(words and photos: Arne Schaefer)
Three months ago, about this time of the morning, my companion and I were sitting in a seemingly endless desert landscape. Just a few, faint shadowy outlines of an escarpment to the east of me; the pink walls of the Cederberg in the far west. To the north the plain reached away into the horizon, just meagrely tufted with the odd, dry, scrubby plant-life. However, we were not alone. From a few hundred metres behind us came the pervasive thump and fragmented phrases of music, waxing and waning on the light breeze. We were at a strange place indeed – AfrikaBurn.
Each year for the past seven years, this alternative art community gathering has assembled at this place, well over a hundred kilometers along a very dusty road from any town, to create transient sculptures, effects, appearances, costumes, noises, music and alter egos. A sprawling settlement of Bedouin tents, caravans, and any other imaginable shelter springs up on the circumference of the inner circle, the ‘Binnekring’ which is about a kilometer across, and open-ended at the southern end, where monumental constructs fade into the distance. At its height, over six thousand revellers, artists and participators, as well as some inevitable spectators, are crammed into the campsite. There are no facilities besides the most basic of pit latrines, screened discreetly with shade cloth above waist height, but open to the desert beyond – the ‘loo with the view’. You bring your own water, food, shelter, and spirituous refreshment for six days – or you go thirsty, hungry, sleepless, cold and sober. But follow a few common-sense precepts, and you are in for a whacky mixture of medieval fair, New Age fete, circus, art exhibition, outrageous fashion show, fancy dress party and an overload of other sensory input.
We didn’t quite know what to expect, but had prepared for it anyway. Several sets of costumes had been sewn, glued, wired and cobbled together, for the theme was to be “Archetypes”, which allowed for great latitude in interpretation. An ad hoc chariot had been re-engineered out of various unlikely materials, to be drawn behind a bicycle. The hired camping trailer provided half the storage, kitchen and accommodation, while a tent and gazebo completed our windswept home. After setting up camp in the swirls of a dust-laden stiff breeze, we took our first walk, down to the Binnekring, to see what was on offer. Everywhere a frenzy of action, preparation and completion was on the go. At this stage only a sprinkling of people wore costumes for the occasion, but already you were invited to participate in adding your daubs to a painting, making a prayer flag, having a cup of very good coffee at the Stasie Kafee or possibly to provide the motive power to a dynamic display which spat a continuous stream of bubbles into the desert air. The aim is to partake and take part – as the fancy takes you.
You are free to be as exhibitionistic as you dare, and to partake of as much as you deem to be prudent, to play to your heart’s content, whether you are three or eighty-three. There is an easy amiability among ‘burners’, a readiness to engage in conversation, a generosity in word, refreshment and deed. You find an interesting setup, you start a conversation, sit down, exchange names, enquire about their creations and get-up and depart after a while in mutual goodwill. It’s all very relaxing and non-threatening. If the crush of people becomes too much, why, then you wander out into the desert, the Binnekring or Playa, for a couple of hundred metres and admire the montages and enormous statuary that have been created by gifted artists, craftsmen and backyard engineers, while you are fascinated by ‘Mutant Vehicles’ testing their, sometimes precariously rehashed wheels, superstructures and motive power. The human imagination boggles at the mobile versions of teapots, scooter flamingoes, ships, a stationary bicycle whose peddlers provided their breakfast smoothie, various animals from camels and bats to eagles and snails, from a porcupine to T Rex, to name but a few. At night brightly illuminated versions of these as well as partygoers, draped in metres of LED lights and glowsticks, streak through the darkness, or blink like a myriad of fireflies.
The distances over which the display stretches is daunting and for fitter, younger people than ourselves, bicycles are definitely the method of transport. Never mind, even senior citizens can get around easily, but a shooting stick is a valuable accessory for leaning on as well as taking a few minutes rest every now and then. Wheelchairs, both manual and powered, are not uncommon on this level landscape. The map you are given is a mere approximation of what is where. The otherwise featureless plain is short of landmarks, and it is deceptively simple to lose one’s sense of direction in daylight – not to speak of the middle of the inky night.
