AfrikaBurn 2024: 29 April to 5 May

Memoirs of A Burner

(words: Matthew Wise / photos: Jonx Pillemer)

As clichéd as it may sound, I must say I don’t quite know where to begin describing this thing in the desert I was fortunate enough to be a part of a couple of weeks ago. It has been dubbed a “social experiment”, but I guess you might also be able to call it some kind of temporary neo-tribal gathering, governed by a set of guiding principles that help create one of the most wondrous places and one of the most magical experiences one could hope for. 2015 was the first time I experienced AfrikaBurn, and I thought it was absolutely incredible.
It was an amalgamation of the collective efforts of gifted artists, creative thinkers, free spirits, talented musicians and mechanical & technological intellectuals. Various experts in their respective fields and all those who wished to partake in the fruits of their labours made the annual pilgrimage to the arid, isolated Stonehenge Farm adjacent the Tankwa Karoo National Park, and with them they brought their most innovative, bizarre, funny and extraordinary ideas and creations which make up that mystical town we are lucky enough to call home for a few days.
It turns out they weren’t kidding about how treacherous the journey there can be. Our drives to and from the venue where interrupted by punctures on the R355, and we were far from the only ones judging by the abundance of shredded tyres strewn along the sides of the road. The one on the way there, about half an hour from the gate, was particularly galling. I had just about got to the point where I was telling myself we were going to make it there without incident.
Thankfully the overwhelming generosity which becomes apparent as one of the hallmarks of the festival didn’t take too long to show itself. A group of four Australians and one Dutch guy pulled over within a couple of minutes and gladly offered their assistance. If by any chance any of them are reading this, thank you once again. I’m exceedingly grateful for them lending their many hands as without their help, it might have taken three or four times longer than it did to change that tyre.
Next step after getting through the gate is setting up camp and erecting a stretch tent (if you hadn’t had that done by a third party prior to your arrival). It’s more difficult than it sounds if your knowledge and experience when it comes to stretch tents is no good, both of which could be described in those terms when it comes to me. It did feel like we had gone along with the “Radical Self Reliance” part, but having now done that once it’s probably one of the things I’d do differently next time. I must express my unconditional gratitude again to the guys who let us use their sledgehammer, generator and drill and helped us get it up. David and Addy if you’re reading this, I can’t thank you enough.
We arrived on the Tuesday and despite only getting the stretch tent up by Wednesday afternoon, I had to go see some of what it was all about that first night we were there. It doesn’t take long for the mind to start boggling, I don’t think I could possibly mention all of what I saw and keep this review under a reasonable word count, but suffice it to say it was all so wonderfully spellbinding. There was nothing I experienced at any of the installations, artworks, theme camps or mutant vehicles that made me wish I hadn’t seen or done it.
I think the most impressive, awe-inspiring and emotional of these are the burns, but more on that later. The first thing that truly caught my attention were the mutant vehicles, outlandish modes of transport of all shapes and sizes that are the mobile results of creativity, ingenuity and wheels combining. Once night has fallen there are less of them driving around and you can’t see them as well as during the day, but one we did manage to find (which was kinda hard to miss) is Lobo, the 35 meter long steam-punk-themed “Spirit Train” made up of an intricately designed wolf-like head mounted on a tractor, five carriages, flame throwers, a DJ box and a thunderous sound system.
It was an otherworldly creation. The conceptualisation and execution of the idea were out of this world, and some top drawer DJs were asked to play in that rather unique setting. Throughout the course of the week I saw some great sets, my personal favourites were those of Richard Marshall vs Kanan K7 (Tuesday), One Track Mike vs Kanan K7 (Wednesday), One Track Mike, Black Book (Thursday), Ashton Gardner and Spekta (Saturday).
Photo by Jonx Pillemer
While I’m on the subject of music, it’s worth mentioning that you hear lots of it over there. Some didn’t do it for me, but fortunately most of it was quite good. The Spirit Train on Tuesday and Thursday nights, Camp Skaduwee on Wednesday night and Satori on Saturday night / Sunday morning were my personal highlights. I heard some very cool tunes emanating from Camp High T (a place I wish I’d spent more time) and the ELE Bus throughout the week, Wulfsohn played a good set at one of the Psytrance dancefloors on Saturday night and Bubbles & Bass on the Saturday afternoon was quality as well. Although I didn’t make it there myself, I have heard The Lighthouse was quite the jol as well.
