Mandy and the World

Find out what I've been up to on my overseas adventure!

Burn Baby, Burn!

on October 16, 2013

After an epic 3-day journey from San Jose, Costa Rica (yep, finally used that plane ticket I accidentally booked back in June!) via Mexico City for a night, then on to Santa Ana in Orange County, California, I was back in the US. There was no time to look for Seth Cohen during my brief stint in the OC however, I had to try and make my way from there to San Francisco in a day. I had looked up buses from LA to San Fran, but hadn’t thoroughly explored getting from Santa Ana to LA, thinking surely there’d be shuttles to LA from there… but no, there were not. The ‘winging it’ days of Central American public transport were over. When I went to the info desk to ask the guy what’s the best way to get to San Fran today, he looked at me like I’d grown an extra head and said, ‘You mean… you don’t have a flight?’… BUT I showed that guy (despite later wishing I did have a flight). I made it to my mates’ G and Kev’s place in San Francisco almost 12 hours later, via taxi, train, an 8-hour bus, the light rail and a bit of a walk. Phew!

G and Kev live in the Mission area in SF which is full of bars, cafes, restaurants and thrift stores. I felt like I was back in Fitzroy! Unfortunately I didn’t have too much time to explore after arriving late on Friday, but did get to hit up the thrift stores and purchase some marvellous last-minute Burning Man attire before Laura, Hugo, Kate and Alex arrived after their several day journey from Vancouver that afternoon. We went out to a packed pub, where I had a harrowing bathroom experience. Being unaware of how violently public loos in the US flush, I was startled in the tiny space and jumped back, which then put me in the line of fire of the automatic hand dryer, which then made me jump again, this time backwards into the door. But I managed to wash my hands without hitting anything, and escaped the closet of terror to a nice cold beer to calm my nerves.

Next morning we loaded up the bikes and began the drive to Black Rock City for the famous Burning Man festival via Reno. G and Kev went a little later, so it was Hugo, Laura and I in Bernadette, Laura’s newly acquired VW campervan, and Alex and Kate in their little VW Golf.

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Burning Man is not like other festivals. It is held in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, where each year for one week, the largest temporary city in the world pops up in an area called ‘the playa’. Black Rock City’s citizens live by 10 principles: Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodofication, Radical self-reliance, Radical self-expression, Communal effort, Civic responsibility, Leaving no trace, Participation and Immediacy. (See more at: You can buy ice in Black Rock City, but that’s about it. Anything else you need you have to bring in yourself – radical self-reliance! The preparation required to go to Burning Man is huge. Needless to say, flying in 2 days prior, I was not really involved in this aspect to any great extent, and was very lucky to be looked after by my campmates. Emails had been flying back and forth over the past weeks/months to keep me in the loop, everything from shelter, food, water and fuel, to bikes, boots and lighting had to be thought about…

Our drive down to Reno was spent collecting many of these essentials: 2.5 gallons of water per person per day (that worked out to about 200 litres for just Hugo, Laura and I for the week!!), 2 gallons of fuel per person for the camp’s generator, communal groceries for meals and snacks for our group of 9 (menus and ingredients had been planned in the preceding weeks), a litre per person of booze and also mixers for the bar night our camp was holding, and bicycles- essential for getting around the expansive playa.

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Prior to this Laura had organised our sleeping gear, cooking equipment, cutlery  and crockery, camping chairs as well as glow sticks and L-wire lighting (so we and our bikes could be seen at night). So much to organise! This left Bernadette and the golf packed to the rafters for the last of the journey to Reno where we spent our final night in ‘the default world’ at the swanky Grand Sierra with air conditioning, double beds and a hot shower.

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We arrived in the line to Black Rock City’s singular entrance at around midday and after ‘pulsing’ our way along gradually (turning off your engine and waiting as sections of the line are moved through at intervals) we arrived at the entrance after 4.

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Hugo and I as ‘Virgin Burners’ had to undergo initiation, which involved rolling around in the dusty playa or making ‘playa angels’ then ringing a big bell while shouting ‘I’m not a virgin anymore!’ From there, people greet you with ‘Welcome home!’

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We arrived at camp around 5pm to set up and decorate our bikes, before heading out to explore the playa for the first time. It is so hard to describe what the place is like, especially seeing it all lit up at night. The sheer size of the playa is incredible.

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Black Rock City is set up like a clock, with the (soon to be burning) Man in the centre, the Temple at 12 o’clock, centre camp at 6 o’clock and the residential streets running in a circular fashion between 2 o’clock and 10 o’clock from A in the centre to L around the outside. Beyond the Temple is called the Deep Playa, a vast expanse filled with all sorts of art installations. I’m going to try and demonstrate a bit of my experience with the assistance of my photos, but everyone has a unique experience in Black Rock City- it is unbelievable how many things there are to see and do each day! The photos and my descriptions can only do so much, the only way to find out what Burning Man is really like is to go and experience it for yourself!

