Carmella and I have been going to Burning Man for many years. This year our other travels happened to intersect South Africa at the same time as AfrikaBurn; luck seemed to be with us. When, despite popular opinion about availability, it turned out that we could rent a desert-equipped 4×4 we knew luck was coming with us. Here we are at the Britz rental agency, about to pick up our trick (after dropping off the car we’ve been driving through Africa these last weeks). Our vehicle is almost ready; Abraham is finishing the paperwork and the supply staff are ensuring that “cutlery, crockery, cooking supplies, gas, spare tyres” are present and inventoried.

We drive the three-quarter-day trek to the Tankwa Karoo, one of the most arid regions of South Africa, taking the last 100 km very slowly: it’s razor-sharp slices of stone, known as the “tire-killer highway”. Our truck has heavy-duty tires and spares; regular car tires are shredded so frequently that some enterprising youth have created a tire-repair center in the middle of nowhere to cater to the need.

There’s a queue for the ticketing office. We, the waiting, are giddy with anticiptation. There’s a lot of jittery small talk as we inch forward towards the promised land.

Just as at Burning Man, the entrance features bells that newcomers ring to ritualize their arrival. (The logo cut into the disc is the AfrikaBurn symbol, the Sans Clan. We never saw the Burning Man logo at AfrikaBurn.

Everything is familiar and different at the same time. It’s a desert, but not the alkali playa of Burning Man. Wide open spaces, both, but very different sight-lines.

We’ve been given a camping spot in the Ranger compound, convenient to our volunteer services. We’re grateful for the proximity, especially after I back the truck into the spot and Carmella spies the view we have.

This is our spot, as seen from the entry walkway, with the Ranger camp unseen behind the truck.

Every human habitation needs toilets and AfrikaBurn is no different, being a Leave No Trace event. However, there are none of the porta-potties that dot the Burning Man landscape. Pit toilets are arranged facing outwards, away from the town.

Each pit toilet is in a low three-quarter-shaded enclosure, which also holds rolls of toilet paper, a large canister of sawdust and a scoop, and the following instructions:

PIT TOILETS

  • only human waste and toilet paper
  • sprinkle sawdust after use
  • close lid so [toilet paper] doesn’t escape
  • no condoms, tampons, pads, other trash
  • gift the next person a clean toilet

I have to say it’s a very pleasant alternative to the enclosed, over-heated, smelly porta-potties. There’s a view, a feeling of community, and, dare I say it, a fun adventure vibe.

One of the attractions of the Nissan 4×4 “equipped” is that it’s fully self-contained for camping. Here we’ve got the homestead fully deployed: the roof camping space / ventilation system is up, the shade awning is set out (with the prayer flags Carmella brought back from Tibet), our chairs and dining room table are set, and some of the provided crockery is arranged for the evening meal. Carmella is tending to the built-in stove; heating up water for our morning coffee. We’ve packed some proteins into the on-board refrigerator and now we’re ready to have guests.

Carmella owns our “front yard”, chatting with passers-by. We love the location we’ve been given; there’s private space but always the option to interact with others.

Jono Hoffenberg — Ranger Bob — is the AfrikaBurn Ranger Lead and a favorite new friend of ours. He works even longer hours than we do (if that’s possible) and we try to take care of him in any way we can, as he frequently neglects to eat properly or rest during the event. This is the first time he’s at our homestead; we had to walk over to the Ranger station and guide his ATV here so he’d be sure of a place of refuge for him. We’re hoping he takes us up on our offer.

Jono is busy. Here he’s presenting the Zendo staff to the participants as part of the on-site Ranger training. (I’ll explain the Zendo in a subsequent post.)

Some of the passers-by that Carmella interacted with earlier have come back with gifts; clown noses! That’s something we didn’t think to pack.

Here are some of the event staff. Note the chalkboard with the radio frequencies used by the different departments: operations, medical, security, fire, Rangers, etc. The only way to safely run a town of this size is with a dedicated staff that’re willing to work on behalf of others both day and night.

AfrikaBurn has art cars, er, mutant vehicles just like Burning Man, albeit on a slightly smaller scale (thus far).

