Rhodes is over. Rhodes as we now know it, is over. We've been hearing multiple reports that the Pokestops at Rhodes have been changed. It's no longer what it once was. But last Thursday, we visited this hive of villainy. We experienced peak Rhodes. This is what we saw.
This is a requiem for Rhodes, Australia's strangest Pokemon GO spot.
A silhouette. A light in the darkness. A voice. Barely audible.
A 10 decibel whisper.
A murmur. The sounds of bodies shuffling. Low-level friction.
A chorus. A shopping mall. Zombies chanting braaaaaaains. A collective groan. The hivemind awakens from its slumber.
One single entity. A colony of ants. One body: a lump of flesh.
There are hundreds of us. Huddled in the cold. Braced against the wind. Warmed by the lights of our phones. Once upon a time we used these devices to call people, message one another, but we don’t do that here. We have batteries to preserve.
No. Now these devices connect us in a different way. From all corners of Sydney we have arrived with one singular purpose, one primary goal.
We are here for the Pokemon.
This is Rhodes. For Pokemon trainers throughout Sydney, it’s something of a Mecca. An anomaly. A freakish mistake. Three Pokestops within metres of one another -- not unusually strange, not in Sydney at least. But the rare Pokemon consistently dropped in that area? That represents a tipping point. Rhodes is the most famous Pokemon GO spot in Australia.
The secret is out. Players flock in prodigious numbers. Rhodes is legendary. This is where mainstream media comes to confirm its worst fears. A loot cave of sorts. Only this isn’t a virtual space, it’s real. Very real.
The centre: Peg Paterson Park. A children’s playground, now a public space cluttered with the bodies of human beings trying to relive an imagined childhood. Is that why we’re here? Nostalgia? Or is it something else entirely. A raw compulsion. A bizarre triangulation point of technology, brand awareness and the shock of the new.
It’s fucked up is what it is, but I am here, sandwiched amongst the bodies. I am spinning Pokestops. I am flicking Pokeballs at Pokemon. I am… happy is not the word. Engaged isn’t right either. This is not mindfulness. I am simply ‘doing something’.
I’m finding it incredibly difficult to parse what that ‘thing’ is.
“Hey, you wanna go to Rhodes tonight?”
That's how it started. A message, from brother-in-law #1 -- a Pokemon GO obsessive. Deep in the game.
But not as deep as brother-in-law #2: a technologically minded father of two with a habit of investing prodigious amounts of time into one specific game. Once upon a time Destiny was his poison. Now it was Pokemon GO.
“Sure, why not.”
My house was the meeting point. By the time I arrived home brothers-in-law #1 and #2 were there, along with another friend in common. A powerpoint in the corner: home to a terrifying mess of phones and portable chargers, preparation for the night ahead.
A laptop screen. Pokevision. A well known tracker that hops on Niantic's API and shows the location of all Pokemon in the vicinity of any specified location.
I feel vaguely like a rookie SWAT cop on his first raid. I’m level four; I haven’t even chosen a team yet. My buddies shout slogans, it sounds like a different language. They argue the merits of Team Valor versus Team Mystic. They are in their mid-thirties. Between us we have four children.
We hop in the car. We drive. We park up. We eat IKEA meatballs. We scour Pokevision. Before we know it we’re striding purposefully towards the Peg Paterson Park in Rhodes, the most notorious Pokemon GO spot in Australia.
Hype is a peculiar thing.
En-route to Peg Paterson park I braced myself. For disappointment? Again, not the right word. No, I was preparing to feel underwhelmed.
Media reports had painted definitive pictures of Rhodes: zombie infested wasteland, litter-strewn warzone. I expected (and maybe even hoped for) the spectacle of pure chaos. But as I approached, three weeks after the launch of Pokemon GO, I couldn’t help but wonder: maybe I had missed the boat on Rhodes in its purest form.
First there was a handful of people. Phones out, clearly playing Pokemon GO. Then there were groups. It was clear these groups had pre-meditated plans to come to Rhodes and capture Pokemon.
Then, on the corner of a random street, a Pikachu -- real, not virtual. A man in a suit with the head removed: a hungover Mickey Mouse. Clearly it had been a long night. His smile was a grimace as I approached asking for a photograph. Getting Pikachu’s head back on was a struggle. “The outfit doesn’t really fit,” he complained. “It’s hot as balls in here.”
I get my photo. I catch up with my friends. The crowds get stronger. The pace becomes frantic. I turn the corner. Peg Paterson Park.
I wasn’t prepared for this. I would not be underwhelmed.
People everywhere, to the point where individuals are not palpable, only the crowd. The sheer volume -- the density -- of human bodies is difficult to parse. It’s a sports crowd. A concert. A rally. A protest. Only here there’s no focal point. Here the focal point is not an external thing, it’s pointed inward, towards a singular technological device. A single piece of software.
There’s no communal atmosphere, no real sense of a conscious group. That does not exist here.
No, this is a vacuum.
Unless they arrive with friends, very few people are having conversations. In the darkness of this play-park, phones illuminate strangers in a cool blue light. There’s a eerie silence, a low-level thrum of activity, bodies shuffling.
No-one wants to talk.
I move around the crowd. I want to hear stories, but no-one wants to tell them. I am a distraction. I am unwelcome. I am not standing still with a phone at arm’s length from my eyeballs. I am a vague threat.
“We’re just here to catch Pokemon.”
Almost everyone said that.
In the fog of human flesh, two women selling sandwiches and cakes with a hand-drawn sign. “Is the food hot?” One person asks, because it’s cold as fuck out here. “No, sorry,” comes the reply.
