Camping with Lipstick

  • tent
  • self inflating mattress
  • vacuum packed ready meals
  • sunscreen
  • tutu, headdress, wings, goggles
  • lipstick

Camping kit sorted.  Ok, I am clearly not a regular camper. The only reason to camp is if there is no other accommodation available and the destination is exceptional. Aaah, Afrika Burn. Of course. I reckon camping won’t be so bad if I can wear lipstick everyday without feeling weird among khaki-clad hiking/camping types.

The Survival Guide, which I read carefully before we set off, warned us to come prepared for dust, wind, rain, cold, heat, mosquitoes, devil thorns and flash floods. We also had to take every drop of water we would need for a week with us and bring out absolutely everything we carted in – Leave No Trace.  This was no ordinary camping trip.

my tent

Afrika Burn is community of participants who come together voluntarily to create art and a new world in the Tankwa Karoo once a year. Eleven principles act as guidelines for the event and illustrate how a community can recreate the world.

Tankwa dust is legendary.  On arrival, Burn Virgins (you could obviously spot us a mile away!) were required to bang a gong and roll in the dust, before heading into ‘town’ to find a rocky spot to hammer in our tent pegs.

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Tankwa Town (created annually by volunteers) is a barren plain ringed with hills. The Roggeberg to the North and East, and Cedarberg in the West.  The nomad tents rise like little mountain ranges too. Roads are created with tape and have delightful names. The main ones follow the clock – 6ish, 9.30ish and 10ish.  The side streets are alphabetical  (so thoughtful for late night revellers trying to find their camp) using interesting words with X in them – so Elixir, Flummox, Generation X, Hex… This year was the 10th anniversary of Afrika Burn, so the overall theme was X. Crossroads were illuminated with solar lights and You Are Here maps.

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The very useful Survival Guide had said that goggles were essential. Despite it seeming very odd, I am glad I packed some as they were very handy when the dust storm rolled through. I wore them on my way to yoga class in the morning, to eat lunch (out of the packaging, with extra crunch) and to wander around the Binnekring in the early evening watching the people.

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Everything (well most stuff) happens on the Binnekring – a circular road around the open area where the art is displayed.  Thousands of people perambulate whirling umbrellas or trundle along on bikes. Marvellous mutant vehicles cruise by offering music or drinks or snacks. Folk lounge on bean bags or sit on hay bales enjoying pancakes, vetkoek, coffee or ice cream – all the treats that are gifted by the hosts of the Theme Camps. Some dance, some drum, some walk on stilts. It is an astonishing collection of creativity and colour and absolute magic. Everyone participates by dressing up, playing an instrument or jiggling hoola hoops – there are no bystanders.

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Flags flap, balloons bob and tents strain at their tethers. The heat of the day is tempered by the breeze. No one bothers to cling to their tutus or headdresses – they simply go with the flow. The wind is an integral part of the Afrika Burn experience – illustrating beautifully the transient nature of the event, and indeed life.

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The morning yoga class set to resurrecting the tent and sweeping the canvas floor before the calm, white-clad teacher settled us down for some vigorous breathing with our eyes closed and backs to the bracing breeze. The Alienz Coffee Shop which provided free coffee to everyone who brought a cup took a battering, but was soon up and running as those in need of caffeine restored order.

All sorts of bits and bobs blew away to get snared on the bossies along the water course.  The detritus is called MOOP in Tankwa Town – Matter Out Of Place. Whatever you take in you have to take home and it is astonishing that 12 000 people actually do this!  There are no bins. We volunteered for MOOP collection a couple of times, disentangling ribbons of toilet paper from thorny bushes and found that what we collected was seldom willfully discarded, but simply lost in the wind or the party.   We seldom found copies of the entertaining daily paper – The Stofadil Sentinel – sure everyone wanted to take a souvenir home.

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Even when there was no swirling dust, the earth was obvious. Hard, with stones everywhere.  Interesting stones, I must say. Some sharp and standing upright in shards, others smooth and extremely shiny, swathes broken into neat rectangles and some that looked like elephant skin. I did spend a fascinating morning with a Geologist and Archaeologist out in the wild part, but can’t really remember anything I learnt.

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I have never been to any sort of festival before – the thought of thousands of people and a few chemical toilets has put me off.  Here the loos were lovely.  Long drops, dug by volunteers before we arrived, with buckets of sawdust beside them, treated with effective micro-organisms every day, and surrounded on three sides with shade cloth to ensure a little privacy.  One morning I overheard a tie dye clad young man excitedly telling his friend he had spotted a Rufous naped Lark from his favourite loo with a view! I was dreading the thought of mass use toilets, but these were perfectly nice. Just in case, I adopted three nearby anyway, tidied them and cleaned the seat a few times a day after decorating them in a Fresh-as-a-Daisy theme with trails of lacy white daisies and daisy coloured poetry to read. I hoped that users might be better behaved if it was a pretty space – I need not have been concerned.

