Radical rituals in the desert

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iol travel may 9 ct afrika clinch

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PURPLE RAIN: A big fat desert wedding. PICTURE: ANDREW BROWN

Kimberley - “If you build it, they will come.” Kevin Costner inhabits the furthest point from coolness that a person can physically reach.

But weirdly enough the tag line from his 1989 movie Field of Dreams could have been handcrafted for the most hippest of happenings on this year’s calendar. AfrikaBurn, the week-long smorgasbord of performance art, pumping music and peace-pipe-smoking out in the Tankwa wilderness, has become a magnet for those in search of ultimate grooviness.

With its philosophy of radical participation, its celebration of creativity and its mindful admonition to have fun responsibly, the open-air festival is attracting more and more like-minded revellers each year.

Or, to put it another way, there’re a whole many more mutant vehicles, burlesque dancers, fire-eaters, dancing queens and body-paint artists hanging out in the Karoo than before.

The event, which started in 2007, is based on the American Burning Man festival. The latter, which is held annually in the Nevada desert, has its origins in the 1980s when a small group of friends gathered to symbolically burn a wooden man (and a dog). Each year the ritual was repeated, but with more people and within a space that mutated into “an experiment in temporary community dedicated to radical self-expression and radical self-reliance”.

The erection – and burning – of site-specific art has been an ongoing theme, as has the idea of participants being self-sufficient (within a harsh location) and respectful of each other and nature. Other than that, anything goes – from naked bum parades to extreme tattooing.

iol travel may 9 ct afrika pharoah 3

REFLECTION: Time to think. PICTURE: Karen Rutter

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AfrikaBurn had similar humble – or perhaps more underground – beginnings eight years ago, when about a thousand campers erected a modest circle of fun on isolated farmland in the Karoo. This year, the event pulled in nearly 10 000 people, who set up a makeshift town of tents which took several kilometres to explore. (Note to next year’s burners – you really, really need to bring a bicycle).

The layout has stayed the same – an outer Buitekring road, an inner Binnekring circle and a spider’s web of dirt tracks and tents linking the two, with all the main art installations situated in the expansive Binnekring kraal. What has changed is the sheer scale, with thousands of campers pitched within snoring space in a colourful, chaotic but strangely navigable zone.

And here’s where the magic begins, as the city is sweated out and the desert slinks into your pores. Forget GPS and cell masts (there are none anyway). Within hours you find yourself locating friends staying “around 6-ish, behind the Mad Hatter’s Tea Tent”. Supper will happen “after the bunny burn”. You’ll grab morning coffee at the Stasie Kafee alongside a troupe of acoustic reggae drummers, then cycle across to Coyote Drive for a game of al fresco table tennis. You won’t shower and you won’t care.

You’ll accept an icy cocktail from a woman dressed as a Nepalese sherpa, and you’ll gift others in return by making them pancakes, or giving a massage, or playing a tune on your guitar. Oh, because that’s the other thing – this is a cashless society, where nothing is bought or sold (except ice). Burners are encouraged to gift and share with each other, and the countless acts of generosity are one of the most striking aspects of AfrikaBurn. I was gifted a pair of sunglasses by a wonderful woman at the info centre after I lost mine, and this memory will stick.

Volunteers, too, are the backbone of the environment. (Note to future burners part two: this is a good way to get involved. Plus you get a Buff and a handbag.)

It is, however, a tough environment to live in, however temporarily, with skin-shredding sun, freezing nights, capricious winds, even rain storms. But that’s part of the plan – make the effort, feel the burn. And it means that AfrikaBurn is then supposedly so much more than a rave in the desert, because it takes planning to get there and stamina to stay.

This year was no less fantastical than previous events, with a mind-expanding profusion of dance and theme tents to choose from, truly inspired costumes and outfits on display, surreal performance pieces and varied art structures that all exhibited enthusiasm, regardless of scale. From towering Gaudi-like wooden cones to a delicate garden of flowers made out of recycled plastic cups, from a giant praying mantis to an ominous circle of headless shop dummies, it never ceased to delight. And then, of course, there were the burns – awesome, ritualistic experiences as art pieces were engulfed and primal spirits released.

Sleep? Something to be done back in the city. Along with bathing, updating Facebook and looking at your watch.

AfrikaBurn 2014 was a huge, spectacular experience, one I would recommend to anybody with an open mind and no problem with long-drop loos, communal camping with people who knit their own hair, and a lot of dust. But in the spirit of participating, I do think it’s fair to share some comments and questions that were circulating among burners that crossed my path.

l “If it’s not a rave in the desert, how come the dominant music that you hear the most (on the systems with big speakers) is house/rave? Why not a few changes – like opera at sunset, acid jazz at dawn, African jive at lunchtime? How could one suggest this to the DJs?”

l “This is quite a larney event, if you look at the expensive 4x4s and camping equipment people have got.”

l “Why are there so few people of colour – there seem to be mostly white people here?”

l “Somebody took my bicycle, as well as the two small speakers I included in my art installation.”

Stuff to think about. AfrikaBurn has been built – by the initial organisers, and by each person who contributes to the event. People will come.

Hopefully, feedback given in the ethos of the burn will help to keep this the unique event it is. - Cape Times

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