“We’re doing great,” one women says, when I ask her about her business, selling food to Pokemon Trainers.
“I just quit my job,” says the other.
There’s a man cooried in at the top of a climbing frame. It was difficult to get up here. The entire frame is coated in men and women desperate for somewhere to sit. I had to scurry up the top end of a slide.
“It’s a nice little windshield,” said the man, when I finally scrambled to the top. He didn’t want to talk at first. He’d been sitting in silence for hours.
Directly below me, a young couple with two Pomeranians that look like real-life Pokemon. The man is level 24. The woman: level 22.
“This is Muffin,” they said, pointing at one dog, before gesturing to the other. “This is Bear.”
Another couple -- no dogs -- told me they’d come to Rhodes on the weekend and couldn’t even get into the park. They literally could not plough through the sheer mass of bodies.
“It’s not as rowdy as people say,” another said.
“I wonder if he agrees,” I reply, gesturing to a silhouetted figure staring down from the apartments above. Peg Paterson Park is surrounded by residential buildings. A living space now metres from chaos.
“This place man, the sound just bounces off these walls.
“There’s people on that top floor that could probably listen to our conversation right now.”
All walks of life are represented: parents, children, pregnant women, dogs, teenagers, old, young, everything inbetween.
One little girl plays hopscotch on an enormous novelty chessboard. Her father, fully suited, stares intensely at his mobile phone.
In another section of the park, another father, bearded to his chest in a cowboy hat. He has three young girls -- I'm guessing seven, nine and 11. His youngest rushes towards him, excited as all hell, bouncing on her tippy toes. She's just caught a Pokemon, a rare one.
"Daddy, I just caught a Bulbersaur!"
"Bulbasaur darling. Not Bulbersaur. Bulbasaur."
I sit down. I have transitioned from passive observer to fully-fledged Pokemon Trainer. I am one of them. I flick PokeStops and I collect Pokemon. Rhodes is insane. In the space of 40 minutes I move from level 4 to level 7, but my battery takes a beating.
I'm plugged into my brother-in-law's laptop. He's scouring for rare Pokemon, I don't need to. Every second I strike gold. A new Pokemon, 600XP. I forget the crowd around me. I forget these people exist. I flick, I spin. Every now and then I communicate; with words I don't quite know how to pronounce. I'm speaking Pokemon.
My legs start to ache so I stand up. My eyes widen in amazement. Somehow, during the last 20 minutes the crowd has managed to expand. There are significantly more bodies packed into this space. It's genuinely difficult to move. I try to walk out, I accidentally kick someone. "Sorry," I say.
We decide to make a move.
In Rhodes there's a loop. Peg Paterson Park is the most obvious source of Pokemon, but there are other areas, and those areas tend to spawn different Pokemon, so it's useful to rotate.
Traffic everywhere. Cars are afraid to drive too fast. Pedestrians are walking across the road without a second thought. Horns beep, insults are thrown. At one point a car slows to an absolute crawl. Weird. There was no-one there -- no need to stop in the middle of the street. The cars behind: an orchestra of horns. I look at the passenger seat: a woman wearing a Hijab leaned out of the car window, phone in hand. She was collecting Pokemon.
Then, a weird occurrence.
Wordlessly, two strangers increase their speed. They're not running, they're simply walking quickly, with purpose. No explanation why. The hivemind perks up. Eyeballs dart right and left. Subconsciously people follow. Within minutes, a rolling cascade of flesh. People are now sprinting, but towards what? Impossible to tell. A Pokemon? A rare Pokemon?
Slowly the goal of this impromptu group becomes vague. Its members bleary-eyed, like they've awoken confused from some bizarre, collective dream. There were no rare drops. There was nothing. Just the collective insanity of adult human beings collecting Pokemon.
Part of the loop: a second playground. Completely abandoned. In contrast to Peg Paterson it seems otherworldly. For a second I've been transported -- to another universe, a distant past where Pokemon GO doesn't exist and parks are the sole domain of children who climb, laugh and play as their parents compulsively check Facebook -- like they used to before Niantic decided to obliterate the world as we now know it.
I stop walking for a second. A rare moment of calm in this night of strangeness. I can't stop looking at it. It's almost soothing. This is what a playground is supposed to look like at 10pm on a Thursday night.
"Guys, a Rhyhorn!"
That's brother-in-law #2, he's been carting a laptop with him all night. He spotted a rare Pokemon on Pokevision.
Everyone is excited about the Rhyhorn, but it's off the beaten track, one block away from the loop. Two blocks away from Peg Paterson Park.
"Want to go get it?"
Finding the Rhyhorn proves difficult. As we walk towards a random block of apartments it becomes increasingly clear that the Pokemon is inside the apartment block itself, in a private garden space surrounded by luxury apartments.
What to do?
Someone finds an open gate. It's clearly supposed to be closed; a lock that usually opens with a swipe card.
"Psst. In here."
The silence is eerie. We're in an open space surrounded by apartments and large windows without curtains. We are exposed. It feels deviant and vaguely criminal; slowly stalking this private property for a Pokemon that, until tonight, I didn't even know existed. Everything about it felt wrong, like a line had been crossed.
There's grass, there are trees, steps, benches. Clearly this is a private communal space. We can see inside the windows. Curtains drawn wide. If anyone chose they could look outside and see us, phones at chest height, walking in strange concentric circles.
I stop looking. My phone battery dies. No more Pokemon for me. No more Rhyhorn.
I look up.
Inside one apartment, a young boy. He couldn't be more than four years old. Light pours out from a wide window. It's blinding. He’s standing on top of his mother's feet, dancing himself to sleep as we huddle in the darkness looking for Pokemon.