AfrikaBurn: The Burning Man Festival of Africa

The burning of a San Clan wooden sculpture at the 2012 AfrikaBurn festival. The burning of the San Clan sculpture marks the end of that year's AfrikaBurn. Jolene Bertoldi [CC by 2.0]/Flickr

In late April and early May, a nondescript section of desert in South Africa's Tankwa Karoo National Park becomes the center of the avant garde art world. For nearly a decade, creative types and free spirits have been driving a few hours outside of Cape Town to take part in Africa's version of the famed Burning Man festival.

Known as AfrikaBurn, the annual celebration, which was launched in 2007, is officially a regional Burning Man event. But AfrikaBurn's growth has been impressive, even when measured against its American peer.

In 2007, the celebration, then known as AfrikaBurns, drew about 1,000 people. In 2015, about 10,000 people are expected to make the trek from Cape Town to privately-owned Stonehenge Farm in the middle of the Karoo Desert. The number of attendees has increased every year since the first Burn.

After 2007, the name was tweaked slightly because the organizers thought that AfrikaBurns did not illustrate an association with the Burning Man festival, but instead brought to mind the violent conflicts that were taking place on the continent of Africa at that time.

Art installations at AfrikaBurn in 2014
Art installations at AfrikaBurn in 2014. Jolene Bertoldi [CC by 2.0]/flickr

If you attend AfrikaBurn, you will notice a lot of similarities to Burning Man. A temporary city made up of themed camps (Be Dazzled, Camp M*A*S*H*E*D, LEDHEDz) is set up in the desert. Works of art — some large and impressive, some small, and some downright bizarre — are set up all around the area, and a free spirited, creative atmosphere dominates the proceedings.

Instead of Burning Man's man, the main piece of artwork at AfrikaBurn is called the San Clan. The wood installation is inspired by the petroglyphs of ancient San tribespeople. The San have been living in the deserts of Southwestern Africa for thousands of years, and many still live a subsistence lifestyle on the arid plains to this day. At the end of the event, the San Clan is burned along with many of the other art installations.

A San Clan sculpture at AfrikaBurn in 2013
A San Clan sculpture at AfrikaBurn in 2013. Axxter99 [CC by 3.0]/Wikimedia Commons

Despite growing annually, AfrikaBurn has taken steps to keep from getting too large too fast. The location, in the desert down an unpaved highway, does serve to keep day-trippers from attending. Organizers keep the numbers down even further by selling a limited number of tickets each year.

People who want to attend the 2015 event might be too late. Tickets were released in stages in November and December of last year, the usual time tickets are made available. However, AfrikaBurn does have an official ticket exchange program where people can sell their extra tickets to others who want to attend. Ticket buyers have to join a waiting list and will be given a chance to make a purchase if tickets become available.

The organization that oversees AfrikaBurn is officially a non-profit and many of the people who help with each year's festivities are unpaid volunteers. Because of the size of the event, though, a few of the management and event staff positions are paid.

A child rides a small bicycle during AfrikaBurn in 2011
A child rides a bicycle during AfrikaBurn in 2011. Jolene Bertoldi[CC by 2.0]/flickr

Like Burning Man, AfrikaBurn operates under 10 guiding principles. These include things like leaving no trace behind when you leave, contributing to a community and being self-reliant. AfrikaBurn has added an 11th element to the list: "each one teach one." The goal is to grow the exchange of culture and knowledge along with the size of the event.

For example, you could teach painting or sculpture or blueberry pancake making to one attendee and in turn learn how to walk on stilts or operate a DJs turn table. Putting an emphasis on this kind of exchange is something that sets AfrikaBurn apart.

Each year's AfrikaBurn is given a theme. 2015's theme is "the gift," a utopian idea inspired by a Lewis Hyde line: "...when gifts circulate within a group their commerce leaves a series of interconnected relationships in its wake and a kind of decentralized cohesiveness emerges."

AfrikaBurn is about cultural exchange and communal ideals, but it is also about fun. Impromptu dance parties happen all over the camps each night. There are plenty of chances to commune with nature too: the stark desert landscape is perfect for viewing sunrises and sunsets, and there is little light pollution, so the stars are always in full view.

AfrikaBurn is always held in late April and early May, around South Africa's Worker's Day holiday.