I went to Burning Man Festival in 2014

I arrive at San Francisco airport around midday. Despite an overnight flight from Ireland on which I barely slept, I’m feeling fresh and awake. Must be the excitement – it’s my first time in California.

I clear customs and then head towards the car rental office to collect our vehicle. We’ve booked a Chrysler ‘Town and Country’ minivan to be our home for the next week as we attend Burning Man. I’m a bit apprehensive, having never driven in America before. The car itself is cheap but additional GPS is $100 extra – a luxury I decide not to take. Stupidly, I also decide not to buy a local sim card.

As I drive out of the airport I realize I have no way of navigating. All I have is the address of the house in San Francisco where I need to meet the others. Fortunately, my sense of direction is spectacular as always and after a few hours and multiple stops to ask for directions, I eventually find it.

Bicycle Mission

After introductions and coffee, we all pile into the car and head out to get supplies for Burning Man. The only large Walmart is on the other side of the river in Oakland so we drive off there. We have ordered the majority of our campsite equipment online so all we really need are a few supplies and, of course, bicycles. Now, if you’ve ever been to Burning Man you will know that it has a fair amount of bicycles – pretty much the whole supply of California. We didn’t know this, so all that’s left when we get to the Oakland Walmart are three children’s BMX’s.

What can we do? We need bikes. So we buy them up anyway, grab some torches, batteries, cooking gear and other crap and head back. Naturally, we get completely lost on the way back, drive over the Golden Gate bridge twice, go through some tunnel, end up on an island and eventually get home late that night.

Earthquake!

I wake up and somebody is rocking my bed. Am I drunk? Where am I?

“Stop it”, I protest, groggily.

“Earthquake!” somebody shouts.

It’s dark and the room is moving but I can just make out the figure of a person as they run to stand under a door frame. I want to move but before I can react, it’s over.

“What happened?”, I ask.

“Nevermind”, someone says. “It was just a minor earthquake.”

We go back to sleep.

Road Trip

I wake up and look around. The room has not collapsed.

“I had the weirdest dream.”, I say. “There was an earthquake.”

“Oh no, that really happened.”, a friend replies.

Apparently, nobody else is fazed. Welcome to California.

We pack the car, pile in and head off for our first ever visit to Black Rock City, Nevada

On route, we stop at another Walmart and buy a ridiculous amount of water. For some reason, the girls think we need five liters per person per day. I know there is no possible way we’ll drink even half of it but I don’t bother arguing.  I buy whiskey.

Unfortunately, it means we need to strap the bicycles to the back since the car is now 50% water.

The drive is beautiful and we listen to some ridiculous Jamaican gabba-core and stop for $1 tacos at Del Taco in Reno. On arrival, there is a huge queue of cars – as expected. After a few fun hours chilling out in the car, listening to music and moving a meter per hour, disaster strikes.

It starts to rain.

Desert Driveway

The problem with rain in a hard, parched desert is that the ground soaks it up and turns to thick, solid mud. Driving is impossible. The gate staff walk around between the endless lines of cars and campervans, breaking the news to those waiting in line: we won’t be moving anywhere soon. It’s getting dark and the rain doesn’t look to be letting up, so we put the seats down and settle in for the night.

Morning brings clear skies and sun but our renewed hope is quickly quashed – until the ground dries completely we can’t move. Fortunately, we’re surrounded by a veritable gaggle of party-hungry ‘burners and it doesn’t take long for things to kick off. Behind us, a campervan sets up a sound system and initiates a dancefloor while our neighbor to the left lights up a barbeque and starts cooking some wagyu beef burgers. We dance, drink, smoke and play boomerang until eventually, towards evening, we can finally move.

Once inside we head straight for a friend-of-a-friends campsite. We haven’t actually booked into an official camp but they’ve kindly offered to let us park off in the space behind them. We set up the campsite as best we can and explore our surroundings. Despite it being our first night, nobody is too keen to party. I guess it’s been a long day. After a few drinks in a nearby wooden tower-like structure, we head to bed early.

Day 1 – Drunken Exploring

We choose to spend day one getting associated with our immediate neighborhood. After discovering the bacon stall and getting free breakfast, we find a funky little bar with sofas. We make friends with a funny American guy, have some free mojitos and mess around with an animatronic Santa Claus. Moving on, we discover a make-up stall and proceed to cover ourselves in all kinds of paint and glitter. Typical burning man styles.

The day proceeds with us exploring various camps and bars, getting progressively drunk and eventually dancing the day away in one of the many music camps. In time I find myself gesticulating to techno music in a gay bar wearing nothing but white hotpants and fading makeup.  I watch from my podium inside the pink elephant as a giant set of teacups roll past with half-naked concubines hanging from conveniently-placed windows.

