Words: KNSNTZ & VWLZ
You got a ticket? Hot damn, well done. You’ve taken the first step into the unknown, and are about to cross a line, on the other side of which everything will be different*.
Now starts the work. It’s not going to be easy – but then nothing worthwhile ever is. It won’t be a comfortable experience – but hey, no adventure in the desert will be. It’s hot, dusty, and there are some wild critters out there that think you’re lunch, or the enemy. Them’s the breaks: it’s not designed to cater to those who want luxury and convenience. If it’s another craft-beer-swilling-oyster-shucking-sushi-dipping-selfie-taking airkiss festival you’re keen on, you may want to reconsider your options at this point. This is not that.
By buying a ticket, you’ve invested in an adventure into the unknown – and yourself. Put on your big girl panties, strap on your safety belt and get ready for a wild ride, because it’s going to be challenging, physically and mentally. You may learn something as you ride into new territories you never knew existed. Or you may get bucked off and have a hard landing, but those are your odds when you buy that ticket. It may also be very, deeply, confusing or challenge your worldview. You might not even fully understand it until you process it all on your return, or until you go back. Sometimes, it works that way. It isn’t something that can be understood unless it’s experienced. Which is why some say that for those who have been, no explanation is necessary and for those who have not, none is possible. That’s a cliché, but where there’s smoke, there’s fire. And where you’re headed, there’s no shortage of fire…
So, you’ve got that ticket. Great. Now, start thinking, and the place to start is “What the hell am I getting myself into?”. To begin with, it’s not like any other event you’ve ever been to. It’s not a music festival. It’s not a carefree frolic in nature. It’s Africa’s largest outdoor art gallery, it’s a wildly creative experiment in community – and it’s a wild ride into the unknown.
Every time that shimmering chimera rises from the dust, it’s different. And it’s different precisely because unlike other events it’s not created the same way, each time. There’s a different theme every year – and there’s no knowing what the creative interpretations it will cough up, though they’re bound to blow your mind.
The only thing that’s the same is the grid of roads. The stuff that fills in the gaps is determined by you, and the other 11 700 people who embark on a long, hot, trying (and potentially dangerous) journey to create something amazing, just for the hell of it. Because that’s the nubbin: everyone that brings their project to the dust does it for the joy, the experience and for the smile it brings to a perfect stranger’s face. That’s gifting – and in a world saturated by the dynamics of no free lunch, it’s a very refreshing course in human nature at its best.
It’s not a consumer experience. Once you’re there, you can’t buy fokol – and you shouldn’t, even if someone offers to sell you something. If anyone does, tell them to go to hell and get with the programme, because there’s nothing, nada, niks, fokol for sale. OK, that’s not strictly speaking true. You can buy one thing, the most precious thing in the desert: ice. Other than that, what you get and give is all brought there for the purpose of giving, without expectation of anything in return. Oh, a girl in a tequila bottle costume gave you a shot of firewater? A guy in a hat gave you a 5-minute navel portrait? Lucky you. That’s a gift. Give a smile and accept it gracefully – that place isn’t a marketplace: you’re not expected to give anything in return. The value of a gift is in the giving – the only thing you owe anyone is kindness and care.
The format and ethos can be something of a shock to the system if you’re used to happy frolics where you can dip in, and if it gets a bit much, retire. There is no ‘retire’ – you’re in it, and it goes all week. There’s no ‘us’ and ‘them’ – there’s just all of you in it, together. Jump in both feet first, with gusto: you need to be committed. And once you do commit, an incredible world will unfold that will turn you and everything you knew on its head, in the most beautiful and rewarding way.
It’s a complete departure from capitalism, branding and advertising – all that noise that imposes itself upon you in your normal life is completely absent. Those are default practices, and they hold no water in the desert. So much so, that in a place where there are very few rules, they’re completely banned. Logos? Adverts pimping shit you don’t need at a price you can’t afford? Screw ‘em. They don’t belong. When you cross the line, you leave that all behind (and when you get back home, you’ll view them with a new sense of skepticism, as you should).
It’s not a zone where you’re valued by the clothes you wear, the car you drive or the school you went to. It’s a temporary autonomous zone, where the norm is absent and you’re free to do what you want, as long as it don’t hurt anybody or negatively affect their experience. It’s a blank canvas, where people can be people, regardless of colour, creed or credit cards. Screw all of that. Screw money. Screw status. Screw brands. And screw the rules they play by. They have no worth in that place. The only worth is the value of what you do, as a human, to make others’ experiences better.
