Every year, thousands of people travel to South Africa to attend the Afrikaburn festival and to dance, dream and search for meaning in the Tankwa Karoo desert – our author joined them.
The sparks glitter like gold dust among the stars above the South African desert. Standing next to hundreds of other spectators, I look up, dumb with amazement, because I have never seen such a big fire. Flames shoot 25 meters up to lick the pitch-black sky. A peculiar silence descends all around us, and the cracking and snapping and popping of burning wood is all that I can hear. Not far away, I see a man in a long coat holding a pitchfork and a kind of shepherd’s staff. In the light of the fire, he looks like a sorcerer from a bygone age.
There’s something surreal about the entire scene, but at the same time I feel safer and more protected than I have felt in a long time. Slowly, a charred wooden structure reminiscent of a giant bird’s nest appears among the flames. “Isn’t that amazing?” my neighbor whispers, handing me a hip flask. I nod and take a sip of whiskey.
It’s the end of April, which means the end of summer in the southern hemisphere. Everyone around me has come to attend Afrikaburn, a week-long spectacle that takes place in one of South Africa’s most inhospitable regions. The Tankwa Karoo is a semi-desert populated by jackals, scorpions and venomous puff adders. During the day, the temperatures climb to 40 degrees Celsius. At night, they can easily drop below zero. But year after year, more and more people from Cape Town have begun to attend, although the city is roughly 300 kilometers away. They even come from as far away as Durban, Johannesburg, Europe and the United States. This year, 13 000 people have come together in the desert, including me.
What does it all mean? That depends on who you ask. I meet people who are searching, but also those who would like nothing more than to forget. Some are looking for answers to the big questions of life, others just want to dance the night away, and the following day, and the next night. There are also people here who come to help others day after day – frying pancakes, cleaning toilets – in exchange for nothing more than a couple of meals. And there are those who prefer to keep to themselves, like the small group of white farmers who lounge, legs splayed, in camping chairs, enjoying a braai or barbecue with lots of meat: men who like to drink and look up at the stars without saying a word. Others come for a sexual adventure they would never dare to risk at home – or just to walk around naked for a couple of days.
For a few days each year, the desert becomes a catwalk, a playground, a giant dance floor
“Tankwa Town” is what they call the city they rebuild in the desert year after year, just to tear it down a few days later – a community that doesn’t officially exist. But if you zoom in on the coordinates 32°19’36.6’’S 19°44’53.2’’E in Google Maps, you will find the camp that spreads out like a crescent around the Binnekring, the central festival arena. For a few days each year, this half of a square kilometer of desert becomes a catwalk, a playground, a dance floor. Disco music plays in one part of the Binnekring, jazz piano tinkles in another, but what you hear most often are electro beats. It’s like Berlin’s Berghain club in the middle of nowhere.
This bone-dry swathe of land is the perfect spot for a one-person social experiment: seven days without money, without WiFi or cell reception. There’s no garbage disposal, no catering, no organized entertainment here. Instead, anyone can offer anything for sale: cookies, liquor, pumpkin stew. Some people perform music, others exhibit their art or lay tarot cards. One of the rules at Afrikaburn is that everyone contributes something to the festival’s success – a Utopian exercise in individual responsibility underpinned by warmth. “Gimme a hug!” are words I heard here much more often than anywhere else. There’s no such thing as urban reserve in the desert.
A man rides by on a bicycle and calls out “Happy Thursday” as he salutes me with his umbrella. Two others, dressed as giraffes, file past – led by an elfin creature in a silvery bomber jacket and bikini bottom. A man in a white tutu sits on a red sofa while another, got up as a garden gnome, hands him a glass of champagne. I sit in the shade of a giant cupcake and watch a velvety pink hippo roll past. I quickly snap a picture for my partner back in Europe. I want to describe the heat and the hazy, dusty light, and tell him that I feel as though I have wandered into Tim Burton’s interpretation of Woodstock. But perhaps it’s good that I have no reception. What if he’s in a meeting or poking around in his cafeteria meal right now? How could I possibly explain what it’s like here?
