“This wheel’s on fire
Rolling down the road
Best notify my next of kin
This wheel shall explode”
(Bob Dylan: This Wheel’s On Fire)
AfrikaBurn, the annual jamboree at Tankwa, in the heart of the Karoo, has been on the back burner since South Africa was shut down by Covid-19 last year, but the memories live on, says Travis Lyle.
For the past decade, Lyle and his cohort, Tim Doyle, have been responsible for all AfrikaBurn communications with backing from a communications committee (“the brains trust”) and a team of volunteers.
Lyle’s involvement began in 2010 when he volunteered his services as a writer, communicator and content wrangler after attending ‘the Burn’ in 2008 and 2009. Four years later, as the event grew and transformed, he was offered a permanent position.
“The snowball grew, the number of people at the main event exploded year on year, and the need for keyboard killers was urgent. There were so many social media conversations – and questions, so very many questions – that soon enough it was clear that someone had to jump in full-time. No single finger in a dyke was going to stem the flow or hold back this flood. Oh, no – this would take all eight fingers and both thumbs, all at once,” he says.
Now, “37,064 emails; 4,452 Facebook posts; 108 newsletters, and three keyboards on which the letters E, A, T, O, S, N, C have been worn through to the extent that there’s no trace of the member of the alphabet that lives there – besides the broken backspaces, shattered spacebars and obliterated return keys,” Lyle has decided it’s time to move on.
As the installations became more ambitious, the technical demands more sophisticated, the philosophical debates more advanced, Lyle’s abilities, resilience and versatility metamorphosed to meet the demands.
“Tickets sales that sold out in 90 seconds flat; meetings that would go on until 2am; passionate discussions and endless bouts of philosophical debate; fierce firestorms on social media that flamed up into full-scale wildfire across multiple channels and went on long past midnight for weeks on end,” were part of the equation. “You’ve got to have multiple browser windows open and you’d damn well better have a solid capacity for manifold retention, and an ability to copy timestamps to identify and locate every single one,” he says.
Lyle’s memories could fill a book: “Explorations of a city of exploding colour, radical and near-fatal mechanical and pyrotechnic experiments, hilarious encounters and quite a few DJ sets on everything from an ironing board to a couch, days that boiled you alive, nights that were bitterly cold, and sunsets. Oh my god, the sunsets…nothing – compares to the endless roll of unbelievable Tankwa sunsets that went on and on beyond your wildest imagining, and were only matched in majesty by the stupefying starlight that followed…”
Intentional community is a core value that drew people to AfrikaBurn; the idea that community doesn’t just happen, it has to be forged and it has to be conductive to individual and communal evolution. An intentional community “committed to inventing the world anew” is the way it is described on the AfrikaBurn website. “We actively pursue mechanisms to address imbalances and overcome barriers to participation, especially in light of past, current and systemic injustice. We welcome and respect the stranger. Anyone can belong”.
Describing the relationships that are forged during the annual event, Lyle says the extreme conditions of the desert are fertile ground for cementing bonds. “Torrential rain, terrifying winds, zero-visibility white-outs, very long shifts and post-event strikes that required every last scrap of enthusiasm… and of course, toppling very, very large burning structures safely – well mostly safely.” In the process friendships are “literally forged in fire and for life.”
The burning of structures and installations that are central to the AfrikaBurn experience is a modern adaptation of an ancient ritual that found in many religious and cultural traditions. AfrikaBurn has shown that the ritual resonates with many people, Lyle says. “Whether or not it crosses the space from the material into the spiritual is for the individual to decide, but I think that one of the primary reasons why so many people have been attracted to AfrikaBurn, because there is a deeper resonance.”
The ceremonies touch on Lyle’s personal beliefs. “I place some faith in the idea that new forms for a new time echo a lot of old forms. We may be largely living in a world where religions and cultures have fallen by the wayside. We are not nearly as dominated by religions as we used to be. But there is a space in which the mystical and the spiritual remain part of us on a deeper level, and that’s why it resonates so much.”
As AfrikaBurn reinvents itself in the wake of Covid-19, the fundamental principles that underpin it persist: radical: inclusion; acts of giving, de-commodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation, immediacy and each one teach one.
Lyle likes to believe that these principles are being paid forward in different communities across the country. “Over the years we have had people write to us and say they have kept the principles alive in their own lives and neighbourhoods and it does make a difference.
Civic responsibility is most pressing in the wake of Covid-19, he says. “Civic responsibility means that everyone involved has to put in some effort to make it happen, because the experience is created by everyone to share with everyone else.” It also means stepping up to the plate if something that should be happening is not happening, according to Lyle. “Even if it is not yours, you should get involved because we are co-creating a space together, so everyone has a responsibility to make sure that it all comes together – like a city.”
After a decade of giving his all to AfrikaBurn, Lyle has decided it’s time to move on. He describes his departure as ‘bitter-sweet’. Other than possibly moving to the UK with his wife when the timing is right, he doesn’t have future plans and is working as a freelance copywriter until the future reveals itself.
“You’re on a road, it stretches ahead of you and it stretches behind you. You’ve been on it your whole life. Sometimes it twists and turns, sometimes it is long and winding, sometimes it is downhill and sometimes it’s uphill. The landscape will unfold and the views will reveal themselves,” he reflects.