Day 2 – Playa Friends

Time to check out the real Playa. After some coffee and questionable canned breakfast, we get on our child-size BMX bikes and head in to explore the center – towards the very man himself. If you haven’t been to Burning Man, it’s difficult to accurately describe how big it is. Just the surrounding campsite itself is like a medium-size, horse-shoe shaped city, and in the center is a huge open desert the size of about thirty football pitches. Even on a bicycle, it would take an hour to cross. It doesn’t help when there is an endless collection of entertaining structures and artworks along the way.

We end up playing a game of makeshift ten-pin bowling which we have to win in order to use the toilet and then spend a few hours playing piano on a tree made out of mirrors. We take numerous photographs with half-dressed passers-by and climb rickety-looking art pieces that turn out to be exceptionally stable.

The sound of a beat draws us towards Distrikt, a huge dancefloor playing some exceptionally good techno from a bizarre stage setup. As the heat becomes too much we find shelter in a chill area serving free cider and spend the afternoon lounging on pillows as sobriety evades us.

The night is dark and full of color, one dance floor to the next. An octopus shoots fire from its mechanical arms as a neon yacht sails off into the night. Flashing lights, smoke, and explosions come from every direction… a carnival of chaos.

Day 3 – Temples and Castles

We awake in our tents. Somehow we made it back. It’s all a beautiful blur.

The bacon stall is calling but along the way, we get sidetracked and whiskey happens. A passing art car becomes a climbing gym and we get asked to join the naked morning run, but groggily decline. Some new friends have arrived and we join them in their campervan, a significant improvement on our refugee-style campsite. Joints do the rounds and conversation turns to the orgy dome and subtle hints of possible attendance. Someone points out that it would be advisable to go earlier on in the week while everyone is still relatively clean. Silence. Pondering.

Nobody ends up going.

Instead, we cycle over to the main Temple where we wander around inside, quietly reading the many somber notes people have written to those loved and lost. Afterward, we speak of climbing the nearby ‘Embrace’ structure but instead end up getting lost in the desert. A passing pirate ship on wheels materializes like a mirage out of the shimmering heat and guides us back to safety.

As evening descends we stop for drinks at a fancy looking campsite with a red carpet. We are welcomed in through thick, ornate wooden doors onto genuine Persian carpets and offered a seat at a mahogany bar counter.

“What would you like?” a well-dressed barman offers. They only stock the absolute top of the range liquors and everything, of course, is on the house. I take a 12-year old Glenmorangie on the rocks. It’s fabulous.

This is not a mirage.

The walls are decorated with hunting trophies, taxidermy, and original artworks. A chandelier hangs from the ceiling above plush leather sofas and a glass coffee table. I’ve certainly seen worse campsites in my life. We get talking to a couple who tell us they are staying in the camp to which the bar belongs. They paid $2000 each for the pleasure.

Later we cycle back across the Playa to a huge white castle that acts as a music venue. Somebody famous is playing, maybe Diplo or Skrillex, I’m not sure. We dance on scaffolding until the sun starts to rise and then we cycle back into the central area, weaving between artworks, sculptures, stalls and other drunken cyclists.

At a rest stop next to singing spheres of light we make friends with a random stranger who claims to have hitchhiked to the festival alone with nothing but a backpack. He tells tales of a wondrous place that dishes out free mimosas every morning and so we agree to accompany him on his quest.

Presently, we come across a tiny stall sitting smack-bang in the middle of nowhere, offering free hugs. A jovial, portly man in an animal costume emerges and enquires enthusiastically as to which type of hug we would like. Apparently, there is more than one type.

I forget which I chose but I’m confident it was the right one.

Hugged up and happy we continue on towards the rising sun, the promise of champagne and orange juice drawing us along.  Unfortunately, our new friend reveals himself to be less than reliable and takes us on a never-ending goose chase after non-existent mimosas. We eventually abandon the lost wanderer and reconvene back at the campsite, defeated and exhausted. As we flop down to sleep in what little shade our camp affords us we are left wondering if the mimosa stall, or indeed the man himself, ever existed in the first place.

Day 4 – A Sofa, a Sandstorm, and a Robot Heart

The campsite is a mess. Dusty bodies lie sprawled around empty tins of collard greens and beer bottles. The solar-powered lights have long since stopped working. Nobody can remember when they last showered. Hangovers hang on high tensions and short tempers cast long shadows.

Wearily, I make use of the one thing we have an almost endless supply of and boil some water. I have seldom encountered a problem that cannot be significantly improved with coffee and a smoke.

Bodies begin to stir. I’m unsure of the time, or day. Did we sleep through the night? Is the sun setting or rising? The smell of bacon suggests the latter but at Burning Man, one can never be sure.

Bacon is omnipresent.