As more and ever more people arrive, the camping places get more cheek to jowl. There is a constant stream of cars arriving, each raising a cloud of dust. To complicate matters, innumerable children on bikes are whizzing about, and though we see a few narrow squeaks, there seem to be no fatalities – but I would hate to be the parent of five lively sprouts, as our neighbours are. They have had a long drive, it would seem. After getting their camp in order, the rotund would-be reveller needs a little afternoon sleep. His snores are loud enough to make us want to leave him to his snooze and head out into the melee once more. This among a growing crescendo of five or six different discos blaring out their particular brand of music across the desolation. Soft, silicone earplugs are the ONLY solution to getting a modicum of sleep. At night we have a fire to sit around, as well as a barbecue, but this is a little fraught with danger, as the wind blows in strong gusts, and sparks could so easily cause a catastrophe. We have several fire extinguishers on hand – just in case.
Our first night walk. Our young companions go to a disco and pub. We opt for playing blind man’s buff in the inner circle. Although we both have headlamps, these are only necessary when spotting approaching wheeled traffic, and then to let them know that you are there. The surface is so flat that one can step with confidence into complete darkness, and head for a point of light (where you trust your destination to be) but you might just as easily land up serendipitously at something in between that you did not even know existed. So it is that we try various experiences, mostly involving light and motion, and we are drawn to the flickering flames of a small anonymous funeral pyre of a montage we had not even viewed before the fire. Yes, the idea behind this assembly of artworks, is to burn the majority of them during the festivities. Unfortunately, to the uninitiated, it is not always clear as to what will be incinerated next, nor where it is to be found. Instead, we learn to watch the route of the fire tender, the drift of the crowds at night, as well as the appearances of the aptly named ‘Sawdust Cannon’ which lights up the desert with great billows of flame as it travels around. After an hour or two, we are exhausted and opt for bed atop the camping trailer, where we are rocked to sleep by fitful tugs of the aspirant gale that flaps the attached tent and canopies.
The event gathers momentum and the actors – including ourselves – get into gear. Walkabout in costume (or the lack thereof, as one very scantily clad sprite does) is the thing to do. If you have a Mutant Vehicle, take it for a spin; pick up crowds of children young and old alike and negotiate your way carefully through the crowds of cyclists, pedestrians and motorists. Smile, chat, look about you, get photographed and point your own gadget of choice at whatever sight tickles your visual fancy. There is a large battered truck, bearing the sign ‘Free Wine’. As long as you bring your own mug/glass, you can contribute towards the effort of making the load a little lighter. Sure, it’s not the best Sauv blanc, but who cares in that dry as dust arena? The accent was on ‘giving’. The only commodity for sale on site was ice. That was trucked in daily at great cost and dispensed to the thirsty and hot masses. Further, everything on offer was yours free, gratis, with a smile. The spirit of mutual generosity welled up in all but a few who came only to take. Yes, there were some who staggered noticeably and slurred their speech, others wandered about vacantly staring into a space uniquely of their own chemical manufacture, a lot of raucous laughter was heard and presumably there was a whole lot of lovin’ going on – but with the exception of a few small groups of youths ranging about, loudly proclaiming their self-importance in speech liberally larded with fexpletives, there was very little to offend any reasonable person. I do believe there was an argument within a few metres of me, but it was so short, I missed it entirely and was only told about it afterwards.
It was advisable for us, who lacked the stamina to partake of the party spirit for the entire morning, afternoon, or evening at one go, to return to camp for a little R&R, not to speak of a comfort break at the outlying toilets, every couple of hours. The impact on the senses was just too great to be able to assimilate everything. Inevitably we missed many once-off events, which may have been advertised on the programme, or on a notice board somewhere, but which went unnoticed among the many distractions. When all else failed, one sat in one’s ‘lounge’ under the gazebo, sipped a cool drink and watched the passing parade. It was a pastime that never failed to entertain. Feathers, veils, outrageous attire made from improbable materials, rehashed footwear, clanking metal accoutrements or large expanses of bare skin– the display of different peoples’ views and opinions of what was fitting, stylish or just plain shocking, fascinated endlessly. If you sat in your chair for long enough, why, it was almost certain everything mobile or ambulant would pass in front of your ringside seat sooner or later. If someone looked as if they just had to be immortalized in electronic form, you jumped up and asked permission to photograph the person – just good manners.
We attend the major burn of the whole event that night, that of the ‘Archi Clan’, a huge, circular construct, towering about twenty metres high over a platform on which it had been built of wood and rush-mats. The crowds were restrained in a circle round the massive sculpture at a distance of about fifty metres by the marshals. Then, after a preliminary firedance by a troupe, without further fanfare, the flame was kindled, and within a few minutes the entire huge wheel was ablaze and the surrounding crowd ‘melted’ further back into the darkness to escape the searing heat. A brief, spectacular and sobering reminder that on our human scale, organic life is short.
