I have marched around the binnekring surrounded by hundreds of topless women in the Critical Tits parade as a burlesque dancer wearing a see-through, sequined robe of gold conducts proceedings from the mast-top of a mobile pirate ship the size of a small aircraft, which is blasting music through amplifiers only just smaller than supermarket refrigerators. I have lowered my goggles and raised my bandana across my mouth in synchronicity with fifty or so other disco worshippers, dancing on as a whipping, scything dust storm cuts across the playa. I have frequented an orgy tent hand-in-hand with a lesbian. In the day, I have conducted a casual conversation about horticulture with two extremely naked men, showing untold powers of iris restraint not to look down at their members, whose one-eyed gaze I could feel upon me. In the night, I have discussed the intricacies of Sega and acid and where the two entwine with a man wrapped in fairy lights as the fires of a burning wooden unicorn rage beside us. I have seen, sober, a white snail the size of a double decker bus being ridden across the desert by a girl sitting in stirrups, as if it were a horse.
I have stood in a queue at Birthday Suits with hundreds of other glaringly naked people before being scrubbed down with expertly dexterous intimacy by two girls with sponges who were also naked (the conversation while doing so was again casual), startled only by how unintrusive and natural the whole affair felt despite their accessing of the most unlikely inches of skin. I have danced so much the fabric in the crotch of my jeans has vanished. I have gifted champagne to a couple who were officially married in the desert with plastic bottle caps for rings and joined them, bound in a twenty minute embrace, performing sun yoga as our most desperate star spilled swathes of thick claret across the sky beyond the mountain-top horizon. I have gyrated with dynamic energy (the ‘last hurrah’ kind you can only access when minutes from death by exhaustion at 6 a.m.) in the DJ booth of a five-carriage train detonating flamethrower blasts through its chimneys at the darkest point of night. I have seen people skydiving into this chaos every hour of daylight. I have heard a live piano rendition of Ludovico Einaudi’s ‘The Earth Prelude’ drift across the morning, played by a woman in a flowing red dress as people slow-danced around and beneath a thatched temple structure. I have given without thought. I have taken without guilt. I have enjoyed a late night bowel movement at the ‘Poo With A View’ long drops, the scarcely visible desert expanding into the black ahead as the Milky Way glowed unpolluted, a translucent river of cloudy gold the backdrop for the stars beyond and between.
I have held more insouciant conversations with girls wearing no more than nipple tassels, garters and thongs than any man has the right to across several lifetimes, somehow without sexual intention. I have spent unknown hours scheming social revolution in an unknown tent with strangers, down to the most intricate details, said details having been long since forgotten but memorably ingenious at the time. I have worn a top hat as uniform, with the consistency of the Monopoly man. I have been prescribed myriad backstreet medicine by a man with the self-prescribed (and very dubious indeed) moniker of ‘The Doctor’. I have forgotten the real world outside our libertine snowglobe society.
I have seen my uninformed interpretation of burlesque crumble before my eyes then rise again, an awe of its unique expression of femininity exploding in its place. I have witnessed a sunrise rush across the desert like noise despite the silence, a hazy tangerine roar filtered through a vacuum. I have stood with thousands in utter silence as a temple burning ceremony is conducted, then observed a man standing in the direction of the breeze, letting the ash rain down on him in an unsolicited subplot, divine in his mind. I have fallen in love; for a few days with a mutant vehicle named Tony and for a few drunken sunset hours with a girl in a fluorescent blue wig. I have experienced emotion as unprecedented as the structure of this opening is plagiarised. I have also done a few things that didn’t scream hedonism, some things, even, that actually sound believable, but they’re not immediately apparent to me, such was the sway of those decadent desert days.
In 1986, a group of twenty people met on Baker Beach, San Francisco, on the summer solstice, performing a bonfire ritual that saw a nine-foot wooden man and a smaller dog go up in flames and come down in ashes. Three decades on, around 70,000 gather each year in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert for Burning Man, while affiliates in continue to attract the people across the globe. Outside of the US, Israel’s MidBurn drew around 8,000 at the last count, and AfrikaBurn around double that.
Perhaps the prime elements that separate these events from ordinary festivals is the fact you don’t go to see known musicians – I realised halfway through the journey there, with pleasant confusion, that I hadn’t even seen a line-up (usually devoured and over-analysed top to bottom) – and that you can’t buy anything other than ice at the event. Food, alcohol, water, anything else you might usually buy there, need to be transported to the desert yourself. The ten hour round trip to get there not inclusive, I was destined to be in the desert for around one eighth of the time Jesus was, with a little more food and water, and a little more substantial proof that it actually happened, too.
All of this means the event actually starts weeks before you’ve dirtied the desert (or not, due to the MOOP premise, more on which later) with your presence. And that’s just for an ordinary reveller like myself, spare a thought for the artists who have been working on their sculptures in the wilderness for up to three months.
