Burn Baby Burn: First-Timer's Take on Burning Man

September 2015

One of the hardest things about attending Burning Man is trying to explain exactly what Burning Man is to somebody who has never heard of it. The second hardest thing is dispelling the myths held by someone who has heard of the Burning Man Festival but has never been. These virgin burners will give it a go.

Dreams come alive at Burning Man

Take 70,000 people, a desert, stunning artwork, a collective happy smiling attitude, crazy sense of dress, the occasional dust storm, a few hundred portaloos, oodles of generosity, mad max style vehicles, live music, insane lighting, more bikes than you can shake a stick at, the odd bit of nudity, and ask everybody to leave no trace. Cook for eight days and nights at high heat and WOW you have Burning Man. See that was easy.

What started life as a beach party back in 1986 has morphed into this incredible event held in the Black Rock Desert, Nevada. This temporary community has the name Black Rock City. Under your feet is the ‘playa’, Spanish for beach. Apparently, what goes on at the playa stays on the playa. And when the wind blows, the playa dust gets everywhere, and we mean everywhere.

And then it blows

One of the biggest myths about Burning Man is that it’s a bartering culture, ‘our survey said eh-uhh’. The only things that you can buy for the whole eight days are coffee/tea and ice. Everything else is gifted, there is no bartering whatsoever. For example, you are riding around on your neon-lit bike at 1.00am, and you see a line of people. You get closer and suddenly realise that they are all queueing for grilled cheese sandwiches. Yep, a dozen people are slaving away in a tent banging out grilled cheese sandwiches, no money needed just a huge thank you. There are cocktail bars where the only currency is a smile. The snow cone camp where they spin a wheel, and you have to act out whatever comes up on the wheel. There’s the niteclub with no entrance fee and free drinks as long as supplies last.

The layout of the playa is a clock face. The camps are all set up between 2 running clockwise through to 10. Each of the main avenues is at 30-minute intervals, and then rippling out from the centre the roads are lettered, A, B, C etc.

Once you have parked up the only vehicles allowed to move around the playa are the crazy-ass mutant vehicles that come in all shapes and sizes as well as push bikes. Given the size of this fantastic city, you need a bike to get around. Riding from one side to the other will take at least 30 minutes and only if you don’t stop to admire the artwork or get pulled into some random camp.

When you rock up to the playa, you are handed a booklet. A couple of hundred pages thick it lists all things happening daily as well as one-off events. A great Bible for those like us wanting to explore as much as we could. There is everything you could possibly imagine; mediation classes, learn how to spank, tie-dying t-shirts, multiple yoga sessions, massages with car buffers, cheese & wine tasting, human car wash, exploring your sexuality, art tours, live music, naked poetry reading, tea & porn, not to mention the themed camps and bars.

And there’s fire. Lots of it. Friday evening marks the start of the burn with several art pieces being burned. Then Saturday night the Man burns and Sunday night, the Temple. There are also several camps with a fire theme.

At night the playa comes alive in a sea of colour. All the artwork and mutant vehicles are brightly lit as are the Burners and their bikes. If you think it’s crazy during the day, the night brings a whole new meaning to ‘crazy’.

It is every Burner’s (Burning Man attendees are called Burners) responsibility to leave the desert in the same condition it was in before 70,000 people rocked up. You are required to take out everything you brought in. There’s no rubbish collection or recycling. The only thing you don’t have to take away is what you left in the portaloo. Yuck. Teams of volunteers comb through the playa for several days post the event including the burn site, restoring the desert and its unique environment. The organisers rank each theme camp giving a rating based on their clean up skills. Get a bad grade, and you are not invited back the following year. 

Inspired by her old boss at Vodafone, JJ, Julie was convinced that Burning Man had to be one of the pillars of our travel adventures. Tickets were bought the second they went on sale in January. Bingo. 

In the days before, we visited thrift stores in San Francisco looking for killer outfits. We were fortunate to spend some time with friends Paul & Rick, who were selling their Oakland home and going through a downsizing exercise. So we came away with a bike, various hats, shoes, and old blankets that would come in very handy to keep the dust at bay. The generous Burning Man vibe had already started.

Dr Who anybody?

Our choice of route to the playa turned out to be a stroke of luck too. We came down from Northern California into Nevada avoiding Reno. Turns out there was an accident on the road from Reno to Black Rock, and the 110 miles (177 km) journey was taking over six hours. Our second stroke of luck was in the small town of Cedarville, where we bumped into some veteran burners from Canada. They kindly donated some spare goggles, which would come in very handy when the wind picked up. They also gave great advice on where to park our RV.

Now there’s an easy way and hard way to do Burning Man. The hard way is in a tent, the easy way a 23 foot RV, complete with shower, toilet, and comfy bed. Now, of course, we took the easy way, we are not that stupid. The only snag being that the RV rental company wanted to charge an extra US$2,500 on top of what we would already be paying just because we were headed to Burning Man. Well, they can only charge the premium if you tell them where you are headed and if you don’t return the RV back in mint condition.

We arrived on the playa late Sunday afternoon. The process for picking up tickets and getting on-site was incredibly smooth. At the entrance, there are teams of greeters giving all arrivals a big hug. And for virgin burners like us, you are invited to roll in the dust to announce you are home.

Dust roll done, we made our way through the middle of dust storm and could hardly see the front of the RV. This made the tension in our home on wheels a little heated. After much debate, the RV came to a grinding halt, and we retreated to the comfort of the plush living area. After catching our breath, we needed to get the van ready for the assault of the next 8 days. The inside ended up looking like a scene from Dexter, plastic sheeting everywhere. Then, we taped up the windows and covered the engine and the front of the RV in blankets. The following morning we woke to clear blue skies and a whole new world.

