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After Burn

by 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.
“Yo Rob!”
“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…
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,
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.

17   4
  1. ah. says:

    That’s better.

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  2. veritas says:

    Erm, flames = carbon dioxide = greenhouse gases = global warming = hippie hypocrisy.

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  3. Non veritas says:

    Carbon dioxide released from burning wood is equal to the carbon wood releases as it rots

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  4. Donal Davern says:

    Who is responsible for the senseless rotting of wood???? Guillotine these Gaia-murderers!!!!!

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  5. indigo says:

    thank you for this, rob. well said.

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  6. ricky says:

    heardy heardy 🙂

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  7. matt s says:

    great article, rob!

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  8. sanitas says:

    But a piece of wood normally takes months or years to rot, so that carbon would be released more slowly and therefore be less accumulative. Are these not the same hippiectites who attack developers for burning down vegetation to start new settlements? Carbon released is carbon released, and the less frequently the better.

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  9. Chinless Fake Titted Ho...tel says:

    I had fun with pinky.

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  10. G says:

    Thanks Mahala for giving two completely different perspectives on AfrikaBurn. Both were extremely well written and it’s appreciated.

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  11. Ash says:

    Sanitas: “Carbon released is Carbon released”

    Jerr ! This sounds like ANC Spin-Doctoring.

    The same as a serial killer would argue that killing one kid per 10yrs is better than killing ten kids in 1year? “less accumulative”

    “A kid dead is a kid dead, the less frequently the better”

    (open to correction)

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  12. To sanitas says:

    Sanitas, I trust that you therefore never braai, that you have no heating devices at home (since you can get warm by having blankets, etc.) and so on. It’s not necessary to use petrol or diesel either since one can cycle or walk. I assume that you do that, too. Or are you another of the hypocrites that you’re accusing others of being and needlessly pumping lots of carbon dioxide (and other horribly toxic gases produced in the combustion of petrol) into the atmosphere?

    You might want to rethink trying to compare the burning that happens at events like AB to burning vegetation to replace it with human habitation. Comparing burning hectares of vegetation to burning what literally amounts to a couple of trees isn’t going to win you many friends amongst people who’re able to think. In one AB case the wood used and burned was recycled wood, otherwise destined for landfill. Do you know what happens when stuff decomposes in a landfill? Methane is formed instead of carbon dioxide and methane’s far worse than carbon dioxide. And that’s the destination for a lot of wood. And in general wood that is purchased is from forests that are grown specifically for that purpose, i.e. the wood that is burned is continually being replaced so there is a cycle of carbon dioxide being taken up over the time the trees grow and then released when they’re burned. Sure, the release is faster, but for such businesses to continue they certainly can’t sell more than they can produce. Well, not for long. But at least it’s not just destruction for the sake of providing places for humans to live.

    Oh, and lots of people who go to AB, in fact the majority in my experience, aren’t even close to being hippies. But that’s ok, you can be prejudiced, we don’t mind.

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  13. Paris says:

    Such rad pics!!!!

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  14. dudie says:

    i call this ‘risk management’.

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  15. Anonymous says:

    sanitas and u fool veritas.. clowns!!
    y dont u go have fun at tin roof.. u can go absorb all that dirt and filth there

    Nice one ROB sick dude

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  16. 1D10t says:

    there always has to be some retarded fuckwit like Veritas who has some wise ass comment. Vertitas, please go home tonight and kill yourself. The carbon you are emitting from your mouth is far worse than the fires. do this now

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  17. stickchick says:

    thats more like it!

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  18. Meh says:

    Hippie Hypocrisy? That’s like saying people who drive a Prius but does not carpool is hypocritical. Nobody ever claimed that Afrika Burn is a totally green festival. It just happens to be greener than any other because of the anti moop policy, but it is certainly not one of their principals. Unlike Rocking the Daisies who publishes all kinds of crock about how green they are while partying it up in a jumping castle-like dome that uses 30 x 1000W blowers 24/7 instead of a simple geodesic dome.

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  19. Ash says:

    Ok all parties have actually established that the emission of CO2 is an evil.

    What I don’t understand is why douche bags like ‘Meh & Co.’ are bent on the idea that one evil is better than the other (or in this case – the smaller evil is better than the bigger one).

    FYI – Hippies make the effort, and that is what it’s about.

