I’d known about ‘the Burn’, as it’s called, for a few years, and had heard intriguing stories about what took place there and how exciting it was, as well as negative notions about ‘those kinds of people’ and all-night, noisy parties. I was tired of inverted comma references and decided that I needed to go, so that I could enrich myself and be inspired by what I experienced, as well as confront some of the unpleasantness's that I confidently anticipated.
I hate crowds. Overt hippiedom and touchy-feeliness can quickly get on my nerves – the hippies would argue that I’m too repressed and not in touch with my inner calm – and I most certainly dislike party noise and all-night, all-pervasive drum-beating. And to tell you the truth, that’s exactly what I expected of this festival in the desert. I went there anticipating annoyance, and was ready to grit my teeth and endure it, so that I could come back and give definitive answers to all those who had never been, or who had no idea of what AfrikaBurn entailed.
And I was completely surprised by my response to the whole event! AfrikaBurn is a festival … a gathering … a temporary community that materialises once a year on a farm in the middle of nowhere, pretty much in the centre of the Tankwa Karoo. Loosely based on the Burning Man festival that takes place every year in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, AfrikaBurn was initiated by a collection of people who sought an opportunity for artistic self-expression, with the acknowledgement that our existence had almost overtaken our environment.
We live in a fast-paced world where random acts of imaginative quirkiness are either overlooked or looked down upon, or simply ignored. It’s a world where we take for granted the wonder of drinkable water flowing from our taps – a world where, if we want something to eat, we unthinkingly take it out of the fridge, stick it in the microwave, warm it up and eat it; where we wear suits or jeans or overalls to work, garbage trucks collect our rubbish, and every now and again we go on holiday to escape from it all. AfrikaBurn is, in a way, such an escape from it all, but with constant reminders about who we are as people, what we need to survive, how rubbish doesn’t simply clear itself away, and how we are all – even though we might not always acknowledge it – quite closely connected.
That’s a whole lot of build-up to an attempt to describe exactly what AfrikaBurn is! Which is difficult, because it isn’t exactly any one thing. But let me try: AfrikaBurn is a temporary camp, usually lasting no more than five or six days, of approximately 5000 people (numbers are strictly controlled), set up around a giant open plain in the desert, on which anybody may construct a sculptural or structural piece of art, which may or may not be burned up at the end, through which everybody else can meander, wearing jeans and T-shirts, or fairy costumes, or wedding dresses with boots, or silver foil, or nothing, or board shorts and suncream. Or a random mixture of any of the above. Yes, the naked thing threw me too! But there were only a handful of nudists – a gathering of stout, middle-aged men whom I first witnessed after a violent downpour, hammering metal tent pegs into the soaked desert soil to keep their free-form nomadic tent up … completely in the nude. I saw a few of them over the following days, riding their bicycles or standing around chatting to people. The interesting thing was that once you’d registered that they were there, they became a complete non-event. Regular families, with children on bicycles, would wander past, and apart from a few ‘Daddy, why’s that man naked?’ conversations that must have occurred – which were probably very good for family communication – no-one batted an eyelid. In such ways began my personal surprise at my own perception of the whole event.
My friends and I arrived at the start of what was to be quite an unusual AfrikaBurn, weather-wise. When you buy your ticket (which has to be booked in advance – don’t think you can just turn up and pay at the gate), you’re emailed comprehensive information on what to expect, and what you should bring, and how the R355 route through the middle of the Karoo to Calvinia ‘eats tyres for breakfast’. They warn you that the desert is relentless, and that it can be scaldingly hot by day and freezing cold at night. They urge you to bring everything – absolutely everything! – that you might need, from water to equipment to food and more besides, so that you can help out anyone who’s left something behind. But what they didn’t tell us is that we would be in the desert during a once-in-a-decade storm that brought lashings of rain and hail, tore huge tents from the ground, and left the usually dry, hard earth a slushy mess of mud and puddles. Stream beds that appear as dusty, snaking trails over the plains for most of the year suddenly became rivers of mud, flowing through campsites and swamping art installations. It was exciting; it was dramatic; it was muddy-puddle fantastic!
