; it was massive.
Cabarets, drag shows, international Dj’s performing on stages inside 3 stables transformed into clubhouses, each one of them hosting their own set of lighting, special effects and sound systems, a gigantic bar, a relaxation tent, an arts tent, a yoga tent, gender-specific safe chill tents, lots of tents, all of this with a gigantic statue of the famous Glamatron Alien in the middle. Epic. That was the word. It was so much fun and I even got a chance to dress up as a futuristic twink, that was not even on my bucket list.
I looked like this…
And my friends looked like this
Some hot guys looked like this
AND they were very friendly
Partying wasn’t over… Next day we had a pool party!
It was close to midnight and a friend wanted to take us to a spot to see the fireworks together. At the top of some stairs he promised that we were going to have the best view for the show. I was staring at the nothingness when all of the sudden
A flying ant flew from the sky
We were sitting, waiting for the fireworks, contemplating space, when a queen ant flew into my hand. I stared at it in silence for the longest time. It made me reflect upon how fragile and fleeting life is. The end of each year is very powerful for me. My dad passed away on the 31st of December four years ago, and there I was, surrounded by strangers in a distant land, feeling more at peace than I’ve felt in years, drawn in by wonder at a flying ant walking on my fingerprints.
For some reason the flying ant made me remember some of Dad’s last words: “When we stop living, we start plagiarizing,” and there I felt it. I felt alive… conscious of the life that was running through my veins… I was not trying to blend in, I didn’t felt insecure and anxious by my vulnerability, I was sober after fighting for years with drug abuse, and there was absolutely nowhere I would rather be. The ant flew away and BOOM!
Tropical Fruits is one of the most joyful experiences I’ve ever experienced. I don’t think there’s another New Year’s celebration like this in the world. Hopefully, with time, there will be more. It never stopped surprising me, it was anything but predictable. Right at the end I realized why this place was so special.
It was not the partying, or the naked bodies, it was not the drag queens, faeries, lesbians or the rest of the queers, it was not the dancing or the sex, the make up or costumes, not the beautiful beaches and rivers, the camping and the pools, the showers and hammocks, it was not the palpable magic or the dreamy sunsets… it was that sense of belonging. Not acceptance, but celebration. Each one of us… all of us had a space in time to be radically ourselves, and Tropical Fruits celebrated us for that. There’s no better gift. Like an extended family, an incestuous, loving family: Tropical Fruits felt like home.