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A guide to surviving AfrikaBurn

Afrikaburn 2013

In just over two months’ time thousands of people will be gathering in the middle of nowhere (otherwise known as the Tankwa Karoo in the Northern Cape) for South Africa’s most unique, exhilarating and exciting festival, AfrikaBurn. It offers a chance to step sideways into a surreal parallel desert world of music, art, generosity and mind-boggling creativity.

AfrikaBurn is all about self-expression and gifting but it’s also about radical self-reliance. There’s nothing to buy at the festival other than ice which means that you need to bring everything with you (and take it back – there are no dustbins to dump your rubbish in), the desert environment is harsh and there’s no luxury VIP serviced tent option. It’s not easy out there in the Karoo, but if you pack the right stuff (and the right attitude) you’re pretty much guaranteed to have the time of your life.

Here’s my survival guide for AfrikaBurn 2015. I hope it helps you to have the best time at this amazing event.

For an idea of what you can expect from AfrikaBurn 2015, read my blogs about previous years:

AfrikaBurn 2012

AfrikaBurn 2013

AfrikaBurn 2014

AfrikaBurn 2014 in photos

Learn the guiding principles

Subterrafuge, AfrikaBurn 2014

There’s a lot of thought that goes into AfrikaBurn – it’s not just a music festival where you go to party. The event’s participants are guided by a set of principles, without which AfrikaBurn would not work. Make sure you read up the 11 guiding principles here and incorporate them into how you approach AfrikaBurn.

Plan your contribution

AfrikaBurn only works because of the community that contributes to it each year, so make sure you’re a part of it. Bring something to share as a gift, whether it’s homemade crunchies, gin and tonics or your DJing skills. It’s not a bartering system – the idea is to give something without the expectation of anything in return.

Please don’t just come for a party and to see what you can get for “free” from other people – that’s not what AfrikaBurn is about. Making a contribution is actually the best part about attending AfrikaBurn! If you’re not sure what to give, you could always make your contribution in the form of volunteering (read about how you can volunteer here). I volunteered last year and it was so much fun – I met some great people, welcomed “virgins” to the gate with big hugs, and really felt like I was participating in the festival.

Getting there

The dirt road to AfrikaBurn 2014

AfrikaBurn is on a farm 300 kilometres north of Cape Town. The drive is fine up until you turn off onto a 110-kilometre-long dirt road which is a notorious tyre shredder. Don’t overload your car, drive really slowly (as in less than 70km/hr) and make sure you’ve got a spare and a jack.

I’ve blown two tyres on two consecutive years driving as slowly as possible in my car (a VW Polo) – but it isn’t a 4×4. Even the big 4x4s get burst tyres though! I’ve burst my tyres on the way home both times – not sure if that’s coincidental or if it’s just more likely that you’d burst tyres the more you’ve driven on the road.

Once you’ve turned off the highway there’s only one small farm stall before you get to AfrikaBurn and it doesn’t have much to buy – a few costumes and some homemade ginger beer (worth stopping for). So don’t rely on getting any provisions on the road – get everything you need in Cape Town. The last place to fill up your water containers is the gas station near Worcestor.

How long to go for?

Reflection, AfrikaBurn 2014

AfrikaBurn runs for a week, which may be a daunting amount of time to spend in the desert, especially if it’s your first time at the event. Don’t even think about only going for two nights – this really is an incredible event with so much going on, and if you’re only there for a couple of days you’ll miss out on a lot. Stay for a minimum of three nights but try and go for longer. The first day can be a bit overwhelming because of the sudden transition into living like a desert nomad, but after day two you really get into it and the heat, dust, cold, no showers and uncomfortable camping mattress pale into insignificance when you realise that you’re having the time of your life.

Where to camp

Decide where you want to camp with the people in your group before you arrive at AfrikaBurn – pick from Loud, Loudish or Quiet zones. If you’ve got an idea of a spot you’d like to be in before you arrive, then your friends know where to find you. If that doesn’t work out leave a message for them at the Off-Centre Camp (organisational headquarters). There’s practically no cell phone reception at AfrikaBurn (apart from intermittent signal on MTN phones – just enough for SMSs – around the Clan sculpture) so don’t rely on being able to call your mates.