Naturally, I prioritised the acquirement of garish clothing above basic survival necessities. I started with a vague budget, bought clothes, came into a stack of work that meant the potential to extend my budget, and thus reset it before venturing out on a quest, seemingly, to buy as many clothes – which would soon be obsolete on the basis of being absolutely unwearable in ordinary society – as possible. As with all backpackers, no matter how essential every item accrued and packed initially seems, you soon gravitate towards favoured items anyway. You either wear less-favoured materials out of obligation or stick to your favourites, poignantly aware of the hideous sums you spent on clothes you’ll never wear. Are they worth the cost of shipping home for all those festivals you’ll never go to? Another obligation to consider. But a whisper of vanity, which might be a little more than a whisper if I were to self-analyse with less gentle precision, required me to look all wild and wonderful in any accrued photographic evidence, so I quietly turned down the volume of sense and continued my soon-to-be-obsolete purchase spree.
I persisted in swirling through vintage shops, always leaving with something other than what I’d intended to buy, with hallowed necessities, namely alcohol and other less legal fun facilitators, also diligently accrued with plenty of time to spare. The thought of going in with an empty armoury left me short of breath. Without a car to transport the booze from the liquor store to my temporary Claremont residence, the hellacious workout to carriage the sheer quantity of booze home left me short of breath too.
It took until midday on Monday, less than twenty-four hours before leaving, to realise food was another valuable part of the equation. I’d love to say ‘the most vital’, but we all know this sensibility simply isn’t true on such occasions. If the fumes are potent enough, boy will that motor spin. Nonetheless, I set about gathering sustenance in a last second panic. Ill-considered, far from nutritious, and soon to be, I correctly suspected upon inspection at home, the stuff of self-loathing towards the latter days of the festival. The salami might have worked with mayonnaise in the wraps bought, but this combination was thwarted by the revelation that the cooler box was gammy. The mango strips, genius in principle, would later transpire to be as rubbery as the shredded tyres that line the dirt road to the festival. In the almond & fruit bars, fifteen acquired in a vintage checkout-adjacent shelves panic, dependence might lie. Who was I trying to fool when buying the aubergine, courgette and diced tomato tins? They’re staring critically at me from across the kitchen as I type this.
In the long, slow nights before, the mind runs wild in the stillness. Amplified by my relative obscurity locally having recently moved to Cape Town, the possibilities curl and take shape in fever dreams held awake. It’s a simple plan; use every particle of my social skills to conduct a scintillating, cavalier, devil-may-care and vitally virtuoso live theatre performance piece, one that will see me return to the city with a plethora of people demanding my magnificent attention. It will simply demand wonder and affection and desire and “he HAS to be in my life.” The visions are fervent, intoxicating. Witnesses will feel almost punctured by my absence in their lives to date, as if they’d never known that I was that indefinable, nebulous thing they were missing all along, their jaws on the floor in cartoonish awe as the epiphany just floors them.
Dazzling yet inclusive chaos, heartfelt yet pulsating conversations, outrageously flamboyant yet entirely genuine anecdotes, frivolous yet well-earned laughter, gregarious yet enticingly mysterious to the end; a spastically joyous embodiment of fun, twenty-four hours a day.
It’s essentially a performance I’d find transparent and deeply irksome in someone else, meaning the required levels of charm to pull it off without acquiring a slew of nemeses was Sinatra, Clooney, Gatsby, Bond, Darcy and more combined. I was very much under qualified. It didn’t, of course, transpire as imagined. The desert has a habit of derailing the best-made plans, let alone this: a half-cut number of a half-cut letter. Thankfully, hubristic conceits don’t enter the invisible walls; somewhere on the road to Tankwa Town they’re dissolved and dispelled via some sort of voodoo wizardry. I was casually repulsed at how whole and vivid, almost touchable, these contrived, vacuous visions came to me. Like bad lighting, such performances tend to expose more than they illuminate, so I put these designs on lockdown in a bid to just let it, and myself, happen.
A long drive later, shared with two burlesque dancers who seemed lovely (though at this stage no I had idea just how much of an understatement that would transpire to be) the Land Rover I’m lying in a pool of pillows and bags where the since removed backseats used to be reaches the other side of the notorious tyre-mutilating dirt road, around one-hundred and twenty kilometres of it, to close in on Tankwa Town as night falls. Fear and loathing on an epic scale beckons, with thousands of journalists accompanied by thousands of lawyers as they head into the desert with an orgiastic arsenal of narcotics.
A final stretch of road, a gentle final incline, and I lay eyes upon it for the first time: a neon horseshoe glowing in the distance. It looks a lot closer than it actually is, but the sheer scale of Tankwa Town will soon become apparent.
The fuse is lit, rocket launch pending.
Entrance for Burn virgins unofficially requires giving a mighty big gong a mighty good beating before getting yourself of the floor to make a ‘dust angel’. I committed wholeheartedly to both, pleased to immediately feel a part of things. The eccentric chap conducting affairs, whose over-the-top English accent didn’t have any holes in it and thus left me intrigued as to whether he genuinely was English, also threw some fire whiskey down me in a most welcome bonus.
