I’m not sure which one of us woke up first. Probably Grizzly. It had become tradition for me to lie in bed in the mornings, waiting for the sun to rise high enough to cook my tent until I couldn’t handle it anymore. Then I’d get up and rummage through my cooler bin, deciding what to eat for breakfast. Grizzly couldn’t do that though. She had work.
Grizzly worked at the Lost & Found booth. I thought it was the perfect job for her. With those big eyes and big hair, she had the kind of face you’d want to see when you wandered up to the booth, hopeful someone had handed in your iPhone.
“Especially with phones, people are always like, OH MY GOD THANK YOU SO MUCH. And I’m like, bro, I didn’t even do anything. But it’s still a nice feeling.”
I was still sitting there half asleep, sucking on a Powerade bottle when she laced up and ducked out of the tent. All her stuff, clothes, blankets, food, still lay strewn across the floor.
“Hey,” I shouted after her. “What’s all this, you moving in or something?”
She looked back and smiled.
“My mansion now.”
It was the last day of AfrikaBurn, and the skies couldn’t have been more beautiful. When I emerged from the mansion and headed for the toilets, still in my underwear, there was nothing but endless royal blue stretched above me in a windless sky. Spots of white cloud sat in the distance, but nothing that would ever reach us before we were gone. The storms and winds were done. Our last day in Tankwa Town would be showered in sunshine.
I decided I’d simply walk the playa for the day. Even though I’d wandered across it countless times, I felt as though I hadn’t really taken time to stop and see it. Today was the last chance before it was all gone.
Back at my tent, I dressed quickly. Getting dressed was often a lengthy process, as your imagination ran wild with possibilities – boots or flip flops, fur vest or topless, hat, bandana, wig, goggles…that was half the fun of Tankwa Town. But today was different. I threw on a tank and slippers and headed out.
With the weather divine, the playa was roaming with happy faces. It wasn’t crowded – perhaps the crowd was still recovering from the Friday night shenanigans – but the vibe was festive for those of us who made it out onto the sands. And sooner or later, we were all drawn to the Spirit Train.
The Spirit Train not only booms on the playa in the night, it does so in the daytime too. Just, a little more gently. Instead of thumping beats to ecstasy laden minds, it plays classics like the Jackson 5 and Billie Holiday. The crowd was still small when I walked by. I climbed on board one of the carriages – which were all empty for once – to shelter from the sun and watch the people dance in the sunshine. The crowd moved like it had a life of its own; over the next hour, people came and went, it grew, shrunk, swayed side to side, buzzed with energy as the DJ fed it.
Not far from me, a guy in the crowd set his phone against the train to record himself dancing. He was Australian; the kind of Australian you know is Australian just by looking at him. Behind him, a group of strangers laughed while taking selfies. A French guy lay on the ground snapping photos. At the back of the crowd, a topless girl and her boyfriend spun in circles. The sight was so joyous, so full of spirit, and suddenly it was so clear to me the real reason we were all here. It wasn’t just to have fun, or escape the real world, or even to build this town. It was to teach us one simple lesson; that if 12,000 of us, all of different races, nationalities, genders, ages, colours, classes and religions could pool our resources, and in one week build a city in the desert where everyone had food and shelter, lived in peace and danced in the sun together, there was no reason the whole world couldn’t do it. None of us were particularly wealthy or talented, but even out here in the middle of nowhere there was more than enough for everyone. We made it that way. We made it that way because we loved each other, and we loved each other because we were human. One could only imagine if we really lived like this. Imagine if it wasn’t just 12,000 of us. Imagine if it was 7 billion. What 7 billion people could achieve if we loved and respected each other…
It wouldn’t have been a day in Tankwa without running into Grizzly. She appeared in the distance, at the edge of the dance floor just before I was about to leave for the toilets. Dark denim skirt, short orange top that sat loosely above her midriff, hair up in a floral headband. I waited for her to spot me. Eventually she did, waved, smiled, walked over.
“How was work?”
“Fun. I’m going to miss that place.”
She struck a pose, and I snapped a few photos of her.
“What’s the plan tonight?”
“I don’t know. It’s the last night…we should…check out CEXx.”
“Wanna go together?”
“Let’s meet there at 11.”
I spent the rest of the day roaming and snapping photos, but by the time night fell, I had ended up at Potato Heads, relaxing with Lynesha P and friends. And it was with them I would experience one of the most special of AfrikaBurn traditions: The burning of the Clan.