What to bring

AfrikaBurn 2014

The climate at AfrikaBurn is harsh – expect freezing nights, hot days, wind and extreme dryness. Daytime temperatures can be in the high 30s, while nights can drop to freezing. Pack for all seasons – summery clothes for the day and thick winter jackets, beanies, scarves and gloves for night. Pack your warmest sleeping bag. Here’s where you can check the latest weather forecast for Tankwa Town – although weather can be unpredictable (as anyone who went to AfrikaBurn in the downpours of 2012 will know). In 2013 it was so cold during the day and at night – I wore thermal vests, jerseys, a jacket and beanie almost the whole time. In 2014 I expected the same kind of weather, but it turned out to be super hot – boiling during the day and warm enough at night to just wear a t-shirt. You never know what you’re going to get so be prepared!

Bring sealable plastic bags to keep your camera equipment dust free and bandannas and goggles for dust storms. Take lots of sunscreen and heavy duty lip ice with SPF – last year I spotted many a cracked pair of lips.

Bring shelter for your camp so you have some respite from the hot sun during the day.

A headlamp or torch is essential – it’s really really dark at night.

Go hands free as much as possible and wear a backpack, sling bag or a moon bag (yes, it’s acceptable to wear these at festivals), and a water bottle holster.

Bring your own drinking water – five litres per person per day is a good amount. Bring extra water for washing up. It’s a good idea to freeze bottles of water in freezer before coming and put them in a big cooler box along with as much ice as you can fit in. Pack a lot of rehydrating non-alcoholic drinks like juices and coconut water.

Pack a first aid kit and bring things like bandages, disinfectant and rehydrate (don’t forget all those vitamins to help your body recover).

You can never have enough wet wipes or zip loc bags.

Make your camp homely by bringing lights, cushions and chairs.

Bring some health back to your body with supplements and vitamins.

Food

You need to bring all your own food to AfrikaBurn. Bring gas stoves or skottels for cooking (unless you want to eat dry crackers and tinned tuna for a week). What’s worked well for my camping groups in the past is splitting up people into groups who take turns cooking for dinner for the entire group each night (so we have at least one big nourishing meal a day) and then snacking during the day. For the first two days bring lots of fresh stuff – salad and veggies and fruit – and for the rest of the time rely on canned and dry food. If it’s a hot year, you’ll sweat a lot, so bring salty snacks. Protein and energy bars are great too. Remember to bring enough snacks, juices and water for the long drive home!

Dressing up

AfrikaBurn 2014

Dressing up in elaborate costumes is a large part of the fun at AfrikaBurn, and some people spend the best part of the year planning and making the most amazing outfits. Try and make your own outfits or buy clothes from second-hand shops rather than heading straight to China Town to buy cheap synthetic crap that you’ll throw away afterwards.

The best costumes are practical and comfortable (to allow for maximum dancing capabilities). At night LED lights and EL wire make just about any outfit look amazing.

Try and wear really comfortable shoes – you end up walking kilometres every day, so those cool-looking high-heeled festival boots are probably not the best idea. Instead wear shoes with a thick, flat sole to protect your feet from the stony ground.

Go brand-free

AfrikaBurn 2014

AfrikaBurn is a decommodified event so if your van/truck/trailer/tent has logos or branding on it, cover it up. Similarly, if you’re wanting to promote your energy/vodka/coconut drink, AfrikaBurn is not the place to do it at.

The toilet situation

There are compost toilets and portaloos. The compost toilets, which are enclosed on three sides with no roof, have lovely views of the desert and are more pleasant than the enclosed portaloos. There are no showers at AfrikaBurn. If you want to wash, bring a portable camping shower and extra water, or make do with a bucket, a water bottle and some biodegradable soap.

Getting around AfrikaBurn

AfrikaBurn 2014

Tankwa Town is pretty huge and your feet do get tired from all the walking around, so the best thing to do is bring a bicycle – that way you get to explore more without the footache. Don’t forget your tyre repair kit – the ground is hard and stony and tyre punctures abound. AfrikaBurn is pretty much the only place where it’s acceptable to get lift from strangers: hitch rides on the many mutant vehicles (bakkies, trucks and buses converted into weird and wonderful art cars) cruising around.

Taking the party home with you

AfrikaBurn is a leave no trace event and there are no rubbish bins. You need to take every last scrap of litter (known as MOOP) back home with you down to your cigarette butts. You can’t burn your rubbish (the burnings at the event are organized burns of artworks and sculptures), so leave space in your car for rubbish bags. Last year there was a huge amount of litter, especially after a really windy night – I saw litter spread far into the beautiful desert. Please clean up after yourselves! I volunteered last year at the entrance gate and asked people if they knew about MOOP. Quite a few said “Yeah yeah we know about it. Can you throw these coffee cups away for me please?” AfrikaBurn is about taking responsibility for yourself – not relying on someone else to clean up after you. If you don’t get that, then you shouldn’t come.

