The light woke me up.
I was wrapped in three layers of clothes, expecting the desert night to be arctic, but I’d slept through the night comfortably. I hid inside my sleeping bag, staring at the peak of my tent. The grey was slightly brighter on the east side, illuminated by the morning sun. I looked at my phone.
I grabbed my water bottle, sucked furiously on it for a few seconds, then pulled my cooler bin over. It was filled with survival foods; biltong, cookies, protein bars, dark chocolate. Nothing that needed to be cooked, nothing that could spoil. I nibbled on bits of everything, waiting for my mind to wake up, thinking about what today might bring. But it was too early for any imaginations. I lay back down to read.
Just that week I’d started a new book, The Forest Through the Stars. It was about an eight year old girl in pyjamas who showed up on a young lady’s doorstep one night. The lady believed she was a runaway, but the girl claimed to be an alien from another galaxy who had simply borrowed a dead girl’s body. She had been sent from her planet to learn about earth, and was not allowed to return back until she had witnessed five miracles.
I lay there burning through pages, hunting impatiently for clues. Was she an alien or not? I knew I’d probably only find out in the last chapter, but it didn’t stop me hoping. I was so engrossed I didn’t even notice the wind at first. But it was the third or fourth gust that made me put the book down. Winds roared across my tent, blowing the peak almost as low as my head.
Back in Cape Town, I’d made a hasty decision to splurge on a proper storm proof camping tent, rather than a $40 throwaway from one of the budget stores. When I unpacked it, the girls at the hostel had laughed at how huge it was, asking if I was secretly packing for a party of eight. But it didn’t seem so funny anymore. I lay there nervously, watching in suspense as my tent struggled against the wind, waiting for the beams to snap at any moment. Alien girl was searching for five miracles, I was only hoping for one: For this tent to survive the morning.
Somehow, it held its ground. At noon when I finally left for my shift, I could hardly believe it was still standing.
The scene outside was exactly as I’d pictured. The fierce winds had turned half of Tankwa Town upside down. Dust, finer than sand, zoomed through the sky like fairy dust. Without goggles, keeping your eyes open for more than three seconds was retinal suicide.
As I walked the streets, each block had become a graveyard of tents, one after the other, strewn across the dirt in pieces. They had told us the desert sandstorms took no prisoners, but sometimes I’d wondered if it would really be as bad as they’d said. Now I knew the answer.
But even disregarding the tent wreckages, the campground looked different to me. I was oriented here now. After studying the map the night before, I now had a picture in my mind of how this place worked. It was bigger than I had realised, the size of ten football fields, easily, and laid out neatly in blocks, like Manhattan – three streets across, thirteen streets down. The streets ran alphabetically; Atlantis, Butterfly, Cherry Blossom, Disappear, Evanescent, all the way down to Moment.
As I passed each intersection I searched for the street sign, making sure to memorise each name. Someone had said the night before, we’d have 12,000 people in here by the end of the week. It really was like a real city.
On the way to my shift I stopped by Atlantis to give a hello to Byron. He was milling about outside his camp, looking busy. He held up his wrist as I approached, flashing his bracelet, grinning. We shook hands, a chinwag here, there. Then, as I left his camp, I saw Leslie approaching in the distance. I shouted out to her.
Her hair was big, as usual, her eyes bright, her smile automatic when she saw me.
“Did you say Grizzly?” she laughed as she walked towards me.
“No I said your name, weirdo. That could be your playa name though. You know, like a grizzly bear.”
“Yeah, could be!”
“So what you doing tonight, Grizzly?”
“Dunno. I’m sure you’ll find me though. What about you, what you doing right now?”
“I go on shift at 12.”
Her eyes rolled.
“You actually are always working! Mister hard worker.”
She was right, it did feel like I was always working. But secretly, I loved it. It gave the day routine, but also meaning. Something to make me feel like I earned my place in this town.
That day, I had signed up for Greeter duty. I arrived a half hour early. I was met by three girls huddled inside the Greeters tent, sipping tequila while taking shelter from the ever-growing dust storm. It was vicious now. Standing outside without goggles was almost impossible.
“Hi!” they screamed as I walked in, as if I were a long lost friend they’d known since childhood. The Greeters tent was small, with only a single bench, flanked by a small table with some coffee and cookies. They shuffled over and made a space for me.
“Ninja hey? That’s a cool name. I’m Savannah,” one said, puffing on a joint before passing it onto me.
They each wore safety orange vests, with heeled boots and fishnet stockings, running all the way to their bums which were hardly hidden.
“So where you staying, Ninja?”
“On my lonesome,” I replied, passing the joint along. “On Fata Morgana.”
“I know that place! Our friends are camped there. We should all go hang out. We’re all at Potato Heads.”
“Yeah it’s a camp where we like cook potatoes for people.”
“Cool. Is it nice?”
“Yeah we’re set up real nice. If you ever go camping with Victoria, everything has to be real nice.”
“Me!” the other girl beside me said, raising her hand. Her smile was playful, hair dirty blonde, fell freely across her face. They almost looked like sisters.
“So, anything big planned?”