A drive around the buitekring (outer ring) of the huge horseshoe shape followed until we reached the far side, arriving at the Steam Punk Saloon in the 2ish sector. Sectors and districts are named as if positioned on a clock face. Given it’s shaped like a horseshoe – actually more a huge lobster’s pincer or the profile view of a human mouth with its tongue out upon closer inspection – the circle never actually closes, so who knows what abstract dimension 11ish, 12ish and 1ish remain trapped in.
A few enthusiastic greetings and a fleeting assessment of the general setup – main tent, stage, backstage, who looked like they might be a good time – came and went quickly before the itch to get amongst it was too much to resist. I erected the two-second tent, elected a top hat and waistcoat combination to complement an experimental (read: soon to be mental) fun-facilitating cocktail and ejected myself into the chaos.
The binnekring (inner ring) is the border between the saloons and camping areas and the playa, a no-man’s-land with a diameter of beyond a kilometre if crossing through the centre point where the artworks, mutant vehicles and deep night parties do their bidding. The frequent bouts of neon I’d seen on the buitekring were enticing enough, but this was like entering the colour coliseum. Party time for your retinas. If you aimed a strobe light with a rainbow filter at a rather excitable disco ball in a hall of mirrors that happened to be located in a Tokyo arcade in the midst of an epileptic fit, it would be something like that.
The second I’ve set foot outside the Saloon, a sixty-something couple are riding past me naked on bikes wrapped in fairy lights and the giant bus-sized snail, a luminous white orb with green bulbs at the antennae ends and lit with streaks of pink, purple and blue from within is chugging past across the playa ahead and what looks like a huge conch with every conceivable colour racing around its ring towards the top is hundreds of metres away and some kids are having a dance-off with a man in mid-blue hot-pants and chains to a musical beat that hasn’t reached me and for some reason it doesn’t really seem inappropriate and a cluster of people are slugging whiskey as they barrel out of the swinging wooden shutters of the Wild Ass Saloon and there is a man passing on stilts with a feather-based contraption around his neck that rises maybe a metre above his head to resemble horns and music is attacking from all angles, the origins of some of it seemingly moving, and flames are erupting somewhere nearby and I am in awe.
Reading that was too steady. You’d need to memorize it and blurt it out as fast as you can to achieve just one hundredth of the speed of this perfectly-focused blur, just know everything described is a vibrant, panoramic onslaught that takes no longer than a nanosecond to absorb. Before you can really embrace it, the entertainment has repositioned its attack to behind you. It’s almost exhausting, just to truly internalize this crazed, hyper-accelerated spectrum.
As I start wandering around the binnerkreig, the kinetic, carnival mosaic seems to grow in dynamism. Music lures you in from every angle. You soon notice the place is entirely decommodified, the ‘radical inclusion’ guiding principle fiercely upheld. I observe the people passing, a mad, ballistic array of costumes with hours of craft going into sequins sewn into hats, bejewelled bikinis, steampunk leathers and long dresses elaborately cut up into newer, bohemian versions, sometimes a fusion of all four, most of it gender fluid. A man with flowers in his beard. A woman who is naked and painted entirely blue, though seemingly not as a deliberate Avatar tribute. Most of the others are so intricate and wonderfully elaborate and complex that the detailing of them would take five-hundred words each, so referring to the images may be the wisest passage for all of us. Despite my steampunk endeavours, I felt at times as underdressed as a man in matching Hawaiian shirt and shorts at a wedding.
I don’t get far before a tent blasting techno to an overflowing dancefloor is too inviting to deny. It’s at this point, around half an hour before the fun facilitators struck, that I heard from the perennial monologue in my head for the last time before I returned to Cape Town. The first thought was simple: “this festival and I might get along.” The second revolved around the idea that beyond a few artistic structures being built, none of this existed a few days earlier and all traces of it will be gone in a few more, and yet look how explosive it is, how tangible and touchable. From then on, everything was too absorbing and vivid for that voice to ever surface.
I’m soon discovered and recruited by fellow Steam Punk Saloon members and roaring across the playa with a Dutch girl and an Argentinean couple and I feel like I’m running around with a fistful of fireworks and scaling the inside of that big rainbow conch and rushing through the a multi-storeyed temple with laughter and I’m drunk as hell yet sober as a witness and dancing somewhere, everywhere, and losing everyone and accidentally revisiting artworks I’d already visited because I’m hallucinating despite not having taken hallucinogens (unless elation can behave as one) and this is now my entire world given my incapacity to leave and I wouldn’t have it any other way and I’m dancing at a huge Game Boy where the removed screen is the DJ booth and new friends are made, new adventures undertaken and then I wake up.