How is AfrikaBurn different to Burning Man?

Sarah Duff Burning Man-2

I’ve had some emails from Americans who’ve been to Burning Man several times and are attending AfrikaBurn for the first time this year and want to know how different it is to the US festival (read more about my experience of Burning Man 2014 here).

The main dissimilarity is that AfrikaBurn is much much smaller than Burning Man – which means that it feels much more intimate. You meet people and then you see them again – unlike the encounters you have at Burning Man, where you know you’ll never bump into the same person again. It also means that there’s less going on in terms of theme camps. The variety and diversity of what went on at Burning Man really blew my mind. I do think AfrikaBurn will get there one day, but we’re still a way off of the nearly 70 000 participants of Burning Man.

AfrikaBurn also has much more of a DIY element to it. At Burning Man there are loads of huge RVs and plug in and play camps (camps where people have paid for the service of having accommodation set up for them and meals cooked for them). You won’t find that at AfrikaBurn. Sure there are some motor home set ups, but the vast majority of people are in tents and in camps that they’ve built themselves.

While AfrikaBurn is dusty and there can be dust storms, it’s nothing like the dust I experienced at Burning Man. You still do need to protect your camera and bring bandannas though!

For more on the differences and similarities between AfrikaBurn and Burning Man, you can read the article I wrote for the Mail & Guardian newspaper here.

AfrikaBurn 2014

 

Remember above all to have no expectations – come with an open mind, a generous spirit, lots of energy and rustle up all the creativity that you’ve got and you’ll have the best time (ever).

For more survival tips check out the AfrikaBurn survival guide on the event’s website.

If there are any seasoned burners who’d like to share more survival tips, leave them in the comments below. 

4

A South African at Burning Man

Embrace: a work that's supposed to be a reminder to take time out of our lives to spend with people we love. It was huge and beautiful and everyone went quiet when they walked inside and up the wooden staircases to up to the eyes to look out over the surreal and wonderful playa.

Sunset in the Black Rock Desert. The blinding white light that’s been beating on the cracked, dusty earth all day has finally abated, and the sky behind dusky mountains is swathed in bands of pink, apricot and purple. A golden dragon picks up passengers and glides past a huge structure of a couple embracing, with arms poking out of their eyes; a huge super yacht on wheels blasts dance music as a life-size panda car containing a couple and a family of stuffed pandas drives by. A man in gold on an electric skateboard takes off in a flurry of dust. A dreadlocked woman sits in lotus meditating, eyes closed, calm as a zen monk. There are multiple weddings taking place in front of a temple so beautiful and delicate it looks like it shouldn’t be standing. The wooden effigy of a man several storeys high looms over a scene of a sword battle. In the distance, a crackle of fireworks explodes over a gigantic sculpture. As the sun dips behind the mountain backdrop, a chorus of howling explodes across miles of this temporary city. The first LED lights come to life: suddenly there are flashing colours everywhere you look, heralding another night where this isolated desert location turns into a surreal glow-in-the-dark world of lights, colours, music and jets of flames.

It was day one –  my first time at Burning Man – and I’d already run out of words to describe my endless feelings of amazement, gratitude and incredulity at the wonder and generosity of Black Rock City and its 68 000 inhabitants. I thought I’d known what to expect – I’ve gone to AfrikaBurn (the South African regional offshoot) three times and read everything I could about Burning Man before driving out to Nevada, but it turned out that the reality of this place far surpassed any ideas I’d had.

Burning Man feels like a real city – a fully-functioning alternative to the “default” world – a parallel universe inhabited by a community that’s fully committed to a culture that’s nearly three decades old. A friend put it well when he said that people at Burning Man are there to do things for others, and not just for themselves. The amount of gifting happening is just astounding – as was the scale and range of theme camps, art works, installations and performances. When you drive in the city gates, you’re handed a thick programme book listing just about anything quirky, fun and educational you can think of. There are meditation, traditional African dance, hula hooping, pole dancing and permaculture workshops, classes in qi gong, how to be a super hero, parkour and improv comedy, fiction writing contests and food offerings (everything from ice cream and snow cones to miso soup and fresh smoothies), massage and beard grooming services, photo studios and clothing boutiques and parties ranging from an old school UK rave to a Pussy Riot tutu bash. I highlighted everything I wanted to do and didn’t pick up my book again.

