When the bus dropped us at Welcome Road, none of us were really sure what to do or where to go. There was no booth, no person, not even a sign. Around us was nothing but desert. That was the irony of Welcome Road – it was hardly welcoming.
I looked around. In one direction was the gate, where we’d just come through. In the other direction; tents, camps, maybe a kilometre away. I guessed that’s where we were going, but how to get there? There were around thirty of us, all staring at our piles of belongings. It seemed we were all thinking the same thing. Surely we’re not carrying all this stuff over there, are we? Why did the bus drop us here?
A pair of orange vests walked by.
“Excuse me, I’m looking for free camping. Where is that?”
“Straight ahead,” said one, pointing towards the tents in the distance.
“And how can we get there?”
He shrugged his shoulders.
I looked at my stuff again. Three bags, 30 litres of water, a mattress, a tent, cooler bin. Sixty kilos, probably. I looked up at the campsite in the distance. Between us, nothing but dirt and tumbleweed. It’d be three trips, at least.
I picked up half my stuff and started walking.
The sun was heavy. Not suffocating, but just enough to make you suffer. My face dripped within minutes. Moments later, my arms burned, both from both sunshine and work. Sweat beads rolled off my forehead like marbles.
The campsite had looked huge from a distance, but suddenly small when I got there. Lots of empty space, camps half put up, only a small sprinkling of people walking around. It was the first morning of the first day, after all. I dropped my bags and took a moment. A moment not to just catch my breath, but to survey what was around me. If this was going to be my home for a week, I needed to choose my camping spot strategically, carefully. The right location, a place where magic was easy to manifest. The right neighbours, the kind that would lift your spirits in the morning, have good stories and food and love to share. I wandered and visualised camping in each open spot, like choosing a desk on the first day of class.
After twenty minutes, I found it. An empty block, just off an intersection. It offered nothing magical at first glance – perhaps that it was on a corner, and near to the toilets – but just looking at it felt right. A couple of hippie gentleman were already camped up there, but no one else.
“Is this space free?” I asked.
He was a middle aged guy, South African, looked like an old Adrien Brody. Perhaps not quite as handsome. And he was naked.
“Yeah it’s all free. We’re just putting up a little fence here, but that’s all yours,” he said, waving his hand alongside him.
It was perfect.
I fetched my bags, dropped them. Then I turned behind me, to look at the street sign.
Remember that name, I told myself. Fata Morgana was now home.
When I arrived back at the bus stop to fetch the rest of my stuff, half the people had gone. The rest were loading all their stuff onto a rickety pickup truck. I took a look at the driver, gauging his friendliness. He looked jolly enough.
“Excuse me, where are you heading?”
“Atlantis and 9ish!”
“Could you give me a ride, I can’t carry all that stuff. I’m on Fata Morgana.”
“You know how to get there?”
“Yeah,” I lied.
“Then it should be cool. Jump on!”
I loaded the water, the mattress, the cooler bin, the tent, as relief flowed through me. As everyone loaded their stuff and jumped on, space became tight. People sat on bags that were on bags, bodies hung off the sides. I jumped onto the footstep on the passenger door, holding onto the window.
We drove out into the desert, myself hanging off the side of the truck, face blowing in the desert air. I’d watched garbage collectors do this on the way to school as a kid, wishing I could join them, thinking about how cool it must feel. 30 years later my dream had come true. It felt even cooler than I’d imagined.
After dropping everyone at Atlantis and unloading, the driver drove me on to Fata Morgana. From a distance I saw my bags cooking in the sun, wondering if half my belongings might be melted by now. As I went to shake the drivers hand, I pulled a bracelet off my wrist.
They had told us, make sure you take gifts to AfrikaBurn. People will do kind things for you, you’ll want to acknowledge them. Back in Cape Town, I’d befriended a Tanzanian craftsman at the local market who worked with beads, and asked if he could make 50 bracelets for me. They were simple, but beautiful, beaded with the words “Spread Love”.
“Man, thank you so much. What’s your name?”
“Seriously bro, saved my life.”
I grabbed his hand and put the bracelet around his wrist. He twisted his hand around, staring at it in awe, trying to read what it said.
“Oh man, that is so awesome!”
He opened his arms, offering the hug of all hugs.
“I won’t take this off man,” he said, admiring it again. “It’s too cool.”
Byron. I’d remember the name, make sure to pop in to his camp and say hi whenever I walked past. Already I could tell, this week, it would be all about the little things.
As he drove off, I noticed a couple with a campervan lingering around my spot.
“Yeah that’s him,” Adrien Broner shouted from his tent, pointing at me.
I turned back to the couple and smiled, my eyebrows raised.
“Are you camping here?” they asked.
“Uh, we just wanted to know how much space you needed. Do you mind if we camp here beside you?”
“Yeah! Of course. I’m alone, I just need that little spot. I can even leave you a little backyard,” I laughed, pointing to the area beside them.
They were Dutch, I forget their names, but the girl was a carbon copy of Minnie Driver, her boyfriend could’ve passed for a young Paul Walker. A little less surfer boy, but just as handsome.
“You want a beer?” Minnie asked as I unpacked my tent.
Once Paul had parked his camper perfectly parallel to the road, he came over to help me pitch. It only took us a few minutes. Once standing tall, I stood back, sucked on the Corona and admired it.
