'The greatest party in the world'


WHEN A FRIEND recently showed me a documentary about Burning Man I insisted that hanging out with a bunch of half naked, weekend hippies in tutus and goggles in the middle of nowhere wasn’t for me, writes BARBARA McCARTHY

Curiosity had got the better of me; I didn’t really want to miss out on the best festival in the world just in case it was as good as they said it was.

Though Burning Man is more than just a festival. Each year thousands of artists and enthusiast build what is to be known as Black Rock City on hostile alkaline sands surrounded by austere mountains close to the Oregon Border. Once completed it is home to around 50,000 people and becomes the third largest city in the State for just one week in September. Its closest town is Reno, the poor man’s Las Vegas.

When you arrive at the gates of Burning Man, a group of naked people greets you individually and says “Welcome Home” (bl**dy hippies). Then you go to find a camp.

Burning Man is basically a large circle. In the middle of the circle is the effigy of the wicker man himself, which will be burnt later in the week.

Surrounding him is a vast desert area known as the Playa, which sporadically contains models of spaceships, hearts made of fibreglass, giraffes, large Rubik’s cubes, a wooden temple where people go to remember loved ones they have lost and lots more installations which put to shame any thoughts you may have had regarding your own creativity.

Beyond the Playa are domes, bars, ashrams and meeting points. On the outer circle you get the camps where people park their RVs (recreational vehicles) or erect their tents. The self-contained camps are all given names and are numbered like a clock. So you get to stay at a camp at 6.30. Handy if you get lost. Its circumference is around 10km, and most people get bikes to bring them from one side to the other.

The rest and the most impressive part of the Burning Man is on wheels. Large shoes, rabbits, teddy bears, pirate ships and Victorian houses filled with people drive around playing great music with free abandon.

By day it’s like Mad Max versus Desert Storm. People walk around wearing boots up to their knees and industrial gas masks on their faces. At first I thought it was a little contrived, though I was later to find out that the boots protected your feet from the alkaline soil and the masks are a much-needed accessory when you get smacked unawares by a dust storm and can’t see your hand in front of face. The whole place also looks like a refugee camp because, unlike any other gathering, there is no main stage or large bar area, just a series of tents in different shapes and sizes and, of course, lots of mutant (creatively converted) vehicles, all covered in dust.

By night it becomes the most fantastical place in the world. “It’s something your body has to experience,” one lady told me. “You can’t really describe it in words.” She was right.

Basically the whole place lights up and moves around you. Large ping pong balls dangle above you, fireworks go off to the left and right of you, dinosaurs and strange but beautiful animals come towards you and there is fire all round.

“It’s a paradise for the ADHD,” says John Brent from Virginia. “There are so many spectacular things going on, it’s difficult to give your full attention to just one.”

“It’s a fountain of wonderful expressionism and engineering. People spend thousands of their own cash just to provide each and every person here with a sublime experience,” says a naked mandolin player from Seattle.

“There are no monetary rewards here at Burning Man, no marketing or advertising, it’s just a community of creative people sharing their ingenuity and workmanship,” he says.

I had heard that Burning Man had become more corporate over the years but there is no sign of that. There is no sponsorship of any kind and you don’t see famous global brand names set high above the desert night sky. But though it labels itself as a celebration of counterculture and a gathering of alternative individuals who come here just to “be”, it is hugely popular among heads of global corporations.

Google founders Larry Page and Serge Brin are fans and have often been seen walking around Burning Man covered in body paint and feathers. They have even admitted that they have a preference for hiring “burners”. After they made Eric Schmidt CEO in 2001, Brin said “he was the only candidate who had been to Burning Man”.

According to my naked mandolin player, a truck pulled up one year and the people inside handed out free ice creams. “I knew by the taste that it was Ben and Jerry’s ice cream but they didn’t want to advertise it,” he said.

They too are regular visitors to this curious event. In fact there is a running joke in Silicone Valley that you can’t get software codes in the week leading to Labor Day, which is when the Burning Man festival runs.

It is also popular among the music and movie elite. “Bono has been here before,’ Thomas O’Halloran from the Love Potion camp tells me. “That lends it some credibility. He was just hanging out like everyone else. We also saw Carl Cox enjoying a BBQ with a bunch of punters. There is no VIP area or velvet rope here, which is what makes it so special.”

“Everyone is the same” seems to be the message Burning Man wants to send out. If you can afford it. Though no money is exchanged once you get inside, most people live far from the Black Rock Desert and need petrol and supplies. The ticket costs around €250 and RV hire is around €3,000 for the week. That’s if you get a week off. Most Americans only have about 10 days of holiday a year, so they would want to be pretty serious about Burning Man or high ranking to

afford that particular luxury.

