After Burnby Rob Scher, images by Sydelle Willow Smith / 09.05.2011
The dirt road takes us a while. It’s only 113km but of course we get a flat tyre. Fixing it happens relatively fast; the kindness of the two cars that stopped to offer a hand is what extends our trip. Further down the road, we encounter both in a similar position and naturally reciprocate with some jocular jibes – especially considering the one vehicle is a Hardbody matched by our condition-inappropriate Tazz. Cellphone signal lost, watch and wallet put away and promise of a visit to the campsites of our two new friends – there’s no mistaking it – it’s good to be back in the desert.
Our campsite is considerably larger this year, having grown steadily over my previous two visits to the Tankwa Karoo. I look at my friends who slowly come filtering in over the next few days and realize it’s no coincidence our camp is at it’s current size, a lot of these friendships have been formed in this very place. These people are my dysfunctional relatives and the desert is our annual “family holiday”.
We carefully select our spot – not too far away from the Binnekring (inner circle for those who don’t speak die taal or have never been to a burn), but at least a diameter’s length from the trance tent. Our decision is made easier by an encounter with a regular burn character, Phil.
“Hey Phil, good to see you back in the desert.”
“Ya, I’ve been here since Sunday hey…”
That doesn’t surprise me. Phil embodies the spirit of Afrikaburn and can be found naked at regular intervals throughout the festival each year – always making a ‘lap of victory’ around the burning of the San Clan. It’s decided, we’re camping next to Phil.
Arriving so early allows me the privilege of watching Tankwa Town transform from a sparse desert landscape into a fully-fledged community when it reaches its peak on Saturday; at the moment the plain is dominated by three massive tyres balancing on each other and a metallic lotus. Something you quickly learn about the desert is how perspective can change – approaching the ‘tyres’ I realise they’re closer to the bows of a ship than the rubber of a Goodyear. With the rings lined with gunpowder, the ‘spirit’ fast becomes my favourite installation at the burn. My shadow starts to lengthen. Dusk is the best time of day in the desert. I know that when I wake up in the morning I’m not going to recognise the binnekring, which for a brief time, we had to ourselves.
A strategically placed bow dominates my vision – it seems our neighbours have arrived – the ‘naturalist society’. The unfortunate reality of nudism is that overweight middle-aged men tend to be the most ardent followers. Nonetheless, ‘bow-man’ happily rides his bike imparting a big wave as he cycles past, content in the knowledge that at Afrikaburn his bow is normal attire. The circle has begun to fill up and Afrikaburn is going to start.
There’s an epiphanal moment at every Afrikaburn when you realise this is truly unlike any party or festival you’ve ever been to. It’s a moment so far removed from your frame of reference, where confusion is soon replaced with a sense of euphoria that doesn’t leave you until you’re heading back home. I’ve experienced this feeling atop giant Lego blocks and flamethrowing jeeps – this year it comes in the form of a hessian-walled ‘mobile kraal’.
“Holy shit dude, that kraal is playing Queen – lets go check it!” Dad exclaims.
Thankfully this isn’t my actual father, merely the ‘dad’ of our group, mainly due to a number of ugly sweaters he owns and an aversion to leaving the house unless it’s Afrikaburn. We climb in, immediately being handed ice-cold shots of Jaegermeister and greeted by a bunch of wide-eyed passengers. For a time there is no outside world beyond the kraal. I see the glint in Dad’s eye and know what song he’s about to request. As is so often the case with Afrikaburn, ask and ye shall receive. Several shots in the space of a very short time later, anyone outside of our hessian world is met by the screaming chant…
“PURPLE RAIN, PURRRRPLE RAIN!”
Dad and I exchange a glance, we know the festival has begun.
It’s dusk again and they’re lighting the giant Lotus that of course doubles as a fire-spouting torch. More importantly the Vuvulounge has arrived on cue to start the party. Without a doubt the best times I’ve had at Afrikaburn have been in, on top of and around this magical vehicle. This year is no different. The lounge fuels the never-ending party and I discover to my delight that an easily accessible button allows me to control the bursts of fire that emanate from the top of the Jeep.
Dad decides, in the spirit of the desert, to eat some mushrooms. Soon he’s keen to mission and we venture off. As is the spontaneous beauty of the burn a man calls out to passers-by, “we’ve just married a lovely couple. Who would care to be next?”
For an inexplicable reason Dad raises his hand. I figure the mushrooms are just kicking in.
“You sir? And who will you be bound to?”