My preliminary research had alerted me to the AfrikaBurn concept of ‘radical self-reliance’, as well as the attendant aspects of gifting and what they call decommodification. Nothing is for sale at AfrikaBurn, and nobody is allowed to sell anything. On top of that, you are admonished to take out absolutely everything you brought with you, from 4x4s to cigarette stompies. You can give stuff away if you want to – in fact, you’re encouraged to. The idea is that if you are a farmer with oranges to spare, you can bring a bakkie-load and simply give them away. Or if you give really good massages, then why not set up a tent and showcase your talent to all and sundry?
When we struck camp on the last day of our stay, the young lady who came wandering through the campsites with a tray of egg rolls, just giving them away to anyone who was hungry, was most welcome. We gave away our extra charcoal to camps that had none (prompting a fellow camper to dub us ‘Stone Age Mr Delivery’). People lent and borrowed tools where needed. I saw an industrial trailer carrying a giant container with a tap at the bottom and a sign reading ‘free wine’!
These were the things that began to eat away at my preconceived notions of the AfrikaBurn experience. I was expecting crowds. And yes, there were lots and lots of people, but they were spread out in a giant horseshoe camp that stretched nearly two kilometres from end to end. Spaces around where we were camped – and you pretty much pitch camp where you want – were no more crowded than an average caravan park over the festive season. There was no locking of doors, no worrying about whether your stuff was safe, and no anxiety about what kind of people were about. Yes, there were hippy types. But there were also displaced mall rats, and skateboard kids, and cackling, spritzer-drinking housewives, and boere in two-tone shirts, and American-accented students who had come to see if this was anything like ‘the Burn back home’. There were people wearing leather with spikes, others walking around in wedding dresses – well, where else are you going to get a chance to wear it again? – barefoot children in mud-spattered T-shirts and gaunt-looking teenagers in ‘vintage’ safari suits that they must’ve scrounged out of granny’s attic. In my shorts and pullover, I almost felt out of place! Thank goodness I brought those solar-powered fairy lights to string around my neck when darkness fell …
Because the night-time spectacle of AfrikaBurn is what it’s all about! The name of the event sort of gives it away: did you go to ‘the Burn’? As at Burning Man, large installations at AfrikaBurn are set alight at different times. There is heaps of symbolism attached to this, from the transience of our time on this earth, to how we shouldn’t allow ourselves to become attached to material things, to the aeons-old bond between fire and human communities: just think how much we all enjoy sitting around a campfire and staring into the flames! ‘Bush TV’, I once heard it called; a great name that has stuck with me.
The ‘big one’ was the San Clan tower, which was set alight at 10 p.m. on the Saturday night. The enduring identifying icon of AfrikaBurn is a giant sculpture, derived from San rock art, of a multi-headed, multi-legged being, seemingly running or dancing through the landscape. This year, they had built a timber tower of curving forms – oddly reminiscent of the old Athlone power station cooling towers in Cape Town that were demolished a while back – that stood nearly four storeys tall, with the San Clan figure mounted on top. In the build-up to ignition, fire dancers twirled fireballed chains around their bodies, and fire-eaters spat flames at the watchers. The crowd of thousands formed a giant ring around the tower, with volunteer Burn officials clad in full fire-protection gear ensuring safety. Parked on the perimeter was a ship on wheels, with lights up and down its mast, disco music blaring from the deck, motorcycles clad in huge fish shapes, and a trans-Africa Unimog, painted lime green, with giant speakers on the roof pumping out trance beats. All about the circle were people playing drums, and bicycles strewn everywhere, and the bright neon colours of fibre-optic twine wrapped around everything from hats to umbrellas to naked torsos. There were people playing guitars, couples holding hands, children running in and out of the crowd, and a wonderful sense of anticipation as ceremonial fire-lighters were ushered into the ring and given flaming torches to set the tower alight. The crowd stood transfixed as the timber tower was steadily consumed by flames. Marshals had to keep the more whimsically inclined from dancing in the 50-metre-long shower of sparks that washed across the desert floor in the breeze, and more than one neon-entwined umbrella was punctured by unforgiving flame-drops.