Back in 1986, two friends named Larry and Jerry held a bonfire on a beach in San Francisco. As a celebration of art, counterculture, rebellion, they burned an 8 foot tall wooden man. It was attended by about 30 people. The following year they did it again, and the year after that. As the tradition grew, so did the community. Soon, many artworks were built and burned, and more people started to attend. The event became known as Burning Man. Eventually it wasn’t just artworks, it was an entire city. The Burn Principles were born: radical self expression, radical inclusion, decommodification, communal effort, gifting economy, radical self reliance. By 2018, Burning Man had grown to 80,000 people, coming together to build an entire metropolis in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. They called it, Black Rock City. And even today, the week in Black Rock City still culminates with the Burning of the Man.
When the Burn was brought to Africa, Black Rock City became Tankwa Town, Burning Man became AfrikaBurn, but they lacked a central effigy to represent it all. If the desert in Black Rock was emblematised by a wooden man burned on a beach in San Francisco, what about the desert in the South African Tankwa Karoo?
The founders tried to create something, using computers and fancy graphic design tools, but soon they realised, the perfect emblem already existed. South Africa is home to some of the most intricate rock art in the world, and one of the founders recalled an old cave painting she’d seen by the San people; South Africa’s First Nation.
In her words, the image depicted “one body, several heads, and many dancing feet. It didn’t depict any particular gender, and captured the collaboration and community we wanted to inspire. But most importantly, it was an image made by an artist of the First People.”
With this idea, San elders were approached for permission to use the image as the emblem of AfrikaBurn. Their blessing was given, in the hope it would raise the profile of the San people wherever it was seen. The image became known as the San Clan, the official effigy of Tankwa Town. Each year a nominated artist builds the San Clan to his or her own interpretation, but it is always grand, and always with the ancient San image of the one body, many heads and many feet, built in a towering artwork to watch over the citizens of Tankwa.
The Clan was scheduled to Burn at 7. We arrived early, as did many others, eager to see the city’s tallest artwork finally fall. We managed to weasel into the second row, but by the time we’d found ourselves a place to sit we’d lost most of the others – it was just myself, Lynesha P and a friendly “guy with the weed”. I handed out glowsticks to everyone as darkness fell, striking up conversation with the English couple next to us. Their young daughter, no older than six, grinned widely as I wrapped a glow stick around her wrist. She was high on excitement, like the rest of us. Imagine coming out here, watching the Clan burn at six years old, I thought. What a way, to start a life of adventure.
Half of Tankwa Town was gathered on the playa by the time the torches were lit. The Clan crew gathered at the base, held their flames high above their heads. The crowd cheered loudly. One by one they set their torches to the Clan and stepped away. The cheers grew louder, until the fire took on a life of its own. We watched in silence. The flames wrapped the base slowly at first, but then raced up the shaft and encircled the top; within minutes, flames were flicking off the highest point. Us, more than 50 metres away, could still feel the heat press against us. I looked to the left. Thousands of faces were lit with firelight, their eyes spellbound. I guessed their minds had to be filled with the same thoughts as mine: That this week had opened our hearts, brought so much joy, and that the moments had captured us so completely, we had forgotten it was ever going to end. But now the Clan was falling, and we were all realising, it was finally over. Lynesha P rested her head on my shoulder, her eyes still on the blaze. I nodded, as if to say, I know. Everywhere, every day, people tell you about experiences for your bucket list; Skydiving, Songkran, Carnaval. But those rarely leave you more than a nice photo and a story. It’s always the moments nobody warns you about, the ones you stumble upon serendipitously where you say to yourself, I’m here, and I’ll never forget this. The burning of the Clan.
Once it toppled, the crowd slowly dispersed, only a dedicated few staying until it completely turned to ash. We all drifted back to the Binnekring, as usual, ending up at Atypical Bar. Drinks flowed freely, familiar faces laughed and danced and hugged and celebrated. Eventually I lost Lynesha P and friends in the night, but Atypical Bar was always friendly no matter who was there. One gin and tonic turned into three, one new friend turned into four. But as much as I wanted to stay until dawn, it was almost 11. I had somewhere else to be.