Instead I got on my bike, cycled in a random direction, and went on unplanned journeys of discovery. Every day was made up of a series of unpredictable highlights. I did a yoga class at sunset in front of a giant hi-fi art car, danced like crazy to Major Lazer and Skrillex and saw an amazingly mellow set from Tycho at 3am, listened to a neuroscientist, clinical psychologist and professor of Buddhism give fascinating talks at a TEDx conference, had a silent tea ceremony, stayed up for sunrise and watched skydivers streak through the sky and the burning of Embrace, downed fireball whiskies and danced on top of a Celtic castle, ate Cuban grilled cheese sandwiches and vodka-watermelon at a tutu party, did ten pin bowling, drank ice-cold sake and the best dirty martini I’ve ever had (thank you Australian barman from Camp Anita), rode around for hours on the saddle of a snail, explored the Deep Playa, rollerskated around a roller disco rink and – letting go of my South African conservatism around nudity – showered naked with 80 strangers under high-powered mint-infused foam jets while dancing to Daft Punk (my number one highlight – an intensely liberating experience I’ll remember forever). I didn’t stop missioning the whole time I was there and I still probably only saw a tiny percentage of Black Rock City’s wonders.

My favourite thing about Burning Man, however, was the people. Anyone who knows me knows that I absolutely love talking to strangers – it ranks with travel as one of my favourite things in life. At Burning Man there’s an ingrained practice of stranger hugging and talking: if you stand in one spot for longer than a minute, someone will come up to you, give you a hug, and start a conversation. I met people from all over the world: Utah to the Ukraine, Puerto Rico to the Philippines, Ireland to Israel and talked about art, music, travel, cognitive science and psychology, positive and negative atheism, South African politics, Stanley Kubrick, the Argentinian economy, The Big Lebowski and the Meaning of Life. I talked a lot about how much I loved Burning Man and how much fun I was having. Some of these meetings lasted a few minutes, and some a few hours – all were fleeting connections with warm, engaged, interesting people that I would love to be friends with back in the “default” world.

A lot of people at Burning Man and friends back home in South Africa wanted to know the difference between Burning Man and AfrikaBurn. The answer is – a lot. The size of Burning Man – 70 000 people compared to AfrikaBurn’s 9000 – means that there’s more on offer in terms of everything, including things like Wi-Fi (some theme camps offer it as their gift), services (like bike rentals) and turn-key or plug-in-and-play camps (fully catered camps where meals are cooked for you and everything else you need is set up when you arrive). In comparison AfrikaBurn is much more low key – hardly anyone comes in RVs, there are no luxury camp options and a lot of things feel more homemade. There’s been a long time in which the culture of Burning Man has grown organically to get to where it is now – AfrikaBurn, which started only eight years ago, is still building its own culture based on the Burning Man principles. After the mind blowing experience of Burning Man, I still love AfrikaBurn – I love the fact that it’s so intimate compared with the scale of Burning Man, and I love its distinct African edge and South African sense of humour. It’s still developing year by year and it will be interesting to see if it ends up like Burning Man or if it follows a slightly different path.

I met so many South Africans at Burning Man who’d travelled a long way just to attend the event, and each year at AfrikaBurn I meet more Americans and other international participants who make the journey out to the Tankwa Karoo to experience the largest regional burns event in the world. Both Burning Man and AfrikaBurn offer a taste of something that’s hard to put into words – a chance to rediscover the same magical perspective we had on the world when we were children before cynicism, socialisation, pragmatism and life experiences made us more immune to wonder, a chance to be part of a community that works hard to uphold important beliefs that have nothing to do with money or status, a chance to release ideas you have about yourself and how you’re supposed to be and a chance to let go, dress up and dance till sunrise.

Sarah Duff Burning Man-15

If I'd had more time I would have loved to do a "Humans of Burning Man" series and interviewed every interesting-looking person I came across (which was thousands of people).

If I’d had more time I would have loved to do a “Humans of Burning Man” series and interviewed every interesting-looking person I came across (which was thousands of people).

This field of lotus flowers became beautiful LED-lit blooms at night.

