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Black Rock Desert, Nevada - The free love message starts the moment you walk into the Burning Man festival. First-time visitors, known for good reason as “virgins”, are asked to ring a bell at the gate and then roll around in the Nevada desert.
Or, as they’re told by greeters to this extraordinary annual week-long bacchanal, “to make love with the dust”, so you’ll become one with the landscape.
You may also get your bottom spanked just to ram home the point about what really draws tens of thousands to return each year to this free-for-all of art, music, fancy dress and outrageous behaviour.
It’s often billed as America’s answer to Glastonbury. But this 28-year-old celebration of free expression in a tent city in the desert makes Somerset’s annual orgy of mud, booze and bands look as tame as a Scout jamboree.
At Burning Man, the hallucinogenic drugs are on tap as people strip down to virtually nothing and dance late into the night on top of weird “mutant” vehicles done up to look like everything from alligators or space ships.
Vast constructions in the shape of fantastical buildings rise from the sand to complete the impression that you have landed on another planet.
But it’s the casual sex that is the chief attraction to a festival that last year drew 68 000 people to the remote Black Rock Desert, and which this week is being attended by tens of thousands more.
Sex between ‘Burners’, as festival-goers are known, is known variously as “dust love” or “tent trysts”, and old hands suggest it is simply “selfish” to stick to monogamy. Public nudity, especially by women, is actively encouraged, while orgies — or at the very least partner swapping, if not threesomes — have become just as much a feature of Burning Man as the ceremonial torching of a huge wooden effigy of a man to celebrate the summer solstice.
Group sex is actively encouraged at so-called “theme camps” — giant tent complexes where free bars encourage visitors to loosen up and participate. A popular venue is the so-called ‘Orgy Dome’, run by a group calling itself And Then There’s Only Love, though conventional notions of love are hardly what’s fostered inside its giant dome tent.
It bills itself as a 24-hour “sex positive consensual space where all can love and be loved”. Helpfully, the Orgy Dome offers free towels and sheets, but asks visitors to clear up after themselves in line with the festival’s ‘no waste’ eco-credentials.
As well as old-fashioned orgies, it offers classes on sadomasochism and group erotic massage. Thursdays are Unicorn Night, for couples seeking a threesome, while Saturdays are Scream, which invites the courageous to “join a room of moans — prizes to the loudest”.
The Orgy Dome is hardly alone. There is also a ‘Group Sex Bus’, the ‘Sex Libido Lounge’, and a Canadian-run club with an unprintable name where judges give points to amorous couples for “style” and “inventive poses”.
While this list of jaw-droppingly open-minded possibilities is familiar to regular Burners, what’s fascinating is that the loved-up hippies who’ve been gathering here for years are now being joined by Silicon Valley billionaires, Hollywood actors and New York models flocking here to lose their inhibitions.
If the festival didn’t already have plenty of critics, it has attracted many more in recent years — even from its own diehard attendees. They complain that Burning Man has been hijacked by a growing army of the slumming rich.
Despite the festival’s claims to be scrupulously anti-materialistic — money is practically outlawed on the site so you theoretically have to barter for the free-flowing drugs — it is now patronised by some of the world’s biggest capitalists. And they tend to emerge from its sexually liberated atmosphere talking as if they have found Nirvana.
Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, Amazon boss Jeff Bezos and Google mastermind Sergey Brin have all attended Burning Man for years. Some, like Zuckerberg, can retreat to their own company’s dedicated campgrounds within the site.
Elon Musk, who founded the internet payment giant PayPal, has claimed that Burning Man “is Silicon Valley”, and that the creator of a new TV comedy series about America’s tech industry couldn’t possibly understand that world because he had never been to the festival.
Meanwhile, Google chief executive Larry Page said last year he wanted to create a lawless society where inventors could test new products without consequences. He said this commune would be modelled on Burning Man.
The tech kings aren’t the only rich and famous who have embraced the festival. Other attendees in recent years have included the socialite Greek shipping heirs Stavros Niarchos and his sister Eugenie, British socialite Lady Victoria Hervey and members of the Versace and Rothschild clans.
Wall Street bankers have also joined the party, one reportedly spending $1-million on a custom-made camper van that would turn heads at Burning Man.
Not for any of these socialites and millionaires the more basic delights of other Burners, such as sleeping under canvas and hitching a lift in a clapped-out VW. Those who want to do Burning Man deluxe can now fly from Reno to the festival’s own landing strip in a six-passenger private plane and then be escorted to a huge, specially kitted-out ‘recreational vehicle’ (RV).
“We used to have RVs and pre-cooked meals,” a man who attends Burning Man with a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs told the New York Times. “Now, we have the craziest chefs in the world and people who build yurts for us that have beds and air-con.”
While a standard ticket to Burning Man costs $300 (about R3 000), his camp was charging $25 000 a person for a weekend. Some of the female guests — fashion models naturally — are flown in for free from New York, but the rest will be forking out more than $2-million all told.
Most of these exclusive camps are serviced by “sherpas”, paid staff who are there to make sure guests want for nothing. Menus include boiled lobster, sushi and fillet steak.
“Your food, your drugs, your costumes are all handled for you, so all you have to do is show up,” said Tyler Hanson, a former sherpa. The ratio of staff to guests in some camps is 30 to 12.
A Swiss luxury concierge service includes a camp offering water, electricity, wi-fi internet via satellite, “cooks and fresh buffets for every meal”, and the chance to order in fresh supplies each day from Reno, 80 miles away.
Private lavatories — which would be the Holy Grail at Glastonbury — are there for Burners willing to pay.
Jodi Guber Brufsky, a yoga entrepreneur and Hollywood director’s daughter, went to a previous year’s festival in an RV with a special dome where a chef was based who specialised in raw vegan food. There was also a machine making margarita cocktails. The guests, each paying $20 000, chose from a huge wardrobe of wild outfits to wear each day. Ms Guber Brufsky says the cost is a “bargain” — allowing people to be “anonymous and uninhibited in a safe environment”.
And even if they only want to observe, the festival has turned into what some say is a “voyeur’s paradise”. Starlets have been spotted walking around naked while, two years ago, a supermodel and her boyfriend were seen dressed in Native American tribal costumes.
At night, say veterans, the girls tend to opt for the ‘Mad Max look’ based on the classic Mel Gibson movie — “apocalyptic” and revealing leather and fur outfits.
All of this opulence has come as quite a shock to the old crusties and younger festival-goers who have been loyal Burners for years.
The festival was founded in 1986 as a summer solstice ceremony on a nudist beach in San Francisco that initially attracted just 20 New Agers. It moved to Nevada in 1990.
The sight of those early Burners with their wild-coloured hair and pierced faces burning wooden effigies prompted local people to think they were Satanists. But the hippy founders described the burning of the effigy which is the festival’s climax as “spontaneous act of radical self-expression” and say it has nothing to do with paganism or Devil worship.
One of Burning Man’s founding principles is that it should “encourage the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources”. The Silicon Valley set has certainly put paid to that, waited on hand and foot in their motor-homes as they talk deals and ogle models in post-apocalyptic underwear.
This week, the festival had to be put off for a day after highly unseasonal torrential rain hit the 1.5-mile diameter campsite. The scenes were almost Biblical in their desolation — a sea of mud stretching in every direction and tens of thousands of people stranded in a desert that suddenly became a quagmire.
At least temporarily, the “worshippers” of the wooden effigy at the centre of the festival were scattered. Though they thronged back the following day.
Given its seedy attractions, no wonder some were joking that even God hates the Burning Man Festival. - Daily Mail