I didn’t even remember the way to CEXx. I only remembered it was a very mysterious looking tent, somewhere on a corner, somewhere in the backstreets by the Horn. But I walked off the Binnekring and followed the different streets by memory – left on the Buitekring, straight until the fork, left again – until eventually I found it, shrouded in its dim pink lights. I pulled back the flaps, ducked inside, said hello to the imposing man at the door as I shook with relief from the cold outside. In the middle of the tent, Grizzly sat smiling at me, relaxing, as if she hung out there every night.
“Didn’t even know if you’d be here,” I grinned.
CEXx was full that night. Each corner had its zone in action – the Bondage Zone, the Petting Zone, the Voyeur Zone and The Dome. Grizzly and I wandered a bit and settled in the bean bags at the Voyeur Zone. A stage bed was set up, empty at the time, free for couples to let out their exhibitionist side, but we just snuggled against each other in the viewers area and talked about the night. By now, the gins had seeped well into my arteries, and I quickly fell asleep in Grizzly’s lap. When I woke an hour later, she laughed and filled me in on what I’d missed – this couple, that couple, good, not good. In The Dome beside us, we couldn’t see inside, but the sounds were enough to let us know how much fun was being had inside. In the Petting Zone, a girl was tied up and being whipped. An old man lay in a mountain of pillows getting his belly rubbed by a younger man. It was sex everywhere, all around us, but in this town, it was hardly odd. This whole week had been about fun, freedom, expression. I suppose, this was the purest of all three.
Grizzly and I kept to ourselves, in our little corner, on our little bean bag, perhaps a little intimidated to wander around, but comfortable enough to watch, laugh about it, share our own intimate stories. The night passed quickly, and before we knew it, the matron was walking the room telling everyone “ten minutes left”. As he did, I noticed a familiar face walk onto the voyeur bed in front of us. She was a Ranger girl I’d seen every day, bumped into every day, shared a few words with every day. Cocoa skin, big eyes, beautiful smile. On her arm she had a wiry young man with long hair and a skinny frame. A young Emile Hirsch. I watched her rush him to the bed, not worried that another couple were already there in the midst of passion. They both disrobed in seconds, she stroked him for a moment, then bent over and invited him in. It was raw, unglamorous, but they were both so eager, so committed to having it, even if it were only for sixty seconds. Barely a minute had passed when the matron finally announced the den was closing. But they both grinned, looked contented, that they’d done what they’d come to do.
On the way out, I saw her walking in front of me and rested my hand on her shoulder. She turned, her eyes wide with surprise as she saw me.
“Ninja! You’re everywhere!”
We laughed and shared some friendly words. Then, as we exited the tent and turned to walk our separate ways, realised this was probably the last time we’d ever see each other. We hugged and said a half goodbye.
“Next year,” I smiled.
I walked over to Grizzly, waiting for me by the entrance.
We walked slowly, along the Buitekring backstreets. It was the a.m. hours now, and you could hear the music thumping on the playa in the distance. Some people were in the midst of their final Tankwa night. For others, the night was just getting started. For us, it was coming to an end. At least, that’s what we’d thought.
The campground was quiet. We headed towards the mansion, strolling slowly down 9ish Boulevard, plonking feet. It was our last night, but it didn’t phase us. We walked the long way and enjoyed it slowly, taking in the streets that we now called home. But as we were about to turn into Fata Morgana, a voice called behind us.
“Guys you know the gate, the gate…the gate like the big entrance, is that over that way?” He pointed behind him.
“It’s actually that way bro,” I laughed, pointing in the opposite direction.
“Oh my god…”
He rested his head in his hands. It was only then I sensed the panic in him. He looked like he’d been wandering these streets for hours, cold and alone.
“Guys I just want to get home, can you help me get home.”
“Do you know the name of your street?”
“No but if you show me a map…I can show you on the map.”
We walked to the nearest intersection. Each of them had maps up on the lamp posts. I shined my torch on it, asked him to show me.
“Okay so from the main gate, I’m two streets up, and then two streets across.”
He traced along the roads with his fingers, two streets up, two streets across.
“Okay so that street is Jerome.”
“That’s it! Jerome.”
I turned to Grizzly.
“Let’s walk him to Jerome?”
She smiled and grabbed my arm.
Jerome was about four streets down. I looked our new friend up and down. He looked cold, the type of deep cold you feel after sobering up after a long night, his body slouched in fatigue. If he was staying down on Jerome, it meant he’d probably arrived just a couple of days ago, still getting used to the Tankwa life of no showers and freezing nights.
