No running water. No indoor toilets. Blazing heat and dust storms. One would be forgiven for asking why anyone in their right mind would trek to the Tankwa Karoo to attend a festival.
Darkness is slowly replaced by a cacophony of sounds and colours. Towering structures, flickering lights and an array of bodies come into focus. Looking up the Milky Way actually appears milky and suddenly you feel very exposed and very small. This is Afrikaburn and you have only just reached the binnekring.
Just less than 300km away from Stellenbosch an annual festival takes place during the last week of April. The participants create a decommodified space with a gifting economy that is all about giving without expecting anything in return.
Common sightings of fully nude men and women are not unusual. Children roam around and play with the interactive artworks. It can be a family affair. It can be for students. Grandparents are welcome. The space is all inclusive and accessible.
However, you are forced to adjust to a harsh climate, completely cut off from the rest of the world. With no cell reception one of the first tests the desert threw our way was a punctured tyre.
We had no way to Google how to change it and had to rely on the lessons we were taught when we received our first cars. After the nicest tannie stopped and got the spare tyre to unclasp from the car, we managed to turn around and get the tyre at the Tankwa padstal.
The website warns that the R355 “eats tyres” and it is no exaggeration. You drive 110 km on a very rough dirt road that is littered with shredded tyres and destroyed rims. This road is not for the faint-hearted and a number of accidents occur each year.
We drove past overturned cars, cars in ditches on the side of the road and the remains of cars after head-on collisions. The road, the rocks and the dust require extra vigilance and patience when driving.
At the padstal we met an international festival-goer who had been in an accident earlier that day and was looking for a lift to the festival. Seemingly not even a car crash can keep the die-hards away.
After setting up camp in the dark we finally got to explore the festival. On the way there we saw nude couples showering each other, mothers reading to their toddlers and students playing drinking games. People were dressed up in colourful costumes with lights wrapped around them to make themselves visible in the dark Karoo desert. Music came from all around and massive artworks became visible.
No place has ever deserved the term “sensory overload” quite as much.
The themed camps were truly something to experience. Huge tents had been erected in which festival-goers could receive coffee, watch a movie or relax on pillows. Themed camps ranged from body art, to a mini-Paris, to Ethiopian coffee, to a purple spanking playground and a CEXx tent (Consensual, Educational, Xploration of seX).
All of the camps created a kind of arc, or kring, around the spectacular artworks that had been erected prior to the start of the week. Many of the structures were wooden and would be burned by the end of the festival. One artist told me that the structures range from R50 000 to R500 000 to create.
This temporary town is rooted in creative and free expression in which music and artwork thrive. There are 11 guiding principles that the festival encourages: radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic duty, leaving no trace, participation, immediacy and each one teach one. All of these are evident throughout the entire festival.
Days are spent walking around under umbrellas, staying hydrated and engaging with fellow burners. Strangers exchange gifts of jewellery, massages, readings, performances and, from one kind soul, ice. Men dress in what is typically considered ‘feminine’ clothes while women bare their breasts (or more).
The binnekring and playa are transformed into dancefloors in the evening. Alcohol and drugs are common and shared liberally. Despite the ease of transfer, no one is pressured into anything. The basis of gifting is a consensual exchange. The vibe created through all of this is strangely communal. No one uses locks to keep their tents closed. When nothing has a price and all you have to do is ask, stealing isn’t necessary.
The heat of day is made bearable by pools provided at some camps, with the alternative being the human car wash at the “Birthday Suits” tent. Burners hand out popsicles and others spray you with cool water.
A nipple tassles parade is held alongside the dragon mutant vehicle. Bodies of all shapes and sizes are celebrated and we start to wonder why our society has outlawed nudity. For the first time I see naked people being viewed in a way that is not sexualised. Women and their bodies are celebrated. Men are allowed to wear makeup and skirts. Societal norms fall away.
Tents that allow for sexual exploration hand out safe sex packs with condoms and lube. They hold critical workshop discussions during the day such as Sex and Gender 101, How to be a trans ally and Chi Gung and Sacred Sexuality. At night, the tent transforms into a discreet, no under 18’s sex positive tent.
For a brief week in April, 13 000 people are able to glimpse a different kind of society. One where humans are humans and all forms of self-expressions are celebrated. It is not for the faint-hearted but it is a reality-altering experience that will hopefully leave you with a few more questions about how our society operates. – Dalaine Krige