Near the end of the tower’s tenure on the desert plain, an armoured, flame-spouting monster of a van was ridden into the ring, and the crowd roared as it jetted outrageous spouts of burning destruction at the tower. It was like being in the middle of an action movie mixed with a religious ceremony, attended by a sampling of every kind of person you’ve ever imagined. It was amazing! I have never seen so many solar-powered lights in one place, or so many people in wedding dresses and mud-encrusted boots, or such a gathering of off-road trucks, and safari-ready 4x4s, and free-form tents, and dome tents, and rooftop tents, and bamboo poles with bed sheets strung between them – never, in all my life. Transportation ranged from a brand new Hymer motorhome with temporary registration still taped to the windscreen, to seasoned off-road set-ups, complete with Safari Snorkels and solar-shower enclosures, to sedans with mirror extensions towing regular caravans, to mud-splattered rental cars looking somewhat out of place, which also served as sleeping quarters.
We had driven in in a soft-roader SUV, and the higher ground clearance gave us an added sense of security on the long gravel section of the R355. But plenty of people made it in regular cars, ploughing through the unseasonal mud and getting into the sense of community by helping out those who struggled to get through. Enterprising individuals set up mobile tyre help stations along the notorious 113 km stretch of dirt road – the last places where people were able to spend their cash. Out in the desert, there was no cell reception, no electricity, no water, and no food. We arrived with a good collection of craft beers and veggie potjie ingredients, and plenty of wine and general braai goods to keep us well nourished. Everyone else arrived with the same, and more. Wandering among camps, I caught the aromas of curry, pancakes, snoek and cottage pie. Gatherings of friends and family were toasting one another’s health in everything from home-made brews to good old Castle in cans, to the finest Methode Cap Classique in crystal flutes. And almost everyone was willing to share and entertain.
Children rode their bikes through the middle of our camp, towing friends on souped-up off-road skateboards. Later on, 24-year-old boys courting their first-time-camping girlfriends did the same thing!
People set up lone tents, bedecked with the ever-present solar fairy lights, or camped in groups around or beneath the largest collection of free-form tents I’ve ever seen in one place. And everywhere there were flags and banners, and brightly decorated canopies flapping in the wind. I can’t enthuse enough about the flags! Really, more people should put more flags on more things more often. Near where we camped was a bakkie with more than twenty 15-metre-long flag poles fixed to its roof, green-blue flags fluttering as a marker to where we were situated in this gathering of 5000 people. When the truck drove around on its regular ‘mutant vehicle’ expedition (you can acquire ‘mutant’ status for your vehicle if it’s sufficiently artistically bedecked or functional), we would head in the wrong direction for a while before we realised that the flags were on parade.
And yes, there was constant sound, but it didn’t annoy me nearly as much as I had expected. I took a good set of earplugs and had three nights of comfortable camp-bed sleep. Tankwa Town is set up in a giant horseshoe, with a half-kilometre-diameter common in the middle for the art installations. The ends of the horseshoe are loud zones where the all-night parties happen, and we’d made sure we were camped well within the quiet zone. But noise travels far in the desert, and the partygoers don’t like to be told when to quit. So creating your own silent zone is a must if you want to get any sleep.
But that self-same sense of revelry is also part of what lends AfrikaBurn a special vibe. You can wonder into any themed party space around the central plain and jiggle your hips to a bit of disco, or stand and stoically nod your head to a sampling of dubstep, or sit around with the cross-legged crowd and sway to a young folk-musician playing guitar. Girls in beanies beat modern melodies out of xylophones against the background of the setting sun and yogic gatherings attempting to greet the dawn on slowly caking mudflats. If you want a bit of solitude or sanctuary, you simply hike out into the desert, making sure you take enough water with you.
We enjoyed a fantastic trek out to the Tankwa Karoo National Park boundary fence, a good eight-kilometre loop, and spotted a lone springbok and a desert hare, found a swarm of bees in a cave on a koppie, and nearly stood on a berg adder under a bush. Just three guys, their hangovers, and the odd mountain-biker whizzing by.
So, even after a few pages of description and a whole lot of photos, it’s still hard to put your finger on the essence of AfrikaBurn. It’s part music, part art, part a strangely interesting intermingling of all sorts of people. It’s self-reliance, and basic camping and de luxe camping. It’s solar-shower clean or three-days-grimy. It’s the camping that you love, but in a unique, once-off setting that touches on everything that makes travel and exploration exciting: seeing new things, relaxing and enjoying yourself, and embracing all that’s weird, wonderful and wacky. All in one place. In the middle of nowhere. With flags!