“What’s your name, man?”
He was a young guy, tall, twenties, thick South African accent. It was normally the Rangers’ jobs to get lost souls home safely, but no orange vests could be seen in any direction. I guessed this one was mine – one last Ranger good deed, no vest needed.
It didn’t take us long to get to Jerome. But we didn’t see the spark of relief on Justin’s face that we’d expected.
“This isn’t it…” he said, looking around.
“This is Jerome. C’mon, we’ll walk the whole street with you, tell us when it looks familiar.”
We walked from one end to the other. Still nothing.
“When you get to my camp, there’s a white VW on one side, and a camper van on the other. I promise I’m not so drunk that I won’t recognise it. I’ll know it as soon as I see it.”
For the next hour, we tried to solve the riddle of Justin’s camp. Each street of the south block – Illusion, Jerome, Kansas, Larry – we walked end to end, pointing out every VW and campervan, each time Justin shaking his head saying that’s not it. But even between yawns in the freezing cold, Grizzly and I found ways to laugh at each dead end, just as eager to solve the mystery as he was.
Eventually, walking Kansas for the third time, Justin stopped suddenly.
“Heyyy hold on a second.”
He pointed to a Toyota Hilux, parked snugly under an old canvas.
“Just today I was here with my friend, asking him – how much must you love your Luxy to park it in its own tent?”
He wandered a few metres along, slowly, his eyes and ears suddenly perked like a woken dog. Each step he took was bigger, faster, until he turned back at us, smiling.
“Guys, look. There’s the VW. There’s the camper.”
He rushed into his camp, laughing. Grizzly and I followed him in, just to make sure he was in the right place.
“I can’t believe you got me home. Thank you, oh my god. Thank you so much.”
“No worries. I’m Ninja, by the way. This here’s Grizzly.”
“Ninja and Grizzly. Hah. I love it.”
It was almost 4 a.m. We headed back toward Fata Morgana, our yawns monstrous, our legs weak, but none of it had dampened our night. The opposite in fact. We’d loved every second of it. We strolled home in the moonlight, slowly, turned down 9ish Avenue, crossed over to Lady Davina Boulevard, all the way to the east blocks until we finally hit Fata Morgana. As we neared home, it dawned on me that just a few days ago, I was as lost as Justin in these streets, even in the day time. But now I walked them mapless in the dark, the names and landmarks rolled off my tongue as if I’d grown up here. As we unzipped the mansion flaps and ducked inside, my heart pinched, knowing that in 12 hours this would all be gone. Not just Fata Morgana, but all these streets. But I also knew, I’d never forget these roads. There’d been too many stories written here, ones that couldn’t be forgotten. I’d remember them forever.
Tankwa Town had already half disappeared when I emerged from the mansion the following morning. The 4WDs and tents that had surrounded me had almost all packed up and gone, presumably to miss the traffic rush back to Cape Town. Even the Dutchies had already gone. Not naked hippie guy, though. He was still laid out in his “backyard”, no hurry to be anywhere.
Grizzly rushed back to her camp to pack her things. I looked around the tent, hands on hips, strategising how to put the life in front of me back into four bags and a cooler bin. Even though I’d only been here a week, it felt like this home had a decade of baggage and memories to pack. But piece by piece, I pulled it apart, shaking each piece of clothing free of dust, separating each piece of trash from treasure, pulling the mansion down one pole at a time.
I still had two hours to spare before the bus left for Cape Town. With nothing left to do, I grabbed my last five litres of water to gift to Ranger HQ and headed across the campground.
On the way there, I bumped into Paris. He called out to me as I walked past his group, all in the midst of pulling their camp down. I hadn’t known, but he actually lived just one street over from me. We shook hands, hugged, swapped Facebooks, snapped a photo.
“Stay in touch with you, Ninja.”
A few minutes later, Miles from Greeting duty rode by on his bike.
“Spread the love man!” he screamed, holding up his wrist with the bracelet I’d given him.
Two streets over, I walked into the girl from CExx.
“Oh my god, Ninja. I knew I’d see you again,” she laughed.
We hugged, and swapped Facebooks, me finally learning her real name.
“Visit me in London, some time.”
