With a sharp snort, the brown-haired girl in a sequin top spoons a key of white powder into her nose. Above our heads, indeterminate techno pounds though the speakers of our coach, which is circling through the heart of Bulgaria's Rhodope mountains. We are en route to one of Europe's most secluded festivals, my bladder is fizzing with Kamenitza beer and things are starting to get loose.
I've always considered the journey a crucial facet of the festival experience: anticipation is unsullied by reality, with the hangover a faraway thought as you drink cans with old friends while rattling along a regional railway line. Not all journeys are equal, though, and whether it's a boat to Norway's Traena festival, the overnight Sziget Express to Budapest or a two-day bus to the heart of the Spanish dustlands for Nowhere, some are destined to transform – and possibly define –your festival.
But why does the party bus matter, and why are more festivals offering them?
In his book The Art of Travel, Alain De Botton writes: "The pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to." The 20-hour Sziget Express train travels overnight from The Netherlands to Hungary’s Sziget festival, and is all about creating the communal mindset that most festivals are aiming for.
"Traveling together for several hours creates a bond," says Tomas Loeffen of Festival.Travel, which organises the journey. The company facilitate this bond by organising activities, but unsurprisingly the real focus are the individual parties that shake the windows of every cabin until early morning. "You could compare it to a pub street," says Tomas, "where people go from party to party. It’s all about meeting other people."
It's one thing loving thy neighbour after 20 hours on a train, but would you after 40 hours on a coach? That's a question for the strange and courageous souls who take the coach from Manchester to Hideout Festival in Zrće Beach, Croatia – driving distance: 2,162km.
"The journey was too long," says 21-year-old Chris. "I'd say 40 percent of people were taking drugs, and it was carnage for a few hours, but everyone calmed down and then it was a struggle to get comfortable." More positive is 21-year-old Ellis, who, despite a number of coach-mates being sick on the bus, says it was a better experience than flying to the festival: "I thought it would have been full of weirdos, but I saw people from the coach during the festival and we’ve stayed friends with them. It was a laugh, with memories for life."
It’s a long way from Zrće Beach to Norway’s Traena, apparently the world’s most remote festival, which takes place on a tiny archipelago on the cusp of the Arctic Circle. In 2013, festival founder Erland Mogård-Larsen told VICE that "the travel, and the experience on the way here, is 50 percent of the festival experience". Derek Robertson, who reviewed Traena for Drowned In Sound in 2015, agrees: "Getting somewhere like Traena – that involved two flights and a long ferry ride – makes it seem like you’re visiting the end of the world. Plus, you can feel the anticipation in the air – people are excited and want to make the most of every minute, including the journey. There was a sense of camaraderie right from the beginning, a 'we're all in this madness together'."
Secret Garden Party founder Freddie Fellowes went deep into the void in 2001, with a three-day bus from Cape Town to the Zambian desert for a festival to celebrate the solar eclipse. Despite the irritating presence of a bongo-playing Californian and "a lot of cultural misappropriation" onboard, he met people he’s still friends with 18 years later. "The act of journeying there – in the way as anyone that has done a hajj or a pilgrimage [will know] – is a huge part of it. It's primal and ancient: to travel in the company of strangers to something you’re all signed up to."
Of course, the majority of punters will embark on relatively humdrum festival journeys, whether it's the Big Green Coach to Boomtown or the train to Castle Cary for Glastonbury. But the natural chemicals swamping our brain are the same as we reach a fever pitch of collective anticipation regarding the weekend ahead.
"It shows us the power of creative visualisation. In our mind's eye we're seeing all of these things unfold and that’s creating dopamine," says Jonathan Hoban, counsellor, psychotherapist and author of Walk With Your Wolf. Dopamine is a reward chemical in the brain that gets released after pleasurable experiences, many of which we might associate with festivals: like seeing your favourite band, eating a deliciously dirty burger or taking certain drugs. "So there’s no band in front of you, but the anticipation of how that band makes you feel is creating dopamine. You’re talking about it. You can see all these things. You’re feeling it."
The beauty of this moment is that there's no fatigue. No Pigeon Detectives. No waking up hungover in a wet sleeping bag wondering if, in fact, this will be the hill on which you perish. In the space of eight railway stations and two Marks & Spencer gins, you've segued into a wristband-waving festival human without any of the downsides.
All this perhaps peaks with this year's NoBus, a collaborative project being organised for the first time by Luke Pinna to take 49 people from London to Nowhere. Nowhere abides by the same ten principles as Burning Man and takes place on an arid, deserted plain between Zaragoza and Lleida in the north-west of Spain.
Luke's NoBus will be both mobile extension and soft entry to the festival and culture that can be – for those unprepared – overwhelming. "It's akin to a pre-compression," says Luke. "Making sure everyone is as well prepared as they can be, physically and mentally, for the experience." He’s promising talks, workshops and performances around Burn and Nowhere culture. There will undoubtedly be beers. He’s even hoping to find a place where they can stay on the return journey, where the dusty passengers can offer to work, thus demonstrating the gifting principle that is a central tenet of Burn culture.
As we roll towards planetary doom and become evermore aware of our individual carbon footprints, you'd hope that these communal festival journeys will become more popular. But I have to admit: I’m not thinking about the planet’s future as the brown-haired girl in the sequin top inhales her frankly delicious-looking drugs. It transpires that she’s smuggled three grams of ketamine through the drug trafficking cakewalk that is Bulgarian customs.
A baggy gets handed round, and the glades and gullies of the Rhodope mountains start moving at unheralded speeds. The people around me become Mates for this new festival adventure. Some of us end up hanging out after the festival in Plovdiv, as we attempt to communally recalibrate our serotonin levels. Every time I see them on my newsfeed or in real life, I recall that festival through the most rose-tinted of spectacles, and particularly the wild and loose coach that got us there.
The journey back, though – Jesus Christ.