First up, the art… the playa is dotted with hundreds of art installations, and lots of interactive pieces like ‘The Toilet Bowl’ (a bowling alley beside a block of porta-potties), the Moustache Ride (a moustache shaped see-saw), an adult sized jungle gym and ball pit…

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The Magic Forest (a roofless ‘room’ in the deep playa where you lie on the white plush fur floor, listen to chilled tunes and watch the blue sky through white streamers waving in the wind above you)

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To the photo chapel, the stairway to heaven and my fave ‘the lady’ to name but a few…

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There are also the art cars or ‘mutant vehicles’, the only motor vehicles allowed on the playa… the cars sometimes park up beside each other, sync up the sound systems and throw a party mid-playa, or you could just hitch a ride across playa on one, partying at the same time. They are incredible and people must put so much time into creating them! Everything from Charlie the Unicorn at Candy Mountain, to a renegade can of Spam could be found cruising BRC…

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During the day, you could dance away in the sun with a cold drink at one of the many day clubs…

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Or cruise around the streets and see what you stumble across… a free photo booth with props, where they print the shot for you on the spot, a PB&J sandwich station, people giving out frozen choc dipped bananas, snowcones or freshly squeezed juices, a chill-out lounge, a giant trampoline 3 stories above the playa, a mechanical duck (instead of a mechanical bull), a hug deli, where you can choose the type of hug you want (gangster, group, awkward) as well as a range of ‘sides’ all for the bargain price of 2 compliments!

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Laura and I received our ‘playa names’ on a random ramble one day- Laura Pangea, as she brings people together, and me, Opal because I’m colourful (and native to Australia!). And on another I ‘adopted’ several mutant animals (the two-headed bear got dubbed Mandaura and became our mascot)

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If you wanted a cold drink, you just had to ride til someone with a megaphone ushered you of the road into their camp and gave you one. It could be in the exciting form of a ‘Shot-ski’, encouraging teamwork between citizens instead of just bringing in your cup to get filled… Or you could stumble across what seemed to be a mirage- a stall with an eski full of cold beers in the deep playa!

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Even going for a loo stop could result in the most random gifts- laybacks of ice-cold goon, straight from the bag (we’re all class here) or being lucky enough to catch the topless ‘Boobs and Brownies’ girls rolling past on their car doling out fresh brownies to the citizens of BRC.

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Afternoons were often spent recharging at camp…

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And at night, you can get lost in the huge neon playground, which seems a world apart from the playa by day. You might even find yourself in the THUNDERDOME (really!) where people fight each other suspended on rubber harnesses from the roof…

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The highlight of the week was the burn. The namesake of the festival, it’s the biggest event of the week and happens on the Saturday night. We managed to keep our whole group together and make our way to join the masses in the middle of the playa, a huge circle of people surrounding the man. We were entertained by several troupes of fire-twirlers before the fireworks started, and then finally they lit the man.

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Shortly after the base of the UFO upon which the man was standing was lit, and soon the whole structure went up. The blaze was enormous, and even at our distance we could feel the heat. There were even little tornadoes of playa dust spinning out of the heat of the flames! Once the fire had burned down, it’s tradition to run a lap of the man, so in we went. Thankfully we made a meeting spot first, so when we inevitably got separated in the crush, we could find each other again!

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On the Sunday night is the more low key Temple Burn. The temple is a pretty heavy place, it’s where people go to lay tributes to lost loved ones and when the temple is burned, let them go. This year it was a beautiful pyramid, of course all constructed of wood. We decided to stay for the Temple Burn so as to have the whole week’s experience, but in typical BRC style, no-one really knew what time it started! We guessed 8.30, but as we rode out onto the playa, we saw it was already burning.

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We watched it for a few minutes from across the playa, before hightailing it back to camp and jumping in the car to try and get ahead in the line to leave BRC. Unfortunately the line was already enormous, and we didn’t get out of the gates til 2.30am! By 5am, after hours of following the seemingly endless snaking line of red tail lights, we had finally reached Reno again. We pulled up in a hotel parking lot and grabbed a quick 3 hours of shut-eye before continuing along to South Lake Tahoe. We couldn’t check into our hotel til 3pm, so set to work on the mammoth task of cleaning… The playa dust is like talc and gets in EVERYWHERE!

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First up was laundry, about 4 loads of clothes and sheets. Then we had to go through our remaining food supplies, de-dusting everything we wanted to keep with baby wipes and turfing anything looking questionable after a week in the heat! Then it was Bernadette’s turn… we vacuumed her floors and upholstery, shampooed her carpets and took her through the deluxe carwash til she looked like a whole new van! Finally it was our turn… washing off a week’s worth of playa dust was no easy feat! But definitely one of the best showers of my life… We got a good night’s sleep in a real bed and next morning had a refreshing dip in the icy cold waters of Lake Tahoe.

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From there, we hit the road to begin the epic roadtripping adventure. Lock and keys reunited!


Before and after The Man…

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One response to “Burn Baby, Burn!

  1. Fascinating read Mandy! I’ve never really known what burning man was about, thought it was just a bigger festival, but now I’m so keen to go!

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