America’s famously freaky and free-spirited festival in the Black Rock Desert is a rite of passage for many, who make the pilgrimmage from all over the world to attend. We send our correspondent Ben Rhodes to see if it lives up to the hype.

Imagine a place where there is no concept of money, only giving. A place with no rules, no limits, and not many clothes. A place where the sun always shines and the smiles always sparkle… Welcome to Black Rock City, aka “the Burning Man festival”!

Question everything

If you have never heard of Burning Man it is the leading alternative festival in the world, with a free-spirit community of 60,000 people descending on Nevada Desert for a week under the scorching August sun. I went in 2011, with a soupcon of British cynicism about whether it would live up to the hype. It was duly blown to pieces.

If you have heard of the festival but never quite made it, perhaps you have the same questions I had:

Q – So no money? Do you have to trade and barter then?

A – Noooooooo. People are just nice and give you stuff, especially cocktails. Really!

Q – Hmm sounds way too hippy for me.

A – Well, it is hippy, but if you don’t want to dreadlock your pubes there’s no pressure, and you can enjoy it much like any UK/European festival, but a billion times better.

Q – No big bands playing at the festival for 7 days? I’d prefer to see Coldplay at Glasto!

A – Stop reading this. Now.

This way to Burning Man… man

So before all the good stuff, the downside – to get there is what can politely be called a logistical nightmare. Firstly we needed to pick up campervans (top tip – book by November the year before to save yourself big bucks) before heading to Reno – aka “Vegas as seen through the eyes of a depressed tramp” – to pick up bikes and stock up on supplies. Sounds straight forward, but shopping for a week for twenty people in three vans meant a whole day in Walmart, working out exactly how much water and nachos you need to survive (we got the nachos spot on, we were 20 litres short on water. Priorities). And then there is the queuing to get into the site itself. Be prepared to queue for a few hours, though I wouldn’t call this a downside per se, as the semi-naked hula girls kept us entertained.

But then we camped up and got on our bikes to look around and wow, oh wow…

Death camp for cuties

The site is set up with huge semi-circle of campervans in a grid format with the other half of the circle a huge open expanse of desert called the playa (the whole site is said to be 8 times the size of Glastonbury, and if you imagine that there must be 10,000 vans, many of which have set up a bar or game to welcome you then you understand why Coldplay will not be missed).

The city feels very different at day and night. The days were spent exploring one of the various camps each with their own bar and things to do. Some choice memories were: the Barbie Death camp, with thousands of mutated dolls marching to a brutal end, to be enjoyed with a glass of rouge with the tinkling of ivories in the background; or the wet’n’wild bar, a hoe down bar with real ale, water pistol babes and bar games; or the naked roller disco stage if you want to let it all swing free. And wherever you go there was always a friendly face offering you cocktails and games to get involved. Some of them were impressively creative (a lifesize version of Angry Birds) others were just fun (100 foot washing up liquid slide) or plain dirty spanking bar). In the spirit of giving and receiving we set up our own Bloody Mary stand where I chewed the cud with a naked Swiss Man (metaphorically, not euphemistically).

Bloody Mary anyone?

If you got tired of partying and want to get more in touch with your spiritual side there were all sorts of events going on, whether it be yoga or taking part in a huge spiritual group orgasm (which was most amusing to watch from the rooftop of the peanut butter and jelly stand). If you really wanted you could let some hippies shower you. If you wanted. Most impressive of all is a visit to the immense wooden Temple, the size of St Paul’s Cathedral, where hundreds of people have expressed their most heartfelt emotions through poetry and images attached to the edifice, which at sunset stages the world’s largest harp being played to poignant effect.

And then night falls and a whole new world begins. The pitch black Nevada sky is offset by neon lights and thumping music as Black Rock City goes chicken oriental. Again, there is something for everyone, from the New Orleans district with voodoo blues and a Mardi Gras party, the towering Temple of Boom soundsystem blaring out dubstep until your ears bleed, or the Thunderdome (shamelessly ripped off from Mad Max 3) where the baying crowd watch hardened baseball bat warriors smash into each other on bungee cords. One of the most fun things to do is ride on the mobile discos out in to the wild desert decorated as submarines, spaceships and everything in between. The complete lack of security or health and safety is a blessed freedom giving you the liberty to do what you want safe in the knowledge that fellow Burners will look out for you.

Party animals

After seven days of hedonism the party has to end, and end it does in style. On the penultimate night – before the main event of Burning Man – there is an appetiser of what is to come when the impressive wooden recreation of 100ft Trojan horse is torched to a cinder by hundreds of Greek archers firing flaming arrows (quite frustrating when you were using this as a landmark to drunkenly find your way home). And finally the next night, like a Guy Fawkes night on steroids dipped in acid, the Man himself goes up in flames. First there is a spectacular fireworks display and tribal dance, before the effigy explodes – we were 100 feet away yet still our eyebrows were singed by the scale of the epic fireball obliteration. The excessive Carbon Monoxide given off reminding me of another minor quibble I had with the festival: just how sustainable it was for thousands of gas guzzling campervans to trek across the states and watch this brazen destruction? Hmmm…

This article has probably touched on about a single percentage point of the experience, but hope it inspires someone out there to go to the effort to get there (if not watch this video!). Whilst it may have moved away from its hippy origins to a more hedonistic experience it still contains enough of the former mixed with the latter to make an unforgettable week, without in any way feeling like a sell out. All I can say is go, just go.

Nearly all the tickets for Burning Man 2012 have sold out, but one final raft of 1,000 will go on sale on August 3rd. Check the relevant section of the website. The official site also has a survival manual they urge all attendees to read, and ABC have some more festival survival tips.

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