10 things I’ll miss about AfrikaBurn (and three that I won’t)

Posted on 7 May 2013

When travelling, you can’t get attached to every place you visit. Many towns are there to be simply scanned: where’s the bus stop? Where can I buy some food, a spare tyre, a bottle of wine, a mallet? There are some, however, where the air just seems right. Something about it feels like home. You can leave, but you’ll always harbour a tiny hope of returning, maybe for a week or a year. I’ve just paid my third visit to Tankwa Town, the site of AfrikaBurn, and these are the things I’ll be thinking about until it bursts into bloom again this time next year.

1. Hanging around in the campsites

Afrikaburn campsite

The Afrikaburn campsite is set out in the shape of a horseshoe. Although the open space in the middle (known as the Playa) is full of fascinating surprises, this year I spent a lot of time wandering the periphery. This meant that I stumbled across some wonderful theme camps! When your own campsite is modest (one camping stool, a dusty groundsheet, no shade) there’s nothing like rounding a corner to find softly glowing fairy lights, colourful decorations, comfortable beanbags or cushions, good music and a group of people cheerfully introducing themselves. One of our favourites, Breakfast Epiphanies, even served French toast in the mornings!

2. The Playa

Afrikaburn rocking-horse eye sculpture

This looked only slightly terrifying

Every year, I walk onto the Playa for the first time with the same degree of mystified anticipation. From the bizarre to the macabre, from the frivolous to the incomprehensible, there’s no way to know what you’ll find. A sawdust cannon? Easy. Yes, of course, please climb up to the top story of this massive cheese-grater. Who wouldn’t like a ride on a massive rocking-horse eye? It doesn’t seem to end.

At night, the set-up changes dramatically as the horizon is lined with lights. Artworks flashing in multi-colour, lasers stretching far into the distance, rocket flares, and leaping flames make Afrikaburn seem like a post-apocalyptic carnival. You’ll just have to link arms with your mates and skip wildly in the direction of whatever twinkles most appealingly, or whatever music hooks your ear first.

Reflection at Afrikaburn 2013

3. Music

As you might expect, the music is diverse. There’s certainly more than a touch of trance, but I also caught Pink Floyd, Gogol Bordello, Nina Simone, Johnny Cash, and the ubiquitous Chuck Berry. It’s also about the placement of the music though: there’s nothing like sparks spiralling slowly away from a fire, accompanied by a French waltz, or a fellow in full Highlander get-up striding through the bush at sunrise playing the bagpipes.

Warning, though: the music will change at very swift intervals, and yes, it’s frustrating to skip all the way across the Playa for some punk (which was unfortunately thin on the ground) to be greeted by Fleetwood Mac.

4. Sunrise in the middle of the Karoo

Karoo sunrise Afrikaburn 2013

There really is nothing like it. Once you’ve walked past the toilets, you can stride out as far as you want into the flat open nothingness. Slowly the light creeps around the horizon, like someone is prying open a jar. The clouds and birds and faraway mountains are quivering with anticipation (or the morning is cold enough to make your actual eyeballs shiver.) Finally, when you think you couldn’t wait another minute, the sun spills over the landscape, painting everything gold. And, yes, if you’re lucky there’ll be a kilted man bagpiping his heart out in the distance to add some Highland solemnity to the moment.

5. Mind-boggling artworks

T-Rex at Afrikaburn 2013

Now, imagine him on fire

One of my favourite burns this year was an egg-like structure that burned down to reveal a flaming T-Rex inside it. Next? Oh, nothing. The T-Rex just MOVED. More precisely, it rolled around on an almost hidden wheel as its legs pounded up and down, snapping its head at the gaping onlookers. Another was “Reflection”, the massive torso of a person breaking out from the earth below. His head was easily double as tall as I am. There were floors inside that you could climb up into, and the view from his shoulder was breath-taking. People spend months and months making these artworks, and the scale of them is difficult to comprehend.