    Don’t be a domkop now by harking back to that defeated rastafarian ideology of “I will walk to wherever/ride to wherever on my bicycle” because everyone knows that’s stupid & everyone’s all gotten over that, including hippies.

    Infact Hippies never came out and said “We’re Holier than thou, & you suck !” and those that did are idiots !

    True Hippies embrace Ethical philosophies such as the Carbon-emission one, Veganism is another one.

    Now these Douches like ‘Meh’ will start saying kak like “those veggies are not even organic”


    All it is, is a philosophy about ethics, making an effort at preserving this beautiful planet so owens can continue going to events like AB without the fear of Uncontrollable Storms ruining the evens at the back of their minds.

    #PS. I stick by my eccessive 1st coment you ‘F’ nay-sayers !

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  20. Darren says:

    You people are pathetic

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  21. Anonymous says:

    whats with all this love hippy hate hippy crap. u guys are all buying into the hypocritical system that manufactured your designated labels and stereotypes in the first place. catch a wake up. we’re all hybrids. mix mashes. globalized pavement specials.

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  22. whatever says:

    hippies?to be hip another fasion replaced by zippies,2000,zen inspired pagan primatives,replaced by rainbow culture.only alternative energy ,walk to ur venue carry what u can,magic hat food circles etc.a progression that resulted in trendy burn fest & others ,but at least ur thinking greener.bicycles are 80percent efficient,cars 30percent.burning wood?kak wood if its not treated fine ,trees cut by people,waste wood fine.cutting down trees to make fires stuipid,trees take 30 years to grow! in africa alot of trees have dead wood in them so its not nessesary to cut them.just use the dry branches.
    get a diesel car and switch to biofuel at least its renewable and a lot is made from old chip oil,etc.so its recycled and preventing pollution.

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  23. Doozy Q says:


    After reading whatshisname’s article which wobbled my internal axis for the past 24 hours, this has brought me back. I’m glad i was there with you R-Dog and our beautiful collective family. It was so magnificent. When the sun set, the bohemian night carnival came alive with floating magic candles in brown bags, moving starts, shooting stars and dancing fire. It put Rowling’s imaginarium of Hogwarts to maggots.

    If whatshisface had a family like ours where each individual engages the “real world” with fierce tenacity, he would know how to engage afrikaburn. I feel desperately sorry for ‘hisface and in the spirit of Afrikaburn, i will gift him pity!

    Stay in your room with shattered glass and candles and dwelms, i choose STOF.

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  24. 2 cents says:

    we spend a lot of money on this party (it is by far the most expensive festival to attend – when including the peripheral costs). we invest a lot of time and money into building structures/art pieces which we then burn down.
    in a country like ours, whith such excessive inequalities, this financial and personal effort could far better benefit many people around us. look at the banner at the bottom of this page. people in shacks do not party at africa burn. the festival has (like most) a 95% white middle class attendance. this is what i struggle with, not some ill-researched environmental paranoia.

    to pre-empt the obvious response: if i take such issue with the distribution of resources (time+money) why then, am i not consequent: invite shack dwellers into my home, split my salary etc.?
    – naturally this is a daft proposition, so instead i try always to be aware of the externalities of my decisions (i.e. what are the indirect consequences of my acions). afrika burn limits positive externalities as far as i can tell.

    it remains an inspiring and fun event nontheless, for those of us who can afford it.

    lecture over. if you read my whole comment you must be as bored as i am.
    nice article accompanied by great photo’s.

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  25. 1D10t says:

    To the poster of the above comment (2 cents): why don’t you piss off and mind your own business? I will spend my money how I see fit, you condescending twerp. I’ll bet you take your money and (sic) “far better benefit many people around us”. You’re either just trolling here or you are in serious need of a fat wake up call across the face. Please don’t come to Afrika Burns next year. Rather go donate the money to the soup kitchen and watch SABC1 at home (you surely can’t have an excessive thing like satellite when there are “people in shacks”.

