Burning Man is a unique art-induced desert festival held once a year in Nevada.
As I sit here on this comfy couch in an exquisite private hillside haven, the lighthouse of Byron Bay is winking its eye at me across a motionless ocean. The twinkling Milky Way shares it’s magic with occasional shooting stars and I’d like to share my story about the experience I had there a couple of months ago … because it is one I shall always remember.
As a man who has travelled to 32 countries and lived in a handful of them, I have been blessed with some incredible adventures such as: playing field hockey on the Kensington Oval in Barbados; rollerskate-hitch hiking in Hawaii; being forced to the floor on a bus in Vietnam at 4am by a soldier; dancing with the 5 times world salsa champion on stage at Star City Casino in Sydney and sailing around the Great Barrier Reef in a catamaran for a friend’s birthday-week celebration to name a few.
I share these with you not to impress you, but to help provide some perspective on what I call normal. Those who know me are more than aware that when life gives me lemons, I tear them open to find the incredible diamonds of life experience hiding inside.
So to Burning Man…
Set in the state of Nevada, about 7 hours’ drive inland from San Francisco, Burning Man is a week-long festival held around the end of August attracting 50,000 burners annually. To describe it, I’d like to draw on three key aspects – the ethics, the atmosphere and the environment.
Revolving around the concept of radical inclusion, people use their wildest imagination to create art, costumes, camps and activities to share with others. In addition, there is a gift society which means that there is no charge for anything and people bring enough to share with others. Just to clarify here though that this does not mean a barter economy as you are not expected to give something in return other than perhaps your heartfelt gratitude. The ethos reminded me of Rainbow Gatherings, which are hippy-style festivals held in the countryside around the world, where there are no shops, people live off the land for a month and are all fed twice a day for free.
Due to the ethics of the event, people tend to be very open and friendly. They share themselves through amazing costumes, art installations, incredible camps and wonderful entertainment and activities. For those who know the Woodford Folk Festival in Queensland, Australia, (which is a week long summer event overflowing with shows, workshops and music) I felt that the atmosphere and entertainment were similar but perhaps just a little more risqué.
The venue for Burning Man is a dry and desolate sun-cracked lake bed stretching as far as the eye can see bordered by equally barren rolling mountain ranges; it’s the kind of venue Mad Max would feel very at home. Ironically, the sparse life which does exist in the area must think it is witnessing an apocalypse when the 7 day settlement known as Black Rock City springs up. Incidentally, I’ve heard that Black Rock City is the second largest city in Nevada for that one week period each year.
Dust and wind are the two key environmental issues of concern on the ‘playa’ (this is the affectionate name given to the open expanse of the city and means ‘beach’ in Spanish). As people move around by foot or on the ubiquitous bicycles, the lake bed crumbles on the surface transmogrifying into a fine white powder. Coupled with the wind, this dust penetrates everything and when stronger gusts visit, they completely hide the city in a form of temporary invisibility cloak. I have friends who in effect hibernated during a six-hour white-out one year where they couldn’t see two metres in front of them. Fortunately Burning Man 2011 had exquisite weather and hardly any wind. The event takes place towards the end of the American summer so there is a lot of sun. As I live in Brisbane, I am acclimatised to hot and humid weather and have to say that I found the sun comparatively very gentle and the temperatures reasonable; the heat is very dry so as long as you are under shelter, then you can stay cool.
My experience for the first time at Burning Man
With a friend, we hired a campervan for our adventures at Burning Man as well as our travelling afterwards around Yosemite, to Santa Cruz and back up to San Francisco. Both of us are very good travellers and although small, this vehicle was plenty for us. We had a little kitchen at the back with a mini fridge and sink. From here we made most of our meals out on the Playa which initially involved some delicious fresh fruit and veg. I say ‘thanks to my friend’ as I’ve not used dry ice before when camping and she had, so she was in charge of the esky and she ensured we had cold food and drinks for the bulk of our stay in the desert.
Black Rock City, the name of the city the festival creates, was welcoming from the outset. We had a small camp we could slip in between two medium camps and the neighbours were very quick to jump up and greet us. They gave us directions and told us what to expect, some of the do’s and don’ts and made us aware that we were always welcome in the camps.
We jumped on our bikes, and over the following days, these were some of our adventures:
- We were provided over 100 free fruit cocktails, shots and beers from many generous and exciting bars as people invited us into their camps as we wandered around.
- We shook our booties at an outstanding bar and club area called Distrikt and partied the afternoon away with an excellent friend who was over from Australia, Shifty that’s you!
- We were interviewed by a Belgian film crew making a documentary, and they took a video message from us and delivered it to friends a couple of days later and videoed their response.
- We rode a converted speedboat which was a makeshift ambulance at times.
- I met up with someone who I’d only made friends with on facebook and hung out at their crazy camp one afternoon. (Update: it was as a result of that meeting I ended up meeting my life partner, Erin 🙂 xx .)
- We met incredible people such as John, who was a guy in his early 30s who had battled two types of cancer, looked extremely fit and healthy and realised that life was for living so was out doing what he loved.
- We swung on a suspended bed in an amazing camp looking at the stars as we floated.
- And my favourite of all, we cycled out on to the playa at night time into an incredible city of lights and people – temporary, fleeting, yet real, contemporary and happening in that very moment. Of all the experiences, the ride out on to the Playa the first time will be something I always remember – it was breathtaking, unreal, real and surreal all at the same time. The scale of the vision from the dust below my feet, to the stars above and the city before me, coupled with the earthy aroma, the pulse of the music and the warmth enveloping my body is something that I don’t believe any medium can capture.
Although the event for me was about meeting people, new experiences, great conversations, awesome dancing and related adventures, for many, Burning Man is a pilgrimage. As such the event is designed to cater for both types of people. The burning of the Man took place on the penultimate day and was accompanied by about 100 fire dancers, masses of fireworks and an incredible sense of celebration.
The following day was the burning of the temple; this experience reflected the nature of letting go and remembrance. The temple itself was filled with messages written on the walls to people and memories of the past. As we watched this incredible structure burn, there was silence of tens of thousands of at the event for the final day.
In summary, if you have an adventurous nature and would like to experience what life can be like on another planet, then add Burning Man to your bucket list. Whether you choose to do it in a year, or 10 years, just make sure that you do it if you feel enticed and excited about what I’ve described.
The Davinator … back from the future to show us how to party. Keepin’ it surreal since 2412.
Burner forever …