The Burn for Beginners: From the Country Life magazine article by Ann Gadd
The Burn for Beginners. Artists Ann and Anthony Gadd, head into Tankwa Town, in the Karoo – home of AfrikaBurn, to experience first-hand what actually happens there.
Words and photographs: Ann Gadd
The Burn for Beginners: I’m driving north on the longest piece of road in South Africa with no towns in between. It’s the R355 – 215km of tire eating gravel. It becomes a dirt road just after Ceres when the R46 and R355 split and continues unrelentingly through the Karoo to Calvinia. This road, I have been told, is the penance one pays for the pleasure that is AfrikaBurn.
As we pass other ‘Burners’ changing shredded tyres, the road rolls out hot, with dust so thick at times it’s hard to see, my initial enthusiasm is starting to wane. Here’s where the dreaded Stofadilus Flatulenticus and the Klipvis, tyre demons deluxe, strike, leaving your tyres shredded and your ego in tatters. (Local farmers offer repair services along the road during The Burn.) I’ve heard stories about wealthier participants flying into Stonehenge Farm, site of the event, and thereby avoiding this right of dusty passage. Right now, it seems like a splendid idea.
On we trek. Roughly 80km from Ceres, we find an oasis in the form of the Tankwa Padstal, owned by the Lange’s – Hein, Wally and wives Susan and Henrietta. Burnt to the ground by an arsonist in 2014, its resurrection is a heart-warming story of public generosity and participation. Bikers, cyclists, Burners and the general public donated cash, building supplies and a bizarre mix of items (from pitchforks to tractor parts), to create an eclectic general store, bar and restaurant, which sells everything from relishes, to banjo strings, to hats, to boerie rolls. An ice-cold brew having quenched my desert-parched throat, we continue north.
The idea of attending this week-long party in the desert had been part of my bucket list for too long. My husband and I are both fulltime artists and yet we had avoided going to one of the premiere art events (some would argue THE event), caught up in commissions and kiddie carpools. This year we were determined to go.
After a wrong turn, we finally make it to the entrance of Stonehenge Farm – venue of Tankwa Town/AfrikaBurn and home to 12 500+ plus people for the next week. (This venue changes in 2021). We are greeted by a gigantic surreal snail ‘Molly the Mollusc’ slowly sliding her way across the landscape. I am mesmerized. At the gate to the camp itself, we are met by a burlesque clad woman and a warm ‘Virgin Burner’ hug and the ringing of a large bell to commemorate the event. It’s a strange sprawling landscape, frequented I’m told, by captains of industry, hipsters, hippies and an assortment of revelers wanting to experience freedom and fun.
A sense of humor is essential
Here a sense of humour is essential and playfulness is the order of the day. Take the time after a flash flood when a group of guys were found sitting on stools, fishing rods in hand, discussing various bait options. “Do you realise there are no fish?” my sensible friend advised the anglers. “Mate, when did you last catch a fish when fishing?” came the swift reply.
As we get into the camp itself, a naked man on a surfboard propelled by a motor, glides past us, as he twists and turns on some imagined (heat) wave. (Yes, you need to be ok with the naked human form here in Tankwa Town.) Another man walks past with an old computer screen on his head. The Party Police, dressed in military style shocking pink, matching outfits, play to the public, while a man dressed as an airhostess and balanced on an upturned bucket, uses ping pong bats to direct us into an ‘airport lounge’ for complimentary Bloody Mary’s. A ‘magic carpet’ glides past carrying passengers to far corners of the event. Here is a gondola and there is a motorboat, both driving across the Tankwa terrain. All this while incredible steam punk mutant vehicles are on parade and various genres of music pump out from the numerous camps – from Dylan to trance, there is something for everyone. Its fantasy made real. Nothing can be taken too seriously.
We find our way to ‘Boerassic Park’ – our BinneKring (where the main attractions are) home for the week and where it’s my job to create art related to the theme of boers/dinasours. I’ve chosen graffiti as a style, and so armed with stencils and spray paint, I’m ready to make my mark using wordplay as a tool. With the help of others, we erect the ‘walls’ and some of the other Burners help me to finish cutting out the stencils. The idea is to create graffiti and inspire other people to add their contributions. It’s a challenge holding stencils in the wind, but I have many people offering to help. Graf E.T. appears (graffiti – graf = spade E.T. as in the alien). It’s a hot, dusty, but fun experience, working with an audience who have arrived for the daily coffee and vetkoek our team is gifting.