Some forms of hedonism become routine, one that I’m more guilty of than most. A choreographed performance with certain marks to be hit and notes to harmonize, a swirl of synergy that we label anarchy with the unspoken agreement that, yeah, it was similar to last weekend, but just different enough to emit a new glow.
Barely removed from the starting blocks, this was proving to be very different indeed.
THE STEAMPUNK SALOON
A welcome subplot of worldwide political turmoil is that sincerity is becoming fashionable again. You would think the backstage dynamic of a burlesque show to be an intricate social timebomb of competitiveness – all ironic smiles, backstabbing, last words and biting sarcasm – regardless of contemporary international politics, if you were as foolish as me, but I can’t remember seeing a place where sincerity and kindness were so in vogue. The Steam Punk Saloon is one of the most welcoming groups I’ve ever known.
Sexy, too. Eroticism is indented in the syllables of ‘burlesque’, and knowing the girls by their real names rather than their stage names didn’t disembowel this aspect; their nightly performances remained a sensual, scintillating treat that at one point saw me literally scream NO! in an involuntary confession of delight. I received some sideways glances for that one, but perhaps the shows shone brightest when the less obviously beautiful girls were on stage, or, even, when a guy was performing in a way that blurred the lines of gender through the simultaneous feminine grace and masculine power in his moves. The bravery required of these less obvious folk to get up there and the confidence they derived from it transformed the definition of ‘sexy’ from a servant of aesthetic notions to something accessible outside of those blessed with comely chromosomes. It was the girls at this end of the spectrum who often received the most wolf whistles and applause, a display to support and acknowledge their courage rather than the leering man-leaning-out-of-van version, and that was truly beguiling. It was a place devoid of judgement or vanity. Either on stage or behind the curtain, all were equal, and it was a truly beautiful atmosphere to be a part of. Usually I’m not such an advocate of the whole ‘it’s the taking part that counts’ ideology, but then again I’d never come across burlesque. The girls I spoke to backstage pretty much all said the same thing: I do this for the way it makes me feel, not for how I want others to see me. It was expression over impression, which, of course, is that much more impressive.
Those days. A morning recapping last night’s chaos, an afternoon adrift before returning for the modest, folk euphoria of the Betsy Beers (think The Staves with a little more oomph), dancing and singing along, throwing whiskey shots down revellers as the girls spank them with paddles, even breaking three over the hind quarters of those who wanted more, before the burlesque show itself starts. I bounce between cheerleading out front and milling around backstage before the show ends and the party very much kicks off. Someone’s upped the ante with some serious funk and soul blasting out in the tent, the audience from the burlesque show staying to dance as more pour in from the binnekring, and you’re either there on stage with friends or running around the playa wonderfully without plans, all intuitive and instinctive, just a group gathered in effervescence.
Having signed up to volunteer with the Saloon in what I believed to be a tacit understanding that I would utilise their facilities and optimal placement for tents in exchange for pretending to do a lot more work than I actually did, I ended up falling in love with the place and spending a significant amount of time there. It’s safe to say I barely lifted a finger on the work front, only resisted as much as was enough to be polite when one of the ladies all-too-frequently offered to cook for me and embraced the presence of ‘The Doctor’, the live-in sound engineer for the shows, bringing his welcome, nefarious brand of severe into my sphere, but I expected the Saloon to merely be a base rather than a home. Relaying this information doesn’t reflect particularly well on me in how I gave so little to a place I took so much from, but maybe the fact no-one ever complained just underlines how kind they were. The goodness and kindness is everywhere. It permeates every pixel.
It almost goes without saying: if you ever get the chance to live with a big, beautiful, quasi-incestuous and predominantly lesbian family, you’d be deranged to even hesitate.
The Steam Punk Saloon is one of many theme camps littered around the horseshoe. There are countless places offering yoga classes and gifting coffee, a plethora more offering music deep into the night. Not a whole lot more needs to be said about Birthday Suits following the introduction, although their own description, “a human car wash”, is probably better than mine. We will talk about Camp CEXx – a Consensual, Educational Xploration of seX – later. A bloody skydiving camp. Burning Mail, who would fire postcards off to any corner of the globe for you, a library, a sunscreen distributor, a cinema and so very much more.
All of this, of course, is gratis. The only currencies in Tankwa Town are personality and kindness. I had a dalliance with a few of these places and the people within, but realistically most of my time was spent pursuing, with the persistence of a jilted hunter, the one we know as Tony.
TONY & THE MUTANT VEHICLES
When the trademark sounds of Jamaroquai drifted over Dust Devils, glided on past the bedouin of The Wild Ass Saloon and into the backstage area of The Steam Punk Saloon where I was so innocently perched around midday on Thursday, I felt a physical rush of recognition, the kind you get when hearing or seeing something or someone you like in a place where you least expect it. Such a moment demands investigation.
Emerging from the Saloon, I followed the music left down the binnekring’s path. The source became quickly apparent; a vehicle nestled just off the path and onto the playa, fifty metres away. Upon closer inspection, it was designed like a giant disco ball, covered in little square mirrors to build a whole, with two sunbrellas to prevent the DJs and their groove-inducing equipment from melting.
