When I was 10 years old I visited Disneyland. The experience was overwhelming: the outside world was gone, and before me was a new paradigm of possible experiences – and all for me; for me to interact with as I desired. When time came to leave emotions were mixed: the satisfaction that comes from a novel experience was mingled with a sense of sadness, that such a fun experience would be so unobtainable until I could return again someday.

So too was my experience of Burning Man when I first visited with Hana in 2009. Nowhere else in the world had we experienced anything like it, and though satisfaction ran deep, there was a small, sad hole remaining when we left – leaving a lingering desire to return one day.
Our cycle tour of the North and South American continents gave us an opportunity to return to Burning Man this year, so we committed to buying tickets before we left New Zealand. It meant we had to keep the pedals spinning vigorously for the first 2.5 months of the ride (to get over the Canada/US border) and will mean we ride the Great Divide route through the USA during the cooler fall months. But it was a chance we could not resist.
This post skips ahead a little: we made it to Eureka, MT before we stowed our bikes and hired a U-Haul for the drive to Nevada, so a couple of catch up posts (Yellowhead Highway/Icefields Parkway and the start of the GDMBR) will come soon. For now, here’s a photo essay from our 2016 burn.

– arrival –

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We hired a U-Haul in Kalispell, Montana and made a 1500km drive via Spokane and Bend down to the Black Rock Desert, Nevada. On the way we filled the van with food, water, thrift store outfits and various other essentials to make a week in the desert as comfortable as possible.

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After a short sleep in the van just 40 minutes from Gerlach (the last small town before Burning Man), we joined the entry queue at 4.30 am, and finally got into the city grid and our camp at 11am. Driving in through the sunrise was a wonderful way to return to this special place, but the long entry time tested the patience of even the most zen burners.

– camp –

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This year we joined Discordia, a camp comprising an awesome group of mainly Kiwis, Aussies and Brits. These guys have been running their camp for three years and have it dialled in. We paid a small fee to join and donated alcohol and mixers for the bar. In return Discordia provides an awesome group of people (35 in the camp), a tower, shade structure/lounging area/bar, misting fans, shower and some basic infrastructure to make use of (i.e. electricity and cook tent). Being part of the camp is a participatory experience, which is one of the essential components of a good time at Burning Man: Discordia ran parties with an open bar (serving premixed drinks) several times during the week and being part of this camp meant taking turns on the bar, as greeters and generally helping things run well.

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– the playa –

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‘The Playa’ refers to the expansive dry lakebed upon which Burning Man takes place, it also refers to anywhere one might ride or visit outside of the city itself: the playa is many things – a massive outdoor art gallery, a place to dance, a place to socialise, a playground for mutant vehicles. It provides a blank canvas. The off-white tones of the playa seem to almost blend with the sky during the day, and sunlight reflects off it, filling shadows and making virtually anything on it look amazing. Colours come to life and objects have unlimited breathing room in this giant ‘white space’.

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On our first evening biking on the playa we were lucky to meet this big crew of Kiwiburners who brought a giant weta to the playa this year. We arrived just as they lit it for the first time.

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Many of the playa’s art installations are responsive to sound, light, motion, or allow climbing and physical interaction. The individual mushrooms of Shrumen Lumen had pressure sensitive plates that when stood upon caused the mushrooms to change shape.

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The top tier is installed on the city’s temple.

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‘Red is a testament to the power of the wind out here. With over 150 yards of fabric, one can feel, hear, and see its presence through this tower.’
–Michael Taluc, artist.

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As day turns to night on the playa, what was once a seemingly infinite expanse littered with widespread art shrinks as darkness comes. It’s a disorienting place. Distance is hard to judge and fixed points are few. During the week the playa fills with more and more colour as new vehicles and art pieces arrive.

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This art piece, called Helios, requires six participants to grasp overhead handles at the same time. Once achieved, a beam of light is projected into the night sky. This installation was burned, along with many others, at the end of the week.

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The Black Rock Lighthouse Service, by Jonny and Max Poynton.
‘Inspired by the juxtaposition of creating a destination of fun and shelter by something that is meant to warn you of danger. This adult jungle gym aims to become a destination where participants come to seek shelter, play, meetup with friends and navigate the inland sea that is the Playa. At night the Lighthouses will truly come alive with fire, light, and a few other surprises.’

