Journey to Afrikaburn:  AKA Free Spirits in Pursuit of Experiences Beyond the Pale of Mainstream Society

I still can’t believe it that we made it to Afrikaburn! This was such a HUGE bucket-list experience for Garrett and I! People have been telling us for years that we have to go to Burning Man – that our love of wild costumes, creativity and adventure would find a perfect home there. The expense and time off needed for Burning Man in Nevada just haven’t been do-able for the past few years. But by some stroke of luck we had the idea of googling “burning man Africa.” Amazingly we found that there actually was something called Afrikaburn! It is the regional burning man event for southern Africa. Surprisingly, over the past few years more and more regional burns have been popping up and now there is almost always one going on in some part of the world! There is Midburn in Israel, Burning Seed in Australia, Kiwiburn in New Zealand, Nowhere in Spain, The Borderland in Sweden, Nest in the UK, Fuego Austral in Argentina and a ton more…..who knew?!

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Afrikaburn has been going on for 10 years in the Tankwa Karoo National Park area about 4 hours north of Cape Town – the site is nicknamed Tankwa Town. The “town” is literally re-created from dust each year by the collective efforts of burners from around the world. The site is a barren desert plain that is ringed with hills, literally in the middle of nowhere. The aim of the event centers around 11 principles including things like radical inclusion (everyone is respected and allowed to participate in any way they wish), gifting (nothing is for sale at Afrikaburn and people give freely expecting nothing in return), decommodification (no advertising, sponsors, or exploitation of any form), radical self-reliance (you are expected to take care of yourself and provide everything you need to survive), radical self- expression (everyone is encouraged to be whoever they want to be in whatever form they wish), participation (everyone is invited to work/play/participate in everything). They say it is one of the most hardcore festivals on the planet due to the extremely remote and harsh environment. We really had no clue what we were getting into aside from the fact that we knew it was going to be amazing!

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Packing was kind of crazy. On top of needing to put together costumes from scratch (there are tragically no Michael’s or any kind of craft stores here!!), we had to figure out what supplies we needed for our 14 hour drive and then to survive in the desert for 5 days. I focused on the important stuff like collecting feathers and sequins and fashioning headpieces, while Garrett looked for spare tires, oil cans and other you know…silly survival items.

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 We finally decided just to join a theme camp since we kind of had no clue what we were doing and wanted some safety net of a camp infrastructure. We chose State of Bliss – a camp dedicated to creating and perpetuating happiness. Perfect! I was asked to contribute to the camps “gifting” by giving a talk on the neuroplasticity of happiness and perpetuating bliss. Even more perfect as this is a favorite topic of mine!

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Thankfully our epic trans-southern-africa road trip went smoothly. The only scary part was the last 1 hour where we drove down a beat up dirt road blanketed in sharp shale shards. This is the legendary R355 that eats tires and has claimed many lives from accidents. We held our breath and drove at a snails pace – thankfully to make it through fine.  We pulled up to the entrance gate just as the sun was setting. It was an incredible feeling of anticipation. We had literally driven across 2 countries to get there and had no idea what would lay ahead for the week. It was the best feeling!

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The next 5 days were a whirlwind. We were quickly ushered into the burning culture and realized that anything and everything imaginable could and would happen. Tankwa Town centers around the Binnekring which is a circular road that creates a large open space in the center where art is displayed (and burns happen!). Theme camps are built up along the main Binnekring and then there are designated areas further out where people can free camp. The theme camps were incredible – we couldn’t believe what wondrous things each had thought up to gift to the desert.

Video of Learning the Art of Poi Spinning

The “Sunset Oasis” offered hot showers, iced tea and spa treatments! “Love All” was a tennis themed camp where you could get sporty by day or night under the glow of the neon court. “Enchanted Forest” literally transported a grove of indigenous trees to create a lush canopy under which you could find shade to chill out under the harsh desert sun.  “Camp Anvil” offered the explosive entertainment of blowing up anvils throughout the day. “The Flow Arts Commune” was my favorite – offering lessons in hooping and poi spinning and also lighting up the desert sky each night with mesmerizing fire shows.

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Another favorite was the “Body Arts Lounge” where you could body paint to your heart’s content! “Burning Mail” offered postcard and stamps to allow you to send messages from Tankwa Town to anyone across the world! At “Sweet Love Cinema”, you could chill and watch movies like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas on a big screen. The “Steampunk Saloon” offered a nightly burlesque variety show. “Camp Birthday Suits” were a bunch of (mostly old) folks who let it all hang out and offered a group naked shower at dusk. Our favorite member cruised the playa with his gilded penis on display. Another favorite, “Bedazzled” was a second hand clothing exchange where you could pop in to pick up a new item to top off your costume.

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The list of awesome activities was endless – with 90+ theme camps there really was something to see and do at all hours of the day/night.  Pretty much all camps offered some sort of theme drink or snack of the day to sustain you during your wanderings about the playa. DJs also abounded – the sound of “deuf deuf” (which is the Africaans equivalent of the American “unz unzz” imitation of house music) was ever-present. Spontaneous dance parties erupted left and right. I probably experienced some of the worst dancing I have even seen in my life (including my own), which was one of the best things about Afrikaburn – nobody cares! You could do whatever you want, be whatever you want and learn from the beauty of pure self expression.

