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  • Brianna Welsh

AfrikaBurn: Burning Man's younger, hotter sister


On April 25 we headed back to Cape Town to collect our “off-roading” vehicle. Once securing the RV, completing the usual groceries and provisions run, we were on the road. Heading due north of Cape Town, the first 2 hours of the ~5 hour trip was easy breezy. Breathtakingly scenic mountain views and straight smooth sailing. But as is often true in life, that which goes up, must come down. Upon exiting the freeway and turning onto the gravel dirt road for the next 100km (which is the only mode of transit available to reach Tankwa Karoo National Park (Afrika Burn’s Black Rock City), it became immediately apparent why this renowned trek has such a duplicitous rep. What would have taken 1 hour on paved road took more than 3, as the budget trailer endeavored through the treacherous terrain. Fortunately we had been suggested by veterans to bring at least two spare tires, as this stretch was famous for its ability to literally consume tires. Fortunately we negotiated at least one, as about halfway down our tire blew out (it’s past dusk at this point), and was shredded beyond repair. Rockstar Benji pulled out the man tricks and swapped it out in a record 40 minutes (pretty sexy I must add), and we were off on our way again. I’m really not sure how we would have survived if he hadn’t been there, quite certain I’d have been sleeping on the road that night.

Completing the jarring R355 at night, we arrived on Tuesday at 2AM under the millions of stars and couldn’t see a thing, as most camps were still gearing up for the week. Suffice to say though, I was happy to have made it there alive!

APRIL 25-29 - Experiences from the Burn, coming from veteran Burners

Since cell service is non-existent from about 200k outside the Burn, our phones were rendered useless for anything more than photos. I didn’t feel the need to write during the week, but instead prepared an overview of my main takeaways (with the inputs of Benji’s analysis) and the juxtaposition between Black Rock and Tankwa Roo).

Disclaimer:

So I had been told by myriad of seasoned Burners that Afrika Burn was Burning Man's hotter younger sister. And that this was the place of all places. So I will admit that going into this week, I had unfairly high expectations, not to mention, a fairly rigid perspective of what “Burning Man” should behave like. It’s impossible not to draw comparisons between AfrikaBurn and it's big brother in America. For the most part, despite continually reminding myself not to, that’s exact what I (and the rest of my camp) did.

As Burning Man’s largest regional Burn, Tankwa Roo was also famed to be what “Burning Man was like 10 years ago” - an experience that I regrettably never got to live through personally. With these assumptions percolating in the back of my mind, I projected unrealistic and perhaps unfair expectations onto the event. Bearing that in mind, I’m approaching this synopsis with a factual analysis rather than personal experience, and offering takeaways that will apply to all future attendees.

Pre-Burn Admin:

Unlike the famed misery to score tickets for Burning Man, tickets for Afrika Burn are incredibly easy to come by. With tickets capped at approximately 12k they do sell out a few months before the event but STEP offers a near immediate exchange, making last minute purchases especially straightforward. There is no additional charge for vehicles and tickets for the entire event were only $100, drastically lowering the barrier of entry.

Access:

Afrika Burn lies about 5 hours North East of Cape Town, with some stunning driving on the way in. Most memorable is the R355, a 113km stretch of the road from hell. This gravel road not only shakes the living daylights out of any vehicles that ride it, RVs especially, but it also has the habit of not only popping, but totally eviscerating tires. Most say they run at a 50/50 survival rate. Of the three vehicles in my team we suffered two punctures and one tire that is now a piece of shredded art deco. There’s also an airport for those that really don’t like any pain in their burn, but its use is far less common than Black Rock.

Accommodation:

Unlike at Black Rock, the majority of Africa Burn participants sleep in tents. Approximately 50% are double shaded with the many camps using stretch tents to section off their plots and provide additional shade from the African desert sun. The logistics shade structures however are that the main “hang zone” of each camp is in the center (apex) of the stretch tents, while the permitters of each camp have the edge of the tents nearly touching the ground. The consequence is the limited openness and less welcoming camp design, resulting in more isolated (excluding) camp communities. Effectively, unless you knew you had friends in another camp, you were far less likely to wander into another camp and organically make friends with strangers.

For those opting to get an RV it works out to be much more cost effective than Burning Man (likely due to decreased demand), but they are relatively difficult to procure (not to mention, the trials and tribulations driving across that dodgy dirt road.