After a slow gathering of thoughts and suggestions, we decide to abandon the squalor and venture out to discover a new world – presumably one with less dystopian undertones.

Our quest delivers us to none other than Michelle Rodriquez of ‘The Fast and the Furious’ fame (and, presumably, some other movies?) She’s on a Segway.

My friend says ‘hi’.

She says ‘hi’.

I miss the opportunity to make a ‘segue’ joke.

She’s gone.

Sheepishly, we enter the fancy campsite that she disappeared into and try to make ourselves comfortable on some huge, luxurious sofas. People are staring at us. Some of them look suspiciously like Hollywood actors. While nobody specifically asks us to leave we feel decidedly unwelcome. Maybe it’s just in our heads. Maybe not. We leave anyway.

Further down the path, we discover a camp called Sofa King, playing some exceptionally good drum & bass music to an empty dancefloor and the world’s largest sofa. We climb up onto the comfortable sofa and decide this is a vast improvement on Hollywood camp. As the day progresses the weather takes a turn and the wind picks up drastically.

We start heading back towards our home but along the way decide to take refuge in a friendly looking campsite with some beanbags and cocktails. A friend decides she wants to go find a recreational sedative meant for horses that she assures us we will enjoy and disappears into the gathering sandstorm.

That’s the last we ever see of her.

Until later that day when the sandstorm clears.

Sandstorm over and horse sedative unobtainable, we choose to rather go dance the night away at Robot Heart. Oddly enough, I find a man with a food cart gifting hotdogs in the middle of the dancefloor and graciously accept his offer of one while desperately trying to remember when I last ate.

Shortly before dawn, we accept an invitation onto a mutant vehicle that is actually a dragon on wheels heading off into the playa to watch the sunrise. Since we can’t take our bicycles we have no choice but to leave them lying amongst the piles of others at Robot Heart as its thumping beat fades into the distance and gives way to the rhythmic ambient sounds of the art car.

As the sun slowly rises we dance away on the rooftop, the mutant vehicle taking us in a wide loop that connects one end of the horseshoe city to the other. There it stops and lets people off while others come on,  like some bizarre desert ferry. We hop off to look around but there isn’t much in the way of music playing this side and while looking we miss the chance to board the ferry back.

With our bicycles on the other side of the playa, we have no option but to make the long walk back through the desert. Fortunately, the trek affords us some excellent photo opportunities of which I take full advantage.

A few hours later back at Robot Heart, which is now completely deserted, we discover one bicycle is inevitably missing. It’s my favorite one too – the prettiest one, with little pink handlebar tassels and a sparkly green frame. Nevertheless, we grab the remaining one and attempt to give each other lifts back to the campsite.

Day 5 – The Man Burns

We sleep most of the day and then awake towards the evening to prepare for the burning of the man, which is set to happen around midnight. We have hotel reservations in Vegas tomorrow night, meaning I will have to drive throughout the day and can’t really party tonight. On reflection, not the best planning.

However, after five days most of us are fairly ready to get going anyway and decide it would be best to pack up now and be ready to leave as soon as the burn is over  – that way beating any build up of traffic.

We wearily tear down the campsite and pile the car full of dust-covered tents, sleeping bags, and shade cloth. By the time we’re done I’m already exhausted. With the remaining bikes strapped to the back of the car, we embark on the long walk to the man where already a huge crowd has gathered.

We watch the burn, which is impressive but otherwise fairly uneventful, and then make the long walk back to the car and get ready to leave. Fortunately, we are one of the very few cars leaving and have a completely clear road out.

After driving for an hour I pull off on the side of the road to have a nap.

Everyone else is already asleep.

(SCROLL DOWN FOR MORE PICTURES)


 

Coachella Festival

 

I heard some rumours awhile ago that Guns & Roses were reforming with the original line up for Coachella Festival 2016.  Considering all members were adamant this would never happen, I wasn’t too hopeful, but I bought a ticket on a whim anyway – just in case.  Turns out the rumours were true, but since none of my friends had bought a ticket it looked like I was going to Coachella all on my own!  I managed to get a fairly cheap flight to LA by setting a reminder on Skyscanner and waiting for the price to drop.  I also bought a cheap four-person hotel room booking off somebody else who couldn’t go, and then advertised on the forums and found three other solo travellers to join me in the hotel.

I didn’t have a lot of time off work so could only go for a long weekend – leaving Thursday evening and returning Monday night.  Since car hire is so cheap in the US I decided to hire a Ford Mustang and drive down to the festival in style.  13076778_10156926718455220_4754378645578386155_nUnfortunately my flight was delayed and by the time I got to the rental place all the Mustangs were gone, so they let me take a sexy red Dodge Challenger instead!  Bonus!

