Working the Burnby Timothy Gabb / 01.10.2012
A good party indeed. It’s Monday morning, and work starts up at 8am. The madness of the past three days is dealt with in silence, as we each take on a task to undo this, and untie that; collapse this, and de-rig that. What took two weeks of bone-grinding labour, sweat and blood to erect, takes two days to collapse.
Tuesday. Carl and I are doing loads, returning sound equipment, scaffolding, stages and tents. The biggest tent (18 x 24 meters) needs repair, as Carl spontaneously decides to attend AfrikaBurn, and oversee the erection of his tents which have been hired out over the last few weeks by eager groups looking to have their own themed tent on the inner circle of the Burn. We deliver our returns to Maitland, Pinelands, Tamboerskloof, Maitland, Pinelands, Epping, Pinelands, Somerset West, Klapmuts, Pinelands, Epping, Pinelands…
It’s 23:30, Tuesday night. We are outside Carl’s house, emptying the bakkie and trailer for the last time. We are up at five am to leave for AfrikaBurn. We re-pack the bakkie, and get into bed.
I am driving up the N1. Oncoming lights blind me as I travel as fast as this loaded vehicle can safely allow. I hope that we may make Worcester around 8, so that shops are open, and that we may be able to get some supplies. The manic transits of Tuesday are still hurtling images through my mind. The sense-data dumped by an exhaustive circuit of the same places over and over has left traces of ambiguity in my tired mind and aching body. Blisters try and heal as I hold gently to the steering wheel. Carl is fast asleep in the seat next to me.
We approach Worcester. It’s good time. I will be able to find an open bottle store. I dread the chance of being caught at AfrikaBurn without supplies. We find a Pick ‘n Pay, and collect our food supplies: breads, potjie ingredients, fruit, coffee. I get some toiletries I have been desperate for over the last ten days of bush-whacking. Get some beer and wine, some brandy. Everything you might possibly need for the entire stay over.
We follow the main meridian of tar up into the plateau. The landscape has evolved; we are entering the desolate plains of the Karoo. The vistas open up as we leave the lush lands of fruit trees and vineyards. We finally turn off the N1 and start seeing fellow travellers, laden wagons with caravans and full bakkies. I have heard that the notorious gravel road which carries one to the farm Stonehenge, where AfrikaBurn takes place, eats tyres for breakfast. The road seems like a normal gravel road, and I distinctly think to myself that in this bakkie, there should really be no problem. The plains are majestic – it’s raining, and we traverse this otherworldly space slowly, taking precaution of the innumerable warnings received.
We pass the first car stopped on the side of the road.
“Everything alright?” I ask through the window.
“Yes, we’re fine thanks,” smile a couple nearly finished fastening their only spare.
Along the way we encounter three more cars doing the same thing. We also pass the entrepreneurial set-ups of tyre repair stalls along the way. The landscape is ominous in its pre-historic splendour; broken strips of tyre mottle the roadside the entire way as reminders of the indifference the elements have for our plight; signs of previous violence and possible tragedy.
We finally reach the gate. After ten or so signs along the road have repeatedly asked us if we have our tickets, we finally arrive. At the gate, while on the radio to Carl’s brother who’s working security, we see we have a puncture. It must have just happened. So we find the next available tyre-repair joint, and remove the wheel. It’s raining hard now. We get a plug put into the tyre. But as we do a last check in the bubbling trough, we see that we have about seven holes.
“We can put a tube in for you,” says the farmer running the repair unit. “But where are the girls?” He asks us. “All I see driving through here are couples, you boys aren’t going to find any girls here!”
“Right-O!” Shrieks Carl. He has awoken from his slumber with a manic energy, which, combined with his butt-long dreadlocks, seems to lead the farmer on to an inevitable conclusion that this kid has to be on drugs.
“Gooi die wiel aan, alright!” Carl shouts, with a rolling bry on the Rs. “Een twee drie, right-O!”
“Are you drunk or what? I know you city folks. Where you from, Cape Town? Ja, my kid’s there, I know all about it!” says the farmer shaking his head.
“Brandewyn! We are here for the chicks!” Replies Carl.
“But you two boys, arriving alone… You aren’t moffies are you?” He smiles. A vague wink is visible under his thin-brimmed hat, the rain dripping large drops onto his face.
“Maybe… Come now, gooi that wheel manne. Hup Hup – draai die spanner manne, come, come, we don’t have any time to waste, we gotta work work work, reggae people must work!” Carl is maddening energy; a dynamo of Yes! And Do! A mover and groover looking for puzzles to solve in the sand.
