No need for the rain coat or wool socks, I thought, grouping together necessities for our desert trip on my left and the items I’d leave in our Johannesburg hostel on my right. I’ve found that traveling requires lots of organization, calculation and a constantly changing idea of what is necessary and what is inessential. “Do we really both need toiletries or can we just share?” I asked, while trying to push our tent, chairs, blankets, mats and camping dishes into a large, plastic box. Our friend Ollie had presented us with an amazing farewell gift when in Namibia, purchasing everything we needed for camping, including cups and plastic wine glasses, all cookware, maps and wildlife photo books, and even a poitje seasoning to make the famous African stew over a fire. He had settled it all perfectly, as pieces in a game of Tetris, in a large, plastic box and told us to enjoy Africa. It brought tears to our eyes that someone had gone to this extent to organize everything we needed for the next 3 months. Now, unlike Ollie’s perfect packing job, The box was stuffed with everything we needed for a short stint in the Karoo Desert for the AfrikaBurn Festival, lid not even close to clamping shut.
Good thing it’s the desert and we will barely need any clothes, I thought.
Four days later, hail the size of peach pits catapulted toward our little rental car. We held our breath, driving through two-foot puddles on rutted, dirt roads, praying we would not get a flat tire. “Welcome to Tankwa Town Tented Camp,” one sign read. Flash flood warnings blared from the radio and nylon rain covers, once protecting tents underneath, swirled outside our car, pinned down by one or two remaining stakes. This wasn’t quite what we’d expected, after hearing tales of 100 degree heat and cautionary speeches about bringing 5 liters of water a day per person to avoid dehydration. “I think I under-packed,” I thought, while remembering my raincoat and wool socks back in Johannesburg.
We had first learned about “Afrika Burn” from a traveler in the Southeast Asian country of Laos. Kerrin, a Capetonian with a free spirit, is often quoted by us in our makeshift South African accent, for saying, “Awwwww, kewwwwl maaaaaan.” Kerrin is a delight to travel with and when hearing we were headed to her hometown, she gave us a list of must-see activities. Then she mentioned an art and camping festival in the desert, which was similar to Burning Man but with 1/12 of the people. Our ears perked up and we vowed that we would buy tickets to the event eight months down the road.
Well here we were, along with two new American travel buddies from Savannah, Georgia, Meredith and Jane, who we had met in Livingstone, Zambia. The four of us were excited for a long weekend of art, costumes, and music. There is no money exchanged at this event, so everything must be brought in or borrowed and shared while attending. We had packed s’mores ingredient to teach other campers about this fine American delicacy and body paint to get a bit creative. “The Spirit of Giving” is huge at Afrika Burn and is the underlying theme to everything. If you bring enough to share, you can assume that you, too, will be taken care of. Whether it’s a serenade by a funky musician, a cold drink at midday, or hot pancakes served outside your tent at 10 am, the circle of sharing always provides.
We pulled into our camp spot in the middle of the icy storm. A brief moment of despair washed over the four of us as we discussed sleeping in the car, since our tents would surely leak or blow away in this monstrosity. But our minds settled thirty minutes later when the sky grew orange with the setting sun and the rain ceased, leaving muddy puddles atop the calloused desert sand. “At least we know where the high ground is now,” we sputtered, avoiding the water when staking down what would be our home for the next 4 nights. We now became optimistic for the next day’s activities and to see everything that Tankwa Town had to offer. Cozy inside our tents that night, we just hoped the morning sun would shine brightly to soak up the puddles of the prior storm and allow us to explore.
Thanks to our friend Dan, who works as a costume designer in Capetown, we were set with funky apparel for the festivities in the morning. Boxes upon boxes were packed with items from movies such as Death Race and Blue Crush II, and all of them called to us from the trailer behind Dan’s car. The four of us Americans had a laugh at all of the different personalities we could pull off, and got as creative as possible with the movie props. Then after breakfast, we set out to explore! We mailed postcards from a station called Burning Mail, jumped on a large trampoline, enjoyed vodka slushies in a swanky, white club, and listened to live music in a Bedouin tent…all for free. The second day, we decided to give back by making a collaborative station with Dan and Benitha. These two had been to Afrika Burn before and brought loads of crafts to help people decorate their bicycles. So the four of us Americans parlayed that idea with a bit of help decorating the bikers, too. We named our station “Pimp your Ride and Rider.” With body paint and brushes, we added color to anyone who would let us decorate their arms, backs and faces!
As we walked around during the day, we marveled at the newly constructed art exhibits, made of wood. Some were models of African safari animals, some were geometric structures, and others were replicas of famous buildings. In a world when everything spectacular calls for a Facebook page update, it was nice being disconnected and just enjoying this art without needing to act. And in order to prove that it is all non-material happiness one takes from the art, each exhibit was burned at night, only to last in the viewer’s memory. With stars above in their extra-bright desert state, the center of the camp ground came alive and the wooden art exhibits were set on fire. Some artists had music playing while their structures burned, others asked for peace and quiet, to reflect and appreciate the work that had gone into the exhibit. One art piece, a huge dinosaur on wheels, even took off across the desert as the fire pushed it along. On the last night of burning, we passed around s’mores and explained how to make them to many curious campers.
When the morning of our departure arrived, we did a sweep of our campsite, so as not to leave anything behind. We had read many MOOP signs throughout our time at the festival, explaining that leaving Matter Out Of Place was not a responsible way to treat the Karoo Desert, and we agreed, with everything the Karoo had provided for us. All four of us commented that we had never seen a festival so clean and litter-free, which really told a lot about the people who attended Afrika Burn.
At a stop at the road-side farm stall about an hour from Tankwa Town, we got out to stretch and buy a snack. It was so strange to scrounge in our wallets for money after just four days without it, and we were sad to have to lock our car doors when parking it in the lot. We had not realized what a dream world we’d lived in for the past four days, and now we were acclimatizing back to reality. However, we hoped to carry one aspect of Afrika Burn with us whether in the Karoo or anywhere else in the world. With fresh reminders about the Spirit of Giving, we all agreed that life is just easier when you look out for your fellow man and share what has been bestowed upon you. We hope to keep this attitude alive and continue Afrika Burn’s traditional Spirit of Giving as often as possible. Won’t you join us?
Many thanks to Dan and Benitha for taking us new-comers under their wings. To Keelan and Indigo, thanks for reminding us what it’s like to see things through the excited eyes of a “kid.” And to our new American friends, Jane and Meridith, we could not have asked for better people with whom to dwell in the desert. Can’t wait to meet up in the USA. Maybe Myrtlewood will even show for the next event! 😉
To check out more about Afrika Burn, visit their website.