The three of us spent the next hour sitting outside their camper, sipping beer and snacking on a bag of biltong. It seemed none of us knew exactly what to expect for the week, or really even knew what we were supposed to do. I suppose, that’s why we were here. To experience something new.
That evening, I was rostered on for Ranger duty. Rangers are like the police of Tankwa Town, but the kindergarten version. We walk around in orange vests, our only weapon is a radio, people ask us for directions, stuff like that. In the weeks leading up to Burn, it’d been said everyone was supposed to volunteer. That’s what makes Tankwa Town a town. Not everyone does, but I had signed up to volunteer for something every day. As my first time there, I wanted to be a part of everything; to live and breathe this town.
When I reported to the Ranger HQ shed, a little early, I was greeted by a pleasant lady. She called herself Peaches.
“And what’s your handle?” she asked.
“Handle? I don’t have one.”
“Well you need one, it’s like a nickname, a playa name. Should be something a five year old could say.”
I looked at the board in front of me. Each timeslot was scribbled in with different nicknames – Boogeyman, Northwest, Tigger, Serenity.
A playa name, I thought. It came to me quickly.
“My handle will be…Ninja.”
“Ninja! That’s a cool one. Grab yourself a vest and a radio. We’ll brief your shift in a few minutes.”
As we neared 5 p.m. the Ranger shed had filled. Everyone was chatting, chirpy, buzzing for their first day of duty. Some I recognised from the training in Cape Town, but most were new. But it was only now I was seeing how Rangering seemed like serious business, people treated this like a real job. I put my serious face on.
During the brief, I was assigned to The Horn, and partnered with a young man by the name of Super C. Super C was a cheery guy with curly hair, caramel coloured skin and a strangely deep voice that didn’t quite match his face. He laughed often, usually at the end of an unfunny sentence, a boyish smile constantly spread across his face. It made things easy though. He talked a lot, so I didn’t have to.
The Horn is right in the corner of the map, shaped exactly like it’s named, pointing into a secluded edge of town. It almost looks like nothing would be out there. To get into the Horn though, you need to walk along the Binnekring.
The Binnekring is like Tankwa Town’s Broadway, or Vegas Strip. All the main theme camps are here, the bars, the clubs, the food camps. As you walk along it, the activity is electric – non stop dancing, laughter, drinks, food, lights. It’s the heart of the town. Not only that, the Binnekring opens out onto the playa, the huge ring of desert filled with artworks, so big you can barely see the other side.
Super C and I started our walk. The bars on the Binnekring were just opening, sun setting behind them, as more and more people came out ready for the evening. Everyone was giddy, ready for Tankwa Town’s first night, all dressed in their long fur coats, big sunglasses and strings of neon lights. Outside one bar, people were lounging on bean bags, sipping on drinks among some mellow music. In the crowd, I saw a familiar face smile at me. I smiled back.
Her eyes followed me as I walked over. Her hair was big and wild, her mocha skin covered only by a black strapless bra and some baggy pants.
“Is this your camp?”
“Nah,” she laughed. “Just chilling here.”
She had a thick New York latina accent, just like in the movies. It was almost as if she was putting it on.
“Sorry but…I totally forgot your name.”
“Leslie,” she laughed.
“And you’re Brendan, right?”
“Wow, you remember. Impressive. But actually my name is Ninja now.”
“Oh okay, Ninja,” she laughed.
Leslie was the first burner I ever met. When I’d arrived at the bus stop in Cape Town the night before, she was sitting there alone on the curb in the middle of the crowd, surrounded by her big water bottles and oversized suitcase. “Mind if I chill with you?” I’d asked, as she cleared a spot beside her. We sat and talked for a minute, before the bus arrived and everyone got up in a frenzy to load their things. But when we got off the bus the next morning, there she was again, right next to me, and as I walked through the campground later that afternoon, there she was again, walking in the opposite direction. We stopped and chatted, laughed about how we kept bumping into each other. And now here she was again.
“I’ve gotta go, I’m kinda like…working.”
“Okay, mister hard worker,” she said rolling her eyes. I rolled mine back.
“I’ll come catch you later.”
Sun set quickly in Tankwa Town. By half six the town was dark, the music was loud and the lights were out. The Binnekring overflowed with people, their smiles at full mast, as high on life as they were on drugs. Every now and again someone came up to us asking directions. Super C helped them out. Me – I had no idea where we were most of the time. These streets were all new to me too, I was as lost and excited as everyone else.
At around half seven HQ called us in for dinner break. Super C and I loitered back, and while he went off to his camp to eat, I stayed at HQ and studied the map. If people asked me questions, I wanted to be able to answer them. I hated the feeling of telling people I didn’t know. As I memorised the streets, I took a moment to flick through the guide booklet, stopping at the back page:
Rising like a dusty mirage out of the Karoo heat, there’s a city that many call home. It’s a manifestation of our collective imagination and the culmination of our collective efforts. It comes and goes, and ebbs and flows. It’s transient, temporary and transitory. It’s neither here, nor there.
It is real in its unrealness.
Sinking into the sands of time, every artwork will be taken down or burned, every camp will be packed away, and every vehicle dismantled. The city we manifested will disappear, remaining only in our minds. What a beautiful, astounding, priceless thing.
When I’d decided to come here, I’d been unaware of how big it was, how dedicated this community was. But now it was suddenly hitting me, after seeing it all with my own eyes. I was about to be a part of something far more special than I had imagined.
…to be continued.