“Hmph…” dad grunts pointing to our friend Gaby.
The wedding is a hysterical affair. Dad doesn’t say much, except for a panicked moment when he exclaims in response to the number of plastic guns held by the witnessing audience,
“WHY ARE THERE GUNS AT MY WEDDING?!”
The presiding pastor has to briefly break character to gently explain, “It’s a shotgun wedding!”
Dad doesn’t really and remains on edge for the proceeding ceremony. He’s quite happy to get out of there, and I’m left considering whether Afrikaburn really is an appropriate place for drugs of such a nature. In a society where participation is so heavily emphasized the insular nature of hallucinogens might not be conducive to engaging with the festival.
The days pass in a blur of ‘disco showers’, yellow buses serving Rwandan coffee, and Phil in an assortment of elegant dresses. The Binnekring is an open canvas for all willing to participate and by Saturday evening it’s a labyrinth of creative output. The desert lights up in bursts of flame and your only hope at catching the instantaneous beauty of a burn is to try spot gathering crowds. They’ve lit the cocoons that now seem to be rotating. My skepticism of this installation is soon shattered as the pieces reveal their true form. Slowly unraveling, the cocoon’s burn, leaving pirouetting ballerinas in their wake, cued by the soundtrack of symphony music. The beautiful moment is temporarily ruined by the arrival of the S.S. Shitstorm – a mobile party boat from Pretoria, blasting some inane pop song. There’s no time for mutiny though as they’ve lit the pendulum. This swinging trapeze of fire is about to complete it’s first full rotation but there’s a commotion and…
“They’re burning the Spirit!” someone calls.
We sprint just in time to witness the gunpowder working its magic and the Spirit explodes into rings of fire. The combination of the intense heat, lack of oxygen and design of the piece comes together to produce a burn of occultic magnitude.
“It’s a gateway into the nexus!” I hear someone exclaim.
The culminating burn of the San Clan does not disappoint, and its eventual collapse leaves a glowing starfish on the ground.
Sunday morning brings no rest for my camp. Today we are offering our gift to the community – ‘dunch’. Food is not a priority for most at the burn so we hoped a hot plate of vegetable poitjiekos after several days of noodles would be a welcome gift to most. Tactically choosing ‘fire duty’, I return to an assembly line of choppers and dicers as the butternuts and potatoes succumb to their slaughter. Dunch proves to be a fine example of Afrikaburn’s guiding principles of collaboration and participation. The ‘We like it Here’ camp, located in a prime spot with an uninterrupted view of the horizon, becomes the site for the meal. Word has spread throughout the festival and people come streaming in to see whether the rumours of food are true. Watching well over 100 people eating our desert meal is a heartwarming experience and will remain an enduring image of Afrikaburn for me.
The un-orchestrated, organic nature of the festival is captured in this evening. Speakers are brought in and the living room of ‘We like it here’ plays host to a jam of epic proportions. Loop-pedal magician Jeremy Loops helps to instigate five of the best hours of my life. Playing together with Jeremy and a host of other musically inclined individuals transcends description. A song strikes up with lyrics along the lines of “I love all the naked people”. The next moment, Phil has appeared completely stripped down to the ensuing hysterics of the crowd. The moment is immortalized. The crowd in attendance does not waiver for the entire time, and my bust lip (from playing the sax all night) is a bittersweet reminder of the experience.
The greatest revelations of my life have happened in the desert, filled with close friends and lit by the uninterrupted view of the stars. Many try to compare their Afrikaburn experiences. Is it life-changing? For some, evidently not. A major shift in the festival this year was the number of people who had obviously just come for the party. Spending their nights in an intoxicated haze and their days recovering in their camps. They’ll have to decide if the price of their tickets was worth it. The sheer expense taken to get to the desert is also a noteworthy issue. Afrikaburn is, by its very nature, elitist and unfortunately an experience that cannot yet be enjoyed by many. But a member of our group helped to bring down some artists from KwaZulu Natal, whose tickets were sponsored by the festival. If more people do the same, the great guiding principles of Afrikaburn could be further spread.
Spending a week in the desert is extremely self-indulgent and apart from the die-hard hippies most visitors to the festival are fully aware of its idealistic nature. That being said, I would like to think that upon re-entering the ‘real world’, some of the principles could be applied to our everyday lives. I return to Cape Town along with my family and though we’re no longer in the desert, ‘dunch’ is a weekly tradition we continue as a way of keeping the burn alive until we can return next year.
*All images © Sydelle Willow Smith.