I’m 71. An old fart who lives alone in the Magaliesberg mountains with two border collies. I get the occasional paying guest for a weekend that pays for the dog food. My wife died years ago but still takes care of me from Heaven. This story confirms that. It could not have happened without divine intervention.
Liesl was one of my weekend guests. Warm and loving she made her retired medical professor partner a happy man. As happens we got to chat. And knowledge of AfrikaBurn entered my world. She’d been six times and intends to do more. The prof said it was awful. Being a serious music man he called it 24/7 sonic pollution. Will never go again. But insisted I attended at least once. A bucket list item. Being past my threescore and ten means I am already into overtime. Time to explore further before it is too late. The trap was set.
Like everything in the connected world Mr Google provided a website. Lots of detail and pictures. Looks like crazy people go there. After a life in the stiff collar and tie corporate world this was definitely outside of my established realm. The website provided contact details. Nothing ventured nothing gained.
Enter The Tim by email. He needs no title because he does everything. Legend has it that if a computer is not working he simply has to stand next to it to get it functional again. He also has great communication skills. I need electric power for my sleep machine. Being very averse to fossil fuels I thought of a small solar panel to charge a battery. I read on the website that gifting is a key principle. I have no money so what can I give? The Tim provides the answer. I ask if charging cellphones is a good idea. There is no coverage in the desert but photos are taken all the time. He explodes with enthusiasm on steroids. The Power of the Sun theme camp is born. I do not know what he eats for breakfast but he’s a positive guy. My fate is sealed. From now on this adventure is all his fault. He acknowledges this with happy glee. He has broad shoulders.
As a preamble so as not to waste anyone’s time let me share what I now know. No words or pictures can capture the magic of the Burn.
If you don’t like dust you must attend. Every day you will have sand in your hair. You will gripe for a week along with the sparkle ponies. More about them later. Your campsite should be situated alongside the big generators used for the Loud Zone. That way no one will notice the whining. Similarly if you are fond of flush toilets. Those provided are excellent at preserving the natural flora but offer visual pleasures that take a little getting used to if you weren’t born on a farm with a long drop. And noise. If you are hoping for spiritual peace in a silent desert this place is perfect for you. Just bring top of the range noise cancelling headphones. This place rocks for a week, full time.
If I haven’t frightened you off the story gets better. Much better. If you’re looking on the map for Tankwa Town you won’t find it. It only exists when thirteen thousand like-minded people assemble from all over the world. And some from other planets even. If you’ve seen the Star Wars movie you will have met some of the characters in the pub in a galaxy far, far away.
The Survival Guide offered on the website is priceless. The bit about travelling by road is spot on. Which is the only way to start the experience of Tankwa Town. The dust and the ever-present risk of a shredded tyre sharpens the mind in preparation for a visit down Alice’s rabbit hole. Bring your own mushrooms.
In the default world you may meet one or two interesting people. In the Tankwa you will meet a whole kaleidoscopic bucketful. And they’re all fascinatingly different. With no coverage no one has their noses buried in a cellphone. And no TV or the movies to distract them. Suddenly you will discover humans from planet Earth without interruption. The eleven Burn principles are well thought out and program the entire audience into a fascinating script. Together they do not demand but rather suggest friendliness, openness and an environment built on giving rather than self-gratification. They deliver it all in spades. Arrogance is left at the end of the tar road coming in. The next one hundred and twenty dusty kilometers condition your brain for its new home.
After three months of growing a long white beard Solar Santa is ready to participate. His able assistant Rudolph the Red-nosed Impala is ready. Thanks to Wessel the electronics magician his nose glows on and off. And the entire electrical package has been designed and built thanks to him. Solar panels that fit in my little car. A fancy controller to ensure we don’t cook the deep cycle battery. An inverter that provides 220 volt AC power cleaner than Eskom. And hundreds of LED lights powered from the big battery with magic to get the voltage right. New tyres on the car for peace of mind.Water, food, tent, gazebo, groundsheets. Houston we are ready for lift-off to another world.
