Words by Gernus Oosthuizen on June 1, 2019
Rising like a dusty mirage out of the Karoo heat, there’s a city that many call home. It’s a manifestation of our collective imagination and the culmination of our collective efforts. It comes and goes, and ebbs and flows. It’s transient, temporary and transitory. It’s neither here, nor there.
It is real in its unrealness.
“Out of nothing, we created everything.”
~ Larry Harvey
The 1st of May marked a departure from the homes we knew – homes that were but shelters from the mundane routine, scheduled frustrations, and the carefully woven expectations of an everyday existence. Those patterns of living that were dictated by a norm-bound society. The heralds to this journey were two passionate souls who carried the memories of our country’s very own Neverland – AfrikaBurn. And with a cosmic sky still very much unfurled to reveal the early morning hour, we were about to embark on our very own flight past the second star to the right…
There was a city that had risen, founded not by one, but by many. Created not by one, but by all. And we were about to make our own impression upon this oasis that had shifted into exisence out of of the ether of a collective imagination.
My escort comprised of a beautiful, engaged couple. She was an incandescent desert blossom that flowered at the behest of the Burn’s annual clarion call – a Rose of Jericho that went against its nature, reviving itself under the beating desert sun instead of the rain. He was a staunch warrior of the open plain. Rock-solid he withstood the elements with a great anticipation to challenge. Reliable, and quiet in strength, his marvel at detail was as fluid as the very spirit of the Burn (he was often distracted, but so are the best of us).
And I was the wallflower (one of many, I was sure). I was an observer, a watcher in the wait… the world unfolded in its own beautiful and gradual pace, and I merely sought to be the scribe that could recount the memories of sensory ecstasy that I was bound to encounter in the place where wild things roam.
The road to Tankwa Town was littered with the characteristic traces of its many journeymen: courage, endurance, grit, patience… It was marked by surrealist anticipation, eager escapism, and a million dreams tempered into the 12 hours that encompassed the duration of the journey from my own home.
My mind was busy cultivating that keen sense of receptiveness to make this experience significant. AfrikaBurn appeared to offer a perfect milieu to transcend the borders for one’s internal and external limitations; though it did not promise it. AfrikaBurn was not a therapeutic orchestration to help tame your inner demons (god, it seemed more likely they would be let loose to roll in the dust than be reigned in!). It was a created space. More importantly, it was a space that you created. You were the Burner that in your expression became the Burn itself. What you received almost entirely relied on what you were willing to give. There was an element of universal reciprocity deeply entertwined in the potential value that AfrikaBurn held for its desert wanderers. Change and answers did not always result from active deliberation and purpose-driven seeking. Sometimes, it came from patience and an openness to unfolding events and circumstances. A surrender to the unpredictability of the universe, to state it differently.
Tankwa Town was a creation that phased into its nebulous glory from the communal effort of an ever-changing group of people. And AfrikaBurn was the event that called these spirited folk together from the different corners of the world. There was a survival guide: the Biblical guide of the avid Burner…and in this compendium was put forth the 11 guiding principles of this regional gathering (tracing its influence from the renowned Burning Man event):
As soon as our wheels bit into the ancient dust leading to the gates of the event, the reality of the unreal already began to take root into the virgin soil of my Burner spirit… Pulled off to the side was a convoy that was transporting another set of rare denizens to the hidden town, all of whom were gesturing embraces for our arrival to the final leg of our journey.
The last hour and a half to Tankwa Town was an unforgiving gravel road that dug its claws into your nerves as much as it did your tyres. The metaphorical troll under the bridge, the dirt path was merciless to the unprepared and impatient. Fair to say, that none was however so tested as the driver of our small trio. Steady, attentive and mindful, his penchant for safety and awareness eventually brought us to the promised land where many awaited to gain entry. The Karoo city edged into view through the whitewashed blur of the horizon, as the towering clan sculpture (symbol of the collective) cut a mark on the troposphere, surrounded by the traces of a new civilization.
And at the gates were the first whimsical wanderers weaving their way between the newcomers. Three things became readily apparent at AfrikaBurn before we truly even nestled ourselves at its heart:
What struck me the most was that I was not taken aback by the clear childlike glee, wonder and curiosity I was starting to feel. It was more akin to a natural state. It felt like a comfortable means of worldly interaction. In fact, it was a mindset into which I slipped so easily, that it was something I remained unaware of during most of my time at the Burn.