This is the wooden art piece known as Metamorphosis. It’s as tall as about three human beings, tall for Tankwa Town. From the official description:

Metamorphosis is a temple of transformation. A sacred space for participants to burn all that no longer serves them, to honour their journey and those that have journeyed on. A space to meditate, contemplate, rejoice, mourn and celebrate all that is wonderful in this life. A place for ceremonies of commitment, farewell and friendship.

žIt is made of 8 butterfly wings. 8 in numerology signifies both building and destruction. Temples are places to do just that. Destroy unhealthy patterns and build new ones. The wings symbolize freedom, flight, and metamorphosis. The wings are supported by 4 gateways, facing the cardinal points. Each will bear symbols of the 4 elements. From the center, cut crystals hang from a flower of life, casting prism rainbows. Standing at 8m high, spanning 20m wide, it is a strong statement and invitation to enter into the space.

Here’s a panoramic view of Metamorphosis taken as the sun is setting.

Yay; Ranger Bob came by! He’s tired, so we break out the breakfast makings and fire up the coffee-pot. We get RB to actually stop, sit, and feed; we have the photographic evidence! As the week goes by RB gets more and more run-down, so this habit is a good start.

As we walk around the Binnekring, Carmella spots something that brings back good memories of childhood: tetherball. It’s hard to both play and take a photo of her :-)

AfrikaBurn, like Burning Man, is a pretty safe place, with self-reliant communities of participants and a self-selected adventurous, reasonably hardy population. Still, I’m happy to see the South African Paramedic Services rig parked in our common space; it’s always great having trained backup.

Carmella, having a tomato salad lunch. Note that she’s got the sink extended, the coffee-pot ready to pour, and on the table she’s got the essentials: a roll of toilet paper, her Ranger radio, and portobello and several kinds of meat for me to grill. La dolce vita.

Self-portrait of two very satisfied, post-lunch Rangers, resting in the sun.

Hey, look, it’s Ranger Bob! I break out the crockery, fetch a couple of coffee mugs for our guests, and we settle in, chatting, listening to the Ranger radios (in case the on-duty staff needs backup).

I tell Ranger Bob of the foods I’ve packed away: can I try my hand at showing off some techniques I’ve read about, worked on South African ingredients? To my delight, he consents. Most importantly, he takes time off from working and rests and re-energizes.

On walk-about we find this awesome picture frame, perfect for taking a picture :-) With help from the community, it happens.

Speaking of help from the community, here’s Carmella hydrating after a much-needed sleep and a stroll around the Binnekring.

Our formal portrait on our way to a special event. From the official description:

About 3,000 couples from… around the world will take part in a mass purple wedding at the South African headquarters of the controversial Free United Church of the Karoo. The Church’s mass weddings – which takes place annually – began in 2012.

Founded by Götz Scheffel and his wayward girlfriend Amelie Carthee, The Mass Purple Wedding [will be performed by] Bishop Loon… revered by his followers, who are often referred to as “Loonies”. Critics have described him as a charlatan and wannabe Rock God.

The marriage only lasts for the time that the couples are at AfrikaBurn, although many already married couple use the opportunity to renew their vows. The Free United Church of the Karoo should not be confused with religion. The church prays to the Gods of Rock and the Lords of Time and does not object to same sex marriages of even marriages of more than two people. All attendees are asked to wear purple as this event is The Mass Purple Wedding and another colour may confuse the Bishop (who is easily confused). The wedding does not formally bind you and your partner and immediate divorces are a regular occurrence after the consummation. This could be due to the lack of love or wet wipes.

Here’s the Reverend Loon addressing the crowd. Pedantically, it’s less of a wedding and more of a handfasting: an old Pagan custom, dating back to the time of the ancient Celts. A handfasting was originally more like an engagement period, where two people would declare a binding union between themselves for a year and a day. The original handfasting was a trial marriage. It gave the couple the chance to see if they could survive marriage to each other. After a year goes by (a handfasting was once believed to last a year and a day), the couple could either split as if they had never been married or could decide to enter permanently into marriage.

Except for our hair dye, neither Carmella nor I had anything purple with us. It’ll have to do.

The shadows are getting long, the hot sun is setting on the Karoo, and we start packing our evening kit in preparation for our evening Ranger shift.

The sun paints the sky as it enjoys its last hurrah.

Next, the art of Rangering at AfrikaBurn.

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