I met up with Val, one of the other three hotel guests, at the airport.  He’s from Switzerland and is travelling the world for a year on money he saved while doing military service.  We drove down to Palm Springs together, which took a bit longer than planned since the traffic leaving LA was terrible!  Fortunately once we hit the open highway the Dodge saved us some time – that thing has some power!

13083200_10156936496910220_1404436228544111941_nWe arrived that evening, met up with Keith, one of the other guests, checked in, dropped off the car and then went to get our armbands for the festival.  Just before midnight the final guest, Alex, arrived and then we just crashed for the night so we could be up early.

Day 1 – Friday

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We all drove into town in Alex’s car, got some breakfast and I bought a simcard, which turned out to be a waste of money because the entire festival was serviced by free wifi!  We took forever to find parking as Alex was hoping to park in his friends campsite on the festival grounds, but they wouldn’t let us in so we had to park far away and walk.  There weren’t a lot of good acts early on so we just walked around exploring the various stages and artwork installations.  It really is quite an incredible and well designed festival, with amazing, fully structured bars and restuarants – not just the usual food trucks etc.  There were loads of staff and hardly any queues, except for free water which was a bit chaotic due to the hot, desert climate.  Keith went off to do his own thing and me, Val and Alex met up with Alex’s friends and watched Nic Fanciulli on one of the most amazing stages I’ve ever seen!  It was all made up of 3D blocks with flashing lights and screens on every side playing video, and 3D steel cubes13006623_10156929608745220_7423579270170227478_n that hung from the ceiling and moved up and down.  Pretty mind-blowing.

Then we watched Years and Years, Of monsters and Men and M83 on the main stage, and then Jack U on the second stage.  I was pretty drunk by this point, and I vaguely remembering watching Ellie Goulding for a bit, but don’t remember LCD Soundsystem.  I might have just been in the bar by that point, which was excellently positioned because you could see both the main and second stages from it.  Despite the festival having 5 stages, they’re all very close together, so it’s easy to get from one to the other and not miss out on any acts.

Day 2 – Saturday

Today’s the day!  We didn’t go in quite as early as it’s very hot during midday and most of the best acts only start around 5pm, so me and Val made use of the hotel pool and chilled there under the umbrellas for the morning, drinking beer and swimming.  Then we met Alex and got warmed up by singing Guns ‘n Roses very loudly in the car on the way to the festival.  Unfortunately we missed Run the Jewels, but arrived just in time for Bat for Lashes, who I’ve wanted to see for ages.  After that we saw Halsey, who I hadn’t heard of until then and was awesome!

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Then we watched a bit of CHVRCHES and Disclosure, who were both okay but nothing special, and then Ice Cube came on with the other remaining members of NWA.  That’s something I never expected to see in my life!  I also caught a bit of Zedd, which was very cheesy, and A$AP Rocky – equally cheesy.

By some miracle, Guns ‘n Roses actually came on stage on time!  Probably the first time ever.  Axl had fallen a few weeks before and broken his ankle, so he was in a wheelchair which was quite funny and luckily didn’t affect his singing.  I had mostly come to see Slash and Duff, but to see them all on stage together for the first time in 20 years was pretty incredible.  They were still just as good as ever, Slash was amazing, they played all their best songs and it was all round probably one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to.  I took, like, a thousand pictures and pretty much filmed almost every song!

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Day 3 – Sunday

By this point I had seen pretty much everyone I wanted to, so I didn’t rush to get to the festival early.  I bought some eggs and bacon and made breakfast in the hotel, since the room came with a kitchen and figured we might as well make use of it.  The others went off in the car before me, as I was taking my time, and then I just caught the free coach in later and met them there.  13087872_10156936967900220_3165097216644474783_nSoon after meeting them I discovered the Doo-lab, the most awesome secret dancefloor with pumping techno, water canons and insane aerial performers and dancers.  I stayed there for about 2 hours and lost the others because they wanted to go, but I didn’t mind.  I eventually retreated, soaked, to a bar next door selling craft beer.  Everyone is very friendly, so I quickly started chatting to some people and joined up with their crew.  It was two couples, whose names I don’t remember, but we all got very drunk together in the Absolut Vodka bar and took some funny booth photos together, which you can view here on my Instagram.  I’m very clearly the fifth wheel!

The day before I had matched with a girl on Tinder, so I arranged to meet her by the vodka bar.  We chatted and kissed a bit while watching Sia and Major Lazer, and I tried to convince her to come back to our hotel but she wasn’t having it.  I guess a hotel room being shared by four guys is not the most attractive proposition!  By this point I had lost everyone, so I watched Calvin Harris on my own, which was the last act and was followed by a spectacular fireworks display.  Then I called the others and met up with them near the campsite, where we had a few warm beers from the car and some food, before heading off home.

All in all it was a super cool festival, and I would definitely go again.  Quite expensive and a long way to go for just four days, but totally worth it!

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