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Apparently the biggest structure ever burned on the playa, Catacomb of the Veils was torched on Friday morning and made a raging blaze as the sun rose. Huge dust devils arose from the heat of the burn dwarfing the thousands of onlookers.

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– the man –

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The theme of Burning Man is different year to year. This year’s theme was Da Vinci’s Workshop. The man itself was supposed to be rotatable by manpower, but unfortunately was not fully operational by the time the Saturday night burn came round. Such is the challenge of ambitious art in a difficult environment. The pavilion area around the man’s base was dedicated to learning and creativity. A series of guild workshops allowed glassblowing, steelwork, handcrafts and painting. You could even volunteer to give a brief lecture about a topic of your choice. On Saturday night the entire creation was burned.

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Every evening Black Rock City’s lamplighters hoist lamps onto posts that mark the three main avenues linking the man with the city grid. Without these, navigation would be almost impossible at night. These, and the man, are the landmarks by which participants orient themselves, by day and night when out on the playa.

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– bicycles –

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Bicycles are the peoples’ vehicle of Burning Man. While mutant vehicles are a huge part of the art, music and partying, almost all people get around by day and night on a bike. The city is a huge area to cover on foot, and with the playa billiard table flat, bikes are far more efficient than walking. They’re fun too – part of the playfulness that Burning Man encourages. For us bikes are business as usual, but for many participants the most they might ride a bike during the year is on the playa.

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– the temple –

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The Temple is almost as much a Burning Man icon as the man itself. The temple is ritualistically burned on the Sunday night, the night after the man burns. The temple represents an altar of sorts, and differs in design every year. 2016, it took a very Eastern influenced form, with Chinese-style arches, lanterns and tiers. It’s customary to place items, images and text within the temple during the week, most commonly to farewell lost family and friends. It’s a solemn place to visit and entering the temple and reading peoples’ messages of love, regret and farewell always brings tears. While the burning of the man is a boisterous celebration, the burning of the temple is carried out in silence and with deep respect.

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– people (just a few) –

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Weddings are very common at Burning Man – we saw at least one celebration daily, always with a maverick and motley crowd of friends and family. What a place for it.

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Micha and Nadia, from Discordia.

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Trey Ratcliff and Mai Watanabe. Trey ran a fun photowalk for a couple of hours on the Wednesday evening.

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Hannah, Discordia. Sunrise on Thursday morning.

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Seamus, Hannah’s partner. He doesn’t normally look like he’s been in a fight; he fell of the back of a couch while searching for us at a crowded dance zone.

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Keri Henare, Discordia.

– dancing on the playa –

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Mayan Warrior is one of the most well known dance music mutant vehicles on the playa. A portable party, at night it drives deep into the playa with top flight DJs on board and plays well into the morning. The fusillade of geometric lasers that it emits in the deep of night creates the illusion of containment and you soon forget you’re in the middle of a dry lakebed in remote Nevada.

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We spent a good part of our Burning Man time dancing at Mayan Warrior and this one, Robot Heart, arguably the most famous of the portable party mutant vehicles on the playa. The sound system on this thing has to be heard to be believed and the line up this year featured Guy Gerber, Rampue and Lee Burridge – among a host of awesome others.

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The scene while these big name DJ’s are playing their early morning sets is like no other party on earth. It’s a scene of extravagance, pleasure and a shared harmony that reminded me of paintings of decadent medieval feasts, or the celebration of the Roman elite. The feast enjoyed here is one of cutting edge dance music, the morning warmth and the satisfaction of being surrounded by people who are in the moment and happy to be there.

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– exodus –

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Burning Man is many things to many different people (over 70,000 people this year), but for me the metaphors and truths from my last visit remain unchanged. It’s a place where people let go of ego, judgement and preconception. Where anonymity allows abandon, where adults can play like children. Boundaries of social status dissolve in the great leveller of the desert; where everyone has to deal with the incessant dust, heat, cold and sandstorms. I see the annual rise and fall of Black Rock City and the burning of the man as a metaphor for the temporary nature of human life. We all grow, have a chance to sparkle and finally burn. Let’s make the most of it.

Thanks to Discordia, Hana, the other Hannah, Seamus, Chris, Brian and Rachel in particular for some great times on the playa and thanks to many others for the smiles and chats in camp and on the playa.

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