Burning Man – A left-field alternative to Britain’s Summer Festivals

Nevada’s Black Rock Desert is a flat, prehistoric lakebed, surrounded by mountain scenery and nothing much else. Daytime temperatures routinely exceed 100 degrees, wind speeds can reach as high as 75mph, desert storms come and go without warning. It might not sound like the ideal location for a festival but for nearly 50,000 people each year, the barren plain of the Black Rock Desert is just that.

Of course, this is no ordinary festival. This is not a corporate showcase of over-hyped bands playing to impressionable teens atop gargantuan, marquee stages, and the chances of being asked to part with an entire bank note in exchange for a pint of watered-down beer are remote. The Burning Man Festival is an entirely participant-driven event, designed to promote community, art, self-expression and extreme self-reliance. It can be as unforgiving as it can be rewarding. Understandably, it’s not for everyone.

For those of you imbued with a slightly more adventurous verve though, for whom radical self-discovery amounts to more than a crafty joint inside a plastic tent on a rainy Sunday in Leeds while some indie-cred muppets guff musical atrocities into the atmosphere; Burning Man Festival might just be the spiritual awakening you’ve been yearning for, that elemental experience that transcends all you’ve come to accept about life. Or it might just be an awkward week spent in a desert with some hippies – it’s like McCartney said; “the love you take, is equal to the love you make”.

Burning Man is an annual experiment in temporary community. For one week in the year (August 16th to September 2nd this year), tens of thousands of like-minded individuals converge on the Black Rock Desert to create Black Rock City, a thriving metropolis built from little more than the embers of artistic expression and vapours of spiritual exploration (and tents and stages and labour). The centre-piece of the event is the ritual Burning of the Man, a colossal structure that looms large over the festival’s very existence, a sacrificial ode to catharsis and spectacle. When it’s all over, the participants depart, leaving no trace of themselves behind.

Unlike the annual festivals you may be accustomed to, music as entertainment doesn’t necessarily function as the crux of the event. While there is music – a tribal rave in the middle of the desert, various stages and tents showcasing myriad musical styles and genres, thousands upon thousands of people turning up to the festival with acoustic guitars, eager to instill the campsites with a sense of melody and noise – the musicians you encounter won’t have quite the same brand equity as those found at traditional music festivals.

What Burning Man may lack in well-known musical acts, it endeavours to compensate for with a wealth of activities, exhibitions and installations; the aforementioned burning of the Man; even a bicycle race across the desert expanse. Burning Man strives to distance itself from the passive entertainment afforded by other festivals by imparting upon its attendees a unique sense of adventure, borne of participation in just about every aspect of the experience.

The adventure doesn’t come cheap though. The cheapest tickets available cost $360 (around £200) and grant access to the week-long event. By the time travel, provisions and preparations are taken into account, Burning Man can be a dauntingly expensive proposition. But there are ways to keep costs down along the way.

The quickest and most effective means of arriving at the festival begins with a plane ride from Heathrow to Reno International Airport in Nevada. Such a ride is never going to come cheap, but scouring the internet for the cheapest available deals should yield airfare to Nevada that doesn’t exceed £350. From there, it’s a 127 mile drive to the desert. Car rental will cost around £120 for the week (plus the price of gasoline) but if ‘jamming econo’ is your adopted mantra, there are alternative travel arrangements that will have a lesser impact on your bank account. If you’re trusting enough of serendipity, you may wish to simply hitch a ride with someone at the airport who is, likewise, Burning Man-bound. Realistically though, there are a number of “Rideshare Bases” a short cab-ride away from the airport. These bases offer the best chance to share a ride with one of the thousands of Burning Man attendees and all that will be expected of you, is a contribution towards gas money.

Burning Man is a radical exercise in self-sufficiency. Accordingly, you’ll be expected to bring with you all that you need to survive the week. There is no commerce to be found within the walls of Black Rock City, so no vendors to sell you anything you didn’t bring enough of. Not even water. While you’re more likely to find a neighbouring soul kind enough to lend you something to drink than you are to perish from dehydration, it goes without saying that you should bring enough water to last you the week. Same goes for food and anything else you bring – wet wipes, sunscreen, toothpaste and tooth brush, toilet paper, deodorants and soap are all essentials. Luckily, all these items can be procured cheaply enough simply by avoiding the named brands.

The Black Rock Desert is said to be a place of volatile extremes. Throughout the day, temperatures typically exceed 70 degrees, but come evening, it’s not at all uncommon for temperatures to approach freezing. Thunderstorms and dust storms materialise with alarming quickness and can transform the desert plain into a gigantic puddle of mud almost as quickly. It is therefore imperative that tents, shade structures and sleeping gear are weather-resistant and suited to the ever-shifting environment of the Nevada desert. Appropriate clothing is also crucial. While there’s nothing wrong with sacrificing quality in the foods, drinks and sanitary products you bring in order to reduce costs, it’s not recommended you do the same when it comes to camping gear. That said, in searching the internet for the cheapest available prices, it shouldn’t be difficult to find what you need for under £150.

Of course, ultimately, Burning Man Festival is not about cheap consumables and the quality of your tent; it’s about participation, the communal effort, self-expression and radical inclusion. While it’s important to come well-prepared, it’s equally important that you bring a sense of self to an even like Burning Man. To neglect to do so would be to miss the point entirely.

Bob Russell

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