Travels with Tankwa, or Adventures in AfrikaBurn

I hardly slept the night before the burn. It’s a common story. I forced myself to sleep around midnight, bags packed, clothes set out, alarm painfully set for 4am. I woke up at 3:30 and all hopes to eek out that last 30 minutes of sleep quickly went out the window. I oozed from the covers and prepared for the adventure.

AfrikaBurn lies in the Tankwa desert, a mere 3.5-4 hours out of Cape Town. The pavement ends a tad over 100km from the event, and the dusty rock-filled path is notorious for eating tires. I’d pre-arranged a caravan with some folks from my hostel, and at five past 5am, we hit the cold dark road.

In my mind, the trip would be hot and dusty, but the first 2 hours ascended through windswept mountain vistas. I’d not dressed for the weather, and the wind that tossed my bike around like a bag caught on a fence (and overturned a huge overloaded semi-truck) also chilled me to the bone. I didn’t want to lose my caravan, so I shivered and shook until we reached Ceres, the last town before the desert. We ate breakfast at a chain restaurant filled with fellow burners, and I aggressively cupped my coffee in my numb hands.

Welcome, indeed!

The last few miles of pavement passed by uneventfully, then ended abruptly with thick dirt and rocks. AfrikaBurn hosted ~13,000 attendees in 2017, and the size difference with Burning Man is thankfully reflected in the entrance traffic. Bumping down the washboard road kicks up massive clouds of impenetrable dust which are particularly arduous in the exposed seat of a motorcycle. Luckily, my narrow profile, offroad suspension, and weight afforded me the convenience of speed, and I mostly managed to pass slower vehicles that otherwise coated my body, helmet, and lungs with dust.

A loo with a view.

The dirt road was a goddamn pleasure on two wheels; my DR-Z400S floated like a dream. The landscape was pleasant in its stark emptiness. The occasional random pedestrian, seemingly unencumbered with bags or water, padded down the desolate shoulder at odd intervals. Eventually, there’s a road to the right, poorly labeled with the “Clan,” the analogue for Burning Man’s “Man.” Another windy kilometer down the road, and the familiar lines of a desert festival entrance unfolded on the horizon. There was no line — another lovely difference from the Gerlach regional. Within minutes, I had a wristband and was speeding 10km/hr towards home on the Welcome Road.

At the welcome gate, covered in dust

My amazing friend, former campmate, and artist behind the badass Black Rock Lighthouse service did me the great service of bringing me into his camp, and I headed towards its playa address (Lady Davina and B). The first face I saw was a campmate I’d also been in touch with through a web of connections. He pointed me to my new temporary home. I’d arrived!

I’ve had the good fortune to make it to the last 9 burns in Nevada, but never to one of the many regional events. Without a lot of ideas about what to expect, at AfrikaBurn I was a sponge. At first blush, it looks like Burning Man hit by a shrink ray: the campground is smaller, the camps are smaller, the art is smaller. The vibe is nearly identical. If you go out to the playa at night,  you could momentarily be convinced it was just another Burning Man until you squint enough to perceive depth.

But then you see that there are a lot fewer theme camps, and less events going on. You notice that nearly all of the shade structures are these incredible stretchy tents that were largely set up by rental companies. You stumble over rocks and scramble up and down dry riverbeds. You shit in a long-drop toilet, open to the sun and the stars. You marvel at how white the burn is, and realize that you’re thinking those thoughts from Africa.

It was a goddamn good time. That said, some part of the spark that Burning Man represents to me was missing. Missing were miles of campground frontage aggressively pulling you in to be misted, fed, launched, spanked, slapped, or plied with alcoholic snowcones. Missing were oases on the outskirts of the desert where you can perch on a shady beanbag chair and watch the wavering apparitions on the horizon crawl slowly across your vision, the occasional ball of fire reaching up and licking the mountains. Missing for me were the unending serendipitous meetings with close friends, often when I thought I didn’t want to be found. Sometimes the things you end up missing surprise you.

There was a distinctly wild-west vibe that I’m sure would be reminiscent of American burns gone by: police were present, but I never heard of any busts, and the ones I saw walked in large groups joking, smoking, and looking at the occasional uncovered boobs. Joints were rolled and smoked in plain view. The burn schedule was effectively written in pencil, with many postponements including the Clan itself, which much to my surprise, was burned a day late and after the Temple. Burn perimeters were routinely violated in an AfrikaBurn tradition of running naked around the fire. Art car speed limits were very much a suggestion. Got a flat-bed, some lights, and a sign? You’ve got an art car!

A stomach bug swept through the burn to epic effect. I’ve heard countless stories of burners vomiting through their last few days of the burn, or the ride home, or the worst: 30 hour transatlantic flights while regularly exploding out of both ends.

I fared better than this horny guy.

When it came time for my own departure, I lost my caravan in the dust and was quite concerned when I learned while waiting for them that there had been a fatal accident on the road a few minutes behind me. My bike was running a bit rough, so I had to goose the throttle when stopped to keep things moving, at which point I realized the fuel petcock was dumping fuel out the vent hole with each pulse of the piston (it’s vacuum-driven by the engine).

In summary: I’m back in Cape Town with a host of new friends, my bike is at the shop, and I’ve caught up on my sleep. And there are penguins, so many cute penguins!

Goddamn adorable little guys.

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