Despite the amount of aural goodness on offer, the event truly is about much more than music. Leaving aside all the wonderful man-made creations Tankwa Town consists of, the natural setting we found ourselves in is nothing short of majestic. The 360° panoramic views of the mountain ranges in the distance were magnificent, and thanks to a botanist some friends met we managed to find these tiny flowers that – when watered lightly – would bloom from dead-looking, shrivelled up flowers to a small but lively, leafy, pretty-coloured plant within a few minutes, right in front of your eyes. It was definitely one of the most mesmerising things I saw all week.
We found these plants on the Saturday evening a little bit away from the event, it took something of a trek out into the harsh terrain beyond the Binnekring to reach them, but fortunately we stumbled upon a nearby tree under which we laid out a blanket, poured some drinks, ate some snacks and, as other groups must have seen us and wandered over to join, created what can only be described as an oasis in the desert. As the sun started it’s slow, stunning descent towards the horizon it became one of my favourite moments of the week. Speaking of which, the sunsets out there (and sunrises for that matter) are some of the most beautiful you’re likely to see.
Unfortunately I didn’t make it to too many of the theme camps. I walked passed most of them and as intriguing as they all looked, I quickly realised there was just too much to see and do, I wanted to try take in as much as I possibly could and not spend too much time at one place but it didn’t quite go according to plan. It was much the same with the artworks, installations and mutant vehicles. As much as I wanted to see them all it was so difficult to not be completely enthralled by some of them and spend a lot more time at (or on) them than initially intended.
Some highlights though were Subterrafuge, Satori (and the visual mapping onto those two pieces), Come Dine Me, Skaatsstad, Greasemonkeys, Purple Spanking Booth, Balloon Chain, The Clan, Buggy Nights, Boogie the Bee, Burning Mail (and the accompanying Mail Van), the Smoken Token “Slowboat”, the Spirit Train which I mentioned earlier and so many others whose names have eluded me. As I said earlier, there are far too many to mention. But as a general note to anyone who was involved with the conceptualisation and construction of anything; I was thoroughly impressed by it all. The outfits were amazing as well. Every time I thought I had seen the best outfit at AfrikaBurn, five minutes later I was happily proved wrong. You all totally outdid yourselves in that regard.
The festival reached what felt like its crescendo on the Friday and Saturday nights when the biggest of the burns took place. On Friday night The Clan and Subterrafuge were set aflame and Metamorphosis on Saturday night. As the massive flames engulfed the pieces and radiated towards the sky, and as the giant plumes of smoke billowed upwards, I got the sense that many around me were somewhat moved by the breathtaking, emotive display. The fires looked almost unreal, as if they were being controlled in some way, perhaps by the way they had been built or maybe due to some chemicals used in the combustion process, but I can’t claim to be privy to that information and I have no idea if that is the case or not. Either way, I can’t be alone in thinking they were some of the most astonishing sights I have ever witnessed.
What became clear to me – which I probably didn’t fully grasp before – is that those who go to AfrikaBurn can utilise it in whichever way will provide them with the most enjoyment and fulfilment for themselves and others, provided the necessary respect is given to the place and the people around them. In addition to experiencing all the wonders in Tankwa Town I possibly could, it landed up being a welcome opportunity to switch off from the sometimes horrible reality the human race is responsible for, and for a short but blissful while everybody loved each other and everything was alright with the world.
Rarely do we get the chance to disconnect from our daily lives and connect with another human being and nature in the way being at AfrikaBurn allows. Rarely do we get to experience the compassion, generosity and camaraderie that you encounter at AfrikaBurn. I just don’t see how anyone wouldn’t want that. “It’s not for me! How can you handle a week in the desert!?” they may say. How can you not handle a week in the desert?
I’d like to end off by sincerely thanking, from the bottom of my heart, each and every one of you who went to AfrikaBurn 2015, all of whom helped create that enchanting place. I’d be here for a long time if I mentioned all of you by name but I have only the highest level of gratitude for the principal organisers, sanctuary volunteers, Tankwa rangers, musicians and DJs, visual effects artists, painters, sculptors, project builders and everyone else who decided to go be a Burner in 2015. I do have some regrets and there are certainly a few things I would do differently next time, but the overriding sentiment leaving Tankwa Town was “I simply cannot wait to do that all over again”. See you there in 2016!

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