Words: Travis Lyle/ Photos: Simon O’Callaghan
Sometimes it takes a little ignorance to create something amazing. In year two of our attendance at AfrikaBurn in 2008, we brought a camp from Durban called the AmaDeadly Disco Circus. For the circus, we made a DIY stretch tent. A big one. Being on a budget, we staged a fundraiser, and with the proceeds bought 120 metres of single jersey two-way stretch cotton. This we overlocked into one massive big top of 20 x 15 metres, raised it up to a height of 4 metres with 25 bamboo poles (sourced from a friend’s farm) and lashed the whole shebang down with rebar, rope and webbing. Then we set up a dancefloor and proceeded to AmaDeadlify our corner of Tankwa Town. And then came the wind.
With a sail that big, what was a beautiful and airy circus tent when conditions were fair was transformed into a small ship tossed wildly on a desert sea. That tent billowed like a sail, poles danced and bucked and fell, rebar went flying, lashings leapt loose and the fabric developed a dangerous tear. The whole goddamn shithouse looked dead set to collapse the hell out of that AmaDeadly dancefloor jol, lock, stock and one smoking ex-themecamp. But the band played on; like in any good sea shanty all hands were on deck and in the teeth of the gale our crew held their own, sailing HMS AmaDeadly through stormy weather ’til calm prevailed. It was high fives all round, and when we were certain the gale had passed, a few strong drinks and lots of ‘Hectic, bru!’
In a way, it was ignorance that made this amazing tent, this pink and blue circus tent that housed a dancefloor each night. But it was a close call. The lightweight fabric wasn’t up to the job – which is why big professional Bedouins are made of a heavy-gauge fabric – and the 4-metre metal truss we used could easily have gone tits up, and come tumbling down. If it had, the 40 or so people dancing in the tent could have got hurt, and a whole bunch of gear would have gone ass over kettle.
And that wasn’t the only time – come AfrikaBurn 2012, the blue and pink stretch tent set sail on the Tankwa once again. This time it was half the size, but we faced twice the trouble from the elements: not just wind, but a dinkum megastorm, complete with gale force winds, hail and a deluge which had to be seen to be believed. Those who survived that storm still speak of it with wide eyes – when the desert throws a storm at you, it coughs up one wild and violent sonofabitch storm. Many camps got caught napping, and some very big (and professional) tent setups went keyster over tit – to be fair, this was a storm on a level nobody expected to have to face, but it came nonetheless and our camp was very nearly reduced to tornado trash. What started as fairly steady rain suddenly racked up to become a dangerous and furious tempest in the space of mere minutes.
Our No Spectator newspaper crew was busy putting the next day’s paper to bed when we noticed our tent, which was only about 20 metres away, had started to dance and flap in an all-too-familiar manner. We dropped everything and hopped to it, but by the time we’d crossed that small divide, shit had gone from manageable to seriously pear: if we hadn’t got there in time, our entire camp would have been mangled into next week and washed into the Tankwa River. We threw all we had at the leading edge, four of us doing our best to secure the fabric as close to the ground as we could, to provide as little sail to the wind as possible. Despite having loads of thick-ass rebar in the ground and making sure the tent showed no slack spots, the wet ground, weight of the rain and sheer force of the wind meant some rebar pulled out, lashings were loosed and as a result poles danced themselves crazy. To top it off, fast streams had started to flow calf-deep on either side of our sleeping area. Luckily our smart campmates had dug drainage channels around our entire tent, and a couple sharp passersby were on hand to lend a hand. In the end it all turned out fine, but once again it had been fucking close.
But both times, good lessons were learned: when setting up, don’t underestimate how rugged your tent needs to be, or how deep your rebar need to go in. Go the extra mile to make it a bit tighter, the rebar a bit deeper and use what weight you have – water containers, vehicles, sandbags, whatever – to make sure your tent is as immobile as possible.
Moral of the story – when sailing a tensile membrane structure in the desert, be sure your ship is seaworthy and be sure to have capable crew. And if the shit hits the fan, whether wind or thunderstorm, and you need help, just shout it out loud! There are lots of able-bodied and willing crew at a Burn – just raise the alarm and you’ll be sure to sail safely to calmer times.
Storm stories? More here.