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The crowd was already huge when I arrived. I’d thought I was early. Thousands of people sat in a huge ring, surrounding the Temple of Ixam. It was scheduled to burn just after sunset.
‘Burning’ was talked about often in Tankwa- on the Binnekring during the day you’d always hear people screaming about it – don’t forget there are two burns tonight! But nobody ever talked about what they meant, or why we did them. It was just something we did. Each evening, people gathered to watch as various artists set fire to their creations and watched them crumble in flames. Some artworks stood several stories tall, and the burns were magnificent – the biggest blazes you’d ever seen – sometimes taking over an hour to fall to ash.
The artists had requested a silent burn that night. All camps had been ordered to shut off their music, and viewers had been asked to stay silent as they watched. As darkness fell, a group of young men dressed like hunter gatherers, long staffs in their hands, finally set the temple alight.
The Temple of Ixam was dome shaped, a couple of storeys high, made of straw and wood. Later I’d learn it had been standing for several years, built to honour the indigenous people of the desert. The fire started slowly, but within minutes it was at full blaze. Thousands watched in silence as the flames roared. The loudness of fire is peculiar – something you don’t really notice – but hits you hard when you experience it. What hits you even harder is the beauty. It’s more breathtaking than we realise. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the people’s faces next time you’re around a fire. How they simply stare at it, watching it dance, mesmerised. It captivates people. When the temple finally toppled, the crowd roared with delight, like some kind of triumph. I felt it too.
But while the flames captivate us quickly, they lose our interest quickly, too. As soon as the temple fell, the crowd began to disperse, looking for wilder things the night had to offer. As I turned and headed back to the Binnekring myself, I saw friendly faces approaching.
“THERE HE IS!” they shouted as they saw me.
We laughed and hugged.
“We’ve been looking for you!”
Tania and Claire were another two people I’d met on the bus. They’d been sitting in the seat in front of me, our friendship christened with the sharing of a peanut butter bar.
“Come out with us tonight! Meet at our camp at 8?”
In the 72 hours I’d been here, hope and trust had suddenly re-emerged as the essential survival tools inside the gates of Tankwa. Cellphone reception didn’t exist. If you were to meet anybody, anywhere, you simply had to give a time and place and hope they would make it, trust they would make it. But that was refreshing too, not living through a screen anymore. We made plans face to face. We had conversations face to face. Nobody ever finished an introduction with “I’ll text you”. It almost felt like we were becoming children again.
I arrived at their camp late.
“Oh here he is,” they groaned lovingly, as if they’d given up on me showing.
One drink, then we headed out.
“Okay Brendan, the plan tonight is, we have to find the ship,” Claire said as we waltzed out onto the playa.
“Yes! Last year all of my coolest nights were on the ship!”
“What the hell is the ship??”
“Haven’t you seen that big sailing ship, that drives around the playa at night?”
As usual, the playa was pulsing with noise and lights that night, like some kind of drug filled Disneyland. DJ’s sat atop mutant vehicles in the distance, passionately thumping out sets for the little crowds that gathered. People roamed in groups of twos and threes, dressed extravagantly, covered in lights and laughter. It was the hour when all leftover heat from the day had dissipated; the desert air was now cold and numbing, even with the alcohol and long fur coats, your fingertips chilled if you didn’t keep them buried in your pockets.
It didn’t take us long to find the ship, which was actually named The Flying Dutchman. It was a huge trailer modified into a pirate ship on wheels. A DJ booth was set up in the middle, and people sat around it on the deck and chilled, while others danced in the sand under the huge sail built from LED lights.
“That’s the ship!” Claire screamed. We marched towards it. “Now we just need to wait for space to get on.”
There was a decent crowd commanded by the DJ when we arrived. Some wandered by on the playa and stayed, others danced for five minutes before drifting on to somewhere else. As we sifted into the crowd, I caught a glimpse of a girl sitting up on the ship deck, alone, by the mast. She was facing away from me, I could only see the back of her head. But I already knew who it was.
I walked around the front of the ship and caught sight of her face. She looked bored, or high, maybe both, her eyes staring aimlessly into the ground. Perhaps she was having a spiritual moment, or an epiphany, maybe an introspective awakening. All were reasonably common in Tankwa Town. I walked up to her, and she looked up, her face morphing slowly into a smile as she saw me.
“Hey Grizzly Bear,” I laughed. “Can I come up and join you?”
“Of course! Get up here.”
I climbed up and sat beside her on the deck.
“What are you doing up here all by yourself?”
“I dunno, I was cold. I don’t even know whose jacket this is.”
She was wrapped up in a fur coat three sizes too big for her. I shuffled over and offered my arm, and she snuggled up next to me.
“My friends are over there,” I said, nodding my head backwards. “They’ve been talking about this freakin’ ship all night. I need to find them a space so they can jump on.”
As we both looked back at them, a friend of Grizzly’s jumped up to sit with us.
“Oh, this is Anton.”
I shook his hand and introduced myself. He was tall, with long Jesus hair, looked like a young Edward Norton. I guessed he was part of the ship crew.