A mass purple wedding has been planned, we had heard. Being thusly inclined, my companion and I duly queue up clad in purple (myself in blonde wig and in drag) and we are honoured to be the first to have our vows read to the assembled masses by the bogus bishop, in which we promise each other full participation in each other’s aching bones and wobbly bits. All courtesy of a pushy, inebriated partygoer who has insinuated himself as our ring-bearer and who whispered arcane blandishments (or threats?) into the bishop’s ear. Our wedding ‘song’ is blasted out by the bish’s backing disco, while we indulge in a suitably triumphal dance. The rest of the crowd gets ‘married’ en masse. Our camp neighbour, a dour-looking lady from somewhere on the Platteland, tells us later, that she thought our ceremony was ‘touching’.
We stumble on an ear-bending heavy metal disco in the dark of night, which consisted of a whole armament of heavy artillery and fireworks mounted on a truck, while four DJ/musicians disported themselves on another contraption in front of the vehicle, using anything from an anvil to a angle-grinder and trumpet to give a dazzling, deafening, but most enjoyable performance. Many of the major burns had an accompaniment in the shape of a psychedelically illuminated, topless bus, complete with disco and a rocking crowd of spectators clinging to the top and sides to give a musical send-off to the immolation of another work of art. By accident, we landed up in one of the far-flung corners of the arena, as a towering structure of a giant cheese-grater and its cheesey heart (Grateful Heart) were being toasted. The introductory firedancers were a class act by themselves, but then the fire shaman, the father of all archetypes, created the magic flame by friction and set the huge construction ablaze. It took a while to catch alight, but once the huge plywood edifice was enveloped in the conflagration, it became so torrid that the crowds almost caused a stampede to get out of reach of that fiery breath. Out of the inferno a number of small, raging tornadoes emerged in an eerie procession, like spirits of the departed, and danced towards the spectators, before they evaporated within a few seconds – an infernal phantasmagoria.
At 1 am the Department of Public Works’ camp kitchen, twenty metres behind us, explodes. We are woken by the bang of the gasbottles spewing metal fragments into the night – but go back to sleep, as bangs are an everyday occurrence. Then we are roused by our young companions who tell us that the camp must be evacuated immediately. We hastily pull on some clothes, and I make my way through the huddle of tents towards the glow of the fire. It is across a roadway and there are crowds gathering. The works team has already contained it into one large blazing heap. Not a breath of wind. Unthinkable what could have happened if there had been a storm, as was the case during previous nights. We go back to bed. The whole thing is downplayed, and the event goes on as before, but revellers are asked for donations, as the works team are without food and water supplies. All they have left is a pile of empty fire extinguishers. When we leave a couple of days later, without intending any sarcasm, I offer them my two extinguishers, and they are accepted gratefully.
As kaleidoscopic, hot days follow luridly firelit, starry, cold nights, we find ourselves amused, entertained, amazed in turn, but also emotionally and intellectually involved. Though the incessant noise assaulted our senses, at times we chose to ‘sit in’ on one of the roving disco experiences, and sway and stamp along to the beat with crowds of youngsters the age of our grandchildren. In between venues, animated conversations would start up with complete strangers in the semi-dark; experiences would be exchanged and pointers given to future events. These new acquaintances might at times switch on their headlights and then find out that we were of a quite different generation from themselves – and they would be unexpectedly delighted by our age-difference – as we were; to find communication so easy in that environment. There was a definite sprinkling of mature hippies among the crowds, not to speak of downright old fogeys like us, but we were far in the minority.
On the last day, the wine truck was still doing its rounds. Among the many offerings, the Stasie Kafee had run dry of their thousands of litres of coffee; the screenprinter had run out of paint; our little contribution of free, elderly sci-fi books had been looted; many of the man-powered contraptions had lost their chains or drive-belts and stretches of desert were empty of monumental sculpture, and the sawdust buckets at the pit latrines were empty. There were huge gaps in the camp-site, and deserted Bedouin tents flapped in the breeze. The Binnekring still sported a number of non-incendiary sculptures dotted about, but already teams of volunteers were collecting the inevitable debris left by the masses as they were trying to eradicate all ‘Matter Out Of Place’ to leave the desert as they found it. We had been part of a Happening, in the true sense of the word, and as we left, we feel we have gained so much – yet why are we as desolated as the landscape that surrounds us?