For the past 6 years, in the semi-desert of the Karoo in South Africa, thousands of people have gathered annually for a festival called Afrikaburn.
When I looked at videos and photos of previous events I was inspired, but I could not understand why one would need to go so far? Why create a festival in the middle of nowhere? Only when I went there I understood why.
Each newcomer gets a “survival guide” quite literally. You have to bring everything with you. From water for drinking and washing to sand bags for securing tents and gazebos. Unless you’ve got a power drill, pegs just don’t go into the ground, seriously.
The festival lasts 6 days. But organizers and volunteers arrive weeks before the time and stay for weeks afterwards, to get everything ready, set up and dissemble.
When shopping for our fifth water tank I had my doubts about going. We packed as if we’re moving to mars because Tankwa Town has no water, no electricity, no cellphone signal, no shops and no circulation of money in general.
Тhe gravel road to Tankwa town is an adventure on its own. After a 6 hour drive from Mossel Bay we finally reached the turn off to the gravel road. Let the fun begin. Visibility is about 20 cm because hundreds of cars out in front pick up all the dry dust of the Karoo.
Without air-con it’s a mission. Even if you close all the car’s windows and ventilation, dust will be everywhere. On your skin, hair, even a thick layer in your ears. Not to mention the 35 degree heat.
That 135 km gravel road requires incredible faith in what you’re about to do.
I kept repeating the words of little Kai, 5 year old son of our friends Leroy and Rebecca who was on their second trip to Afrikaburn. Kai is a quiet boy, but one evening, while we were looking at photos from previous burns, he suddenly looked up at us and said: “At Afrikaburn you can do anything you want. It is freedom.”
On that dust road, while passing on messages over the walkie-talkies in our convoy about overtaking other cars, I repeated his words like a mantra.
At last we reached Tankwa Town. We arrived in middle of a strong wind spell. There was dust and sand everywhere. I never would’ve thought that the protective mask I bought at our local hardware would be so useful.
As soon as you enter Tankwa Town you are greeted by walking octopuses, avatars and naked people everywhere. There’s music playing all around. Everybody’shanging out, riding bikes and mutant cars, making jokes, fixing nest looking structures on their heads, and regularly wiping thick layers of dust from their faces.
People simply don’t care. It feels as if you’re in another world. Shock lasts until well after the second day. After adjusting to sleeping with deep bass sounds playing from every corner. I am talking about sound systems that shake your car! These became my bed-time songs 😉 After unpacking we finally had our little nest arranged in our bakkie.
In the morning, as we got out of our bed, there it was! A super-hero passing our camp! Neighbors on the right assembling a mutant car in the shape of a giant snail! On our left some people were meticulously constructing something on the head of one of our neighbors, whom they had just met.
In this situation, if you plan on wearing jeans and a t-shirt, you’re the one that’ll look like an idiot. The crazier your outfit, the better you’ll blend in.
I got inspired. Like a child I started rummaging in a suitcase full of odd stuff I had brought with. I was creating my outfit.
We got on our bikes and went to explore. Words can not describe what we saw. It’s unbelievable. The effort that people put into creating their costumes, theme camps and mutant vehicles.
In accordance with Afrikaburn philosophy, there is no circulation of money in Tankwa Town. So if you see something on offer, food, drinks, a mail service, t-shirts printing, movie theater, dance shows, spas and hair salons, paints and canvases, costumes for hire, sweets, swings and funky car rides, it’s all for free.
Everyone brings to the community what they can. Just this practice creates a special atmosphere. People give each other all they can afford, people try to help one another, not because they will be rewarded, but because it’s so cool to give and in return you will get lots of free stuff from somewhere else anyway.
I know, I know, many skeptics will ask “Whats the point?” Everything is still the same as you left it once you return home. Believe me. I know. I have the same skeptic inside of me. But just trying it out for a week helps you to believe that this is possible.
If our system is different in reality, it’s only because we think that that’s the way it should be. We believe that it cannot be changed.
Those 6 days is in the desert is not an escape from reality. It is the creation of a new reality. Together. Literally from scratch.
Even if you can only bring a drop of that inspiration back into your own ‘real’ life, it’s already changing your reality.
When was the last time you talked to your neighbors? When was the last time you helped a stranger? When was the last time you thought about how your actions influence other people? And what value do you add to this world?
I’m talking about a lifestyle. Respect for people and respect of yourself. Whatever you want to receive you need to give. Do you need inspiration? Give it. Do you want love? Give it. Do you want money? Give it. It really works. The Universe sees that you believe that you have it in abundance, so it will create that abundance for you. Our thoughts are that powerful.
An important part of the festival are the burns of various giant figures, hence the name Afrikaburn. Every burn is a performance on its own. The various giant structures are specifically created so that they can be burned.
How’s that for letting go of what you have?
Burns are also a great opportunity to warm up during the cold nights. The desert days can get warm. Up to 30 degrees plus. But nights sometimes drop to 5 degrees or lower. Lack of electricity and artificial lights allow you to see an incredible night sky. Despite all the colorful lights of the festival, the Karoo night sky is majestic.
Driving around during the day I saw many new performances and costumes and received various gifts! We even saw a naked desert surfer on an powered-up surf board with wheels. Hermann and myself attended the mass purple wedding and we got married again and complete strangers gave us lunch! That was the day I finally realized why all of this was happening.
Every day of our lives we are told how to live. From parents, schools, universities, friends, working environment, partners and then finally ourselves. We are so accustomed to what is considered ‘normal’ and all of us have a plan for life. If not, there’s something ‘wrong’ with us.
And then you come here and suddenly being ‘normal’ is no longer normal. It really is a challenge.
I’ve never fully withdrawn myself from the world of normalities, therefore I couldn’t fully feel what little Kai was talking about. Freedom.
I believe that is why people come back to Afrikaburn year after year.
Yes. Of course many people come to Afrikaburn just to forget. To let off steam just to return to their everyday reality and complain about their life. But others do come to Afrikaburn with conscious intention to create. When you meet these people you can immediately feel the difference.
Afrikaburn is just another one of thousands of possible ways to let go. It’s another powerful reminder that there is no right and no wrong and that opposing things always exist simultaneously. Each person has their own truth.
I cannot say what is ‘normal’ and what is not ‘normal’. That’s for everybody to decide on their own.
This kind of festival is a conscious exercise to exit our daily routine and comfort zone. It’s the stimulation of your creativity. You learn to let the free flow of your ideas live, not allowing your own doubts to kill them off one by one.
We have long forgotten what a free soul truly is. We immediately associate the word ‘freedom’ with anarchy.
But I’m talking about the freedom of choosing what you believe. I’m talking about the joyful creation of your own reality in the absence of fears and expectations.
To understand something like this in the comforts of home, with minimal effort and without any challenges, is nearly impossible.
Only after coming this far and accepting all the discomforts and inconveniences of living in the desert, I finally understood, for just a moment, how to enjoy that moment.