– words and photos by Sarah Duff
The sun was slowly setting over the vast Karoo horizon, turning the sky from apricot-orange to fuschia-purple as I danced with thousands of costumed people to music streaming from a purple bus and a mobile pirate ship. A massive gyrating skeleton towered over us while our feet kicked up clouds of dust from the cracked desert floor. Day turned into night and all around us Tankwa Town lit up in pulsating rainbow-coloured LED lights underneath a blanket of stars in a sky so big you can see the curvature of the Earth.
This was Saturday at AfrikaBurn, the biggest night of the annual festival in the Karoo desert near Cape Town. A few hours later we gathered together again to watch artworks built just for the festival go up in flames in beautifully primal ceremonies.
As the organisers say, ‘For those that have been no explanation is necessary, for those that haven’t none is possible.’ It’s hard to put AfrikaBurn into words. It defies a simple definition. It’s not a trance party or music festival or a gathering of hippies. It’s a temporary surreal world built by everyone who makes the long trek into the middle of nowhere. Each year, for six days, a town is constructed in the Tankwa Karoo where money means nothing and 6500 festival-goers create their own magic: there are amazing artworks, performances, bands, DJs, dance floors, yoga classes, swimming pools, pop-up cocktail bars, pancake stands, a post office and many more interactive experiences, all for free. Once the festival is over, everything is packed up and there’s no trace left to indicate that anything happened
I’d been to AfrikaBurn last year for the first time, not knowing what to expect, and was completely overwhelmed by it. This year was no different. Even though I had an idea of what was in store, it still blew my mind.
I watched an incredibly beautiful burning performance set to ethereal music, where animal structures were set on fire and manipulated like puppets, got absorbed by 3D glasses in a holographic tunnel of lights, drank chilli vodka out of a pink plastic penis attached to a motorbike, learnt to shower with a 500ml water bottle, ran screaming into the night with my cape flowing behind me, hugged strangers, made new friends, bonded with old friends, got lost in the dark of the Binnekring and stumbled upon artworks I could never find again and danced for five days straight (next to a mobile cocktail bar pumping out music at sunset, inside a string of LED lights in the middle of nowhere, on top of the purple bus, underneath a wooden man with glowing red eyes, inside the Miniscule of Sound – a tiny dance floor inside a shiny cardboard box with a mirror ball warmed by a flamethrower, under lasers that looked like the Northern Lights, next to a cheese grater and on top of a moving purple snail. I got a message from the universe inside a crunchie, a grape ice lolly on a hot afternoon from a small boy, a handmade pouch filled with seeds to plant bonsai, an ice cold beer from a medieval soldier out in the desert and red wine from a cart playing electro music at sunset.
We survived dust storms, extreme heat and dryness, chillingly cold nights and no running water and created a town with no hierarchy and no point other than the temporary experience. AfrikaBurn allows you to completely let go – whether that means getting naked or wearing a bizarre costume or dancing the funky chicken. That everyone subscribes to the ethos of the festival and in their own way participates makes me feel optimistic about the potential for society to improve. It’s uplifting, inspiring and changes your perspective more than anything else can.
I returned home with dust-encrusted dreadlocked hair, an incredibly sore body and a bag full of gifts I will treasure, already planning my costumes and contributions for next year, thinking about how I can incorporate a bit of the magic, generosity and community spirit of AfrikaBurn into the ‘real’ world.