6. The morning jaffles

Whether you like it or not, Afrikaburn is not really ideal for a long morning lie-in. Close the tent against the sunlight and you’ll be steamed in your own sweat like a dim sum, open it for a breeze and turn your bed into a sand-dune. My advice is to get a wet-wipe for your face, smash some sunglasses into the mix, and get started on a fire. Once you’ve bitten through your first toasty-golden jaffle to the gooey cheese, tomato and onion on the inside, you’ll be quite happy to delay your nap until the afternoon cools down.

7. Gifts

Afrikaburn gifts 2013

Afrikaburn has a gifting economy, meaning that there is nothing for sale. However, most people have some sort of gift to offer, from cherry waffles to shoulder rubs. I bought a bulk pack of Zambuk, and in the land of cracked lips they were very appreciated! You never know when or what to expect: a bottle of whiskey at this camp, a steaming cup of coffee at the next. It makes it much easier to chat and connect with people.

8. DMV

Department of Mutant Vehicles Afrikaburn 2013

This stands for the Department of Mutant Vehicles, of which there are many. A car with wings? A truck that tows a pirate ship? A motorcycle that has become a swan? Perhaps you’d prefer a ride on a snail. All vehicles are there, and they’re all glorious.

9. The colours at sunset

Colours of Afrikaburn 2013

The colours of the Karoo itself are very muted, so the flags and lights stand out even brighter at sunset. People in costumes, theme camps, parades, and mutant vehicles all gather on the Playa to soak in the light. It feels like a wonderland.

10. The Burn

San Clan burn at Afrikaburn 2013

This is, essentially, why we were all there. People start gathering around the massive San Clan sculpture hours before the Burn is scheduled to get a good view. There’s something very primitive, tribal even, about the experience – I suppose humans have been burning things for a very, very long time (although without all the safety measures!) Finally, someone sets the sculpture on fire, and everyone’s faces light up with heat, light, and excitement. The fire roars away until the San Clan collapses into a white-hot heap. I’ve never seen almost-blue flames anywhere other than Tankwa Town.

Three things I won’t miss about AfrikaBurn’s Tankwa Town

As fantastic as Tankwa Town is, it’s still survival in a very harsh environment, and that comes with certain negative points. To save myself from becoming completely nostalgic, here are three things that I will not miss at all:

1. Dust. Dust. Dust.

I can’t quite explain how much dust there is. And wind. I wore a ponytail for four days, and it still took several hours and half a bottle of conditioner to remind my hair that it is, in fact, made up of separate pieces and not one giant muddy dreadlock. Dust will be in your mouth, eyes, food, tent, brain. You’ll find it in your nostrils weeks later. Do not forget to bring a scarf.

2. Loos by the fourth day

The toilets at Afrikaburn are awesome: don’t let anyone tell you different. Yes, they’re long-drops, but they’re facing the great wide expanse of the Karoo, don’t smell, and always have toilet-paper. However, seeing as it’s a participation event (i.e. everyone looks after themselves), there isn’t designated “cleaning staff” like there is at other festivals, and people can be quite gross. After a few days of folks missing their target, not adding sawdust, and leaving toilet paper at the mercy of the desert, well, things become very crappy.

 3. The feeling when you drive away

Once you’ve packed up your campsite and drive past the Playa one last time, you’re guaranteed to see some fantastic thing happening on the horizon. Perhaps it’s a Mad Hatters Tea Party. Perhaps it’s a rugby match. Perhaps it’s a gorgeous artwork that you haven’t spotted before. Whatever it is, it leaves a deep ache when you realise that all you can do is hope that it’ll be back again next year – because you certainly will.

Tankwa International Airport

You can even fly into Tankwa if you have the plane


Bell at Afrikaburn 2013

If you’re a “Burn virgin”, you have to ring the bell on your way in

Camera Obscura at Afrikaburn 2013 Mutant Vehicle at Afrikaburn
Mutant Vehicle at Afrikaburn 2013

Mutant vehicle at sunset

Colourful flags at Afrikaburn


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