I arrive two days early in the evening. I have an early entry pass to prepare my Theme Camp. After the mountains and the awesome Bloukranspas this is flat desert floor. The gate is operational as are the computers checking my credentials online. Out of nowhere The Tim emerges. The email name has a friendly face. With pink armband confirming I’m legitimate to enter, the show begins. The Tankwa bells are rung but being old I decline to roll in the dust as a first timer. Getting up again might be difficult. The huge site is a beehive of activity. Roads are well marked but I lose my bearings. Enter Etienne the superstar. He has brought 5 ton truckloads and 130 people to the Burn. The Alienz Coffee Shop is my neighbor. Free coffee for a week. Love that generous man. He has 1.2 tons of milk and 183 big bottles of instant coffee. And cappuccino coffee machines. And tea. And to finish that story he serves twenty eight thousand cups during the week. And puts on music shows, yoga classes and a fashion parade under his ginormous tents. All for free. This guy loves people big time. I find this out immediately when I stop at his tent to ask for directions. He drops everything and takes me personally to my site. I’m home and getting the feel for this place and its people. The weather has also been hospitable, but I’ll soon realise how fast this can change.
The air is still in the early morning as I set up camp. Sonica the Theme Camp Coordinator arrives to give me sage advice. This beautiful talented lady sets out the whole town every year. The desert is pristine when she starts. The global footprint remains the same but the sites vary depending on the participants and their needs. I don’t know any town planners who build a town every year, but differently. And then drive around to make sure it all works. Bear in mind we’re talking about thirteen thousand people. If they could vote as a unit we’d have a whole new government. She advises me that the wind will pick up later in the day. The gazebo must lose its canopy or it will be wrecked. And the tiedowns must be improved. Thank God I listen to this wonderful lady. My other neighbours are a stunt film crew who have been six times before. Gideon provides a generator, electric jackhammer, fourteen pound hammer and a sharpened rebar stake big enough to frighten little children. Sonica arrives a second time with Ranger Minstrel and Christiaan to check that I’ve listened and I’m secure. This mighty anchor saves my bacon. My entire camp including the tent get attached to it along with my puny tiedowns. And then the wind arrives to initiate me. It’s galloped for miles collecting dust and grit. And has eyes only for my tent opening it seems. Luckily the sleeping bag is still zipped. It blows solidly for 24 hours. It will take a long time back home to restore my sandy home.
This place is all about talented people. The artworks are magnificent but they don’t create or build themselves. If people are not your bag stop reading further. The real value as seen through my old eyes is about to begin.
It’s daybreak. I step out of my tent into the cool morning air. Yesterday Asanda has visited to charge his laptop batteries. He’s a mobile DJ and the computer contains his music. This morning he is outside with a young lady. Isabel introduces herself as a photographer. And she wants my picture. She’s from Belgium. Little do I know she is world famous. I spend fifteen minutes with poor Asanda moving back and forth with the fill in flash until Isabel is satisfied with her light settings. I am her first victim for the day and she is thorough. She produces a notebook and promises a copy of the picture. I have now enjoyed my fifteen minutes of fame. Only on the playa.
The middle-aged couple are from Amsterdam. I ask them about legal cannabis. To my surprise you get arrested if you grow indoors or have more than 5 plants. The police patrol the streets in winter looking for roofs without snow. A dead giveaway that there are strong lights inside. They produce cannabutter to make cookies. They have lots of friends.
Young Victor is eleven. Smart kid. He brings his phone to charge. I learn that he has helped build the dung beetle. A recycling plant that converts plastic to useful stuff like diesel fuel cleverly disguised as an artwork. He steps in as my camp technical adviser to help people with different chargers and connectors while I tour around on my bicycle. Sadly he’s emigrating to Ireland. The playa will miss him.
Carla is from Liverpool. Distinctive accent. An operating theatre nurse. Says she’s a Scouser. Come to party but worried about her sick father back home. She gives me a bracelet which I’m still wearing.
Henry comes to charge his camera batteries. A parabat who served at the sharp end on the border to enable us to sleep safely at night. Forgotten history about real heroes. They won’t get their names on street signs but they don’t care. 760 free fall parachute jumps in civvy street out of completely airworthy aeroplanes. Madness. And two Springbok daughters to make him proud. If we go to war again I want to be on his side.