This field of lotus flowers became beautiful LED-lit blooms at night.

One of my most memorable yoga classes ever.

One of my most memorable yoga classes ever.

Inside the beautifully intricate Temple of Grace - - a very emotional place, where people leave photos and notes for loved ones who've died. No matter what kind of party is going on outside, inside here people are respectfully silent.

Inside the beautifully intricate Temple of Grace – – a very emotional place, where people leave photos and notes for loved ones who’ve died. No matter what kind of party is going on outside, inside here people are respectfully silent.

The Skull of Actaeon: inspired by a Greek myth about a Actaeon, huntsman turned in to a stag by a goddess and torn to pieces by his hounds. At night, you could place your hand in a mould to make the skull light up and see yourself as Actaeon.

The Skull of Actaeon: inspired by a Greek myth about a Actaeon, huntsman turned in to a stag by a goddess and torn to pieces by his hounds. At night, you could place your hand in a mould to make the skull light up and see yourself as Actaeon.

One of the many astoundingly awesome art cars that criss cross the Playa all day and all night.

One of the many astoundingly awesome art cars that criss cross the Playa all day and all night.

The Playa at sunset: when the dust and golden light combine to create something truly magical that's over in less than an hour.

The Playa at sunset: when the dust and golden light combine to create something truly magical that’s over in less than an hour.

I once stumbled on a sword battle of epic proportions, which looked like something out of Game of Thrones (minus all the snow).

I once stumbled on a sword battle of epic proportions, which looked like something out of Game of Thrones (minus all the snow).

Sarah Duff Burning Man-8

Sarah Duff Burning Man-6

I was glad I bought a bicycle to take to Burning Man - it would take you hours to walk around the city without wheels.

I was glad I bought a bicycle to take to Burning Man – it would take you hours to walk around the city without wheels.

Sarah Duff Burning Man

Sarah Duff Burning Man-18

Dust storms at Burning Man are beautiful but painful on the eyes and the camera lenses.

Dust storms at Burning Man are beautiful but painful on the eyes and the camera lenses.

Me in gold tights, feeling blissfully happy to be on top of Insanity, on the Playa, at Black Rock City.

Me in gold tights, feeling blissfully happy to be on top of Insanity, on the Playa, at Black Rock City.

The Superpool: LED lilypads that lit up when you stepped on them. People were running around, laughing and screaming and I felt like were all about five years old again.

The Superpool: LED lilypads that lit up when you stepped on them. People were running around, laughing and screaming and I felt like were all about five years old again.

The Man

The Man

 

15

AfrikaBurn 2014: The Trickster

AfrikaBurn 2014

This year was my third AfrikaBurn and as always, I feel like it was a psychedelic dream that will take me weeks to process. I had too many crazy, beautiful experiences and encounters to put into words in just one blog (I feel like I could write a book about my five days in the desert).

AfrikaBurn 2014

I discussed the meaning of free will with some strangers in a wig wam made of actual wigs, received a postcard from a friend asking me to get married in a mass purple wedding delivered to my campsite by a Burning Mail crew member, got given away to be married by an American guy who’d become my adopted uncle, watched one of the best sunsets of my life over a Karoo horizon so beautiful it looked like a Photoshop-enhanced photo, was taught to play “Scar Tissue” on the ukelele in three minutes by a man wearing colourful underwear and a headscarf, drank whisky in a field of LED-lit mushrooms, volunteered in the heat of the day to hug AfrikBurn virgins as they arrived at the gate and DJed in a gold outfit in a yellow bus called Judy.

AfrikaBurn 2014

I sat in the dark of the desert for hours waiting for the the giant Subterrafuge cones to burn (which didn’t happen because of the wind) and met a Texan guy called Daddy Long Legs wearing a Spongebob Squarepants hat who told one of the best stories I’ve ever heard, shot hundreds of photos just of the golden hour at sunset when the dust and light made the landscape of AfrikaBurn look like a mystical city on a faraway planet in Star Wars, lost my friends for hours and found them again in an apocalyptic dust storm in the early morning at a tiny dance floor in the middle of nowhere presided over by the most unlikely looking DJ, and had a Japanese man in monk’s robes give me some origami as a gift just before I got in the car to go home.

Burn for Amy4

I made new friends, loved old friends even more and felt like I learned something new about myself and life with each day that passed. I had expectations of this year based on the previous two Burns I’d been to, but I realised that you can’t expect anything from AfrikaBurn (or from life, for that matter).

