Not for the first time I begin to question the wisdom of setting up camp in the middle of nowhere – on the outskirts of the Tankwa Karoo National Park on the southern border of the Northern Cape.
It could be worse though. My group of 10 could be among the trail of cars still trying to get into Tankwa Town, a tented campsite that’s set up for five days each year. Driving to get here along what is said to be the longest dirt road in South Africa – famous for chomping up tyres and spitting them out like masticated raisins – had been challenging enough. And that was before the thunder gods had been angered. Already word has spread from camp to camp of new arrivals stuck in flooded valleys, trailers flying off the back of cars and those in little city runners simply giving up, finding higher ground and setting up camp along the side of the road for the night.
Everything we own is wet and caked in mud. Our tent resembles a hippo wallow after the so-called waterproof canvas submitted to the last onslaught of thundering rain and fist-sized hail pellets.
Welcome to AfrikaBurn, South Africa’s answer to Burning Man – an art festival that ain’t for sissies. But I already knew this after surviving my first Burn last year. Barely.
So why, when it sounds like a mild form of torture, a type of Survivor for hippies, sans the million-dollar prize, am I back for more? Simple. This is the best festival in South Africa, possibly all of Africa, and worth the inconvenience, discomfort and schlep to be there. I’ll do it again in a heartbeat and I’ll bet you’ll get the same answer from the 13,000-odd ‘Burners’ of all ages, from toddlers to old-timers, who have trekked to Tankwa Town from all corners of the country and elsewhere across the globe.
By day three of the Burn, the sun dries up all the rain. Out come all the Burners to re-erect campsites, scoop out mud and unleash the outfits, toys, gizmos, gadgets, art sculptures, music, performances and more that they’ve been plotting, planning and fundraising for over the past year.
AfrikaBurn is a non-profit event, so the cash made from ticket sales goes towards partially funding the creative talent for the festival. Anyone can put in a proposal for an art sculpture (most of which are burnt to the ground during the jamboree), a theme camp, performance or ‘mutant vehicle’ – the decorated cars, trucks, vans, carriages and motorbikes that spin around the festival, taking Burners on joy rides.
Looking around, my ticket money’s been well spent. Three giant Fear Gods made of wood and thatch dominate the binnekring (Afrikaans for inside circle) where all the art sculptures sit. A purple and pink dragon is being erected; later it will breathe fire. Two 10-metre high wood and straw bunnies worked by a mechanical wheel are boxing alongside a dinosaur of similar proportions. Further inside the circle, 1,000 people are gathering to go out into the desert and make history: the first giant face of Nelson Mandela made out of human bodies.
The outer ring of the binnekring holds more treasures – the theme camps. There’s Burning Mail, where you can send postcards to friends and loved ones (or yourself), while Theatre in the Desert puts on live shows and, at 6pm daily, love-struck Burners can tie the knot, complete with a ceremony, flower girls and a white wedding dress. At Sunset Oasis sundowners are served daily and from Bedazzled you can choose a costume to ‘rent’ for a night. But don’t expect to pay for it – or for anything else – nothing here is for sale.
AfrikaBurn was conceived by a group of five South Africans who, after going to the Burning Man festival in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, reckoned they could do with a similar event down south.
They based it on the 10 principles of Burning Man, some of which are that the festival is a ‘leave no trace’ event: everyone has to be radically self-reliant; it’s all volunteer run; there are no spectators, only participants; and no money changes hands at the event, everything on offer is a gift. This is not to be confused with bartering: when you gift, you do it with no expectation of anything in return.
Likewise, all DJs and musicians playing do so as a gift. There’s no main stage, no scheduled line-up, no pecking order – just lots of parties pumping whenever the mood takes the gifters of the beats.
It’s twilight on Saturday, the fourth and biggest party night, and I’ve been so fixated on the unfurling of the sun on the horizon that I haven’t noticed Tankwa Town is building up to its peak behind me. Hundreds of bicycles bedecked in LED lights, chariots with shimmering disco balls, a giant snail on four wheels, a truck converted into a ship, a herd of zebra bicycles and a school of whale, fish and shark motorbikes are all zooming around the binnekring at a frenetic pace. The stilt walkers are out, giant puppets are silhouetted against the skyline and groups of kids roll a guy strapped into a spinning, glittering ball. Tankwa Town is alive and alight in every nook and cranny. The Big Burn is going to happen soon, I can feel it.
People from all corners of the desert begin streaming towards the San Clan, a 15.5-metre-high sculpture made out of six tonnes of wood. By the time we get there it’s already full. Every mutant vehicle is pulled up, the front row taken and the resident group of nudies are already disrobing, waiting to jig their dangly bits around the biggest bonfire of the Burn.
I think back to a week ago when my mate Ollie returned from a three-week stint in Tankwa Town where he and a group of seven other guys worked from sunrise to sunset building the San Clan. He was suffering from a bad case of tennis elbow after hammering long rods of wood into a flawless hourglass shape day after day. “I don’t know about this burning thing anymore,” he said, looking bleak. “So much work. So much wood. Just to burn it all? I don’t know, hey, I just don’t know if it’s worth it.”
Now Ollie’s in the fire circle, grabbing a lit torch. All the guys who built the San Clan have the honour of setting it alight. The first flames catch and, in a flash of orange, I get a glimpse of the maniacal grin on Ollie’s face. He’s stumbling about, moving to the beats coming from three conflicting sound systems. I can’t hear him but as the flames grow bigger I can read his lips. He’s shouting, “Burn baby, burn”, in-between throwing his head back and cackling with such force I’m sure he’s about to spontaneously combust.
But the San Clan’s not burning right; the wind’s picked up and is forcing it to smoulder askew. A foghorn tears through the air and the crowd quickly parts to let in a van converted into an armour-plated battle tanker, with a bonnet carved into a red-glowing, sharp-toothed grin, not unlike the one Ollie is still sporting. Two middle-aged men are manning the tanker’s gun turret. They take aim at the side of the sculpture that’s not burning and unleash a string of giant fireballs. It’s like some unspoken signal the crowd’s been waiting for. Big boys in their toys giving us the nod to live out our every childhood fantasy and play till we drop from exhaustion.
I am a furnace. My temperature’s hit 40-degrees and my tonsils have swollen into giant orbs. It’s day five and seeing out three sunrises and sunsets back-to-back has clearly taken its toll.
We pull up some pink deckchairs, sit in the middle of the binnekring and watch the sunset emblazon the sky with unreal hues. A kid comes past handing out ice lollies. An ambulance named ‘Ambivalence’ rolls up and a guy who is the spitting image of Borat in a sailor suit announces on the mic, “The Love Bus is here to heal your hearts.” A bloke wearing nothing but a cowboy hat and chaps cycles past, pink fluffy handcuffs dangling from the back-end of his chaps.
In Tankwa Town you see things beyond your wildest imaginings. You become nonchalant about it all after a couple of days, and anything begins to seem possible.
“You know the one thing this festival is missing?” I whimsically question my group of bedraggled Burners, while sipping on a daiquiri some kind stranger has just gifted me with. “Waves.” We stare at the sunset and, slowly, turn to look at each other wearing that contagious, maniacal grin.
South African Airways flies from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide to Cape Town from AU$1,267. From Cape Town to Tankwa Town it’s about five hours on the road. Don’t forget spare tyres.
Bring everything, including your own water for drinking and showering. If you’re backpacking or don’t have full camping gear, join one of the well-organised themed camps as a volunteer or get connected with other Burners on the Facebook forum.
The festival takes place every April. Tickets are released and sold in tiers – the earlier you buy, the cheaper they are. Check out afrikaburn.com for more information.