One of the most unique visuals on the large stunning vistas was their use of “long drop” toilets around the camp perimeter, which set to face out into miles upon miles of open space. These are a delightful solution to the plastic sweaty porta-potties back home, though they don’t offer much in the way of privacy.

Weather:

Our experience was quite temperate, though evidently this was an atypical year with respect to Mother Nature. 2017 was fairly friendly with only a few minor bursts of rain, no flooding unlike in previous years, and most nights spent in no more than a tee shirt. The midday hours from Noon through to before sunset however, were nearly unbearably hot and unshaded, causing us to recoil into our camp structures or using the time to catch up on sleep. As a result, and in contrast to Burning Man, Africa Burn seemed to be geared towards night events, with far fewer people venturing out in the daylight hours.

There were no dust storms, no one in masks or goggles. Similar to Black Rock, Tankwa is blessed with a dry heat, so in the hours outside the peak heat, a little shade and breeze can be sufficient.

Terrain:

Absolutely incredible mountainous backdrop on the drive up to the event but sadly not as jaw dropping as some of the mountain ranges in the Cape Town area, and certainly no comparison to views in Black Rock. The ground was a dark red, akin to what I imagine Mars to be like, quite other worldly, amassed with sharp rocks everywhere. These rocks looked like what I imagine the collision of meteorites to be, with many of them being black and porous, almost like black coral. The entire property was littered with sporadic shrubs and desert trees, some cacti and weeds. While it was an interesting terrain, the downside to the uneven ground is that biking and walking became a real liability. The even more pertinent consequence to a cluttered terrain is that it makes leave no trace much harder to enforce. On the talcum powdered, baby’s bottom, Black Rock playa, even the tiniest piece of MOOP looks out of place. Here not so, and it was noticeable. Perhaps the cultural principles of Burning Man were lost in translation, but we often saw burners stepping over pieces of MOOP, and the attitude towards caring for the land seemed lost on most people.

Layout:

I hear that those behind the organization at Afrika Burn are frequently tweaking their layout year on year. The map this time is best described as a hook and handle. Imagine an abridged version of the esplanade of Black Rock (only 10 minutes to walk from 2 around to 10); the “Binnikring” was like someone had taken a shrink ray to the Esplanade. 2 to the way around to 930ish is only two or three rings deep (the hook) and then from 930 to 10 is about 12 rings deep (the handle). Sound camps are at 2 and at the extremity of the handle at 10. Art still resides in the middle of the Binnikring similar to the center of the Esplanade, but there’s no clear definition of the Man and no Temple to direct navigation. At only 1 mile across at the longest, we experienced that a 15 minute walking lap enabled your to see nearly everything taking place at any given time.

Scheduling:

Like many other virgin attendees, we were advised to only attend Wednesday through Saturday. With the “Man” scheduled to burn on the Friday, and historically no Temple (until this year), that would have been plenty of time to explore and feel accomplished. Perhaps this has been the case in previous years, but our personal experience was that the space didn’t begin to fill out until late Thursday and seemed to peak on Saturday and Sunday (it falls over a four-day national holiday weekend for South African locals. My advice to rookies in the future would be to go no earlier than Wednesday through Monday, but that even four days is more than sufficient given its size.

Another distinction from Burning Man is its emphasis on SunSETs rather than SunRISEs. Most of the theme and sound camps held events to watch the sunset, but only a few stragglers and reprobates seemed to be up around dawn. In fact, juxtaposed to Burning Man, the hours just following sunrise seemed to be the quietest of the day. S

People:

“Black people! Where are the back people!? I can easily count how many black people I encountered in four days at AB. If I remove the hired staff for the event and the hired staff for the (plug and play) camps (more on this below) I can count them on one hand and still have enough fingers left to make a gangster rap symbol!” - Benjamin Alexander

Similar to The Playa, ethnic diversity doesn’t seem to be this Burn’s strong suit either. However given the racial strife in South Africa, it’s even more striking and equally unfortunate. Attendees did seem to range in age demographic, though the majority of older campers were in tents on the periphery and not as participatory as some of the older folks at Black Rock. I presume the heritage of Burning Man influences the attendance of the Boomers which Afrika Burn being a satellite, simply does not attract.