There were some challenges and problems that came with more people at AfrikaBurn this year, but I feel like that mind-blowing magic was still there – the result of thousands of people coming together in the middle-of-nowhere desert and creating something beautiful out of nothing.

AfrikaBurn 2014

I find AfrikaBurn much easier to portray in images than in words, and it’s my favourite event to photograph. I’ve put up some of my favourite photos here.

3

AfrikaBurn 2014 in photos

Subterrafuge, AfrikaBurn 2014

The dust is settling in the Tankwa Karoo as another AfrikaBurn has drawn to close. For a week, 9000 people turned a farm in the middle of nowhere in the Northern Cape into a temporary town – a surreal world of art, music, dress up and performances. When you’re there you have to keep reminding yourself that you’re not in a dream, and when you’ve returned to the “real” world it’s even harder to realise that it all actually happened: all the crazy costumes and unexpected dance floors and spontaneous gifting and the sea of neon and flashing LEDs lighting up the desert sky at night.

I took as many photos as I could to try and capture some of AfrikaBurn’s transient magic.

 

The Offering, AfrikaBurn 2014The Clan, AfrikaBurn 2014Reflection, AfrikaBurn 2014AfrikaBurn 2014AfrikaBurn 2014AfrikaBurn 2014AfrikaBurn 2014AfrikaBurn 2014High T, AfrikaBurn 2014AfrikaBurn 2014AfrikaBurn 2014AfrikaBurn 2014AfrikaBurn 2014AfrikaBurn 2014AfrikaBurn 2014AfrikaBurn 2014Abracadabra, AfrikaBurn 2014Sunset at AfrikaBurn 2014AfrikaBurn 2014, SubterrafugeReflection burning, AfrikaBurn 2014

5

AfrikaBurn 2013

Afrikaburn 2013 "Reflection"

The sun was slowly setting over the vast Karoo horizon, turning the sky from apricot-orange to fuschia-purple as I danced with thousands of costumed people to music streaming from a purple bus and a mobile pirate ship. A massive gyrating skeleton towered over us while our feet kicked up clouds of dust from the cracked desert floor. Day turned into night and all around us Tankwa Town lit up in pulsating rainbow-coloured LED lights underneath a blanket of stars in a sky so big you can see the curvature of the Earth.

This was Saturday at AfrikaBurn, the biggest night of the annual festival in the Karoo desert near Cape Town. A few hours later we gathered together again to watch artworks built just for the festival go up in flames in beautifully primal ceremonies.

As the organisers say, ‘For those that have been no explanation is necessary, for those that haven’t none is possible.’ It’s hard to put AfrikaBurn into words. It defies a simple definition. It’s not a trance party or music festival or a gathering of hippies. It’s a temporary surreal world built by everyone who makes the long trek into the middle of nowhere. Each year, for six days, a town is constructed in the Tankwa Karoo where money means nothing and 6500 festival-goers create their own magic: there are amazing artworks, performances, bands, DJs, dance floors, yoga classes, swimming pools, pop-up cocktail bars, pancake stands, a post office and many more interactive experiences, all for free. Once the festival is over, everything is packed up and there’s no trace left to indicate that anything happened

I’d been to AfrikaBurn last year for the first time, not knowing what to expect, and was completely overwhelmed by it. This year was no different. Even though I had an idea of what was in store, it still blew my mind.

I watched an incredibly beautiful burning performance set to ethereal music, where animal structures were set on fire and manipulated like puppets, got absorbed by 3D glasses in a holographic tunnel of lights, drank chilli vodka out of a pink plastic penis attached to a motorbike, learnt to shower with a 500ml water bottle, ran screaming into the night with my cape flowing behind me, hugged strangers, made new friends, bonded with old friends, got lost in the dark of the Binnekring and stumbled upon artworks I could never find again and danced for five days straight (next to a mobile cocktail bar pumping out music at sunset, inside a string of LED lights in the middle of nowhere, on top of the purple bus, underneath a wooden man with glowing red eyes, inside the Miniscule of Sound – a tiny dance floor inside a shiny cardboard box with a mirror ball warmed by a flamethrower, under lasers that looked like the Northern Lights, next to a cheese grater and on top of a moving purple snail. I got a message from the universe inside a crunchie, a grape ice lolly on a hot afternoon from a small boy, a handmade pouch filled with seeds to plant bonsai, an ice cold beer from a medieval soldier out in the desert and red wine from a cart playing electro music at sunset.