As the last throes of Jamaroquai edged towards the climax, I was about to set leaving in motion, not least because not having a drink in hand felt somewhat perverse, but stopped in my tracks as a familiar beat subtly segued in beneath Jay Kay’s falsetto grooves. As any twenty-something once student in England who at one point thought they were cool will tell you, Lovebirds’ ‘I Want You In My Soul’ is sacrosanct. The new tune took prominence as a man in a pink trilby approached with a proffered tray of somehow cold gin and tonics. Noting the name of the disco truck I’d just fallen in love with to be Tony, Tony Manero, I buckled up for the long haul. In the guidebook, this mobile disco ball has the mission statement to “bring disco dazzle to the dusty desert and delight your earbuds with delectable beats.” And so it transpired. Caress me with disco, treat me like a lover. Four hours of dancing as towering in enthusiasm as it was lacking in rhythm later, punctuated by occasional short dashes back to my tent for another drink, a second Lovebirds play came with what seemed to be a dedication to me personally owing to the knowing looks and points coming my way from the DJs. In the aftermath, some deeply affectionate handshakes and embraces all round.
Mutant Vehicles are probably the most unique aspect of the whole affair. Where else would you see a moped converted into Pacman by the yellow shell that swallows the unseen bike weaving past Time Machine, some monochrome Star Wars universe unfolding truck contraption of beats so dark and filthy I avoided it all week out of genuine fear as a man kitesurfing on a longboard whisks past and a goliath red carpet transporting people around in lieu of Aladdin is crossing on the far side of the pirate ship, which is parked up and playing music to a growing crowd?
I did my best to experiment and explore at least the majority of vehicles, but Tony’s allure was usually too potent. I fell into a rhythm of leaving the Saloon in his pursuit around midday each day, gathering steam through a few euphoric hours before returning to the Saloon to join the troops. Part of the fun, of course, is just finding your favourite mutant vehicles, as they could be rolling around any part of the playa. This, in combination with the nightly burns of the artwork, meant an constantly changing landscape, with landmarks you’d been using to guide yourself across the plains ceasing to exist beyond their strewn ashes and vehicles often hiding in the farthest corners.
Their presence provokes logistical questions. What do they do and where do they go for the rest of the year? Given the quietly perilous dirt road to get to the desert, just how do you transport The Spirit Train’s five carriages in and out? The mind capsizes. In the case of Tony, several days of driving it on the back of a truck from its home in Johannesburg were required. It’s just more worthy evidence, in a case long since won, of the staggering, cultish dedication to the festival that makes it what it is.
By the end of Friday’s similarly wonderful jol with Tony, my complexion is hectic and distraught, skin battered by sunburn, dust, wind, the lack of showers, other than that most excellent Birthday Suits visit, an ominous hazard to one’s appearance. Not that anybody cares.
The atmosphere does somewhat untether me, and everyone else, from inhibition. Regardless of your body shape or the scars you worry about, I can’t think of anywhere you’ll receive more smiles for being naked. Which is strange, because there are children around, but it’s a little Garden of Eden with respects to the innocence of it all, the whole ‘born naked, what’s the problem?’ idyll. There is sand, and nudism is acceptable, only there aren’t frisky older men nursing erections, occasionally unable to resist to temptation of being ‘hands on’ with their nursing. Nudist beaches, in their defence, do at least have the sea nearby for cooling down opportunities, the kind that certainly wouldn’t go amiss in the claustrophobic mid-day heat.
Roaring and spilling through a day dancing with and chatting about anything with anyone, it’s all very Mad Max, with the mutant vehicles in the desert and all, only with love, affection, dance and conversation replacing bandits, outlaws and death. And strangely, so environmentally conscious, too. Festivals are usually trashed with empty tins, cigarette butts and plastic a couple of hours in, but the desert is almost flawlessly maintained even five days in. This is owing to the Matter Out Of Place promise to leave no trace. Everyone cleans up after themselves, with portable cigarette disposable bags and throwing bottles and more in rucksacks before binning them later. Sounds like a hassle; it’s the easiest thing in the world.
Back at the Steam Punk Saloon and waxing lyrical about Tony for the fourteenth time, interest was stirred in some of the girls, leading to a late evening hunt. I’d recognize the patterns of green and blue neon stripes from a galaxy away. We landed, and having befriended the owners across those daytime sessions soon found ourselves invited on board for a cruise across the desert, crammed in as the DJ keeps pounding music out, seemingly screaming through the night despite adhering to the 10kmph speed limit. I don’t remember the tunes in question, but I do remember, strangely, feeling like I’d been singled out at a gig and invited backstage to meet and party with an idol.
You feel the tingle in the fingertips. It’s not vague, unlocatable joy; it’s physical to your extremities, diminutive atoms ignited beneath the never-brighter cosmos before plunging headfirst into the pandemonium of the night.