Ranger Pica Pau is my neighbor in Etienne’s camp. A four times Burning Man veteran he has arrived from Arkansas via Brazil. An electrical engineer. He makes me an iced drink with real limes . Perfect drink for the desert. He plays a machine he built called a theremin. A synthesizer built in the 30’s but updated with modern electronics. While watching him play I meet Durian. He’s from Southern California and is playing a hand made adjustable flute. He gifts me an Ethiopian whistle which he tells me was designed in 3000 BC. Made of ceramic, it is gold plated. Plays with little holes for different notes. The professor at the beginning of this story will be getting the surprise of his life.
I slept with 3 beautiful women. One of them snored. I have to be honest and admit that they were in the tent next to mine. Sorry studs. Wendy cleaned my sand caked site because she could not stand it. She’s OCD and I had an immaculate site after she arrived. Teru made me moerkoffie every morning and Kim gave big hugs. My cup runneth over.
Uschi is a middle-aged fraulein from Germany with a wicked sense of humour. Her partner Peter wore the lederhosen she brought out for him. He could speak German and had to translate the raunchy folk songs she played for me on her phone while laughing her head off. She was a regular customer for battery charging and always gave big hugs. Her Theme Camp served iced lemonade which was also a big plus in the hot desert.
Lebo and Nonnie turned up for phone charging. A chartered accountant from Jozi we discussed the attitude towards black people on the playa. But for one or two unpleasant incidences he said the overwhelming response was positive. The new South Africa at its best. A big proportion of the crowd is from all corners of the world. But most are white, hence my question to Lebo.
Kim is a stunt lady. Her latest escapade was to drive a fridge for a beer commercial. She and Craig, Gideon, Don and Charlotte built an amazing machine called Giddy towed by a driverless quad bike to tour the playa.
Nathan built Skop. How they got the ball in the middle so perfect is amazing. Took 4000 screws and nails to hold it all together.
Ran is an Israeli. He’s a cynical saint from from Tel Aviv – a qualified social worker dealing with rehabilitating drug-addicted youngsters.
The Cave Man is from Lourdes in France. He charges his phone and insists on giving me a medallion of the Virgin Mary from his holy hometown. As a Catholic this is special.
The unnamed lady doctor stayed while her phone charged. We discussed pain relief for old farts like me. Surprisingly non-pharmaceutical medicine was on her list. Cannabis research is in its infancy and growing. She offered me a cannabis cookie which I declined. The day before a young Canadian with a Masters degree in the subject spoke at the 72 Virgins Theme Camp about hallucinogens. She warned not to accept anything unless the dosage was known. Not wanting to risk paranoia, the cookie went uneaten.
Angelique from Piketburg worked at Arteria. While waiting for MOOP signoff she told me that the beautiful people who fly in are called sparkle ponies. Their camp is built for them at luxury level. It’s called Plug and Play and it’s not the spirit of the Burn. They spend their time being pretty and swooning when the dust gets into their highlighted hair. Fortunately a very tiny minority. [MOOP = Matter Out Of Place i.e. trash]
I met Skippie on a cold Tuesday morning. The tradition is called Tutu Tuesday. And he was wearing one that was little more than a cock sock and a skimpy frilly skirt. Enough to freeze his balls off but he insisted on being fashionable.
Their unlikely names are Kettles and Bongo and their lovely girls are Ilsa, Christina and Kayla. They are related to the Tim and I’m lucky to meet them. These folk make art, clean up, and do behind the scenes work to put it all together. The hidden heroes.
Touring around on my bicycle in the early morning I bump into Steven. Or more accurately his amazing steam engine quietly blowing black smoke into the air. . Coal fired boiler connected to an ancient stationary steam engine. Converted to make the wheels turn. And pull a trailer with a mini house. He knows about old machinery in the Karoo that should be in the history books.
Starseed Shirley gifts me tasty vegan rusks. She and Moon have brought electric scooters to tour the playa. A welcome relief from all the noisy and smelly fossil fueled mutants. And wonderfully pimped for the Burn.
Jimmy is the Alienz magician who built the lighthouse. Beautiful workmanship which withstood the mighty winds. It had multicoloured LEDs which changed colour automatically. A real beacon on the vast playa.
Vietnam is Theunis’ next port of call. He’s been on the Oasis build team and fills me in on the inner workings. The amount of work done to accomplish the beautiful art is amazing. And all done by volunteers working for free. No disruptive unions in this town.
