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.

Ship Shock, or How Do I Love Thee, Let Me Count The Burns

Part 1:

My sturdy steed, my trusty transit — my soon to be dusty dreambike — has arrived, unharmed and fully functional to the great city of Cape Town. Make no mistake, no humble words, dear reader, will convey the rich mix of excitement and relief that’s been pouring through my veins since the wood walls that passed across the ocean with my beloved bike. The logistics of receiving it was one of the most endearing things that’s happened to me so far, which is mind-boggling since we’re talking about dealing with customs and cargo handlers!

Spoiler! Complete with a brand new AfrikaBurn sticker, straight from their HQ

Things didn’t start off smoothly. The flight from Istanbul to Cape Town was delayed by a little over an hour, and 30 minutes after it had landed, the folks at the cargo office hadn’t received a final manifest to confirm that the bike had indeed arrived (it had previously been marked as taking a flight on the 16th, but had been rebooked). I was antsy, so I decided to head to the cargo office independently. I took yet another Uber and had them drop me outside the secure gate. I walked up, and was instantly met by a guard who told me in no uncertain terms that I wouldn’t be walking in. I was immediately incredulous! I had walked in on the 16th, signing a ledger in the guard house before being let in, but this woman insisted there was no ledger, and that foot traffic in was strictly forbidden. To enter, I needed to be in a vehicle. We went back and forth several times, and the logic of this rule was completely lost on me, and within 5 minutes, the woman, tired of dealing with me, asked a random driver coming in in a car to let me in. He begrudgingly accepted, I hopped in, went through the gate, and got out again. Well, okay, whatever works I guess!

Next to the cargo receiving office proper. A crotchety man in a neon safety vest in a wheelchair insisted on giving me directions. An incredibly friendly guy behind the counter recognized me from Sunday, greeting me with a stack of paperwork including the original Airway Bill. My bike was here somewhere! I stepped out to head to customs, and the wheelchair man once again flagged me down and sent me off in the proper direction.

This was one of the parts I’d expected to be tricky. To ship a bike into South Africa, you’re highly encouraged to have an anachronistic document called a carnet de passage en douanes. It’s basically a passport for a vehicle. Once common, only a handful of countries still use these, and many of them are in Africa, but aside from some outliers (notably Egypt), it’s optional when crossing borders overland. Shipping is different, but I’d spent days researching the requirements and reaching out to South African customs, eventually getting some useful information from the South African consulate in the US that a particular customs form, the aptly named SAD 500, should enable me to safely bring my bike in. Of course, there’s a catch: the SAD 500 requires a bond at 30% of the value of the vehicle that’s reimbursed upon the vehicle’s passage out of the country. I’d read online that the value customs decides to use for any particular vehicle can vary.

With all this in my mind, I waited my turn at a customs window, where the first question was unsurprisingly “Do you have a carnet?” The two ladies behind the glass barrier were not impressed with my answer. They scolded me harshly, telling me how important it is, and seemingly brushing off my statement about a SAD 500. A couple sentences in, their chiding became “make sure you get a carnet next time” (emphasis mine) and my heart rate began to slow. I think my excitement was contagious, as before I knew it, one of the women behind the glass was asking if I had room for her to join me, and they were handing me a stamped document free of charge that they told me was all I needed. Sight unseen and without a penny spent, I’d just cleared a motorcycle into Africa.

Back to the cargo office, more paperwork, more stamps, and I’m handed a packet to give to security to get my bike. The friendly guy behind the counter asks how I’m getting the bike out of the crate, I give him a look of pleading, and before I can open my mouth, he’s laughing and holding a giant crowbar. My good fortune continues!

My first glimpse of my two-wheeled friend.

I hand the documents over, and a crowbar-wielding handler bursts through the gate driving a forklift, crate in proverbial hand. My heartbeat swells. The crate is dropped off to the side on the loading dock, and three handlers, including my gruff wheelchaired friend, descend on the crate with a sense of purpose. The top lifts off. I get my first look. My heart sings.

My new friends at work!

My bike is released from its protective shell, but my friends aren’t done. I need to re-assemble the top case, re-install my mirrors, and reshuffle my things. Before I know it, the cargo handlers are into my tools, working together to do things for me. They install my mirrors. They install my top case. They help me re-pack. The wheelchaired man directs it all from his perch. I am in complete and utter awe and appreciation. As we finish, I give them all big hugs under the baking African sun. They accept this with a nonchalance that says “of course we’re helping you get your shit together. Welcome to South Africa!”

Welcome, indeed!

I suit up. I mount my fully assembled machine. I wave a meaningful and heartfelt farewell, and I head to the exit. The guard there looks at me, asks for my ID, and before I can even reach for it tells me it’s too difficult for me to retrieve and waves me through unchecked.

I’m on the road (what feels like the wrong side of it).

I’m riding on the highway.

I feel the wind through my mesh jacket.

The sound of the motorcycle, the hot air, and the traffic plays like the most beautiful symphony inside my head. After years of thought and planning, months of logistics, and a life of dreams, I’m riding my first meters on an adventure bike on this fourth, and most personally mysterious, continent. Emotion pours over me with the wind.

I head back to my hostel and have a beer. And then another. I relax. I buy a chain and lock my bike to a post. My friend, you’re not going anywhere without me for awhile.

Part 2:

10,000 miles from home, and I haven’t escaped the gratuitous and gracious giving of fellow burners, and as I type, an army of them are descending on Cape Town and the deserts north. A fluke of my timing, once it was so in reach, there was never a choice in my mind: I was going to be amongst them in the desert. But it’s no small feat surviving in the desert for a week with only a motorbike to bring your things, and even less so when you’re outfitted to do far more things on the bike than just attend AfrikaBurn.

Enter the community: Say what you will about “hippies taking drugs in the desert,” but let no one say that burners aren’t some of the most outrageously generous folks. Let’s approach this, once again, in list form. The following things have happened to me since arriving:

  • Offered water to be brought for me to the burn for free (refusing payment) by a total stranger.
  • Offered to bring any other goods I may need by a total stranger.
  • Offered three different opportunities to caravan up with folks, all of which are willing to help me bring things up.
  • Convinced a stranger at my hostel to go to the burn, and before the end of the day she had a ticket and ride to get there.
  • Offered help finding an early entry pass (pending).
  • Offered many dusty hugs by Black Rock Rangers.
  • Approached by a journalist who wants to chat at the burn.
  • Offered tips on where to get costumes and food.

Nevermind the new friends, amazing company, and general feeling of being once again in a community that welcomes me and does everything possible to allow me to succeed.

Africa, you’re off to a pretty swell start.