After the administrative entry into the event, it was tradition to hit the tribal gong that acted as the waypost to the first street into the ethereal city. With a deep, sonorous and resounding vibration sent through the late afternoon and across the dusty plains, I missioned ahead with my companions to set up camp.
The streets bustled with the commotion of settled Burners, many of whom had long since adorned their nude apparel and traded in other miscellaneous pieces of clothing for unique adornments (against which common office policies would clearly hold some reservations – they were thriving). A lone wanderer adorned with leggings touched by Midas kicked up dust through one of the turns in the road, with an unbuttoned waistcoat made of faux leather hugging a sunkissed torso. Wild offspring dotted the pathways on another turn, with sagelike souls watching on as the sun was being drawn across the sky to kiss the west…
We winded almost aimlessly through the streets branching from the Buitekring, and finally procured a temporary spot to settle into our camp. The event was a survivalist gathering at its simplest when it came to entrenchment. The nearly inhospitable Tankwa did not offer any of the creature comforts one may have grown accustomed to. Food, water, and shelter were not a given of the gathering; it was crucial to be self-reliant. And with millennia of hunter-gatherer knowledge lost to the ignorant and modern mind, preparation was key in order to ensure you were able to enjoy other opportunities to connect with a more intuitive inner vestige of your primal self.
After the work was done, we ventured forth into the beckoning twilight. We brandished a couple of backpacks, drinks in hand, and found our footfalls marking out a path to our very first temple burn.
The setting sun and stretching shadows were awaking all manner of desert spirits from their sheltered abodes on that night of our arrival. Young and old were being drawn like moths to the burning edifice on the the Tankwa open plain (dubbed ‘Binnekring’ in Afrika, based on the ‘playa’ in Nevada). The Temple of /Xam was alrighty set alight after three years of gracing the Burn. It was an artistic tribute brought to the space by Kim Goodwin and his team, the Dandylions, in 2016 – in honour of the rugged beauty and enduring culture of the Khoi-San, the First Nations People of South Africa. It signified the memory of a people that has endured despite the onslaught of time, much like the hand-woven wattle structure had withstood the severe winds and scorching heat of the Karoo for many years. And in its burning, it too became a memory in all its symbolism, with the burn a silent tribute to the dignified strength and the lasting power of an ancient culture that it sought to emulate.
Temporary, transient, and transcending…
As embers drifted up toward the sky to spark the kindle of twilight dreams and evening lustre, the impermanence of it all was moving… Eternal structures were reduced to a memory by mortal hands, and ash soon layered itself among the old dirt of an eternal plain. For a moment it all seemed in reach, and then it was destined to forever be unattainable to generations that would build upon the memories burned upon the playa.
And then came the longing: invoked by a consuming desire to rematerialise that lost piece of man made wonder that had never once occupied my mind in the three years of its desert vigil. For truly, it was not the structure, but what it represented in its endearing beauty… a beauty by which many Burners had passed with idle footfalls and attentive marvel, and with thoughts only teasing at the deeper meaning intended by the artist. And as smoke drifted into dark, and the dark drifted over the plain, the night came alive with light and music as Tankwa Town set its sights to howling at the many promises of another desert night. For even tributes of silence reach their end, much like a cacophony of artistry eventually seeks its silence. But the party had only just begun!
In that madness we saw the moon kissing the earth…
We saw an angel kneeling in the dark…
And in that humble benediction where celestial bodies play in the dust, we were annointed with a deepened awareness of the vivacious nature underlying that wild exploration of the world, where the seeking of magic guides the attention through softly illuminated tent openings, dimly let corners, and in and among the mysterious creatures breaking and reforming their gatherings – all at the whims of the ethereal magics swirling amidst echoing noises and flashing lights.
Change can happen…
After tapping into the beautiful dischord of so many shifting sorceries, we eventually headed back to camp after a long day. Nestled into a quiet little street, far from the loud zone and the Binnekring where the desert fandango remained eternal, we were taking care of our vessels in the preparation for the the many adventures of a dawning day. Eventually our small company would soon drift apart for the night. Our noble diver turned in, and the last of our company turned our gazes to an open and undimmed star bespeckled cosmos. Among the stars we traced the now forgotten words of brilliant philosophies, life-changing epiphanies and the million pipe dreams that filled our kaleidoscopic minds…and in those acts of complete mental surrender, we hoped that AfrikaBurn would give purchase for our wild imaginations to take root.