The physical joy continues in other situations. Busting through the maze of the Scallywag Saloon to earn a drink, breathing in the many desert sunsets, the wedding reception, the Critical tits parade, the silent burn, myriad more burns, swirling through many more moments long since lost by memory. The specifics stay away, the feeling remains.
I have a habit of anticipating all the juicy, existential contradictions that might become apparent in what I’m intending to write about before actually experiencing them. For this, that meant scribing a pre-emptive passage revolving around what seems to be the foremost of AfrikaBurn’s ‘Eleven Guiding Principles’ – ‘Radical Self-Expression’ – thereby imagining a scene whereby I was so tangled in an exquisitely paradoxical analysis of proceedings that I failed to be immediate and present for what was actually happening.
The anticipatory stream-of-consciousness passage went like this:
Stumbling over the question; are we performing radical self-expression, or expressing, radically, versions of ourselves that we’d like to be if we weren’t so held but doubt and reality? Is it for us or for how we’re perceived? I’m wearing Steam Punk attire, which isn’t exactly a prominent part of my dream wardrobe, so I’m undoubtedly in the bracket with the guiltiest of the gathered.
It makes me despair a little. The dreaded ‘who am I?’ question that nobody will ever answer beyond doubt climbs out of my subconscious to become the sole, throbbing occupant of both cortex, maybe a third, too. This dilemma ripens into something rather threatening. Hours later, I’m belatedly fleet of foot enough to squash it, prescribing a haphazard cocktail of self-medication to make things all okay again.
Luckily that never happened. The fact the here and now was so vibrant that I never lost myself to these insoluble ideas is testament to my success in living another of the eleven principles, ‘Immediacy’. I’m glad the passage was rendered defunct, even if the first two questions remained prescient.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, self-expression is “the expression of one’s feelings, thoughts, or ideas, especially in writing, art, music, or dance.” Simple enough, the more advanced suggestion being that it’s the using of art to articulate feelings beyond words. Also relatively simple.
It gets complicated when you enter the space between people. In one respect, it is you, alone, pulling faces at yourself in the mirror because you know no-one’s watching. ‘You alone’ sadly wouldn’t come across particularly well in an interview, unless ‘you alone’ is very punctual and polite and knows how to put a delightfully positive spin on a ‘negative attribute’. But then, the audience factor. The point at which burlesque dancing launches into self-expression is the point at which there’s an audience as opposed to it being a private, constrained desire.
I still haven’t figured that one out, and it doesn’t matter because the question wasn’t really valid or necessary. The point is that in this environment, you’ll end up becoming yourself anyway. The speed of things is too prodigious to remember anything scripted or pre-ordained. It’s why I described those vanity-riddled fantasies in the beginning; because self-discovery is the last stage of a failed attempt to be someone else and because, to all intents and purposes, vanity is a theme of any social event where you have the perception that you are being perceived by others. Maybe dressing up is just harmless fun and analysing it is redundant. Sure, some mild strains of vanity were present in the shape of people taking extra care over their outfits or whatever, but it wasn’t a case of people being extremely serious about appearing divinely casual because it never carried over to attitude, which is why it had such a ubiquitously beautiful atmosphere, a place where you felt familiar with everyone regardless of having actually met them.
Without considered thought, you can just be. Whether that takes the shape of dancing, talking, hammering drugs, burlesque dancing, interacting with the artwork, meditating or walking around the desert naked is irrelevant – as with children, the lack of pre-meditation and inhibition is what makes the experience so pure, you just thrust on with the moment. My pre-conceived vanity, thoughts that felt borrowed from someone else when there, would have been so much less worthy than veracity and what’s improvised. It’s why wit is such a highly valued characteristic, why a comedian’s rapid putdown of a heckler is that much more impressive than their pre-planned, insightful observation on discovering the power of lying when young, elevator etiquette or some cuttingly accurate takedown on the folly of religion.
Though the vanity was thankfully banished, these thoughts on self-expression were still occurring, though also not. It happens in the backstage of your cognizance in an unheard corner, the subconscious taking notes while the conscious mind is eager with play. They’re far down the list of the astonishing rush of thoughts that occur, the amazing amount of things the mind can simultaneously process. “What goes on inside,” after all, “is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant.”
Consider a song you hear for the first five or six times and love it, but it takes on a whole new meaning when the sound is intrinsic and you listen more precisely to the lyrics, find understanding, and their meaning gives new weight and direction to your relationship with the music. Or perhaps it’s like a group of ten people at the pub. Everyone is there, but some more absorbing, charismatic people hold the table with their anecdotes and jokes, others fade into the background, content to listen for now before holding forth another time. Still there, but not, subconsciously noted before growing and revealing their meaning later.
