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:
Learn the guiding principles
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.
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?
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
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.
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 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.
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
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?
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.
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.