“Yeah! It’s my birthday tomorrow,” Savannah said. “I’m turning 21!”
“Woo. And you’re having a party? Are you doing 21 shots?”
“Probably more like 21 drugs.”
The three of them chuckled and proceeded to rattle off 21 different drugs with ease, counting them on their fingers like some kind of pop quiz. I hadn’t heard of half of them.
When their shift finally ended, they farewelled me with hugs and selfies before going on their way.
“Come visit us at Potato Heads Ninja! Don’t miss my birthday!”
“I’ll find you,” I smiled, not knowing if I would or not. Besides, I didn’t have time to think about that. It was time to work.
Greeters were the gatekeepers of AfrikaBurn. They were responsible for patrolling the gate, welcoming new cars in with big smiles and funny dances, and of course, manning the Virgin Gong. Any time an AfrikaBurn virgin arrived, they were briefed by Greeters on the principles of Tankwa Town – and then invited to ring the Virgin Gong. I fell into the role with ease. The virgins rolled up starry eyed anticipating wonder, and we welcomed them to the promised land of radical possibilities. Unbeknownst to them, just 24 hours earlier I’d stood in that exact spot and rung the gong myself. But as I’d been learning, things change quickly in Tankwa Town.
The storm continued all through Greeter duty. When our shift finally ended, I anxiously rushed back to my tent and see if anything was left of it. I crossed the open desert from the Gate to the campground, just as I’d done the previous morning off the bus. But of course, everything was different now. For one, I actually knew where I was going.
I got to Fata Morgana and peered around the Dutchies’ van. My tent was still standing proudly. I unzipped the front flaps and ducked inside to get lunch. Things didn’t look so great on the inside, however. Before I’d left that morning, I’d opened the window flaps so the wind would blow through the tent instead of against it, hoping it would increase chances of survival. And maybe it had, but now everything inside was covered in a one inch blanket of dust. Cleaning it would have been pointless. The winds were still raging, it would be brown again in no time. I made peace with the fact that tonight I’d be sleeping in a bed of desert sand.
When I stepped back outside, Naked Adrien Brody was standing by his truck, fiddling with some tools.
“It’s still standing,” I smiled, nodding at my tent.
“Yeah, don’t worry about it. It’s going to be fine,” he said, matter-of-factly. “The beams on those tents are fibreglass. They’re made for storms like these.”
I looked back at my tent, flapping hopelessly, like a baby duck, trying to fly in a hurricane.
“Yeah. Believe me. It’ll be just fine.”
Somehow, I knew he knew what he was talking about. I felt good suddenly, anxiety free. Pleased that my investment in a flashy tent had paid off. And I’d finished work. I looked over at the Dutchies’ van. Their bicycles were gone, meaning they’d left to go exploring for the day. I decided to do the same.
I’d been wandering the playa aimlessly for almost an hour when I bumped into Paris. Paris wasn’t his real name, but it’s what I called him. Names were hard to remember, hometowns weren’t. Paris was a harmless soul, another I’d met while standing in line for the bus back in Cape Town. He was soft spoken with a kind face and kind demeanour, oozed black French style, from his denim clothes to his mini locs to his unmistakeably French accent. It was a welcome surprise to see a familiar face. The wine bar was nearby. We pulled out our cups and went for a drink.
The wine bar was a central point on the Binnekring. It was huge, for a start, and with boppy tunes and free wine on tap all day, it was always full. We waded through a sea of bodies to get to the bar. Behind the bar stood a shelf lined with huge barrels of sweet South African wine, along with three smiling faces to disperse it to Tankwa’s endless line of thirsty mouths.
“Red or white my brah?”
We both asked for red, and handed our cups over. He flicked the little tap on one of the barrels and we watched as the wine trickled out.
One of the things that had drawn me to AfrikaBurn, probably more than anything else, was the idea that the society existed without money. Tankwa Town boasted a “gifting economy” as one of its core principles. Nothing was allowed to be bought or sold, no advertising, no sponsorships, no business. Money simply did not exist in Tankwa Town. Over the years I’d become disillusioned with a world where literally everything revolved around dollar bills – the only kids who got good educations were the ones with money, kids who got medical care were the ones with money, people went to jobs they hated for money, now even water cost money, people murdered, lied, cheated, scammed people just for money. Was there anywhere on earth where people didn’t just spend their entire lives jerking off over money? I searched, but never found. And then I heard about Tankwa Town.
Two weeks earlier, I was sitting on a sofa in my hostel courtyard, chatting to a local Capetonian woman sucking on a cigarette. It was cold that night, and the two of us were huddled in our sweatshirts, braving the cold to get a better wifi reception outside by the office. When I told her I was in town for the Burn, she mentioned she’d heard about it over the years, but never learned what it was.
“So people spend all this time building these artworks and making these events, just because?”
“Just for the culture, I guess.”
“C’mon. With an event this big, someone’s making money somewhere. I mean you paid money for a ticket, right?”
“Well it’s a non profit. We’re contributing to something. Renting a big ass desert for a week, for one.”
