Bring goggles and a mask for the dust storms, drinking water and don't forget white vinegar for your feet to prevent alkaline burns from the dust bowl that is the Playa. The playa is the name of the salt lake where 50,000 people come for a week, to immerse themselves in art, music, free expression and community. This was an intimidating welcome warning to Burning Man, where we would spend the first week of September.
After spending three days in San Francisco running between shopping departments buying water tanks, tarpaulins, sleeping bags, masking tape to cover the windows of the van, head torches and food, we were on our way. The excitement was building all over the country. Everyone seemed to be going to burning man. The supermarket checkout chics wished us well, as did the workers at the campervan rental, and the guys who sold us our costumes at the salvation army. We drove through the arid landscape of Nevada stopped at a cooperative to buy some bikes and we were on our way.
We could see the salt lake on the horizon as we approached behind a snail trail of cars and vans that were moving slowly through a powdered cloud of dust. We arrived at the gate where a petite Asian woman in black vinyl knee high boots, a red lace g-string with matching bodice and some oversized sunglasses, danced to herself in the golden setting sun. A man approached our van checking for tickets. He opened the door and asked us to get out. "WELCOME HOME!" he greeted and hugged us with genuine warmth and familiarity. "Have you been to burning man before?"
"Oh, virgin burners! Ok, so you need to embrace the dust so hit the ground , roll around and then hit the giant bell and yell I'm a virgin"...
We laughed at the proposition. We may be first timers but we weren't gullible. We politely excused ourselves from the dust roll and continued on to the colourful, overwhelming city of vans in the desert.
Although it is a do-as-you-please festival, it is exquisitely organized. Black Rock City (which is the temporary city that is burning man) has streets and addresses. There is a city newspaper and radio station, police and rangers. There are medical clinics, ambulances that speed across the playa at night, and a hardware-come-bike repair tent. There are bars and cafes and art exhibitions. This is all erected and constructed on a Mars like landscape that is left as desolate as it was found by the end of the week. Nothing but dust and mountains for miles. Once you've paid for your ticket there is no money exchange on the Playa. It is a gifting economy. Food, alcohol, costumes, massage, advice are all given out freely. Along with other commodities that you can imagine.
We joined the sacred space village which as we suspected was inhabited by various energy healers and a few extra-terrestrial/bob marley/jesus christ channelers. The hare krishas were cooking our dinners which was a great relief at the end of a dusty day.
The days were spent riding our bikes on the Playa exploring various art exhibitions, meeting creative characters and being caught in dust storms. The playa was like a dream canvas. A mirror man walking at sunset, a naked umbrella dancer, stilt walkers, a percussionist riding his bike and playing drums that were attached miraculously from his handle bars. Imagination is the limit to the visual feast that is burning man.
Riding around the streets of burning man is always an adventure. We come across a sunset cabaret. Someone has transported an antique upright piano into the desert and there are nightly sing along cabarets with this black man whose voice is rich and stevie wonder like. In the morning one camp is making french toast for everybody. He tells us he made 1500 slices of french toast which he gifted to anyone riding by. In the middle of the playa is a man sitting at his desk offering ADVICE.
Night time at burning man is a buzzing, exploding light show that fills the desert sky with colour and fire. Everyone lights themselves and their bikes up so there are hundreds of whizzing bikes and people moving through the darkness. The famous mutant vehicles which are mobile artworks-come-bars move slowly through the night playing different kinds music with bar stools on the outside that you can run and hop onto as they move. The mutant vehicles range from small two seater mini bars to life sized giant pirate ships that have triple decks and carry hundreds of people on a mobile party through the desert.
The festival culminates with the burning of a towering structure of a wooden man that can be seen from anywhere in the desert. Thousands of people gather around this structure surrounded by the many art vehicles that are parked with people on their balconies hankering for a good view. Different music plays from the art vehicles in different directions, a dinosaur vehicle blows fire out of its giant head which heats up the crowd. It is sensory overload. The Man gets lit up...The crowd roars. The music gets louder. It is a spectacle. Coming from Australia there are immediate associations to the Black Saturday bushfires. The immensity of this fire terrifies me. I imagine the fear of such a fire surrounded by trees and people and houses. As I find myself moved from the ecstasy and creative hedonsim of burning man to the grief of another time and place, a dust storm comes blowing over the desert. It is hard to breath, we put the masks on and I hold my googles tightly on my face but they seem to be collecting dust rather than keeping it out. We try to make a quick ride back to the van along with a thousand other people. Burning Man is a place of extremes. Extreme heat, extreme dust, extreme creativity, extreme imagination, extreme freedom. It won't be my last time.