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We had carted in the suggested 5l of water per day per person and found that this was more than adequate. Obviously, we didn’t bother much with washing and soon got used to the powdery film on our limbs, matted hair and very wrinkly faces. Interesting how easily we adapted to a waterless world.  One afternoon our neighbours offered us the last bit of hot water in their portable shower and Penny and I had a very luxurious wash using only ONE LITRE each!

Our neighbours deserve a special mention as making friends with them was definitely a highlight.  We set up beside four young people from Pretoria – also Burn Virgins, who were so organised and utterly charming and offered us gluten free pancakes in the morning and woke me up to watch the midnight burn with them.  On the other side was Ebenezer Roux a succulent grower from Cape Town -he just loved camping and spent most of the time pottering around his camp housekeeping. He got the kettle boiling first thing so we could have a cup of tea together. One evening, he gave me a list of all the vegetables he had brought from his pantry so that we could cook up a big ratatouille to share. Beside him were a Gauteng couple whom he had met at the Burn before and who were now his firm Tankwa friends – an annual rendezvous in the desert. Tucked between us and the Afrikaans youngsters was a couple from Tanzania and their son who has just finished at UCT – they cooked glamorous things like Spagetti Carbonara and drank red wine and greeted the day with a ‘Salaam Alaikum’.  Behind us were lovely travel bloggers, Andra and Sergiu, Romanians who live in Vienna. They had a very organised VW Kombi that they slept in with their toy monkey, and the aforementioned shower.  When the big crowds arrived for the weekend, Hawaiians Juicy and Mantis squeezed their off road rental with a tent on top between us and the road. What a delight they were. Veteran Burners who have often been to the original Burning Man event in Nevada and had the most fantastic costumes, including incredible platform boots and eagle wings (which they gifted to Penny). They told us the quickest way to get to Tankwa Nature reserve when we left and saved us HOURS of driving.

Penny and Ebenezer

Apparently 1500 or so people simply left during the dust storm, packing up camp after their tents had collapsed in the high winds, or simply preferring their breakfast grit free. Most people were more resilient than that – carrying bedding and belongings to more robust tents, offering shelter to neighbours, sharing 10 pound hammers and hunkering down.

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Ballgowns billowed and the creative buckets in the free showers at Camp New Beginnings swung wildly. Burning Mail managed to stick free stamps onto free postcards and send them off around the world, or deliver them by bicycle around the camp.  I don’t expect anyone tried to play tennis in the wind at the Love All Tennis Camp.  The rainbow CD and rag décor at the Pancake Pozzi twirled, but they kept serving pancakes, and there was afternoon tea in china cups with biscuits on offer too.  The Independent Republic of Boerassic Park was undeterred by the wind, serving up vetkoek and folk stories to the early risers.

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I contributed to the artwork named Octopus’ Garden – a crochet coral reef of many colours set on the ancient seabed – feeling fortunate that there was a way that I could participate from my comfort zone of hook and yarn.

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Radio Tankwa filled the airwaves with news about what was happening where and an eclectic selection of music. Eclectic is a word that epitomizes the entire event.  Wealthy revelers arrive in helicopters at the airstrip while battered panel vans brave the tyre shredding roads. The contrasts are immense and much of the time, one’s senses are overloaded.  Most of all the kindness of strangers, the spontaneous conversations in unexpected places, the sharing and generous gifting overwhelms the whole experience. There is really nothing negative to say.

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Burning the Artworks seemed a bit odd considering that some had taken weeks to build and were incredibly beautiful.  Fortunately, in conversation with strangers we soon learned that the FIRE is often the art – the way the sculpture burns. The flames that shoot high through the centre, the whirlwinds of embers that spin off into the desert, the petals of the Lotus that opened one by one as the flames licked the base.  Cleverly thought out and planned by the artists.

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The burns took place in the evenings and while there was a schedule, the fire crew made last minute decisions on the conditions and the wisdom of burning.  The best way to find a burn is to follow the flashing red lights of the fire trucks as they head across the dark empty space.  Soon crowds of self-illuminated folk (think LED lights in tutus, tiaras, on bicycle wheels and backpacks) wander across to ‘the burn’.  Some sculptures burn easily while others require dousing with petrol and flame throwers (a bit disappointing).

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Our favourites included the Desert Flower made of subtle coloured hessian; the Clan X – giant dancing figures; Die Laghuis for the small and engaged crowd; Obscura 2010 – Tintin’s Rocket which seemed so different from anything else; the silent burn when everyone in the entire place switched off the music and sat in reverence watching the flames; the Lighthouses which was pretty silent by default as many people had left already and those who remained had no need to be noisy, the sunrise burn; and The Moment which burnt at midnight.  This sculpture was created by a team of Russian artists – a beautiful cracked egg supported in the air – my favourite I think.

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Oh, I must not forget Lizzie X Edition – the life size, mechanised Tyrannosaurus Rex that circled the crowds spewing fire and reminding us all that dinosaurs once roamed these plains. It was very moving.