It’s like that. It happens when you’re not looking, distracted by a foreign, enticing rhythm. Somewhere between the lines, the connections that colour you in, the pieces you didn’t know you were missing of puzzles you didn’t know occupied you reveal themselves. Together, they amalgamate into a series of moments that shape you and shape them and shape a feeling worth remembering. A slideshow of my best moments as a human, procured by myself, would exist solely of moments when I brought others joy, solace, connection, whatever. Finishing that blasted, confused novel was good, too, but the interpersonal moments are always the soaring ones, no matter how fleeting, no matter if you’ve seen them since or will ever again. The drunken sunset hours with her, the Spirit Train hijack with him, the constant madness with them, the conversation with us; who will always transcend where and when. Lured to AfrikaBurn by what, it’s who, as always, that stays with you most.
One night, it all rises in me. I’m staring at the rainbow conch with the special, floaty intensity of the moment the drugs are at their peakiest, admiring the spiral. There’s meaning in the shape, the beauty of spirals being a physical embodiment of the idea you can never return to the same place, that nothing ever exactly repeats, with a more half-formed nod to the philosophical idea we never really know what we’re preparing for. I drown in the shape and colour, rocked by it, before gazing up beyond. It’s a photograph of mankind versus nature. The contrast surges at me, our invented iridescence competing with the beauty of de-saturated nature, the milky way weaving through the cosmos, the sheer immensity of everything and nothing. I’m wondering how we look from up there, some lighthouse amongst the dark seas burst of light amid unseen desert, the hopeful connotations, before getting lost in the weightless grandeur of the stars. Time slows down. Carl Sagan’s ‘Pale Blue Dot’ reading blurs at the edges of the frame without being explicitly voiced. The time standing there, tilting backwards, is undefined. Myself and the stars and everything between all near-infinite, like the sky we’re all familiar with is just a two-dimensional blanket thrown up to disguise the soaring, celestial beauty of the real thing beyond. What could possibly get done otherwise? We’d spend our lives just gazing up at the still rush of everything, woozy with how simultaneously huge and insignificant we are.
Well, I wish, though I mostly don’t. That’s some romantic, fictionalised version that might have been magnificent if true, the reality is I was too lost in colour and dance to stand around, carried away by my own overwrought romanticism. Drown though I might in the paradox, I think in many ways the reality makes the fiction truer. It’s the kind of sentimentality I’d usually succumb to then later aggrandize in the recollection of, because I can’t arrange the words in a way that articulates how subtle and nuanced this immense beauty is. It’s kind of like using an Instagram filter to wildly augment the ‘real image’ because the fake one looks more like what you actually witnessed.
Better though, always, to be bursting through the here and now. There will be all kinds of time to overthink things later. At the deepest point of night you might find yourself stumbling around the ‘Spirit Train Station’, where it parked itself into a monumental sound system, with the competing sounds of the giant Octopus contraption lurking near by. The scenes are extraordinary, an explosion of welcome weirdness. A box of frogs on a rocket to Pluto with whores for astronauts would appear the saner option. That might even have been what one of the magnificently abstract artworks was depicting, should the hallucinogenics consumed be in a particularly innovative mood.
When it’s all so unique and vivid and worthy and now, now, now, why would you want to drift elsewhere? Don’t think. Forsake those bruised frequencies and be simple enough for the moment to steal you on. Drown in neon and connection. Keep absorbing, laughing, dancing.
The drive back to Cape Town. There’s a funereal quality to it, the procession of slow-moving cars as far as the eye can see with or without the constant plumes of dust, the prayers to evade puncture. A maximum of one car comes the other way every twenty minutes. There are thousands of us streaming south. The source of mourning is twofold; what we’ve just left behind and the imminent moment back home when the bedroom door closes and there is only the comedown for company, our spirits as damp as the desert is dry. To all intents and purposes, we’re carrying our own coffins. Forlorn cars line the roadside, a few breadcrumbs of decimated tyre leading up to them. The tension grows, though it’s never alluded to in a silent bid to avoid cursing ourselves. Not us. Please, not us.
Removal from our desert snowglobe allows the gears of thought to escape neutral, too. It’s funny, I thought, eyes tracing the distant mountains through the dust clouds, how we had to isolate ourselves in the desert to achieve the closest thing to actual community I’ve ever known. Removal from civilisation made it a much more real society. A little tragic, too, when you recall and recoil at drifting past the ones you love, let alone strangers, in day-to-day life. The pervasive connection staggered me in the best of ways; I felt oddly cared about and looked after in ways that I didn’t really need but appreciated nonetheless. I use phrases like ‘social halcyon’ too frequently in my writing, the awareness of which pains me as it might cheapen this, but the reality is this is the only atmosphere I’ve experienced parallel to a night of Group Therapy with Above & Beyond, my feelings about which are well documented.
