(words: Graeme Allan, photos: Edwin Angless & Conrad Lattimer)
Crew wrangler Graeme Allan relates Part II of the Great Vlam Trek – in which our intrepid nutters set up and tackle the daunting tasks involved in making the show come together. Read on!
Now we get some seriously heavy weather at AfrikaBurn, but it pales in significance to how much this fine alkaline dust alongside the heat can destroy everyone. It gets in everywhere and just doesn’t let go of you. It rules the place and defines the place. It puts you on your knees – drinking loads of water is still not enough, you still dehydrate. You need to rehydrate by replacing electrolytes and salts (Really? More salt?!!!!!).
That first day we placed the container on our designated site where we were to build our artpieces. We commandeered a vehicle from a passing Burner and hauled our tent and camp things a kilometer to our camp at 2pm and Esplanade where we joined Fractal Planet as one of 7 invited festival producers. By early evening our very own DPW stretch tent was up – and just in time, as a storm hit. It began to rain with strong cold winds that quickly chilled one to the bone. We had gotten lucky. The Playa closes when it rains. It did not open up for another 24 hours. The destruction to the surface when wet is too great, so everything just stands still. I have been to Burning Man 3 times before this. That first time in 2006, in order to contribute and participate, the 12 of us dressed up as giraffes. I remember then the standard refrain as we towered around: “What! Giraffes from South Africa, really? South Africa? No way!”
AfrikaBurn was then founded in 2007 and after much involvement in our own event, I only returned to Burning Man in 2011. We continued the tradition – this time with 22 people dressed in zebra suits. For some reason, the connection of these quizzical, comical caricatures of African animals stuck and you could hear as the dazzle of zebras passed: ‘Oh there go the South Africans”. In 2012 we went en masse and with our latest caricature, a sounder of 34 warthogs. The South African contingent contributed to a camp called Liquid Baptism where we hosted an Interspecies Watering Hole party gifting Amarula drinks. The warthogs were joined by zebras from 2011 and some remaining giraffes from 2006.
But this year, due to the magnitude of this project, the publicity and due to the runaway success of AfrikaBurn, we were famous. Everywhere we went, all who we met, knew who we were. The gushing thanks of what we had brought to the Playa and what we were achieving at AfrikaBurn was quite overwhelming and very special. We had some setbacks – the Egg that was to be built by the intrepid International Mega Crew (they built the magnificent Temple in 2011) was not made due to their own project compressing their time and energies. Mission creep – it’s a bitch! They did their best to try and sort it out, but it was necessary for the Fata Morgana build crew to finish what was incomplete. Retrospectively we should have just forgone the Egg, but the vision had always been surprise and we wanted the final run of Lizzie the T-Rex to be as envisioned.
With casualties along the way, we moved towards the Friday night show. The DMV Trike was called upon many times a day to take our crew suffering from fatigue or dust inhalation and dehydration to the Rampart (an air-conditioned field hospital set up for such eventualities). A few days before the opening of Burning Man, I also succumbed and had to be evacuated to Reno to recover from bacterial pneumonia after suffering from exhaustion and heat stroke from the previous days of labour, stress and exposure to sun and dust. This added to the pressure for the team getting ready for the final show. 3 days later after finishing the antibiotic course prescribed, I luckily felt fit enough to return.
I had somehow managed to uncouple my emotions from the outcome and this made the pressures of performing and getting ready for the show much more manageable. Burning Man, I think more than AfrikaBurn, throws something of yourself back at you to deal with. It happens to everyone who attends. It’s intense. It’s a kind of spiritual dismembering. One has to deal with unrelenting issues with dust and sensory overload that break you down. At the same time you are overjoyed beyond belief, the FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) for some can be debilitating. I think the cause of this is because of three things:
You cannot even begin to see all that is on offer. So much of it can remain hidden; whatever you want to experience will be there, somewhere! All inclinations, all subcultures are catered for in part or on a scale that is sometimes hard to comprehend when you are standing right in front of it. These experiences are often only appreciated or fathomed when thinking upon them or while visiting photos much later. The immersion into it is like peeling onion layers away – the more you do, the more you expose and the more you confront, the more you accept. The only way you can get through it all without losing it, is to surrender to all the feelings that bubble up from within.
Friday dawns – with much work under our belt, all-nighters for some, benders for others, sickness overcome and others barely alive, we start prepping for the show. By this stage, after running the Pendulum daily and gaining permission to blow anvils, we had been given Burn permits to do whatever we like, whenever we like. We have the complete trust of the Fire and Safety team. If only they knew what an unruly lot we are! We check the weather and after receiving the all clear we start setting up the pyro. This consists of dowsing all the sculptures with kerosene, which we have to do in the container. When Burning Man talks about Leave No Trace they aren’t kidding – NOTHING can touch the ground, this includes grey water and of course kerosene.
The show is a truly collaborative effort – camp managers prepared our meal and we hastily ate it. The Burn perimeter crew – made up from all nationalities, from camps all over Burning Man – numbered 46. The perimeter was set and an Art Car sporting a Funktion One sound system to provide amplification for the soundtrack that was to be DJ’d live arrived. A few phenomenal fire performers wandered in and took their places on top of the Vlam container and finally the performers and safety crew who numbered 24 were in place.
Everything was ready to rock.
(More, you say? Well alright – Part III is here)