Sparkie is the Alienz electrical wizard. He gets the cappuccino machines working for the whole week in hostile surroundings. And keeps the lights on unlike Eskom. I learn that his generators will consume 760 liters of petrol. All trucked in across 120 kilometers of hellish dirt road.
Nick the music man. He is super special. He has an empathy with his audience and gets them to join in. With only a guitar, a foot operated drum and cymbals he sang and got the crowd participating until his voice packed up. Justin the DJ did a fine job filling in the musical gaps. And on the next day the hand drummers made the jam session rock with the voiceless Nick on drum and guitar. The Tankwa song has new meaning.
The town is nearly empty. The show is over. A lone figure approaches along a road now deserted of tented inhabitants. “I’m Peter,” he introduces himself. He tells me he’s a local shepherd for 50 sheep. And describes the two highest mountain peaks on the horizon. Then to my enormous surprise he describes his attempts at cost effective solar power. This man is an electronics boffin disguised as a shepherd. Perfect fit in Tankwa Town.
Life on the playa is hard. Which is good. When the wind is whipping into your face like a sandblaster you double appreciate it when it doesn’t. Sleeping in a tent bouncing around and billowing at the seams makes the subsequent calm twice as nice. We went through not one but two 24 hour sandblasting sessions. Etienne at Alienz laughed and said it was all good. The softies packed up and went home. The real Burners stayed and bonded under adversity. His coffee shop never closed even when the wind threatened to blow the serious stretch tent away. And then the sky gods relented and gave us calm weather for the important part of the Burn.
Friday night was extra special. The Clan is an awesome spectacle. Beautifully designed and built it soared into the heavens. The mighty crowd roared when it finally burnt and fell.
The next night was even better. The Oasis Temple was a work of art. People from all over the world entered its magnificent arches and wrote on the walls. Special messages. Private so not repeated or photographed here. With meaning for the writers. I’d guess ten thousand people gathered to watch it burn. And for ten minutes before it was ignited there was total silence on the playa. Uncanny. One or two out of control people attempted to break the silence but were quickly shut up. That temple burnt to the ground slowly, not only as a symbol of how impermanent life is on this planet but also taking thousands of profound messages into the heavens.
The playa is a big open area dotted with these wonderful art pieces. After the Burn the crowd dissipated in every direction. Illuminated with LED lights the desert came alive with a presence that was palpable. That night I only made it to bed at 3am. The adrenaline was just too much and the weather was perfect.
I leave it to others who are better qualified to write about and provide pictures of the myriad beautiful artworks. And the fascinating hundred odd theme camps including the big music like Space Cowboys and the Steampunk Saloon.And the splendid mutant vehicles.
If you have read this far you will have gathered I met a lot of interesting people I would not have encountered anywhere else or all at one time. For me these interactions are what make the magic. There were many more than the above I used for illustration but the really special ones I have left for last.
The organizers are mostly invisible. They are smart people who would earn multiples of their salaries in the outside world. Dedicated to a common purpose. They are not selling anything but comradeship and love. No Kool-aid here. The art and music are the magnets that draw the crowds but the organization is what makes it work. I met some of these magnificent, crazy people. Travis Lyle has sleepless nights working with his team putting it all together. I was fortunate to meet him and was surprised he not only knew about me but also thanked me for my contribution.
Brian the DJ works the Tankwa Town FM radio station. Hard work. Nathan who has special hands and builds exquisite structures. And then cleans up thousands of nails and screws in the ashes. Noelline the Desert Queen who was my wrangler. With fourteen theme camps under her wing a tough task.
And then my super special people.
The Tim who’s fault it is that I was there at all. Long may you communicate as well as you do. And then Sonica. She blessed me with a site for an unproven rookie to die for. Right in show central on the playa. With the best coffee shop right next door.And excellent advice on how to set up camp properly.
Before leaving one has to undergo a MOOP inspection to ensure a welcome back next year. After I thought all I had left behind were my footprints the MOOP Master and Sonica found a handful of tiny rubbish. Like a single sequin. They have eyes like hawks.
And then my farewell surprise. Sonica and Tim take me to meet Jacqui. To my surprise she knows all about me. She takes off a pendant from around her neck that has survived six Burns. And gifts it to me. No one else has a Tankwa pendant with her DNA and a history like this. Like the days in the heavy winds I am blown away with such generosity. I love you all and please keep doing it. The planet and I need you.