“Look, I’m an artist. If it were me, I’d tell everyone I was making a big artwork, get donations, make something huge…for my portfolio. I just…I know human beings. Nobody does something for nothing.”
Yet I was a human being, and many a time I’d found joy in doing something for nothing. But now that I was here, her words stayed with me, turned me into a skeptic. I was always observing, looking for the catch. But there wasn’t one. Tankwa Town didn’t just support a gifting economy. Gifting was gospel here. People lived and breathed it. Total strangers walked up to you on the playa and gifted you candy, hugs, crafts, for no reason at all. The Binnekring was an endless line of camps that had brought entire lounges, spas, kitchens, eight hours into the desert, cooking up feasts all day, just in the spirit of giving. No branding, no Coca Cola advertisement on the wall. And even right here in this bar, he handed us our wines and didn’t ask for a thing. Just sent us away with a smile.
We stood out in the sun and sipped our wines. Talked. It was cool, but after the second cup, the vibe had become crowded and heavy.
“We need a place to chill,” Paris said. “You know somewhere?”
I thought about it.
“You know what. I do, actually.”
It didn’t take us long to find the Potato Heads camp, nestled somewhere along Cherry Blossom. When Paris and I spotted it, we waltzed in like homeless people off the street. Their camp was big, at least twenty people, with a huge chill-out spot in the front with lawn chairs and bean bags. A small group was lounging in the middle. I found it odd, and refreshing, that none of them questioned who we were or what we were doing there. They just smiled at us, like walking in off the street was the most normal thing in the world. Because in this part of the world, it was.
“Savannah around?” I asked.
“I think she’s sleeping,” one of them said.
“Oh. Mind if we chill here with you?”
They shuffled to make space for us. We introduced ourselves. Paris had already started rolling a joint before we’d even learned their names.
“So what’s going on here?”
“Lynesha’s about to do mushrooms, first time,” one girl said, nodding at the girl beside me.
“I’m thinking about it,” she smiled back.
Lynesha P was an Indian girl from Johannesburg. She had big eyes, her smile was innocent, her hair platted and tied up like Princess Leia. I watched her twirl the mushroom between her fingers. In the other hand she held a bar of chocolate, presumably as a chaser. I took it and stole a piece.
“Don’t eat it all!” she cried.
“They don’t taste that bad!” another girl said. “You’ll only need one piece.”
I watched her twirl the mushroom between her fingers one more time. Then she popped it in her mouth like a gummy bear, unphased, like she’d done it a million times.
On the other side of me, Paris took the chocolate and passed me his joint.
“You put tobacco in it?”
“Of course man. I’m French.”
“You guys need to quit that shit, man.”
I hit it once, softly, and passed it along.
As evening approached, someone suggested we hit the playa and try catch the sunset. That roused the group. Everyone got up, filled their cups one more time and put on their fur coats and lights as we dripped out of the camp in twos and threes. But, people move slowly in Tankwa Town. By the time everyone was accounted for and we made it to the playa, the sun had long gone, leaving only a trail of leftover pinks and oranges.
Luckily, sunsets were merely the beginning of nights on the playa. Once darkness fell, the playa really came to life. We turned on our headlamps and started to roam.
Tankwa Town at night is a different world. At any one place, you were surrounded by 360 degrees of madness, like a devil’s amusement park, straight from a movie. Mutant vehicles became nightclubs-on-wheels scattered across the desert, covered in neon lights, speakers blaring. The artworks all stood tall and illuminated, people used them as meeting points, selfie spots, landmarks. From a distance, the Binnekring throbbed with music, dancing, cries, laughter, flashing lights, stretching magnificently for what seemed like forever, rivalling the best nightclub streets in the world. Sometimes you’d get to a spot and see it in all its glory, stop, and remind yourself, we really built this place from nothing. It’s all for us. And it’s all for free.
Lynesha P and I were the last ones standing that night. Some retired to bed, some we lost in the madness, but that was the norm on the playa. As the night wound down, our legs begged for rest.
“I know where we can go.”
The day before, halfway through my Ranger shift, Super C and I had walked into a small camp hidden in the far corner of Tankwa Town. It was so unassuming, most people would’ve walked right past it. Had we not been on duty, we probably would have too. But once I stepped inside I knew I’d found a new home. The name was State of Bliss. The open air tent was split into two rooms, tea bar on one side, bean bags surrounding a jazz piano and mic on the other. We had chatted briefly with the “owner” Stephane, who’d invited us in to look around.
“Come back at 11,” he’d said to us. “The jazz lounge will be open then.”
When Lynesha P and I wandered in late that night, it was full. I said hi to Stephane at the bar, and we filled our cups with hot milky chai before heading to the lounge. We snuggled close to armour ourselves from the desert cold, leftover winds still blowing from the storm earlier in the day.
My face was still caked with dust, I hadn’t showered in 48 hours, and my legs ached from two endless days of walking. But it was no match for hot tea and live jazz, in the middle of the desert, brought together for no other reason than to show us what the joy of music and giving looks like.
As she pressed the keys on the piano, Lynesha P lying against me, I listened to every note, every word. All I could think to myself was, this is it. This is exactly what I came here for.
...to be continued.