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Front Left Speaker: Clubbing’s bourgeoisie on a trip in the desert and the inconvenient truth about a sustainable festival

Crossing the threshold into Afrika Burns in 2013, a band of carnival characters encourage newcomers to abandon the outside world in theatrical flair, ringing in a suspended gong under a sign reading: “you are entering the real world.” The real world? A week of escapism in an inhabitable corner of the Klein Karoo desert, far enough removed from society to become its own self-contained community where revellers indulge their creative fantasies and whims in an effort to leave the problems of the outside world at bay, for a weekend in April.

Your only access to this “real world” is a rocky road, which the mid-size rental, struggles along at a blistering 40km/h through a constant veil of dust as expensive 4×4 pickup trucks zoom past at twice the speed, eager to get to the only destination on that road. The sedan creaks to a halt at the gate, the suspension hardly displaying the same exuberant bounce it had when we first took ownership of the vehicle, as the load, including three people and about 600l of water, proved too much for the little car on those gravel roads. Besides a couple of plastic hubcaps, which were swallowed up by the dust, we arrive in one piece, and enter the “real world”, with a cymbal ringing out across the vast empty landscape.

Afrika Burns is a subsidiary of Burning Man, the world-renowned cultural event that erects a temporary, creative metropolis in the Nevada desert each year, with the climax of the event culminating in the burning of an amorphous effigy, before the “city” evaporates again into thin air. In the last ten years however, the festival has been dominated by a kind of tech-industry bourgeoisie and businessman-turned-temporary-hedonist in a week orchestrated solely for experimenting with all kinds of drugs, especially of the psychotropic variety. Transpose this to an arid desert enclave in the heart of South Africa’s Klein Karoo, and you have Afrika Burns.

While temporary infrastructures erected to be literally burned to the ground for the sake of the amusement for a bunch of white trust fund kids, carries its own socio-political questions in the complex tapestry of South Africa’s history, this is not the place and the time to fuel that fire (pardon the pun), especially with elections looming, but I will say this: it’s a thought that comes abundantly obvious as those expensive 4×4’s, overland trucks and various motorised toys for boys started rolling in and setting up mega-camps with all the luxuries of home to accommodate a five-night stay. (Later editions of Afrika Burns would even offer “glamping” options for the more discerning kind of hedonist, completely unsanctioned by the organisers.)

Our camp, which was three tents and a few mattresses, was erected in a matter of minutes, and we immediately made our way to the cultural hub at the centre of the festival, getting swept up in the carnival atmosphere and the ensuing dust storm of the first night. The first evening (we were in it for the long haul, the whole five days) was a tentative step into the “burner” way of life as we indulged the creative whimsy of the folksy art and the temporary installations that had been erected prior to our arrival.  Mutant vehicles glided past, illuminated in colourful LED lights as if floating on air in the pitch-black natural darkness of the desert. On the outskirts of the camp a brilliant, starry night emerged out of the dusk and the dust as the first sound systems burred and spluttered into life in the inner circle of the camp.

An old double-decker bus created by a local crew called ledhedz decked out in a convertible roof that flipped open to neon psychedelic microchip and DJ booth, quickly became the main attraction, and stayed it for the duration of the festival in fact. Through the night more and more people would be lured to the deep and effervescent sounds of the bus as some of Cape Town’s DJ luminaries like Bruno Morphet provided the playlist for the night, with a selection of Deep/Tech -House and minimal sounds partnering perfectly with the vast extensive landscape stretching out in every direction. Every bleep and pop of a kick seemed to get sucked into the amorphous black hole of the night and the desert, enticing bodies and ears to its sonic  luminous charm.

We staked our position in front of the impressive mobile sound system for the first time, lubricated with only alcohol to stave off the cold night air (in April the desert temperatures drop to the single digits in the Karoo). Our first night would be a relatively calm one as we tried to embrace this new self-sustaining civilisation, but our dough-eyed optimism in our newly discovered utopia would be short-lived, as by the next night it became abundantly clear what this was really all about; a drug festival in the desert for a kind of clubbing bourgeoisie.

The demographic was made up of marketing / advertiser young professionals; trust-fund hippies; and a few of the folks from the ever-popular psy-trance “scene” around the Western Cape (often cross-sectioning with the trust fund hippy). Everybody there came of some kind of means, us included, and none of us were in need of any kind of escape from the drudgery of the everyday; most of us were all seasoned clubbers and by association proficient politoxicologists.

On the second night, the liquid acid came out. A couple of drops around the dying embers of a fire and we were back at the ledhedz bus. As the bass from the bus went deeper and slower, the music started taking on swirling patterns that seemed to melt into the scenery, and everything fell into place. The installations, the mutant vehicles, the LED lights, the carnival atmosphere, and the secluded setting (especially this last part) were all there to indulge and in many cases heighten the psychotropic experience.