We survived dust storms, extreme heat and dryness, chillingly cold nights and no running water and created a town with no hierarchy and no point other than the temporary experience. AfrikaBurn allows you to completely let go – whether that means getting naked or wearing a bizarre costume or dancing the funky chicken. That everyone subscribes to the ethos of the festival and in their own way participates makes me feel optimistic about the potential for society to improve. It’s uplifting, inspiring and changes your perspective more than anything else can.

I returned home with dust-encrusted dreadlocked hair, an incredibly sore body and a bag full of gifts I will treasure, already planning my costumes and contributions for next year, thinking about how I can incorporate a bit of the magic, generosity and community spirit of AfrikaBurn into the ‘real’ world.

 

The lowdown on AfrikaBurn

‘AfrikaBurn is the spectacular result of the creative expression of a community of volunteers who, once a year, gather in the Tankwa Karoo to create a temporary city of art, theme camps, costume, music and performance.’

AfrikaBurn started in 2007, when it had less than 1000 people. It’s grown radically – last year it had 5300 and in 2013 6500 tickets were sold. It takes place on Stonehenge farm in the middle of nowhere (on the longest stretch of road in South Africa without petrol stations or nearby assistance), 300 kilometres north of Cape Town near Ceres in the Northern Cape’s semi-desert Tankwa Karoo. It’s South Africa’s version of the Burning Man festival in Nevada, USA.

Tankwa Town, the name of the AfrikaBurn space, is structured in a giant circle, with art works in the middle (the Binnekring) and the theme camps on its circumference, with the camping area behind them (the Buitekring). There are road names on a map and street signs to help you find your way home (and set up a camping spot in advance if you’re staying with a big group). There are toilets (the good ol’ portapotties, and long drops), roads, medics and not much else in terms of facilities. There’s nothing for sale so you need to bring your own water, food and any other provisions.

Tickets this year were on a tiered system, starting from R400 and going up to R800. The idea is that you pay for the ticket you can afford. If you can’t pay R400 then you can apply for a low-income ticket (the aim is to make the event inclusive and accessible to everyone). The money from ticket sales goes towards running the festival and funding artworks (AfrikaBurn is a not-for-profit company). In 2013 tickets sold out fast. If you’re planning to go to the festival in 2014, buy your tickets as they go on sale (this year the most expensive tickets went on sale first, in November).

A lot of people think that AfrikaBurn is some kind of giant bartering market, where you swap a beer for a back massage. It’s not like this at all. It’s a decommodified space, where nothing commercial (except the sale of ice) takes place (you even need to cover up obvious logos or branding on your vehicles). There’s a gift economy, where gifts are given unconditionally, without an expectation of a similar gift in return. This is probably my favourite thing about AfrikaBurn – the selfless and magical gifting that happens all the time, whether it’s egg rolls being given out to hungover burners Saturday morning, hearty soup shared out for dinner, or mojitos and shots of Jagermeister from a mobile bar.

AfrikaBurn’s central tenet is participation. There are no organised bands or DJs or entertainment and the festival doesn’t happen without involvement from festival goers. You can participate by organising a theme camp (this can be anything from a dance floor or a massage centre to the ‘Land of Soft Things’ – an area filled with giant couches and cushions), or a mutant vehicle (creatively converted and decorated cars, buses and trucks which drive people around the Binnekring), making an art installation or just by dressing up in a crazy costume. The amazing thing is that it seems like almost everyone does participate and puts on some incredible music, art and interactive experiences.

 

 

 

 

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AfrikaBurn 101: a survival guide

Last year I went to my first AfrikaBurn, South Africa’s version of the Burning Man festival, for the first time and I had my mind blown. It was a fantastically surreal experience: an town of art and performance that sprung up in days in the middle of the desert in the Tankwa Karoo, where it seemed like you had entered a parallel pyschedelic world. I had an amazing time and can’t wait to go back this year. (Read my blog about AfrikaBurn 2012 here).

There are more people going to AfrikaBurn this year (it’s next month from 1 to 6 May) than ever before (with over 6000 tickets sold), so there are going to be a lot of newbies. AfrikaBurn is like no other festival. If you’ve been to Rocking the Daisies or Oppikoppi, and you reckon you’ve got festival organisation waxed (beer in cans, decanted spirits in plastic bottles, mixer and wet wipes), this is a whole other story.