I’ve used words like ‘libertine’ and ‘hedonism’ that evoke images of irrational chaos, but there was method to this madness, the kind that rendered it more epicurean than anything. The derived commune ideas were present, as was the happy coincidence of the link to the very relevant indeed ‘epic’. You can largely ignore the links to the descendant, communism, which is more a comment on the concept that bad ideas tend to grow from the seeds of good ones, only bastardized. As with all of the most fascinating characters in film – Woody and his pride, Will Hunting and his janteloven attitudes, even Dorothy and her daydreaming – to think of a few random examples, their flaws are derived from grand passions and desires taken too far. Of course, Woody saves Buzz, Will chases Skylar and Dorothy concludes there’s no place at home, all achieving their redemption.
We won’t get that redemption as a collective in this lifetime. Difficult, too, to believe in happy endings when you’re so despairing and jaded by the endless new ways people are currently finding to be desperately shitty. You’re soon refusing to watch the news, veiled by doubt, twisting to the sun and moon for ways it isn’t true. When you don’t always feel at home in this world anymore and you’re in danger of folding and succumbing to a vague hopelessness, in danger of then becoming these thoughts, it’s like finding oxygen in the smoke to remember that we’re better than that, that your beliefs about humans being inherently good in the majority still holds some form of gravity. It’s an ecstatic relief. For these reasons and more, maybe, on a very fleeting, small scale, there was catharsis to be found in the soaring decency of Tankwa Town.
There was a sense of sustainability instilled by the presence of children and older folks that made me wonder, briefly, about longer-term prospects. Entirely unrealistic, obviously, given everyone and everything present was afforded by real life in the outside world, though it didn’t go too badly for Epicurus in his lifelong studies on happiness. Such times, alas, are a heart-warming break from modern reality rather than anything more, a concrete that has to remain forever wet. So you just enjoy the moment, the subsequent memories, and hope you’ll pull through in your vow to take some of its humanity back to the realities of the city.
It’s only later that I find the metaphor, unexpectedly, in the CEXx tent. The Consensual, Educational eXploation of seX camp offers lessons on the above during the day and, to all intents and purposes, becomes an orgy after dark, a place where you may experiment with what you learned during the day, or more realistically just come down uninitiated for the thrill of experimenting with your own desires and boundaries.
Pretending to be a couple with a friend of the fairer sex, we entered, made our way through the outer tent before crawling through a small gap that would take us into the action zone. It’s circular, maybe seven or eight metres in diameter, and there is a lot of skin, with just small space in the middle and pretty much every inch of the perimeter lined by couples in unpornographic contortions. The atmosphere was agreeably muted, with most focus being directed towards each person’s partner, all of it largely one-on-one as opposed to a competition-streaked “who can make who moan in the most ecstasy” affair I might have expected. You can feel the collective body heat and you can taste the sex too, while it’s also coloured with the realisation you don’t really see that many ordinary folk having sex as a general rule, other than the person putting up with you, or maybe even yourself if you possess partialities akin to Patrick Bateman.
Just as the long-term prospects of a place like Tankwa Town are unrealistic, a perennial childlike lack of inhibition is naïve when sex and money and social status and other inexorable pursuits are there to cloud your sphere with distinctly adult desires. With this being the case, a little suppression is healthy. Keeps the majority of us from being criminals, at both the very minor and the obscene, unfathomable ends of the spectrum, after all. But in CEXx, as in the whole AfrikaBurn community, it’s a healthy, societal way to mitigate those desires and express yourself without negatively impacting others. Of course, these ideas were distant at the time, immersed as I was. As with every other vibrant interaction outside the sex tent at AfrikaBurn, when sex fills every corner of your vision, it’s difficult to be distracted anyway.
The best places are those that strip you of your vanity while providing fertile soil to be the best version of the many versions of yourself. Multifaceted, you can nurture all the contradictory parts of yourself, the introspective, spiritual side in the yoga tents, the creative side in the arts and crafts tents or by exhibiting your sculptures for the masses, the flamboyant, fervent and amplified side while partying, the sentimental side in a confessional conversation held beneath the stars, the sexual side through performing or watching burlesque or in the adjacent sex tent and many more besides that.
The variety of shows, bars, themes, etcetera are not so you can find your one true home, but to express the different versions of you. Just as you’re a different person in front of your parents, significant other and old school acquaintances you haven’t seen for a while, just as you have the friend you have ethereal conversations with, the ones you talk sport with, the ones you talk girls with, the ones you don’t have anything meaningful say to but they’re excellent company to just get absolutely trashed with, you contain multitudes that can’t be singularly articulated. Automatic and connected, everyone’s solo jaggedness was made whole together for those wonderful desert days, like watching a mirror shattering, only played in reverse. It was an incredible thing to witness, an incredible place to be.
Simply, that’s all it is. From places I’ve ever been, AfrikaBurn is best place to be completely yourself, all the silly, contradictory parts, and the best place to connect with beautiful people doing exactly the same. As with myself, I hope the festival never tries to be more.
Photo Credits: Duncan Rawlinson, Gideon Vewas, Sean Furlong, Mundo Vira Lata, Keara Edwards, Matthias Trebbin