Opinion

Playing with fire: Inside the Burning Man

The Temple Burn at the Burning Man Festival in Nevada's Black Rock Desert.
The Temple Burn at the Burning Man Festival in Nevada's Black Rock Desert. Chris Owen

CERTAIN things need to be experienced to be really understood: Burning Man is one of those things.

To those who have never attended this unique festival, it may appear to be a chaotic, dusty, anything-goes week in the Nevada desert. But don't be fooled.

The annual event draws people from throughout the world in a beautiful - yet unforgiving - environment to celebrate radical self-expression.

This was my fifth pilgrimage to the mecca that is Burning Man. I was originally coerced into going in 2007, by a group of Americans I met while travelling in Europe.

They had been the year before and, as they enthusiastically shared their experiences, I realised it was something I couldn't miss.

When I joined them in August that year, I wasn't disappointed.

To arrive at Burning Man is to have the sensation of having landed on another planet. The festival takes place in the middle of the Black Rock Desert in Nevada - a dry lakebed location known as the "playa".

For one whole week, out of the vast, chalky terrain rises an entire tent city of about 70,000 burners who will pass through its gates.

The miniature metropolis is populated by a mixture of theme camps, art installations and city services such as a radio station and post office.

At the centre of it all, keeping watch over the thousands of revellers is a towering wooden figure, known as The Man, which is burned on the penultimate night of the event.

During the week, 10 principles guide the behaviour of the Black Rock citizens - things like radical inclusion and radical self-reliance.

One strict edict is that there are no spectators. Everyone must participate because each individual creates Burning Man.

The ways to participate are as unlimited as one's imagination. For some it may mean cooking dinner for the folk camped next door, or throwing a party, or hosting a workshop.

The Temple Burn at the Burning Man Festival in Nevada's Black Rock Desert.
The Temple Burn at the Burning Man Festival in Nevada's Black Rock Desert. Chris Owen

Some people contribute by creating "art cars" - vehicles transformed into parade floats in which people glide across the playa.

This year I was part of a camp called Draft Punk, which contributed by offering burners free beer each afternoon at our makeshift bar.

The community of Burning Man is run as a gift economy - and that's not to be confused with bartering. The idea is just to give freely to others with no expectation of reciprocation.

With the exception of ice and a coffee stand, there are no concessions and nothing is for sale.

When you arrive, you are given a book that lists times and places of anything you can imagine - from cocktail parties to spiritual sessions.

The 160-page read is just a glimpse at what's on offer though. Take a short walk across the playa and you will be called over to join in numerous events.

In the interests of self-expression, the festival is a visual feast of unique and creative wardrobes. Burners are encouraged to wear what they wouldn't dare wear in the real world - or don't wear anything at all.

Night is when Burning Man really comes alive though; when the city becomes a neon wonderland amid the inky blackness of the desert night. People and their vehicles are adorned with brightly-lit things as they move about to the drumming beat of rave music echoing from numerous dance parties.

The festival is not without its challenges, however, with scorching temperatures, dust storms and bouts of dehydration.

But those things always pale in comparison to the experience you will carry with you for the rest of your life. It's special to be a burner.

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