And if this was the only narrative they would spin, it would be fine, but the whole Burning Man franchise (and yes it is a franchise), is not marketed like that (and yes it is marketed). The ideology behind the festival series is about creating this self-sustaining desert metropolis where money is irrelevant and we become one with nature (leaving no imprint of our brief existence) in some form of progressive social society, but the reality is quite different.

By the third night in front of the ledhedz bus, the trash started piling up. The philosophy of taking all your trash with you had clearly not survived as Afrika Burns reached its climax and the twenty-something revellers forgot the utopian ideal they arrived with, strewing their plastic bottles, feather boas and cigarette butts wherever they danced that night. A social media feed (yes, you can get facebook in the desert – so much for leaving the fake world behind) from the ledhedz crew had shown the lower deck of the buss absolutely filled to the brim with bags of trash, none of which were their own.

The new social order quickly decayed into something more familiar, friendly acquaintances made on the first couple of nights, came of nothing and the groups that came together stayed together, tightly huddled together to avoid sharing their dwindling narcotic supplies.

The drug experiences continued, and everything was available… for a price that is. It seems that buck stops quite quickly in self-sustaining trading community, because your creative indulgence, free candy or holistic service still won’t buy you what you actually want, and that’s where good ole capitalism will always prevail. Even water, it turned out, wasn’t a commodity intended for trading. But that was ok, because the people at Afrika Burns have the means to provide their own provisions, which subverts the whole ideology of the burning man experience… doesn’t it?

By the fourth day I was over it. Caked in dirt, the drugs done, and all the liquid refreshment warm, I had had my fill and turned in early, purposefully avoiding the burning of the effigy. The allure of LED lights, impromptu folk art and even electronic music had run its course, and although the experience as a whole had left an impression on me, it was a conflicted one that came to an abrupt end with an explosion.

That final night, the camp behind us, the one that housed the volunteers, erupted in flames; the result of drug-addled mind trying to make a piece of toast. Fire!, somebody yelled running past my tent in the middle of the night, and in a sleep-deprived state, I answered, of course, we’re at Afrika Burns. Then I saw the flames, a terrifying blaze lapping up against the small road that separated our camp from the next.  “Yeah that seems about the perfect end to it” I thought calculating the distance and time it would take for the flames to reach the car, our tents and all our belongings. Fortunately this was the right place for a fire to happen if there ever was going to be one, and the organisers managed to quell it before it could do any really harm or damage, and a sense of relief spilled over me as I realised our only way out of there, the car. was still in tact.

Sleep on my rigid little stretcher didn’t come easy that night, not so much for the events that transpired, but just the sheer exhaustion of living a working week in the “real world.”  The morning illuminated the extent of the fire, the scorched earth and stories of helpless festival goers separated from their camp by the flames.

Packing up was even harder that morning than erecting the camp, as we had to shoehorn a pile of trash into the car alongside all those unused supplies. I marvelled at my neighbours as they were suddenly overcome with the giving spirit of the festival, offering free showers and past-expiration date food on the last day in an effort to avoid an overloaded haul over that bumpy, gravel terrain.. Many of the other mega-camp structures followed suit as they finally saw the need to shed their worldly belongings for the sake of lightening their loads and trash for the ride home. With no basic infrastructure it seems that we made more waste than what we would have if we had just stayed home.

We could’ve left these hedonistic adventures for the city, where things like trash disposal, ablutions and sewage is readily available, and left nature intact and undisturbed as it was before. Surely digging a trench for 1000’s of people’s evacuations must do something to the PH levels in the soil. All those disposal plastic water bottles have to go somewhere and it might not be a desert, but a trash heap somewhere else instead, doesn’t make a great solution either. Making 15 000 people drive 100’s of kilometres in fuel-hungry 4×4’s kicking up tons of dust in what is usually untouched terrain, certainly can’t be good for the atmosphere. Chauffeuring 50-odd DJs – some with a helicopter I might add– for about an hour and a half of playtime seems counter-intuitive with what we know about global warming today. Afrika Burns for all its ideologies and efforts is simply unsustainable.

No, I don’t think Afrika Burns is the great white hope of creating a sustainable festival experience, but in all honesty, Afrika Burns and even the bigger Burning Man franchise is the most conscious of it. It’s one of the better festivals in this regard, but a sustainable festival is an elusive pipedream; 1000’s of people temporarily migrating on mass to listen to DJs and artists flown in from all over the world for a brief performance, is just not sustainable.   

Our drive back was solemn and quiet affair, as we bobbed up and down on our rigid suspension, the whole car smelling the trash collected over five days, and three unwashed individuals. Every roadside bin on the way back, even the ones still technically in a nature reserve, was its only little trash heap. At the festival sight volunteers had already started combing through the desert for everything from plastic water bottles to glitter, as the trucks, 4x4s and overland busses started evacuating the site. I vowed this was the first and only time, and I’ve never been to a festival since.

A few days later, in the centre of Cape Town, we see one of the mutant vehicles, a vespa-turned-luminescent-swan leaving a streaking light in its wake. Are we in the real world now?

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