For just one week every year, a parallel universe rises out of the dust in the Karoo, where a marvellously mismatched collection of people gather to make art, express themselves, share their passions, dance until dawn – and take some epic Instagram pictures.
AfrikaBurn is one of those have-to-be-there things – it’s a difficult concept to explain to someone, and even harder trying to make them understand why parading around the desert in ridiculous costumes is just so damn delightful.
The 2018 Burn was my second one and I still don’t feel like I can articulate the essence of what makes Tankwa Town tick. But having done it twice – once riding on the coattails of some people that were far more prepared than I was, the other almost entirely on my own steam (admittedly with my boyfriend, a super-camper) – I feel qualified enough to give you some guidelines on how to prepare for way may well be the strangest, most magical few days of your life.
But before we get to that…
You’ve heard of the US’ Burning Man? Well, this is South Africa’s version of the famous festival. At AfrikaBurn, 10s of thousands of weird folk gather in the beautiful Tankwa Karoo, to make art, run theme camps, host parties, wear some crazy costumes and make friends. And… that’s about it really.
The massive desert campsite is arranged in a huge circle, the centre of which is used for the art. People from all over the world apply to create something every year. Some of them are modest, and some are crazy, six-storey behemoths complete with movement and flashing light displays.
Over the course of the week, some of the artists will opt for their pieces to be burnt, which is always a sight to behold. What’s the point? Well, you’ll have to ask the artists that. Sometimes it’s deep, meaningful and symbolic, but mostly I reckon these creators are as much showman as they are artists. They want their pieces to be spectacular – even if it means sending them up in smoke.
The theme camps are set up in a circle, called the Binnekring, around this open area, arranged pretty much according to how much noise they’ll be making. There are plenty of theme camps that are essentially pop-up trance parties, and those ones are at the outskirts of Tankwa Town in a ‘loud zone’ – but this doesn’t mean you won’t hear the bass throbbing from all over the desert.
It’s not all about partying though – in fact, that’s probably the part of the Burn I’m least interested in. The other theme camps vary greatly – in a lap around the Binnekring, you be able to grab a free sangria, a piping-hot pancake, attempt a yoga class, get a temporary tattoo, watch a burlesque show or even get spanked – if you’re into that sort of thing.
The best part about these experiences is that they’re all completely free. AfrikaBurn is all about a ‘gifting’ economy. So the good folk at the various theme camps will be offering up their wares, services and time completely free of charge.
Of course, this really doesn’t mean you’re supposed to venture out there to see how much free stuff you can get – you’re meant to offer up something in return, even if you’re not part of a theme camp yourself. More on this below.
The week-long affair culminates in the big burns on Friday and Saturday night and some pretty cool events on the Saturday – like the Critical Tits topless parade, symbolic of women empowerment and my fave: the mass Purple Wedding (not to be confused with the Red Wedding, please) where everybody dresses up in their purple finery and gets hitched – most folks for fun, but some crazy couples do it for real.
Right, that about covers the basics. Down to the nitty gritty – here’s some stuff you need to know if you’re thinking about going next year.
Tankwa Town, the home of the Burn, is just 300 km outside Cape Town. But only half of that journey will take you down a nice, smooth tar road. Once you get past the bustling metropolis of Ceres, you’ll soon find yourself on 120 km of the stoniest, bumpiest, dustiest dirt road in the Western Cape (probably), and organisers aren’t kidding when they say it eats tyres.
The roadside (if you can even call it that) is littered with torn-up tyres – dubbed ‘stoffadils’ by the Burn powers-that-be – and even the occasional abandoned trailer or bus.
If you can, try catch a ride with someone who has a 4×4. But if that’s not an option for you, fear not – you can do it in a smaller car (my boyfriend Cavan and I managed it in a VW Polo). Just take it slow and make sure you have a spare wheel (or two).
Seriously – right down to your own toilet paper. It’s called radical self-reliance, and it’s camping like you’ve never done it before.
We brought along some frozen meat and frozen pre-cooked meals to heat up on a skottel (which we also lugged all the way there), but ended up eating far less than we planned. Naturally, I tried to bring along a few veggies, but after a few days, they were soggy and gross, even though we topped up the ice in the cooler box religiously.