If you’re an AfrikaBurn virgin, then this survival guide is for you. Remember to hit this gong when you enter the festival if you’re a newbie – it’s a rite of passage.

Afrikaburn festival, Tankwa Karoo, South Africa

 

Getting there

First of all, don’t try and get in without tickets. Even if you drive all the way there from Cape Town, they will not let you into the festival without a ticket. If you don’t have a ticket, they sold out weeks ago but there are ones for sale on Gumtree and AfrikaBurn’s Facebook page.

Afrikaburn Tankwa Karoo South Africa

 

For full directions on how to get to AfrikaBurn from Cape Town, Durban, Bloem and Joburg, click here. There’s a treacherous stretch of dirt road that’s over 100km long – the only way to get to the festival. You can tackle it in a 2×4 but drive REALLY slowly. I took my Clio last year and not only did I shred a tyre (below), but I also damaged all the rims of my car, and did some internal damage. Borrow your parents’ 4×4 or your friend’s bakkie if you can. It’s essential to bring a spare tyre (and someone who knows how to change a tyre).

 

Afrikaburn festival, Tankwa Karoo, South Africa

 

The other alternative is to fly – the glamorous way to arrive.

Afrikaburn 2012-19

 

What to bring

In a word, everything. There’s nothing to buy at AfrikaBurn so you need to bring all your own food and water (budget on a minimum of 5 litres of water per person per day). It’s a good idea to make your camp really comfortable, as you need a bit of downtime in between all the exploration. Bring lots of camping chairs and cushions and try and create a shaded area (it does get hot during the day).

Afrikaburn 2012, Tankwa Karoo, South Africa

 

Apart from the obvious provisions – food, booze and water – here are some other essentials you need to bring:

Sunscreen
Portable shower
Hat
Goggles and bandanna (for dust storms)
Warm clothes for the evening (it can go down to 0 degrees)
Headlamp or torch
A lot of wet wipes
Black plastic bags (you need to take all your rubbish home with you)
A basic first aid kit
A bicycle (the best way to get around)

 

Afrikaburn 2012 Tankwa Karoo South Africa

 

Dressing up

AfrikaBurn is one giant costume party. If you’re not a dress up person, try and pretend you are just for this festival. The theme this year is Archetypes, so try and tailor your dress up accordingly. If you’re camping in a group, a communal dress up is a lot of fun and the best way to find your friends at night (I can recommend the bright blue wigs for superior people-spotting in the dark).

Afrikaburn 2012-4

The onesie is a classic look

Afrikaburn 2012-8

If you’re not into full dress up, bring a rad hat or headpiece. Or just paint your face.

Afrikaburn 2012-10

Abluting

The toilet situation at AfrikaBurn is really not bad. There are porta-loos, which are cleaned frequently and always seemed to have TP, and some outdoor loos on the perimeter of the camp which are perfect if you’re not bothered about completely private.

Afrikaburn Tankwa Karoo South Africa

The burnings

Don’t miss the actual burnings, which happen on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. You get a map and a programme when you get to the festival which has all the scheduled times. The burnings are amazing. There’s something very primal about watching huge structures turn into flames. Just don’t get too drunk and play with fire.

Afrikaburn Tankwa Karoo South Africa

Afrikaburn Tankwa Karoo South Africa

 

Taking time out

The great thing about where AfrikaBurn is, is that you’re able to walk away from all the craziness of the festival and spend some quiet time on your own in the desert.

Afrikaburn Tankwa Karoo South Africa

 

There will be pop up yoga classes at the festival, so bring your yoga mat and do a bit of meditation and stretching in between all the dancing.

Afrikaburn Tankwa Karoo South Africa

 

Accept rides from strangers

Remember what your parents told you about not ever getting into a car with a stranger? Forget that at AfrikaBurn. There are mutant vehicles – artistically converted cars and motorbikes – that cruise around the Binnekring (the inside circle of the camp) giving you lifts to nowhere in particular. Jump on to the back of a giant snail or party on the deck of a pirate ship.

 

Afrikaburn Tankwa Karoo South Africa

Afrikaburn Tankwa Karoo South Africa

Afrikaburn Tankwa Karoo South Africa

 

The most important thing, however, is to go with an open mind and have fun. There’s nothing else like this festival in South Africa and it’s amazingly inspiring. Let me know if you’re going to AfrikaBurn for this first time this year!

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