We finally get our tube in and inflate it on a compressor which needs a mechanical wind up, a transference of bodily kinetic energy into petrol generated electricty – like an old car wound and whirled into a grumbling being. It’s finally on, and we make our sluggish way through the mud to the jol.
I didn’t know what to expect. It was a very spontaneous decision to head to AfrikaBurn to erect seven Bedouin tents. Others were set to do it, but Carl had the sublime epiphany to manage the work personally, and I am his handlanger. Creeping down the rugged road, we get our first glimpse of the area: a vast capitulum of structure and a motley sea of colourful stretch tents. It’s raining still. Ever harder. We find our base, and wait for the downpour to subside, so as to get to work. We encounter our fellow pilgrims, Strandwolf, the enigmatic and seasoned psychonaut and immersive storyteller of the fynbos cult, and Orion, the Israeli security commander-in-chief, who’s overseeing security at this event.
We erect the biggest tent, a massive red stretchy for the “Well of the Dragon” theme camp. We work into the night to get it up – heaving steel pegs into the obtuse slate-rock which we find ourselves situated upon. It is hectic; 15 minutes per peg, and about 25 pegs for this tent. It gets done eventually, after many a laugh, and our faithful mantra chanting discordantly through the desert air: “piel… soos… ‘n… koe…voe…t…” And the drained workers retreat early; another day another dollar.
Friday. The weather looks promising. The day breaks with sunbeams and a cacophony of sensual excitements as we glide into the preternatural playground of expression and performance…
But, before my linguistic attempt in representing the dynamic tapestry of such an environment, one more leg in fact must be bridged. We erect two smaller tents; not worth much in representation here. It is afternoon. We are erecting another large white stretchy in front of the red one erected last night. There is mud everywhere, and it has rained sporadically all day. Fine. We wait for it to subside, knowing that either way, the tent is going to be filthy. Fine.
A gap in the weather. We scramble into the bakkie (already loaded with tent, hammers, pegs, ropes and carabiners) and bolt to our site. We nearly get the tent up. Three of us try to lift the massive sheet of canvas weighed forcefully down by the rain. I find myself inside the flattened tent, as we try and erect the first pole. The rain ambushes us, and grows stronger until I can no longer hold its arduous weight on my bent back.
“Carl, I can’t hold it man!” I moan.
“Come on, one, two, three, one last push…”
“Carl, seriously bro, I can’t fucking hold it any longer!” I retch in existential woe. “I FUCKING CAN”T HOLD..”
“Everybody, get the fuck out!” The desperate screech of the Captain’s when he knows he must give up, succumb to the elemental might of the cosmos.
I scramble out the edge of the tent. To my surprise, I don’t find light, but another shade of misty white. The desert is under galactic siege! A flash flood! I run around, not knowing where to go. I see Carl has sought refuge in his bakkie. I make for the passenger side, and haul myself in.
“Jissus! What the fuck man?”
“Hahaha, ja… Did you see the stretchy tore?” I ask him, water spurting out from my lips as it gushes down my face.
“What, is it torn?”
“Ja, and a few poles have come out…”
“What? Shit, we have to fix it, that will fuck this tent up in this wind!”
And with that, we enter the maelstrom with adrenalin. I think it’s around about this time that the hail starts. Under the tent, the clients are fasted to the poles, their faces devoid of human qualities, pale and terrified. Petrified.
The windward end of the tent is loose and flapping dangerously. The pegs, luckily (thanks to the impenetrableness of the rocky strata below), stand their ground. Carl and I rush about, inserting the poles which have fallen, and adding more. We attach numerous lines to the edges of the tent, and tie them down to the pegs. We even hammer in another peg, which I did in about seven minutes, not resting once, allowing the adrenalin to guide me in a rare moment of ubermensch-ness. “Piel soos ‘n koevoet, een twee drie, piel soos ‘n koevoet!” We do all we can, and sit and wait, our boots overflowing with the north-westerly’s ceaseless deposits; sweet traces of Antarctic offloads. The dwellers of the tent kindly feed me some bourbon and light me a smoke, and we laugh at the irony of a flash flood in the desert. It’s an amazing scene. The only other experience I can approximate it to is being on a ship, inside the tumultuous bowels of a maritime storm, knowing that there’s a real chance that we might go down. Again, to reference uncle Maslow, we as a collective have reduced ourselves from the upper reaches of the hierarchy, leisure and recreation, to survival mode.
The rain clears. The sun comes out and countless wanderers appear out of the bubbling earth that surrounds us. Tents have collapsed; a massive structure for a big screen has collapsed; and bedding is drenched. My own little tent at our base is a centimetre under water. Luckily there are a few sunbeams that afternoon which suck up some of the excess moisture.
Read Part 1 here.
*All images © Timothy Gabb.