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Wandering is the main event at Afrikaburn – this is where the magic happens. We would plan to head to one spot and end up somewhere entirely different to discover something even more awesome. Walking along you see such a fantastic spread of life, love, art and most importantly costumes! Garrett and I tried our best to put together a good effort of costuming – but we were way off our game due to lack of supplies in Botswana. It made my heart ache not to be able to fully participate to the max in costuming! I would have created head to toe masterpiece outfits if I still had access to craft stores and amazon prime! But people still loved our outfits. That’s the thing – people don’t judge at Afrikaburn – they find something to love about everything! Its hard to go 5 minutes without being hugged, given a compliment or offered some fabulous gift. The positive energy reverberated from every direction. This is the real beauty in the experience – shrugging off your compulsion to fit into society’s norms and just letting it all go. One of Garrett and my own biggest pet peeves in life, is people who don’t participate and want to sit back and enjoy the ride. Afrikaburn made me so happy because EVERYONE participated. There were no bystanders. Everyone contributed to the experience in some way – big or small.

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The weather was all to perfect until Friday when we got a taste of the desert winds and the famous Tankwa sand took over. Thank goodness I made us burner goggles that were actually functional! Once I accepted that everything in our tent was inevitably going to be covered in sand – the windstorm was actually awesome! I mean I don’t think we could say we had a real burn experience without having braved a sandstorm. Plus, it allowed me to fully live out my Max Max fantasy of surviving the Fury Road.

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To be honest the whole Afrikaburn experience made me feel like we were characters in Mad Max – surrounded by a motley crew of misfits just trying to eek out their existence in the harsh post apocalyptic environment.

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The most Mad Max-like items were the mutant vehicles which freely roamed the playa. They came in all shapes and sizes from rugged steel contraptions, to fuzzy bunny eared VW vans, to fire breathing rhinos and dinosaurs, to steam powered locomotives to pirate ships to a magic carpet ride (literally!).

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Oh and of course my absolute favorite was “molly the Mollusk” – a neon roving snail that was camouflaged in sand colors by day but turned neon by night.

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Making Pancakes with the Pancake Pozzie

Aside from the gifts offered by the theme camps – individuals and small groups offered gifts too! Our favorite day was Saturday where we were overwhelmed by the gifting that happened on the playa. An Oktoberfest popped up out of nowhere to offer us beers and brauts. Then iced cold lemonade was gifted upon us. Then we happened upon a “mad tea party” with marshmallows and iced tea. A train with an expresso machine in the back rolled up out of the dust. Then a gift of necklaces made from hammered out bits of Rand currency. More bracelets, chains, and trinkets. Chilly cheese dogs. A mojito stand. Headphones were placed on our ears to transport us into a collective silent disco. It was incredible! I wish we had a better idea about what gifting was all about so we would have had better things to offer! Our contribution was a morning of serving pancakes with the “Pancake Pozzie”. We also made coconut bras and passed them out at the “Beach Please” camp’s Captain’s Ball. Sadly the wind storm cancelled my neuroplasticity talk!

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And then there was the ART!

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Aside from the big wooden builds, there were tons of small art installations all over the place. Often there was a meaning or dedication of the piece, but just as often there was no clear meaning and the piece was just meant to shock your sense of normalcy. My favorite smaller build was the Metal Oryx that was at the farthest edge of the playa. It was set up with hydraulic pumps to make it periodically shift around so it looked alive!

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But the big builds are the real stars of the show. They stood above the playa like giants! How these things get built is beyond me – what it would take to get the needed supplies out to this area is mindblowing! Then just as fast as you fall in love with a piece – it is set afire and burns to the ground. At first I just couldn’t fathom why the burning was necessary. Why spend months building something and then destroy it.

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Well I came to understand there are a few reasons. One is that the burn is part of the art. Each structure is constructed in a way as to make it burn and collapse artfully. As the structure is lit, the flames swirl and dance around the imploding structure to create a once in a life time split second work of art. Then there is the symbolism of the burn which has a few meanings of its own. Some say the burn is a cleansing experience that helps us shed the chains of mainstream society and hold onto the tenets of self expression and selflessness learned at the burn. The burn is also meant to remind us of the fleeting nature of beauty and life. That we must cherish and participate in the beauty around us each moment because it will not last forever.

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Our favorite burns were the Awakening which was a large lotus structure that was burned in silence and the Tower in the Sky which burnt with the final sunrise.

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Also of course the main event which was the burning of the clan (in contrast the burning of the “man” at Burning Man). It was a wooden structure depicting multiple people intertwined to symbolize the collective energy that created Afrikaburn. The implosion of the figures was an impressive sight made even more fantastical by the fire dancers that encircled the structures as it burnt.

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So what did we take from the experience? We learned that we are pretty tough! We made one of the longest drives of anyone we met at the festival. We went 5 days without showering! We met some really cool people, had unexpected conversations and hilarious encounters. We danced to a lot of weird music. We made up our own rhino dance to the beats of Loki the flame throwing disco rhino at 3am. We experienced the most peaceful sunrises and the most dazzling display of stars. We saw the beauty in all shapes and sizes of people.

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Most importantly we disconnected completely from modern society and lived the way people should – cooking for ourselves, cleaning up after ourselves, engaging in the world around us 100% without the distraction of phones, internet and endless consumerism. We just enjoyed life to the fullest! It was amazing!

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After having this experience, I have read up on how the original burning man started. I love the flyer describing the first event in Black Rock Desert as “A place where you could gain nothing and lose everything and no one would ever know.”  It is so true – we took a risk of going to a place we knew nothing about hoping to gain nothing other than the experience – and we were rewarded with a  crazy amazing collection of memories! We also found a new motto for our adventures from the original burners : “free spirits in pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society.”

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