    You know what pisses me off the most in this country. It’s not the shameless, greedy, corrupt fools running this place. It’s not the rampant crime. It’s douchebags like @ cents above. Go take your 2 cents and

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  26. Meh says:

    Uhmm.. I never said anything about organic veggies.
    And I’m totally with Doozy Q, give me STOF anyday. Time spent at AB and Burning Man was the most inspiring moments in my life. When I come back from these events, I realise that I like people very much and that transcends into my everyday life… for a while anyway. I aspire to be in service of other people and slowly but surely my mindset is changing. The environment is a bit further down on my list and I believe it will be a byproduct of the compassion I’m aiming for at the moment.
    I don’t drive a Prius, I don’t cycle (that often), I eat whatever veggies I can afford and I make fire in my fireplace sometimes but I have a rooftop garden and I recycle and make compost. It’s a start, you know. I don’t want to be commended but I certainly don’t want to be scolded because I go to festivals where the positive outcome is far greater than the carbon emissions it costs. (Less emissions I’m sure, than what would be spent by staying in the city those 5 days)

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  27. Phumlani says:

    Well played 2cents.

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  28. 2 cents says:

    @ 1D10t: i don’t own a tv, i do donate to the soup kitchen and i will come to afrika burn next year.
    your insightful and constructive response is a clear indication of your intellectual ceiling, and as such i can’t – in all fariness – expect you to think beyond yourself.

    go set yourself on fire.

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  29. Erika says:

    That is simply not true that wood releases the same amount of C02 when rotting as when burning – wood burns at different efficiencies, depending on the moisture content, type and hardness of wood, altitude, and what it is burned in/with (convection currents etc)… I think driving to the middle of nowhere is more of a waste of petrol and is a heavy C02 generator

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  30. My two cents says:

    @2 cents : This year at AfrikaBurn, among the many people I met was a crew from Oceanview (the guys with the enormous puppets) and a smaller crew of young community leaders from rural Mpumalanga (the beaders). All came to the festival on subsidised tickets and with a grant. I asked.
    It seems mighty unreasonable to me to expect an art party in the desert to address and resolve the south african social ills, but fuck it – they do make a bit of an effort.
    Many of the guiding principles relate directly to that. No reason to leave them in the desert.
    I also think that while the pay-off in societal terms might not be as swift as handing a chunk of your salary over to a charity at the end of each month, it reaches far. Most of us come away from this festival filled with a renewed optimism and a greater empathy for our fellows, which translates into treating people with greater kindness and greater consideration. It’s like a slow burn and it spreads into our broader communities. I think anyway.
    Fun is a great vector for change. Much nicer than a big stick and a stern lecture. Softly softly catch the monkey.

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  31. K says:

    Oi – Mahala (and anyone else who struggles with it) – the event is named A.F.R.I.K.A.B.U.R.N

    Not Africa Burns. Not AfrikaBurns. Not Africa Burn.



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  32. 1D10t says:

    2 cents, I’ll set myself on fire when you shoot yourself in the face. Please do this right now.
    You are such a hero. Donating to the soup kitchen and not watching TV. I see you have time and money for internet though, and replying to articles. Shouldnt this time be spent rather teaching homeless kids how to read? Or maybe rather at the SPCA cleaning cages?

    See you at Afrika Burn then. You’ll be the asshole with all the firewood, in the huge 4×4 with a skottel braai, wearing imported brand name clothing.

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  33. nacnud says:

    Its worth noting that the festival is participant created. While this shitstorm rages, and lots of people get awfully worked up over things they clearly don’t fully understand, anyone who really does care about the carbon footprint/greenness at Afrika Burn could simply attend the festival, and get involved.
    If you are offended by the burning of some timber or any other issue, you are welcome to do whatever you like about it at the festival, or before it. Go there and educate people (God forbid, I’d find it awfully annoying, but you are welcome) or find another way of doing things that is more “eco-friendly” or whatever turns you on. The main thing is-YOU create Afrika Burn. If you think something is wrong, or could be done better, go there and change it. Be constructive! But complaining on the internet without doing something is a bit painful for us all.

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  34. jimboyia says:

    @nacnud – too true. Participation is the crux of the matter. Be the change you want to see etc. I’m rather surprised by the amount of polarization one reads in these posts. Never thought the concepts of participation, self reliance, self expression etc could be polarizing but, there you go. Humans are an odd bunch indeed….

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  35. Travis Lyle says:

    Heads up folks: the AfrikaBurn Forum is up and running – it’s the perfect place to get people engaged in this kinda discussion: http://forum.afrikaburn.com/

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  36. Tona says:

    Rob your article is great!

    These comments are like a road accident, I can’t stop looking, I’m drawn by the macabre!

    I can’t wait!

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