I WAS with a techno outfit called the Rising High Collective, on the way to the last major outdoor rave of the summer. We left by coach for the Universe Big Love party on a balmy August evening. A purple and aquamarine sunset to our right, a patch of yellow haze smudged across the clouds in front of us; the sky had come straight from the cover of a Seventies sci-fi novel.

It was good to see Stephen and Laura again. Three months ago, on their return from a weekend abroad, immigration officers found that her visa had expired and gave her a week to leave. She went back to Texas. Stephen was quietly frantic. He had to act quickly and decisively if he was not to lose her. They married in New York and returned to blissful domesticity in London. Fate forced the issue, but it suits them. And here they were, holding hands across the aisle from me, as our capsule headed for Wiltshire.

Amy walked between us dispensing beer, crisps and water. She had organised the trip and invited us along and counted us on board, and would later give us our special backstage passes, watch over us all night, and count us back on the bus before we left. She was handing out those rice-paper sweets with sherbet inside, the ones called Flying Saucers. Strangers talked to each other, striking makeshift alliances.

A video of the Irresistible Force played on the TV, filling the bus with silvery, bell-like sounds. The silhouette of Stonehenge flickered against the blue-black sky as we raced along. Someone wore the latest Rising High T-shirt with the sardonic legend 'Faceless Techno Bollocks'. An American voice, sampled from a Fifties stereophonic demonstration record, summed it up. 'Very high,' it said, in a cool, knowing, How-to-make-a-Martini kind of way. Traffic hissed past the window.

Then we watched a tape of The Simpsons, the episode where Lisa drinks water polluted with chemicals and has hallucinations. She dances, moving her hands in front of her face and watching the rainbow hues trailing off them. 'Oooh, pretty colours,' she coos, mesmerised. The bus swung sharply to the left and there we were, in the middle of a huge field, on a bitter August night. About 15 of us and 15,000 others. Right, then. Party time.

First, we were searched by huge, beefy men with dayglo yellow anoraks and matching West Country accents. Farmers, at a guess. Someone said they are paid by the EC to leave their fields fallow, but let them out to rave promoters once or twice a year, acting as security as part of the deal. Anyway, their sole catch was half a tablet of Ecstasy, found in somebody's shoe. Perhaps he was not wearing underpants.

The production was less extravagant than promised on the flyers. There was no ambient tent, a cheap and nasty omission. The two big dance areas were both uncovered, and any rave promoter worth his salt knows there must be large marquees at major outdoor events - in this case there should have been at least two of 2,000-plus capacity. Rain would have quickly drowned the whole show in misery and resentment. But it remained dry, though cold, and the crowd was peaceful.

Fifteen thousand young people from various tribes across the country gathered to dance all night in a field, and not a single fight took place. 'This couldn't have happened when I was at college,' I said to Stephen, and turned to find he and Laura had vanished. I would not see them again for eight hours. Lovebirds, ha]

I glanced up at the main 'trance' stage, on which a young woman in black bra and hot pants jerked around furiously, fluidly, covered in sweat. I shivered, awestruck, and rambled off around the many small tents, each holding several hundreds, to sample tribal, trance, ambient dub, techno-soul and underground house. My breath formed clouds of steam as I stamped the earth under a sky full of sparkling, frozen stars.

The Rising High Collective performed a soulful, sexy anthem for a crowd of decidedly unsexy hardcore fans, many of them 'monged' on Ecstasy and howling at the sky. People bang on about the dangers of drug- taking, but when did any of these kids last get so much fresh air? In the Tomato Records tent I met Stefan, a skinny 21-year-old from Bristol with a big grin and dark glasses. He had been dancing since 2pm, when the gates opened, and claimed he had taken five grams of speed. He looked the picture of health, a vision of youthful exuberance. We stood like rocks in a sea of euphoria, while others explored the loping beat of Tomato's spacey techno-soul.

Last, I went to look at the hardcore fans, loaded on E and speed, twitching rapidly to staccato 'breakbeats' - or 'nosebleed music' as it is also known. This year's hardcore fashion craze is for white gloves with 'light sticks' - those glow-in-the- dark plastic cords - wrapped around them. Yes, it's the Lisa Simpson principle: just add chemicals and wave your hands in front of your face to create your very own state-of-the-art light show.

An exquisite dawn outshone the previous evening's sunset, warming 15,000 weary bodies. Queuing for a veggie burger I noticed the tattooed shoulder next to me: surrounding a Smiley face were the words 'Insomnia posse - Rave to the Grave]' As I wandered back to the coach I saw a hot-air balloon on the horizon. If I could be anywhere now, I thought, it would be up there, looking down.