Wooden sculptures as tall a houses are positioned here and there around the Binnekring. You can duck inside them or climb on top, and some even serve as a stage for the odd DJ. There’s even a Ferris wheel made entirely of wood. In the course of the week, nearly all of these objects will be burned. The fires fascinate me, they remind me of the humility shown by Tibetan monks, who spend hours creating delicate mandalas with colored sand, only to destroy them as soon as they have finished. But I also think: What a waste of good materials! Enormous amounts of perfectly good timber that must have cost hundreds of thousands, just going up in smoke. Is that really necessary, in a country where millions of people still live below the poverty line?
Looking around, I see mostly young white people here. They earn a living in game development and advertising, as scientists and scriptwriters. In some of their eyes, I see hugely dilated pupils, in others, just pinpricks. Drugs are illegal in South Africa, of course, but they are just as much a part of the party scene here as elsewhere. Is this perhaps not a social experiment at all but an opportunity for a bunch of rich kids to really let it rip?
There it goes again, that walkie-talkie chatter. Monique Schiess, who is one of the organizers, never puts it down. The large sculpture that is scheduled to burn tonight has not yet been completed, so the schedule needs adjusting and security has to be informed. Afrikaburn is a full-time job for Schiess. Dressed in black leggings and flip-flops, the 45-year-old with the amorous eyes sits in a bus that broke down here years ago. Somebody put in some astroturf and installed wooden benches, and now it’s the main festival office. Schiess started the festival along with five partners or rather, they brought it to South Africa from the other end of the world. After all, in the U.S. state of Nevada, people have been celebrating and making fires in the Black Rock Desert for nearly thirty years.
In June, 1986, on midsummer night, 20 friends burned a wooden statue two and a half meters tall on Baker Beach in San Francisco. The ritual became a tradition, the statues got taller, and more and more people began attending the event until it was declared illegal and the party people – 800 of them by that time – moved across the border to Nevada in 1990. In the following years, Burning Man became a magnet for new-age hippies and others searching for meaning, and ultimately even drew global players from the California tech industry. To them, the desert – a gigantic, seemingly empty space – was a perfect allegory for the Internet, that autonomous, unregulated place where ideas could flourish and everyone was free to do their own thing. The spectacle became a place where the visionaries and billionaires of Silicon Valley yearned to be. Rumor has it that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg flew in by helicopter to pass out grilled cheese sandwiches and Google boss Larry Page was allegedly spotted wandering around in a silver onesie. Apparently, he and his partner, Sergey Brin, originally hired Eric Schmidt as chairman because he used to be a “Burner.” And Tesla boss Elon Musk has been quoted as saying, “You’ll never understand Silicon Valley if you’ve never been to Burning Man.”
Some 70 000 people now gather every year in the Nevada desert. Monique Schiess went there for the first time in 2004. When she got home, she decided to start Burning Man in South Africa. Three years later, she and her partners put on their own festival in the Tankwa Karoo.
I’m enveloped by heat, dust and quivering air. It is early afternoon as I walk across the Binnekring. Insistent beats pound from a ghetto blaster the size of a shipping container. An enormous, gleaming, green-and-purple snail rattles past on unseen wheels. I stop at a chocolate fountain to watch a girl of about 10 dip marshmallows. Eventually, I find myself in conversation with a woman who tells me that her husband passed away two years previously. “For the first time in a long time I feel re-energized,” she says, disappearing again as quickly as she came, saying that she wants to go to the runway where newcomers are arriving in their Cessnas.
Can a few days in the desert really change you, I wonder? I decide to ask Monique Schiess, whom I run into at the bonfire. “Absolutely,” she says, gazing into the flames. “The people who come here learn to re-engage, push through some stuff and experience what it means to create something new together.” Many people who have attended Afrikaburn meet up again in Cape Town, she says, where they start urban gardens and become politically or socially involved in their neighborhoods. “They return to where they live with a whole new sense of ownership.”
The fire has collapsed into a glimmering heap. My legs are stiff from sitting on the hard ground. Leaving the camp behind, I walk away into the desert, head farther and farther out into the darkness. Just before the sun rises, it sends out pale fingers of color – light blue and dirty yellow. Then the clouds begin to glow. Another day will soon be here.
1) Kiwiburn, New Zealand (24. bis 29. January)
2) Fuego Austral, Argentina (28. März bis 2.April)
3) Afrikaburn, South Africa (23. bis 29. April)
4) Midburn, Israel (14. bis 19. May)
5) Nowhere, Spain (3. bis 8. July)
6) Burning Man, USA (26. August bis 3. September)