This year seemed to be the first real invasion of the American Burners, and consequently, the infiltration of the plug and play camps. Evidently the spirit of this year was quite different from years prior, so it's somewhat unfair to judge, but quite honestly if it weren't for these American veterans, I would have been bored for half my time. The tenets of the legacy Burn seemed ot have gotten lost in translation en route to Tankwa Town, and the Afrika Burn natives didn't seem to comprehend the Burning Man spirit of serendipitous interaction and spontaneous gifting. We often found ourselves aimlessly wandering with the aims of colliding with some interesting strangers, filling our cups up with a mind-altering substance or participating in an activity that would shelter us from the sweltering sun. To our dismay however, there were virtually no camps exchanging booze for hugs and surprisingly we made no unexpected friends from chance encounters, outside of those connected to people that I knew going into the event. Overall the community ethos just seemed lackluster, and connections remained fragmented.

Music:

The sweetheart of the week is the Spirit Train, a five carriage-long train, with a DJ booth occupying the central carriage. In honour of a decade of participation, its "station" was burned, but the train will continue its journey on for several subsequent years. Fortunately it played some funky disco sets that helped connect the stragglers, but not nearly to the scale or signfiicance of either Mayan Warrior or Robot Heart, the two legendary mobile soundsystems that alight on the Black Rock vista most sunrises. There were no mind-blowing musical performances, sound systems, stages or art cars. Perhaps they haven't reached that point of inflection where serious cash is being injected into such performance accessories.

Art:

This is a really tough category for us veteran Burners given how high the bar has been set. We had been warned going into Afrika Burn that the juxtaposition between the two Burns would leave us feeling cheated for artistic influence at Tankwa. Taking scale differences into consideration, there were probably a proportionately similar number of pieces, but the quality and intricacy of them was far inferior to The Playa. Normally I find myself struggling to see every piece over the 8 days in Nevada, and often return home to find dozens more I never encountered. Conversely, it was most certainly possible to spend time with every single piece within a half day without any fear of missing anything.

Activities:

Again one of the weaker points here. Wandering around the Binnekring (the main road of the town), you could spot the odd naturalist, rocking their birthday suits with pride, with a “human car wash” theme camp called Power Shower, where you could get a good wash-down which was comfortingly reminiscent of the Burn. However there genuinely seemed to be very little to do outside of the Binnikring and “deep playa”. Almost nothing happened outside of these areas so unlike Black Rock where there are a plethora of bars and eccentric happenings lurking within a sea of RVs and tents, there didn’t really seem to be much more than what was immediately on offer here. For our team this resulted in a schedule of napping and trying everything not to be sober during the day, with the parties and music being the primary source of entertainment from sunset onwards.

2nd Burn?

Anyway, enough about the blunt honesty, our overall conclusion is that it's definitely worth a visit, but not on its own. South Africa has proven to be one of the most extraordinary landscapes and Afrika Burn is just a stop along the way. I'd recommend checking it out and seeing it all for yourself.

In summation, it was a lekker jol - South African for "great party" - and I did enjoy my experience. However I would probably opt to wait a few years before doing so. I could not recommend a trip all the way out to South Africa for the event alone (unless you supplemented it with a holiday in the area, and that’s not such a bad idea, is it!?).

APRIL 29 – We took off from the Burn a bit early

...so we could catch some wind and I could try my hand at kitesurfing. Benjamin has been tormenting me with his stories for the past 6 months and I'm well overdue for a try. It’s been talked up so much to me by now that I feel like I’m already a pro, but apparently it’s not quite as simple as picking up a kite and hitting the waves. Unfortunately we didn’t make it in time for the kite schools so we just wandered the beach for a while taking in our last day in the southern tip of Africa. We drove back to Cape Town later that evening and camped out under the stars on Table Mountain. Pretty spectacular end to the most beautiful city in Africa.

APRIL 30 – Our last day in Cape Town

...we attempted to get some culture in but to no avail. Robben Island tours were fully booked so we hiked around Table Mountain through stormy and somewhat eerie weather until we left for our Township Tour of Langa. Our second and final attempt at the Township tours was a pretty hilarious failure as our Uber driver cautioned us of touring around the region. He was so nervous driving down the road he hid his phone, rolled up the windows and locked all doors. I don’t think he could have driven us out of there fast enough! Evidently it’s a pretty dodgy area rife with muggings, gun point robberies, and regular shootings. So, we headed back to the airport for a little down time pre-flight.