AfrikaBurn has certainly earned a reputation. Journalists, friends and foes either love it or hate it. On the one hand it is seen as a drug-infused Sodom and Gomorrah, on the other hand as a life-altering liberation movement.
It is both and it is neither.
You get all sorts at the Burn. The tie-dye hippies who wanted to brush my hair (the dead stare stopped them in their tracks), the Mad Max bikers who walked around drinking champagne first thing in the morning, the yoga masters serving Zen tea, drug whores who are off their heads, clubbers who party through the night on the party bus, real dodgy-looking okes that would make me cross the road in Joburg, and even middle-aged Kruger Park types who sit and read the Sarie. The Burn brings the fringes of society together and they all seem to get along (bar the hairbrush-wielding hippies) for five days.
When I told friends that I was going, most asked whether I was going to do drugs. I was shocked. Taking a Disprin is a moral dilemma for me. Going to the Burn, even though dwelms is one of the main attractions, would not sway me. And that is the crux of the matter. Yes, drugs are freely available should you choose to participate. It comes down to your choice. Whether you live in a small town, a big city or the desert for a week, it is your choice if you schnarf anything up your nose or inject anything into your veins, and what it is.
The art was the biggest let-down for me – I found it mediocre. Just because it is big, does not mean it is great art. I need to clarify these statements by saying that during my four hours in Venice I spent most of my time at the Guggenheim Venice, when I walked the Camino I gave up three days of walking to visit the Guggenheim Bilboa, and when I visited the Netherlands I cycled 25 km through the Hoge Veluwe sculpture park. In other words, I intentionally expose myself to world-class sculpture and land art and have seen some jaw-dropping stuff. But the Burn is only a few years old and is showing great promise already. I would love to see what the art will be like in about five years.
So I checked a couple of fruit arrangements and lots of titties. What’s the big deal?
It’s kinda cool that one day you have a rocky dustbowl with a few shrubs and a howling wind. Two days later you find 7 000 people in the same spot! When you walk away from Tankwa town at night and look back it looks a little like freaking Las Vegas. That would make anyone smile.
Even though the art itself is not awesome, finding these massive sculptures in the middle of a dustbowl is.
The trouble that individual people go to with their mutant vehicles, costumes or products that they give away, that is awesome.
The culture of giving, of not being able to buy anything (except ice and drugs), even if it is for only a few days, that’s cool. That gives you a fuzzy feeling in a world where you have to pay for fucking everything.
Giving versus taking
The “giving” part of AfrikaBurn is lekker. A couple rocked up on bicycles with baskets full of fresh vegetables. We offered chocolates in return. We needed fresh veggies by then and they needed the energy of the chocolate to cycle further.
Our Sprocket Rocket mutant vehicle had a pap wiel one night. Our neighbours popped over with some expensive wheel gel/sealant kit. We didn’t ask for help. The next day we offered them ice old keg beer and ended up having an hour-long kuier.
You do get the odd schmuck who just rocks up and takes your beer without asking or giving anything in return. But I guess that’s life.
If you’re not high, but the person next to you is, it’s not always a lot of fun when they chew your ear off about random druggie shit.
You were camping on your neighbour’s stoep. They should either make the camping grounds bigger or sell fewer tickets. Our neighbours had so many tents that they could not get out of their campsite. So they used our campsite as an exit. At 2 am when a drunken cyclist cycles over your tent with you in it and then scratches your car, you don’t really give a shit that his bike has been built into a cool rhino. No, you just wanna klap him.
The hippies attempting to brush my hair without asking permission might seem to many a folk as me splitting hairs – pardon the pun – but it is my space and my body and if you want to interact with it, ask me first.
The slogan “radical self-reliance” is no joke. You’ve got to have proper camping gear.
1. A dust-proof tent is a damn good start.
2. Proper mattresses and sleeping bags will make your sleep that much more comfortable. The desert floor gets freaking cold.
3. Another essential is some sort of shade/cover. Bedouin tents are made for the desert. Use them.
4. You’ve got to try and keep your food cold. A normal cooler tucked away in a shady corner will go a long way.
5. Take food that needs little refrigeration. Apples, oranges, butternut, potatoes, tomatoes, tinned soup, tuna sachets, sour dough bread, etc, etc.
The setting is epic. Technically it is a rocky dustbowl with epic mountains in the distance, but you cannot describe it to anyone and you certainly cannot attempt to photograph it.
The pit toilets turned out to be not the pits. It is a proper seat with a bucket of toilet paper and a bucket of wood shavings. Do your business, throw a handful of shavings down the hole and close the lid. The toilet cubicles created out of shade netting are situated on the outskirts, facing the veld – you thus have complete privacy and a kick-ass view.
There are no showers. So I built my own. I simply folded the side panels of an existing gazebo into a square and used biodegradable soap. Voila!
One night we slept in T-shirts, the following two nights in thermal underwear. (The second night in thermals we were still cold!) We had sunshine during the day, a few drops of rain and an awesome sandstorm! Be prepared for four seasons in one day.
AfrikaBurn is rather well organised. The dos and don’ts are carefully stipulated on the website. The venue is easy to find. You get a carefully plotted map of the place as you enter. The toilets were clean and functional. There are clearly marked medics tents. The fires were managed. I had no complaints.
Suspension of reality
I guess how much you enjoy AfrikaBurn could come down to the suspension of your reality. This could affect you twofold: (1) It could be an improvement of your reality. (2) It could be a welcome break from your reality.
1. It does not matter how I explain the following statement, it is going to sound arrogant. I’m okay with that. The wife and I live really cool lives (in our eyes). I’ve published my debut novel. The English translation will soon be released. The wife makes kick-ass public art. We try and travel locally and abroad (on shoestring budgets) and check out amazing art, landscapes and people. We are completely out and proud and have an amazing circle of friends. AfrikaBurn was, therefore, not an improvement of my reality. I come back to a cool life, where I can (fortunately) be what I want to be every day.
2. Being cut off from “society”, being out in the desert in extreme circumstances, was a welcome break from my reality, though. My father has just passed away and my brother is critically ill. For five days I was forced to worry only about staying warm or cool, about drinking enough water, washing dishes with the minimum water, wearing enough sunscreen and watching an entertaining array of people, mutant cars, performance art and burning sculptures.
AfrikaBurn did not rock my world, but it was nice enough. I will go again, but do it the way I did it this time around – with great friends and family, without whom I would have been bored stiff.