But now that you have a ticket, and have some sense of what it’s not, turn your attention to the practical stuff. You’re headed into a desert where there are no stores, there’s no mobile phone network, there’s very little shade, where the wind is fierce, and what you bring is what will get you through the experience. So, if you were under the mistaken impression that you’re headed to a jol where you and your mates can get caned and have a laugh just like any other jol, think again. Your friends told you that “It’s the best jol ever!”? They are not your friends (or at least, they’ve forgotten how hard they worked on their camp, or project, and are basking in the rosy afterglow that obscures the dust and the heat).
It’s possibly the hardest week you’ll ever experience – if you don’t prepare. This isn’t a concert in the park. It’s a fucking demanding week-long lesson in survival and self reliance, and it’s fraught with potential for all sorts of nastiness. Scorpions in your boots. Puffadders under you car. Solifuges** biting their way into your tent so they can chew your ears off. Broken toes or fingers from wildly smashing rebar into the rock-hard ground. It’s a hellish place, where nature is red in tooth and claw. If you know some bush craft, you’re already ahead. If you don’t, it’s time to tool up, quicksmart.
It’s a very, very good idea to figure out how much food, water, shade and comfort you need to ensure that you can shelter yourself in a storm, fill your belly using the bare minimum of mod cons, and can make it through each day without getting dehydrated or sunburnt. You’ve got a tent? Great. Leave it at home. Unless you plan to shelter it under a much bigger tent, your dome tent will get thrashed by the wind, or flooded when the heavens open. Sleeping in a tent in a windstorm? It’s kak.
Get there early, as early as possible. Take a good look at the landscape. What direction does the rain come from? Rain?!? Oh, yes, and how: shit gets biblical out there. At what time of year? Where are the watercourses? That’s where you should not camp – it’s a desert: flash floods are a reality and have happened at the event before. If there’s a downpour far away, and you’ve decided to camp in the middle of a soft patch because it’s in a lekker flat hollow, you’ll regret it. If it rains, you will be officially screwed and at worst may get swept away, or at least might end up sleeping in a mud puddle. Not lekker. You are after all headed to the desert; it doesn’t rain often, but when it does all hell breaks loose. Properly.
Where does the wind come from? Consult a map. Consult Google Earth. Check the forecast. Wind? Oh yes: it will – not might – be a major factor: plan well, and build your camp with the prevailing winds in mind. They’re roughly northwest-southeast. Shade? You need lots of it, and whatever form it takes, it’ll need to be lashed down firm as a motherfucker or it’s ass over kettle, guaranteed. Look at the orientation: where does the sun rise, and set? Use that to your advantage, or prepare to get dehydrated and burnt to a crisp. The desert is not forgiving on the unprepared. Speak to those who’ve been before. Get the tips, and keep them in mind as you plan and prepare. There’s a Survival Guide for good reason.
It’s far. There’s no route to the site that features anything less than 100km’s on a road that has reduced hundreds of tyres to vulcanised ribbons. There have been fatalities on the road, and many – many – rolled vehicles and head-on collisions. Pack spare tyres: the road, like the event site, is shale: when it cracks (as it tends to do when heavily-loaded tyres race over it at speed), it punctures sidewalls. If you have snotplugs and a compressor, chances are good you’ll use ’em – and may be the saviour of those who don’t. It’s a deceptive road: long and straight for seemingly unending ages. Which is why some folk in 4×4’s cane it – and why even their tyres get chewed up like bubblegum. Not clever. Also not clever: overtaking in the dust. That’s one surefire way to meet your maker. Stay alert, and take your time. Take in the sights; it’s a beautiful journey.
And when you get there, if you spy someone who’s sunburnt or obviously had a rough time of it and did not have the benefit of somewhat scary advice like the last paragraphs you’ve just read, walk over, greet them and take care of them. They’re friends you just haven’t met, and may soon be the best damned friends you’ll ever make.
*This is a phrase borrowed from Danger Ranger. See this article for the history of Burning Man and AfrikaBurn
**Solifuges are completely harmless. Cape cobras and thick-tailed scorpions, on the other hand…
First timer? Read the Survival Guide.