Parked behind us in a massive RV were Larry & Louise from Hawaii. In their mid-seventies, this was their second burn. In front of us, a bar had appeared. Beer 30 was set up by a group of folk from Stormbreaker brewery in Portland. They had 180 gallons (670 litres) of some delicious craft beer to give away. This was to become our second home for the next 8 days.

Now, the sensible approach would have to been to ease in gently, nahhhh. We started by taking a yoga class at 8.00am at the Paradise Hotel theme camp. Our instructor, Henry, runs his own studio in Hollywood.

Henry the yoga instructor, he was a 'hot mess' come the end of the week, his words not mine.

On the way back to the RV for breakfast, we stopped at a second-hand boutique to see what other clothing we could pick up, all gifted of course. After brekkie, we jumped on our bikes and headed off to explore. Taking a wrong turn, we ended up at Sharkey’s bar. Sharkey is a veteran burner and had a great little setup. Spending upwards of US$1,500 per day the camp created a different daily cocktail and yep you guessed it, all gifted. Sharkey himself was a gem to chat to.

We left Sharkey’s and headed to the Bootie Hunters Camp to claim our free Spanx, including a free cocktail and a stamp on the butt.

Next stop was the VW Camp, heaven for Kombi and Beetle lovers. Then, we found the Petting Zoo for more cocktails, and this was only 1.30pm on the first day. In the evening we ventured into Planet Earth for a 2-hour tribute to Depeche Mode, wobbled around on our bikes, grabbed a grilled cheese sandwich and crashed around 1.30am.

No surprise the following day was a little slower; we spent most of the day at the bar next door. I volunteered to cook up some bacon on the bar’s barbie. Combine several beers, midday desert heat, the aroma of bacon, and I was a write-off for the rest of the afternoon. In the evening, we went in search of a cheese and wine tasting, found the wrong place, but it turned out to be the right place. Instead of our original destination, we found the International Wine bar. A great camp staffed by wonderful people gifting wine from around the world. We just happen to rock up when they had the Kiwi grape juice open. We had a blast.

So much so that we went back the following evening and were introduced to a young man who was born 10 miles away from where Julie was. Peter has become a wonderful friend and a very generous host. That evening the wine and conversation flowed, and we might have drunk a little more that we should have. One of us was so tipsy that she fell off her bike. Now in fairness, she did manage to run into an unlit bike that was lying on the ground. Thankfully the wine helped break her fall, and Julie bounced up giggling. The ride home took slightly longer owing to Julie wobbling from one side of the road to the other. She would say that she was trying to avoid other abandoned bikes, we know better.

And so this is how our days would roll by. Yoga, breakfast in the RV, spend the morning exploring, the afternoon in Beer 30, get changed and head out for some evening fun. Most afternoons our favourite mutant vehicle, El Pulpo Mecanico, a 26-foot fire octopus that spat fire from its tentacles would park up at the bar next door while the owner stopped for much-needed refreshment.

We spent one morning in the deep playa taking a gander at all the artwork. The artists had clearly put many hours of work into creating the most amazing pieces, some due to be burnt at the end of the week. We wandered around the carnival of mirrors at the base of the Man.

We visited the temple and left with tears rolling down our cheeks. The temple is a large curved wooden structure where people graffiti messages. The notes take many forms, lost loved one, be they a person, or a pet. There were messages of reconciliation, messages from people who had been abused forgiving their abusers. Messages of anger from people who had been abandoned by loved ones. So many people sat in tears as they tried to write their own words of remembrance. At the front of the temple, we came across a guy down on one knee proposing to his girlfriend. The round of applause and hugs that greeted her ‘YES’ lifted everybody’s spirits.

One afternoon we sat in the centre camp cafe and watched the Sparkle Ponies (young ladies, immaculately dressed with not a speck of dust and not a hair out of place) trot by. We listened to a naked Australian poet doing a recital. Julie had her nails done, and her tarot cards read. Spooky that the first card turned over was the travel card. Also, we ticked off one of Julie’s bucket list items by participating in a Thriller flash mob. Then spent the evening playing with fire and drinking wine.

Thriller flash mob

We spent one very windy afternoon hunkered down in Camp Reverbia listening to live music. The huge tent structure swaying in the wind adding to the laid back feel. Our favourite was Funked Up, a combination of stand up comedy, reggae, rap, soul and funk. 

Chilling out at Camp Reverbia

Later that night we visited Planet Earth for two hours of The Smiths versus The Cure, followed by four hours of New Order versus Depeche Mode. We met two great guys from Manchester, one a huge Depeche Mode fan. We met a guy who works on a salmon farm in Alaska, a community of just 17. We met a couple from Cornwall, she was heavily pregnant, but that didn’t stop them from dancing to The Cure non-stop.

Saturday evening, we joined tens of thousands sat around the Man in a vast circle. Fireworks music and fire dancers raged on forever before the Man burst into flames. A huge roar went out when the top half of this 60-foot structure collapsed. The start of an evening of celebration that lasted well into Sunday.

The Temple burn took place on Sunday evening, and again we sat in a circle, this time with a slightly smaller crowd, and in total silence. When the top part collapsed, the crowd rose, moved closer to the actual burn and then started to circle the site. Very moving and very emotional.

So that was Burning Man. The whole week was quite surreal in many ways. It was a fantastic experience; we were blown away by the generosity of everybody. We met so many beautiful people. We tried to say thanks by buying ice for the wine bar and Beer 30. We gave sun God necklaces we had purchased in Quito to people who had been generous to us. We handed out ice pops to passing burners. We took away more than our fair share of playa dust. But was it worth it?  Hell yes. We like to think that we left the playa better people, more understanding and inspired to do what we can to make the world a better place. Would we go again? You bet, we are already planning for our next burn. Who’s coming?

For more Burning Man photos click here