AfrikaBurn: Where The Wild Things Are

Cars and trucks converted into pirate ships. Raccoons, peacocks and Pac Man characters zooming around a huge dusty circle. Interactive artworks and sculptures surrounded by theme camps, which range from massage parlors and coffee shops to dance floors and bars. Everyone dressed up in elaborate costumes, from steam punks to fairies, space cowboys to monks, and people who look like they’re extras from a Star Wars movie. A tented town lit up with a thousand LEDs, fairly lights and flashes of neon, turning the desert into a rainbow-colored wonderland as the darkness descends on the vast horizon.

These were just some of the spectacles at AfrikaBurn, the continent’s most unique and exciting festival.

Once a year, a farm in the middle of nowhere in South Africa’s Karoo desert is transformed into a temporary town of art, music and performance where creativity is everything and money means nothing. It’s utterly surreal, bewildering at first, and completely mind-blowing – you have to keep pinching yourself as a reminder that you’re not in a dream.

Unlike other festivals, at AfrikaBurn nothing is for sale (apart from ice); participants must bring everything they need to survive in the harsh desert climate of baking-hot days, freezing nights and dust storms – including food, shelter and water. AfrikaBurn runs on a gifting economy, which means that each person who attends is supposed to gift something to others, whether it’s gingerbread cookies, freshly-popped popcorn, drinks, food, homemade jewellery, a yoga class or an art work. After a week, everything gets packed up (including trash) and taken home, leaving no sign that this magical gathering took place.

There’s also no organized entertainment. Everything that happens at AfrikaBurn is up to the participants themselves, from DJing on dance floors, live bands, choreographed dance and fire performances and even a circus. This is the true magic of AfrikaBurn – that the festival goers create the festival. Each year you have no idea of what to expect – sometimes theme camps and artworks return from the previous year, but there are mostly new creations and performances. The scale of the art and the effort people put into their camps is astounding.

AfrikaBurn is South Africa’s offshoot of Burning Man, which has been running for decades in the Nevada desert, and now attracts 70,000 participants each year. Like Burning Man, AfrikaBurn is based on 11 guiding principles, which include self-reliance, communal effort, self-expression and leaving no trace. More than just a festival, AfrikaBurn is a social experiment in a radically different way to live. It’s not without its problems and challenges, but on the whole this alternative way of living actually works – the vast majority of participants contribute, pick up their trash, and gift generously.

Since it started in 2007, AfrikaBurn has grown rapidly, and is now the largest of 130 regional Burning Man events worldwide. Organisers have struggled to keep up with the demand – tickets this year sold out in two minutes, and 9000 people made the journey 186 miles north of Cape Town to the Karoo.

The increase in numbers has meant that double the number of theme camps (over a hundred) were set up this year, and there were 95 registered art works, from the contemplative temple space called “The Offering”, to the futuristic Clan structure (AfrikaBurn’s version of the “Man” from Burning Man), to “Subterrafuge”, which, made up of six timber cones reaching as high as 100 feet, was an intended statement against fracking in the Karoo. “Reflection”, the multi-story torso, arms and head of a wooden man rising from the earth, returned this year with an amazing night show of projection mapping.

On the last three nights of the week-long gathering, some of the art works were burned as crowds gathered together and cheered. While the burning of beautiful works of art that took months to create may seem strange, the idea behind it is one of accepting transience – something that most of us struggle with.

It’s hard not to be moved by AfrikaBurn. After it’s all over and everything is packed up and taken home, some of the magic of this festival – of the gifting, openness and creativity – is carried over into daily life outside of the desert.

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