“Ooh. I got an idea. Anton you see those two girls over there? They’re obsessed with this ship. Go over and say you’re the ship’s owner, and you would like to invite them both on deck as VIP guests.”
He looked over.
He squinted for a second, then grinned and started walking over.
Grizzly laughed into the sky as he left.
“That’s so good.”
We both turned to watch. From a distance we giggled as Anton walked up to them like a Bible salesman, his hands animated as he talked. Claire’s face turned from puzzlement to joy, within a few seconds they were both following him over. As soon as they came around the nose of the ship and saw us, we all burst out laughing. They climbed up and sat beside us.
“Made it to the ship,” I grinned.
Claire was right. The ship was pretty cool. We sat up there for hours, chilling in the desert night. Every few songs, the ship would move. We’d watch the ship crew jump into action, do all their safety checks, then as many people as possible would climb on as the driver revved up the engine and drove us fifty metres to a new spot on the playa. You could barely see ten metres ahead, so someone would walk in front with a torch, making sure we didn’t crash into an artwork or a pile of bicycles. Alongside us, the rest of the crowd walked. But the DJ never stopped playing, and the people never stopped dancing.
I pulled out some of those healthy snack balls from my bag, the kind made from dates and coconuts and other hipster stuff. Grizzly took a bite and nearly spat it out.
“What the hell is that?”
“That’s nasty. You got any like, real food?”
“What, like a New York pizza slice?”
She laughed and punched me.
“What part of New York are you from anyway?”
“Well, I’m Dominican, so…”
I switched to Spanish, and she laughed, and we chatted in her language for a while, asking all the important questions, getting to know each other. It was the first time we’d actually sat down and talked to each other for more than five minutes.
A pretty blonde girl jumped up on deck and sat on the other side of me. I guessed she was from Sweden, Norway, somewhere up that way, the way her eyes had that piercing blue. Turned out, she was Danish.
“So how long you two been together?” she asked.
I looked to her, my eyebrows raised.
“You’re a couple, right?”
Just as I was about to shake my head, Grizzly jumped in.
“Yeah we are.”
“No we’re not,” I laughed.
“Babe, stop playing.”
“Oh really, we’re a couple? Where did we meet?”
“Where did we go on our first date?”
“To a restaurant.”
“What did we eat?”
We both started laughing and didn’t stop, while the Danish girl stared at us, trying to figure out what kind of drugs we were on.
When’s the last time you sat around and laughed with strangers? It’s special. It’s not something you can plan, it’s one of those things that only happens when it happens. And it happens on the road, but not as often as you think. Being rare makes it precious. And being precious makes it beautiful. But for it to happen in the middle of the night in the middle of the desert in the middle of the week in a place like this? It was the most rare, precious, beautiful thing in the world.
Eventually Grizzly jumped down off the deck to go somewhere, and I lost her in the night. But the Danish girl and I sat there talking, about what had brought us here, and what we were looking to find. When it got to 3 am, I told her I’d be heading to bed soon. It was getting late.
“Are you serious? 3 o’clock is late?”
“Well, yeah. What’s late to you?”
“I’d say around 9 or 10. You can’t even see the sun yet!”
I thought about how different her week in Tankwa was going to be, compared to mine. Some people were here only for the night; they missed pancakes every morning, all the lunchtime events on the Binnekring, the daytime dancing. But who knows what crazy and magical things they saw in the sunrise hours. But that’s what made Tankwa incredible – it really was somewhere for everyone.
It was well into the morning hours when Claire, Tania and I finally left the ship and headed back towards the Binnekring.
“I think we’re going to call it, Brendan,” Claire said. “Enough for one night.”
“You guys go ahead. I’m gonna take a walk.”
We swapped goodnight hugs and went opposite ways, them back to the tents, myself up along the Binnekring. It was unusually quiet for the early a.m. It seemed all the shenanigans the night before had worn people out some, the energy now a lot more mellow. Still, every camp buzzed in its own way. I stopped in at State of Bliss, which was also quiet. Stephane and I chatted for a minute, before I shook his hand and wished him goodnight.
It was a long walk home. State of Bliss was on the opposite corner of Tankwa, strolling slowly, home was almost an hour away. I didn’t mind. I had nowhere to be tomorrow, and long walks in Tankwa Town were never dull. I decided to turn off the Binnekring and walk along the Buitekring, a quieter street that ran along the back of town. I was sober now, and wrapped so tightly in furs that the chilled desert air wasn’t discomforting but refreshing. Camps were smaller and private back here, but even at this hour, little groups huddled around fires, played music, continuing to enjoy the night with less extravagance but just as many smiles.
As I turned onto Lady Davina Boulevard, hitting the final stretch towards my tent, I thought about how much I loved the nights. But I also realised, I loved the days more. That was where the real conversations were had, the connections were made. The night was where you celebrated new friendships, but the day was where you created them. I peeled open my tent, gave myself a quick bath with some baby wipes, then tucked myself into bed. As I lay there waiting to fall asleep, I decided tomorrow I’d wake early. I’d seen the nights. Now it was time to indulge in everything the Tankwa days had to offer.
…to be continued.