By the time I made it to Ranger HQ, it felt like I’d bumped into almost every familiar face I could think of. I found fellow ranger Warpdrive lounging in the back.
“Got water for you guys,” I smiled, holding up my five litre bottle. “You’re staying on for a few more days, right?”
“Yeah! Awesome. Just drop it here. We going to see you here next year?”
“I can’t imagine missing it.”
On the way back I decided to walk the long way home, to stop by Potato Heads one last time. As I’d hoped, Lynesha P was there milling about. She wasn’t heading home until tomorrow.
“What happened to YOU last night!” she said, poking at me.
“I went to meet a friend, but I looked for you! Where’d you go?”
She shrugged, as if it were a stupid question.
We hugged goodbye, as I’d done with everyone else. But this hug was a little longer than the others, a little tighter, a little more special. Lynesha P was someone I was sure I’d see again, somewhere down the line.
“Come visit me in Johannesburg. It’s a one hour flight.”
She was serious. I told her, maybe. But for now, I had a bus to catch.
Somehow, I’d forgotten that even though the bus point was fifteen minutes away, it was more like thirty minutes with bags, and I had to make two trips. I’d been loitering, thinking I had an hour, but I made the bus with barely two minutes to spare. Grizzly was waiting by the cargo hold, with half my bags, anxious to get on.
“What took you so long!” she laughed, waving me on. “We’re leaving like, now.”
The bus was near empty. On the way to Burn literally every inch of spare room had been stuffed with bags, tents, water, boxes, and the energy had been electric. But for the return trip each of us collapsed into our seats, weary beyond measure, the bus empty enough for us all to have rows to ourselves. Still, I sat with Grizzly by the window.
The bus ride was long. Grizzly and I chatted about the little things – the gifts people had given us, the costumes we’d seen, what we were looking forward to when we got home, peppering the conversation with inside jokes. I’d only known her seven days, but it felt like years, like we could talk about anything.
As dusk fell, the sky turned a bright, orange red, stretched across the desert – the kind of sunset you hear about but never see. Both of us, our bodies now truly broken and exhausted, lay back and admired it in silence.
“Look, can you see it?” I said, pointing into the distance.
She stared for a moment, then shrugged.
“The Cobra. They’re burning it tonight at 8.”
She rolled her eyes and punched me. But she understood. Even though the playa was eight hours behind us, even though it no longer existed, we still hadn’t left. Our hearts and minds were still in Tankwa.
Darkness had fallen when we finally rolled into Cape Town. It was eerie, seeing all the brand names up in lights; Cheverolet, Checkers, Deloitte! We’d only been gone a week, but it felt like a year had passed. As we drove by a row of restaurants, the first thing I saw were the sandwich boards, plastered with Weekend Specials, prices up in neon on the windows. Everybody trying to sell something. Everybody trying to buy something. A normal thing, usually. But it didn’t feel so normal anymore.
It was around midnight when we finally got dropped at the McDonald’s in Greenpoint. Grizzly was booked at a hotel for the night, I was expected back at my hostel, but after one sniff we both knew we were going in for burgers and fries before we headed home. We brown bagged our orders. Grizzly had a ride coming, and starving as we were, both of us really just wanted a hot shower and a pillow.
“I’m gonna shoot,” I told her. I opened my arms, and she pulled me in, hugged me tight. It felt sudden, this goodbye, like it had snuck up on us.
“Love you, Grizzly.”
I heard her breath pause, her hand still pressed against my back.
“Love you too.”
Outside on the sidewalk, I sat waiting for my Uber, surrounded by my dust covered bags. Nobody needed to guess I’d just returned from a week in the desert. But it didn’t feel like just a week. As images of Tankwa still flashed through my mind, it felt like I’d been out there for years, like that place had become a part of me. During the final days of Burn, I had been saying to people, “Can you believe we’ll go back to the real world, and only one week will have passed?” Usually barely anything changes in a week, but out there, a week changed our lives forever. As I wolfed my burger down, my face covered in sauce, I spotted four or five people sitting out in the cold on the opposite side of the street. Street beggars were nothing new in Cape Town, and often we gave them things – chocolate, muesli bars – but I didn’t usually see them out this late. I could see only shadows, but it felt like they were watching me, wishing they could afford the burger I was eating.
All I could think was; out there in the desert, there’s a place where it isn’t like this. Maybe it only exists for a week. But it exists.