You still get a great mix of people though. I met a duo in their 70s who had been to Burning Man each year since its inception on Baker Beach in San Francisco when founders Larry Harvey and Jerry James built and burnt a wooden man on the summer solstice in 1986. Students and foreigners are more few and far between. No children or animals are allowed, though I did see a dog at a death metal camp on the outer rim of Burning Man wearing a skull and crossbone coat.

I also got a glimpse of the hierarchy among seasoned burners, which is somewhat understandable. If I were an aficionado of any such event, I would probably frown upon new blood myself.

What is refreshing here is that – unlike any Irish event where hundreds of self-important PR people run around with clipboards, security guards tell you where you can and can’t go, licensing laws inform when you can and can’t drink and sponsors decide what brand of cigarette you will be smoking – you can walk into bars and get free booze all night long.

There are no curfews, no one telling you what to do and no contact with the outside world as you can’t get cell phone reception.

You can get divorced at Burning Man, get married, join the mile-high club because it has its own airstrip and plane, worship kites, and receive Oneness blessings from a shaman.

“You can pretty much do whatever you want here,” says Colette Sharkey from Dublin. “It’s just a large playground. I can’t think of anywhere else in the world where you see a London businessman’s race, in which a group of Englishmen with gentlemen’s clocks run across a desert with copies of the Financial Times under their arms.”

All this happens without any great mess. Burning Man visitors have respect for the environment and bring any rubbish they may have created with them when they leave.

Here, if you drop anything on the ground it is considered “Matter Out Of Place” or Moop. When I enquired what people were doing when they were rummaging around the ashes of the burnt effigy, a golden sprayed man simply told me that they were picking up particles of Moop.

I think I may have committed cardinal Burning Man karma Moop when I accidentally put my finger into a big green laser and sat in front of a jaded New Yorker to watch the burning of the man.

This spectacle, which included a pagan ritual followed by a fireworks display and large explosion, could have been mistaken for a hippie Nuremberg Rally, but was without a doubt the most impressive thing I saw all week.

Though I was almost disappointed at the lack of debauchery I had been promised, but I put that down to my Irishness. No one lay on top of rubbish sacks with the skirts hoisted up over the necks at dawn like they would after an average night out in Dublin.

As for the orgy stuff I had heard about, there were camps where you could be smacked by a dominatrix or be denied entry to if you were fully clothed, but that was all just part of the offerings at Burning Man.

The spirit of gifting and receiving is great but very often I wasn’t sure what to do when someone handed me a dog collar or some overcooked whole-wheat pasta. Do I give them a nail scissors or a candlestick?

One girl told me she had twisted her ankle and her lower leg was in a cast of sorts. She said she didn’t have to go to hospital because the people in her camp had everything she needed; including crutches and medication.

I didn’t require such items, but one young man did recite me a poem when I gave him some batteries, while another just handed me some frankincense and sage.

I had to ask what it was for. He said it will heal and make better.

“Does it make all bad things good?” I asked.

“Yes m’am.” I didn’t know it was as simple as that.

When you put all that transcendental stuff aside – which is not actually intrusive by any means – and ignore the Burning Man website which harps on about principles and the importance of community, radical self expression and self reliance, and just marvel what creative people can do with the tabula rasa of an ancient lake bed, you will never be disappointed.

In fact when you stand beside a spacecraft in the middle of the Playa at sunrise listening to the most amazing music you have ever heard in your life, you can just count yourself lucky to be there- at the greatest party in the world.

Hot info about desert weather and flights

THE WEATHER at Burning Man is often violent and unpredictable. By day temperatures can soar to 37 degrees and beyond. By night the temperatures drop to anywhere between 15 and 20 degrees so you need both light and warm clothing.

Also bring a solution containing malt vinegar and water for your feet, as the high alkaline sands can cause discomfort. Many visitors wear large boots. Bring a mask fo dust storms and high winds.

High-factor sun tan lotion is required as are a sunglasses as the desert can be very bright. The heat is very dry and so you will need water at all times.

There is no such thing as a line up at Burning Man. In the past famous DJs and bands have played. These have included Carl Cox, Paul Oakenfold and Daft Punk. You never know who will be playing until you get there.

Burning Man generally favours house music and visitors can expect to see their favourite DJs. Most acts are happy to take time out from busy summer schedules and play Burning Man for little or no fee.

The 2010 theme is Metropolis, which will inspect the daily course of city life and the future prospect of civilization.

Getting there

Barbara flew with Lufthansa German Airlines and US Air via Frankfurt and Dallas to Las Vegas.

Driving times to the Black Rock Desert from Las Vegas can take 10 hours by car or 15 hours by RV.

Visitors can also fly to San Francisco. Travel time is around seven to eight hours by car and 12 hours by RV.

Reno is the closest airport to the Black Rock Desert and travel times from there are around four hours.

Flights with Lufthansa start at around €800, to San Francisco.