Take as much non-perishable food as you can manage. Sometimes grabbing a granola bar on your way to a show or a burn is way easier than attempting to cook up a meal.
Also – water! We stocked up on about 8 five-litre bottles for the two of us, and we used up most of them for drinking, cooking, dishes and the occasional foot wash (sometimes the dust between your toes just gets a bit much…)
Of course, you’ll also need shelter, so rustle up a tent that can withstand the occasional dust storm. The wind really picks up there, so don’t skimp on those pegs and guy ropes.
More words to live buy – everything you bring, you have to take back. Even your rubbish! There are no bins provided by the organisers, so bring along a roll of plastic bags, and make sure you have space for a couple of filled ones in the car when you leave. Pro tip: use your empty 5-litre water bottles as little bins for small recyclables.
There’s so much more I could say on this – but check out the official Survival Guide for more.
This is no Rocking the Daisies or OppiKoppi. Believe me that when I say there won’t be a food truck in sight. Yes, there will be Burners cooking up pancakes and maybe even burgers or hotdogs, but these theme camps are few and far between, and they won’t keep you going for the Burn.
If you have food and drinks you want to keep chilled, you can buy 5kg packs of ice for a cool R50 – which is how we (mostly) keep all the food we brought along fresh.
The upside of this is that all your experiences – those yoga classes, meditation workshop, burlesque shows – are completely free. So please don’t ask the good folk running them how much it costs – you’ll only offend them!
No electricity, no water – no showers, kids! But really, a couple of packs of wet wipes for a little wipe down every morning and night will be all you need.
Also, ladies – dry shampoo. Really.
Of course, you can set aside a bit of your water for the occasional sponge bath (I saw a girl shaving her legs over a bucket out the boot of her car – that’s dedication, right?). And if you’re feeling really adventurous, a handful of theme camps have set up ingenious mass shower contraptions open during certain hours of the day. The only requirement? You gotta be butt-naked, please.
In the sometimes sweltering heat of the day, Burners will frolic through the dust in their undies (or less). But come night time, the temperature drops fast. At once point, I was out and about in thermal leggings and shirt, a onesie and my bomber jacket – accessorised with some fairy lights for good measure.
When you’re done with your night-time wanderings, you’ll also want plenty of extra blankies to keep you cosy in your tent. Trust me on this – a sleeping bag is not enough.
Like I said, it’s not a barter economy, so you’re not expected to trade something for the various theme camp offerings. Still, it’s lovely to be able to give something in return for the beautiful face painting you’ve just received.
Some folks will bring along a bulk pack of biscuits of hand out, others will give you hand-made bracelets. Heck, one girl even handed out little handwritten inspirational quotes like a human fortune cookie. What you gift is up to you!
And not just at those marvellous mass showers I mentioned earlier. Anything goes at Burn, and some folks opt to parade around in their birthday suits. If this makes you uncomfortable, it could be a deal-breaker.
For plenty of Burners, becoming your fancy-dress alter ego is what it’s all about. Just this year I saw an unnervingly realistic-looking unicorn, Gandalf and even Donald Trump.
If full-on cosplay is not your thing, you’ll be safe with some fairy wings, a flower crown and some pretty jewels for your face – but you’ll probably be one of the most normal-looking folks there!
The Tankwa skies put on a spectacular display at dusk – and its when all the cool stuff happens! Theme camps often schedule their coolest offerings to happen as the sunsets, so be sure to put on your finest and parade around the Binnekring for G&T’s, sangria, snacks and shows.
Social niceties and societal etiquette don’t really apply in Tankwa Town. It’s all about inclusion, and other Burners won’t be shy about asking you to help put the finishing touches on their artwork, paint some faces or put up their tent.
You can even volunteer in a more official capacity and help greet people at the gate, help at one of the support tents or even – if you’re feeling very altruistic – help empty out the Thrones (aka the porta-loos).
One of the few rules of the Burn is that no Burner is a spectator – everyone is crew. Being a part of something so spectacular in any way – no matter how small – is probably the most rewarding experience of all.