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Most evenings there were literally dozens of fire dancers doing their thing – completely mesmerizing.  While all this could be really dangerous, volunteer Rangers keep everyone at a safe distance, warn of potential hazards and treat anyone with sunburn or braai fire burns too.

balloons at burn

The volunteer medics treat other emergencies and the Sanctuary offers a quiet space for those having a rough time – all volunteers!  Volunteering rules at Afrika Burn!  I found a space that I fit into perfectly! It is the MOST FUN and highly recommended.  I volunteered as an Info Booth Faery, in Lost and Found, registering media and showing artists where to set up, collecting MOOP and as a Snow Queen in the ice booth.

nikki info booth faery

Ice is the only thing sold in Tankwa Town – helping to keep everyone cool, food fresh and drinks delicious. It was one of the most enjoyable afternoons I volunteered for and I met some jolly interesting characters at the ice truck too.  We were surprised at how easy it was to keep our supplies cold with a little care and a couple of bags of ice.

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I didn’t focus much on taking photos because I found it quite hard to capture the magic. Better to simply enjoy the moment. Also, I didn’t think the dust would do my camera much good!  With no phone signal, cash or deadlines and surrounded by remarkably friendly members of humanity one really begins to believe that we can recreate Life on Earth in a better way.

In the end, it is the people who participate who make Afrika Burn such an exceptional experience.  Participate, not just observe. We were all the entertainment.  Pyromaniacs or not. With or without lipstick.

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19 Comments Add yours

  1. Liesje Carter says:

    I loved it . Good writing and capturing the elusive atmosphere of Afika Burn .Between the lines I sense this experience is a challenge ,even a huge challenge and to enjoy it one must embrace it.


    1. Thanks Liesje. It is a real challenge – but also an absolute delight. You would love it, I have little doubt.


  2. Meriel mitchell says:

    Such inspirational off the grid reading ….So well narrated and fabulous pics. I loved the snail on two wheels. I could feel and taste the dust and smell the burn and most of all,imagine the silence and solitude after sunsets. An experience like no other – well done to the organizers and to you for going and sharing your eyewitness account!


    1. Thanks Meriel – yes Molly the Mollusc was very special. With coloured lights at night inside her. Ha! There was no silence – music ALL NIGHT LONG. Earplugs helped and actually, one got used to it after a while. After the big crowds had left, it was quiet after midnight which was really lovely. We headed into the Tankwa National Park for some incredible silence and dark to recover once it was over. You must try and visit there if you haven’t already.


  3. Justine Butler says:

    Was so lovely to work with you in Lost and Found. See you in the dust next year.


    1. Thanks Justine! I can see why you enjoy that duty so much. I loved how most people who were not reunited with their belongings just said “Oh well, a gift to the Universe, I hope it makes someone happy and thanks for offering the Lost and Found service.” I am so impressed at you posting pics of the items on the AfrikaBurn Lost and Found Facebook page. That must be taking forever, but I am sure is really appreciated too.


  4. ranger bob says:

    cool post no longer virgin burner

    see you next year in the dust


    1. Thanks Ranger Bob. Eish, it is far from the forest to the desert, but you never know.


  5. desdesignsdot says:

    Wow wow wow. It sounds like its on another planet, not this power-hungry, money-drenched place called Earth.


    1. It is the REAL world, Des. No idea why the place we usually inhabit can’t be that that too. Am working on a pixie revolution and world domination as we speak….


  6. nikodemis says:

    Reblogged this on GREEN LIVING FOR FREEDOM AND SUSTAINABILITY and commented:
    Life and Art blended into the perfect experiential cocktail…


    1. A lovely description – a cocktail! Exactly.


  7. nikodemis says:

    Absolutely beautifully narrated, I am still a Burn Virgin and will some day drag my family out there, most of my friends have been so my time will come. Thanx for sharing Nikki, sooo inspiring and yes the world is becoming and can be a better place indeed 🙂


    1. Thank you. Yes, do go one day. Your experience may be completely different to mine. It will be exactly as you make it, but exceptional without a doubt.


  8. cg58 says:

    As always loved this blog! Your photos and thoughts have given me a fresh perspective, you know how I love quiet solitude in open spaces…. The community spirit in an isolated and harsh environment must have been heart warming! So happy your long waited Afrika Burn was an inspiration!
    Christeen xxxxx


    1. I too love solitude and quiet places – certainly my preferred holiday. However, there were quiet, alone moments to be had in the whole crazy circus. Certainly restored some faith in humanity and our ability to re invent the world in a much better way. People are basically jolly nice – something we won’t find out hiding away! (says me from my solitary cave on the hill!)

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Alison McKenna says:

    Wow, what an astonishing evening’s entertainment I’ve just had reading your article and going into your links which led to more links and then on to the videos and the photographs. It’s been such fun! Afrika Burn must have been the experience of a lifetime for you ~ thank you for sharing it with us.


    1. Oh, how delightful to imagine you having a virtual desert adventure on an ordinary Saturday night, Alison! So glad you enjoyed it. I keep remembering things I must include, so pop back again for more succulent tit bits.


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