Play at AfrikaBurn (or not)

The thing was supposed to be the experience of a lifetime, something to remember literally for-ever… Am I too old? (Maybe) Am I too blasé? (Could be)

AfrikaBurn is the South African version of Burning Man. It happens every year on a private farm in the Tankwa Karoo National Park in the Northern Cape Province since 2007. That’s where:

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As we were staying in Cape Town, the drive took a good few hours but was totally doable. You do have to slow down a lot on the last long stretch of dirt road at the end, which is boring but necessary. The ongoing sunset helped make the ride pleasant and otherworldly.

After queueing a bit to show our tickets and being given the usual festival bracelets, we were welcomed by very happy-loving and heavy-accented foreign volunteers who asked us if we were first-time Burners. Entrance for Burn virgins requires beating a big gong and rolling around on the floor to embrace the dust and the new and weird environment we had committed to stay in for the next 4 days. We complied. That was the easy part. Dark had settled. And now we had to find enough space to park the car and set up our tent (we NEVER do camping).  It was also past dinner time for the kids and for us (the CRISPS were delicious).

The next morning, the kids were pretty excited. Marlowe as a full-on cowboy pirate, Matilda more bashful as a hippyish black cat (yes).

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As it was our first time, we messed up a few things. The food we bought was only partially well chosen to last 4 days. We had bought melon, one of the things Burners say you should never ever buy as it smells quite quickly and you do have to keep all your trash with you until you leave the site. The batteries of our torches had not been checked and half of them were dead (and obviously we hadn’t brought more batteries with us). We didn’t sort out our ice, thinking we would just buy ice on site once (more on that later on). We bought red wine assuming it would be okay to drink it “room temperature”. It isn’t when the room you’re referring to is the desert, even in April.  But one thing we thought and did well was to buy a trolley in order to put our stuff for the day in: water, snacks, toys, books, map, jumpers, hats, sunscreen, more toy guns, you name it… The kids loved it and were pulling and pushing it around most of the time. They could even jump in it when they were really too tired.

On the official website, it is said that “AfrikaBurn is the spectacular result of the creative expression of participants who gather once a year in the Tankwa Karoo to create a temporary city of art, theme camps, costume, music and performance!” The event is centred on the construction of temporary artworks in a semi-desert environment, all built by committed volunteers and artists that gather, for some of them, 6 to 8 weeks before the beginning of the festival (remember it’s the desert, there is literally nothing around). Some of the artworks are burnt during the event, I think this year it started quite early, from the Tuesday, and kept going until the Sunday early morning. The rest is dismantled by the volunteers and artists that stay on site after the end of the festival.

So I was expecting a lot of art… And not so much music… I think that’s where the problem lay for me (more on that later too).

Anyway, some of the art was stunning. Our first day was dedicated to walk the site (it’s big!) and attempt to see most of it.

The burns we manage to attend were spectacular and always pretty mystical. People were gathering around them in silence and looking intently. Sometimes, on the contrary, there would be a mutant vehicle blasting techno music right next to it, with a crowd of people dancing around it, and it would suddenly turn into a very hedonistic and pagan celebration.

Part of the fun resided in the costumes -or absence of- sported by many attendees. It makes it super interesting for the kids to see that you can dress (or not) the way you want and nobody gives a shit about it.

Also some of the mutant vehicles authorized on site were pretty crazy. You do have to admit that some adults at AfrikBurn have a very creative side that totally expands on an occasion like this. I think my favourite is still the sushi moped (because you really have to be dedicated to just get inside it). And the flying carpet -which we had a ride on- looked pretty cool too.

The theme for AfrikaBurn this year was Play. The theme is intended as a point of possible connection, or inspiration for the art or performance on site but is not enforced. As it was our first Burn, I can’t really say how much people got actually inspired by the theme this year.

By analogy to the Man at Burning Man, the main sculpture of the event is called the San Clan. It is supposed to be the best burn of the week and, especially for this edition, everyone was really looking forward to attending it because it had been built by the same team as a previous year where the San Clan had burned by stages and had ended up moving and transforming itself while burning. Unfortunately, this year, the burn was postponed because first it wasn’t ready and then again because of the wind. So we ended up missing it as it was eventually scheduled super early in the morning on our last day.

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Again because AfrikaBurn is a regional Burning Man event, it adheres to its ten principles, and even have one more, which are: Communal Effort, Participation, Civic Responsibility, Immediacy, Decommodification, Gifting, Leaving No Trace, Radical Inclusion, Radical Self-Reliance, Radical Self-Expression and Each One Teach One.

The 11th principle, Each One Teach One, was added to encourage the sharing of knowledge throughout the community, in order to ensure the uptake of culture matches the growth in numbers.

These principles are genuinely great but verging on utopian, to be honest. It would be totally amazing if all the Burners followed them, but unfortunately, and maybe because of the numbers growing and of the crazy party-goers coming just for the weekend (It was mushroom heaven, people), it was far from being the case, especially regarding Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace (and I am not talking just about condom packaging) and Each One Teach One.

But the spirit of the event was still there, everywhere, in the spontaneous Gifting that some people did all along the event, in the artworks that were built out of love for weeks before the event officially opened to the “ordinary” Burners, in the long hours worked by each volunteer and ranger on site helping the people in need and checking that everything was going smoothly and in the theme camps that were symbols of what a group of people gathering could do creatively and humanly when they unite.

Even though we didn’t have the chance to fully make the most of them – shame about the CEXx camp 😉 -, the theme camps helped show us what it is to be part of a community and share with others, on a free, totally altruistic vibe. Major theme camps this year were Alienz Coffee Shop, Birthday Suits, Burning Mail, Camp Pompei 2017, Flow Arts Commune, Le Petit Paris, New Beginnings, Sweet Love Cinema, The Pancake People, The Purple Spanking Booth T, The Steampunk Saloon, The Underpants Hotel, Plays Gone Wild and many more.

The kids spent 2 afternoons at the Plays Gone Wild camp, met with lovely people there and performed in the play that had been written on site. Decor was built on site too.

Let’s be honest here, some things were not good: the non-stop rave music was a pain in the neck (and it relieves me to know that so many long-time Burners complained about it this year – I felt less old), the so-called ice selling point was always packed and a failure and a waste of time, the times of events and burns were, even if they had warned about it, all very approximate and you would learn about something amazing too late (sometimes you would discover it on the AfrikaBurn Facebook group weeks after!).

But would I go back and change a few things to make the experience better? Possibly. It is clearly written on their website that it is a NO spectator event. It is all about participation. And it is something I lacked doing, perhaps because I felt intimidated and overwhelmed (I did organise an improvised “gift” by giving a lift to a volunteer who had spent the previous 6 weeks in the desert building an artwork and had ended up at hospital for a week after having her leg crushed by a cherry picker – she was so happy to go back, even on crutches, bless her). Anyhow, I truly believe that the experience would be amazing with good and fun friends around (and bikes to ride around at any time of the day and night, and the right amount of alcohol in the system!).

For beautiful photos by Michael Groenewald, go there.

For a very accurate review of AfrikaBurn by Ned Kilgannon, go there.

For a hilarious post on how to survive not going to AfrikaBurn by Matthew Barge, go there.

 

For a cool video published by Seabas , go there.

For a deep-house mix by C.M.A., go there.

Enjoy!

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