As the sun begins to set, tall white figures in mummified dressings and antelope skulls slowly perambulate toward a low-hanging moon, which is actually a balloon from which a woman artfully spins. The spindly creatures step past the crowd that has formed around the perimeter of a ring of fire and perform some sort of ritual below the high-flying acrobat. After she sheds her cocoon the balloon floats higher, drifting toward the five towers, a “sculptural statement” called Subterrafuge, that will burn tonight.
Ten thousand revelers dressed in elaborate costumes make their way from their camps toward AfrikaBurn’s monumental artworks, to watch them sacrificed to the fire gods. All have already self-medicated sufficiently and are carrying more crucial supplies in order to brave the long desert night. Mutant vehicles pumping out distinct rhythms approach from all angles and then form a convoy, picking up those weary of walking. The rest of the crowd marches on, Pied Piper style. The organizers of AfrikaBurn, a not-for-profit, weeklong annual festival launched in 2007, are adamant that this isn’t a party. The application forms for a golden ticket repeatedly make sure this is understood.
AfrikaBurn’s official minister of propaganda, Travis Lyle, says it’s important: “I’ve seen guys show up with a cooler and dressed in board shorts and flip-flops,” he says. “Two days later they’re face down in the dirt.” This makes more sense when you know the Tankwa Karoo National Park. It’s not a kind landscape. The days are hot, the nights are cold, nothing is for sale and the shale road leading to AfrikaBurn eats tires for breakfast. Still, you get by thanks to the generosity of others, AfrikaBurn’s cash-free societal ideals offering an oasis of trade opportunities in the desert. And despite what the organizers say, this is a party, and a massive one—albeit unique. And after what everyone has been through to get here, they’ve earned the right.
Damien van Zyl was supposed to have his mutant vehicle ready for this year’s AfrikaBurn, but after life got in the way, he’s relegated to being a pedestrian. Tonight he’s got his iridescent suit on. The recovering male model scored an international Joop! campaign and as part of his payment chose a garish silk number from the collection, which he now pairs with a top hat and reflective John Lennon–style sunglasses.
There are plenty of other mutant vehicles to hitch a ride with: a swan, a turtle, a rhino, a dragon, a mobile mirror ball, a rainbow on wheels, an alien bus, a flying carpet, a king-size bed, a small red bus, a steampunk trike complete with cooler at the back, a duck, a vehicle stuffed with hundreds of soft toys, a shark-faced dinghy, a pimped-out tuk-tuk made to look like a spaceship, a serpent and “Braaaaaaaap!” … a new sound joins the melee.
“Hurry up, man!” shouts a guy dressed in an elaborate steampunk getup. “We need to catch the train.” The Spirit Train is a 115-foot-long mutant vehicle called Lobo, which has the face of a wolf and is rigged with a sound system that howls at the moon. Durban-born artist Michael Kennedy’s creation boasts five buses led by a tractor, and from inside the monster’s innards more than a dozen DJs will play tonight.
After Lobo arranges itself in a half circle, the party really starts. Other mutant vehicles bring in fresh meat and take those who are spent back to the relative comfort of their camps. When one of Lobo’s flamethrowers jams, Damien rolls up the sleeves of his shimmering suit, folds up his sunglasses, places his top hat on the handlebars of a nearby bicycle and begins to tinker in Lobo’s guts. The next time the DJ drops a climactic break, all five of the fire-breathing cylinders emit balls of flame into the night sky and the harem of women in the DJ’s booth go wild.
There’s a spirit of community at the Burn not often found elsewhere. People go out of their way to be nice, to do good. They are gregarious, gracious and giving. Whether it’s someone setting up an impromptu open bar or handing out food to famished Burners, or the elaborate theme camps that so many lovingly sweat over, niceties abound. It’s like those stoned dorm-room conversations at university about socialism and working together for the greater good. Except this actually works. Or maybe everyone is just getting emotional now, as Subterrafuge begins to burn to the ground …
Sleep comes easy. After a day and a night spent traversing the desert, dancing around fires and not saying no to anything, the rising of the sun signals bedtime—for most. Some continue to stomp to a feverish beat over at the Lighthouse, a theme camp dominated by a huge wooden tower. It’s standing room only and legendary local DJ Pierre-Estienne and friends rock a party that will only stop when the Lighthouse is burned down two days later.
There are no real boundaries at Burn. Cape Town entrepreneur Anna Shevel’s shower bus—aka the foam party, aka the human car wash, aka that trail of dirty naked people following a tank of water across the desert—invites people to wash the previous night’s dirt from their weary bodies. Most of those being sprayed by biodegradable minty foam are naked. A pirate ship pulls up next to the shower bus, steered by a captain drinking a colorful cocktail and looking resplendent in his whites. Up pops a DJ booth and now everybody is dancing, lathering each another up, inhibitions be damned as they finish with a group hug and a high-pressure rinse.
And while it’s not quite Critical Tits—where bare-breasted Burners, goddesses, nymphs and sirens salute the sun in nipple caps, bedazzled boobs and body paint—it’s a scene nonetheless. It’s especially weird to witness how dates are made with potential paramours while naked.“There’s a lamb-spit happening at six-ish …”
“Oh perfect, that’s near the screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show later. Dinner and a movie?”
“Come past mine for a massage first.”
So the girl wearing the furry pink bra invites the guy sporting nothing but a fascinator on top of his privates back to her theme camp, Beach Please. There’s a lifeguard chair, umbrellas, beach bats and a spa. It’s cocktail hour, so they share a few drinks before skipping the massage, the barbecue and the movie to instead make their way out into the desert to lose themselves in the beats of deep house and trance.
For those with blistered feet and hands callused from cycling from party to party, theme camps like the Steampunk Saloon (which offers a burlesque show) serve as a place to chill and catch one’s breath, and after topping up hip flasks and rolling a few jazz cigarettes it’s back on the bike and onward to the next party and another burn.
This year’s theme at AfrikaBurn is “The Gift,” which is reflected in myriad forms: a cold drink, a lift on the back of a mutant vehicle, a shower, a massage, a hit, a toke, a smile from a beautiful stranger. Leaving all those small wonders behind feels like being a kid after Christmas Day, with an entire year to wait until the next one. But even if they return to the real world somewhat burned out, inside every Burner there’s now something that with the right kind of breath can turn ash into glowing embers of love and light.