The Spirit of the Burn
Everywhere I experience only kindness. The idea is to gift to others with no expectation of equal payback. I receive bubble-gum, a hug, a card reading, an ice-cream, shots, icy chilled wine, potjiekos, the cool of trees brought for the occasion, luminous pancakes, my bike ‘pimped’, a magic show, afternoon teas of various types, old fashioned movies and so much more faith in the intrinsic goodness of people.
Tutu Tuesday, sees many participants of both sexes, parading around in tutus. Purple Thursdays translates as anything wacky, wild and, yes, purple! (There is a ‘help-yourself to an outfit tent’ should you have forgotten these essential couture items, but the stock is limited.)
Wednesday brings a major dust storm. We gratefully take refuge in a friend’s camper van while great swirls of red dust cover tents and tables. Then as quickly as it appeared, calm is restored and the party continues.
Despite the laissez faire ambience, there are rules. Primarily the need to take back everything you brought with you. MOOP (Matter Out Of Place) is not allowed and camps are checked for the smallest forgotten stompie. Volunteer rangers patrol 24 hours a day and there is a medic tent on hand.
The ‘burns’ happen towards evening, on into the night and occasionally in the early morning. Selected sculptures are reduced to ashes, symbolic of transition, celebration or in the case of the ‘silent burns’ meditative. It’s an intense organisational process and fire-fighters are constantly on-hand in the event of a fires getting out of control. I find a strange sadness in seeing these beautiful creations so quickly engulphed by flames.
The Burn for Beginners continued:
We leave shortly after a large burn. Its early morning and the glow of the fire lights up the dawn sky. My cellphone, unusable for the past week, springs to life as we approach Ceres. The long stream of messages and emails don’t seem quite as important as they did before I left.
Carrying cash for the first time in a week, also feels strangely out of place in my new Burn altered self. The road home seems easier, the dust less of an issue. I can feel that a week away in this vast playground has altered me. I feel more inspired and enthusiastic about life (notwithstanding the overwhelming desire for a hot shower and fresh food.) This place with its desert dust, dryness and delightful decadence has crept under my skin.
The Burn for Beginners: What to Take:
The nearest store is more than an hour’s drive away, so you need to take whatever you’ll need with you. Ice is the only item on sale at The Burn.
The Burn for Beginners Essentials:
- A spare tire – even two.
- Tent and bedding.
- Minimum 5 litres of water per person per day.
- All your food and drinks for your stay.
- Rubbish bags – not a single piece of litter (MOOP) can be left behind, so even a can for your stompies is essential.
- First aid kit.
- Torches, headlamps and spare batteries. LED lighting to wrap around you is also important, so you can be visible to the mutant vehicles and Steam Punk Train at night.
- Sunscreen, hats etc.
- Swimming goggles – if a dust storm happens, they keep the fine grit from sandpapering your pupils.
- Tennis balls for your tent staves. Tents are close together and walking at night can be hectic if the staves aren’t covered.
- Outfits – the weirder and wilder the better. Cowboys, creatures, steam punkers, queens, plus fours… whatever rocks your boat.
- Your ID or Drivers Licence.
- A valid entry ticket – no sales at the gate.
Nice to have:
- A bicycle (it’s a huge area to cover) on foot. Preferably decorate your bike to look amazing.
- Umbrella – it gets hot during the day (and cold at night).
- Puncture kit for bicycle – there are people gift puncture fixing, but the queues can be long.
- Portable shower and portable loo if you don’t fancy a trek across the veld to the open-air toilets at night. From Wednesday, when the majority of people arrive, port-a-loos are setup in clusters as well.
- Ear-plugs – in certain areas the music can get really, really loud.
- An extra set of car keys (just in case).
- A tarpaulin of sorts for shade.
Tankwa Padstal is usually closed on Wednesdays (except during AfrikaBurn) There is no phone.
AfrikaBurn website: www.afrikaburn.com has loads of information on the event.
Note: Due to COVID-19 the 2020 AfrikaBurn did not take place.
The venue for 2021 although still in the Tankwa, has been changed.