Julie Miller joins the biggest party in the US and is won over by its ethos, energy and exhibitionism.
A ripe orange moon is rising behind the Temple of Juno, illuminating its intricate wooden lacework in anticipation of the temple's imminent destruction. Before me, a dreadlocked blonde goddess cloaked in a feather cape extends her wings in ritualistic dance while a naked man twirls a hula hoop around his neck, writhing to the beat of a tom-tom drum.
This is the solemn finale of Burning Man - the hottest, wildest and possibly most mind-boggling festival on the planet. Every August, more than 50,000 free spirits converge on the Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada to celebrate creativity, sustainability and freedom of expression. In the middle of nowhere, on an uninhabitable expanse of alkaline dust known as the playa, a pop-up city of RVs (mobile homes), tents, yurts and geodesic domes appears. Workshops, parties, bars, feasts and community-minded events take place. A week later everyone departs, leaving no trace.
Burning Man defies a pithy description; it is what you want it to be, a "choose-your-own-festival" loosely based on the principles of participation, self-reliance, gifting and art. Although infamous for its sexual proclivity and nudity, the event attracts all types; in the immediate vicinity of our camp are a khaki-wearing couple in their late 60s, four 20-something German astrophysicists, an Australian television crew dressed as lifesavers, and blokey, beer-swilling men wearing tutus.
And then there's us - two wide-eyed Australian women, a little terrified by what we've embarked on. Our Burning Man adventure had begun several months earlier, when my friend, Lee, procured highly coveted tickets in a controversial new ballot. With the event otherwise sold out, we make the commitment to attend, and begin preparations for the most outrageous week of our lives.
First on the agenda is to secure RV accommodation. With conditions on the playa notoriously harsh - swirling dust storms, extreme daytime heat and freezing conditions at night - we want a caravan-trailer roof over our heads, but being a premium week, prices skyrocket about 300 per cent. We book a humble 1970s-style trailer with two double beds, kitchenette, bathroom and airconditioning, for $3500, including delivery to the site. Ridiculously expensive.
Apart from coffee and ice, there is nothing for sale on the playa; no food or beverages and no exchange of cash for services. Everything we require must come with us (see Burning Man Essentials, below). Our hire car - which we will use only to get to and from the site, as much of the Burning Man "city" is pedestrian- and bicycle-only - bulges at the seams, with just enough room to squeeze in two rented bikes.
About 170 kilometres north of Reno, the Black Rock Desert is starkly beautiful, a desolate salt flat fringed by pink-tinged mountains and Paiute Indian reservation land. Even though we arrive a day late, traffic approaching the entrance is heavy, hampered by plumes of dust churned by crawling vehicles. By the time we're at the gate, it's an apocalyptic whiteout, dust clinging to the goggles of a yellow-wigged go-go dancer as she taps on our window and asks for our tickets.
But what would an extreme festival be without initiation? As virgin Burners, our "greeter" asks us to alight from the car and embrace the conditions, lying down to make dust-angels in the powdery sand. We then announce our arrival with a massive gong, accompanied by cheers and hugs from our enthusiastic new best friends.
From that moment on, being dirty becomes a part of life. With frequent dust storms, we are coated in a film of grey. Dressed in micro-minis and bikini tops (accessorised with stylish goggles and bandannas), and having decorated our bicycles with flowers and flashing LED lights (a night-time safety necessity), we make our way through the concentric semi-circle city to explore. As far as the eye can see is an outdoor art gallery, soft-focused in a hazy lavender dusk.
These are no ordinary sculptural offerings; interactive and massive in scale, they loom over the flat expanse, some architectural, others organic representations of this year's theme of "fertility". Many will be burnt to the ground by the end of the week, as fire is considered an essential element of radical self-expression here.
Each and every artwork is bigger, better, more surreal than the next. Centre stage is The Man, the iconic symbol whose ceremonial burning is the week's highlight. For now, he stands atop a three-storey "pantheon", a glowing white effigy surveying his dominion. Then there's the gilt three-lettered Ego Project, constructed from plaster religious icons; nearby is Wall Street, a faux-city cityscape making a not-so-subtle political statement; and Anubis, a 15-metre representation of the Egyptian jackal god. A wooden seed pod will be the first of the structures to burn; the following day, its artist will create a new installation: new life rising from the ashes.
As evening descends over the playa, so Mad Max becomes Blade Runner, the desert aglow with flashing fluorescent lights and plumes of fire being emitted from "mutant vehicles" - trucks, golf carts, anything that can be converted into mobile artworks. These creations appear as floating mushrooms, a fire-breathing dragon, a gothic-style house on wheels and, my favourite, El Pulpo Mecanico - a giant octopus with bulging eyes and waving, flame-throwing tentacles. Many of the art-cars become mobile discos, complete with thumping techno music; just jump on board for a ride to the next party at the next nightclub, featuring world-class DJs whose tables are powered by solar or propane gas.
The music continues all night; for those who want to sleep, earplugs are recommended. Then there are day clubs - heaving throngs of revellers who dance and sweat in the desert heat, being sprayed by water cannons. Yes, many are on drugs, but these moshpits seem less about artificial chemicals and more about serotonin, with a palpable spirit of acceptance and friendship.
Of course, as at any large-scale event, there are idiots. Lee's bicycle is stolen - or should I say, "borrowed without permission"; fortunately, it turns up post-event, along with another 2000 "borrowed" bikes. But, generally, Burners seem a well-behaved bunch, considerate and, with not one scrap of rubbish left lying around, respectful of the "leave no trace" mantra.
Armed with a "what's on" booklet, we spend our days cruising the theme camps, practising yoga, eating free pancake breakfasts and attending mass events such as Critical Tits - a 17-year Burning Man tradition in which thousands of bare-breasted, body-painted women ride bicycles through the playa in celebration of the feminine form. The booklet itself is a constant source of amusement; its outrageous listings include slave auctions, space gnome gatherings and Socially Appropriate Fart Day.
We queue for an hour at a hair-washing tent; the experience is so uplifting, we spend the rest of the afternoon volunteering, up to our elbows in shampoo and running water. With each 20-minute wash and head massage, I am called "an angel", given copious hugs and "gifted" with Burning Man jewellery, precious stones and cold drinks. Considering we've been fed, plied with alcohol and have attended playa parties for free all week, giving back is a pleasure.
On Saturday night, The Man burns, with pyrotechnics, explosions, furious flames and the cheers of 52,000 people creating a truly spectacular event. The final offering, however - torching the Temple of Juno - is a more sombre affair. Throughout the week, thousands have turned the exquisitely carved cedar structure - the creation of Californian artist David Best and a team of 220 volunteers - into a place of worship, decorated with images of departed loved ones and scrawled with testaments of love. For many, watching the temple burn represents purification and the releasing of sorrows.
As the first flames lick at the delicate filigree, the nude hula-hooping man in front of me stops twirling, frantically looking for something on the ground. "I've lost my necklace," he explains. I poke the dust with my foot, spying his silver pendant. He's incredibly grateful, giving me a naked, sweaty hug before handing me a token of his appreciation - a plastic poker chip, decorated with a symbol of The Man.
I lean over to Lee to show her my gift. "Jules," she whispers, "where did he get that from?" I hadn't stopped to think where a naked man might keep his loose change - his coin slot, perhaps?
But there's no time to dwell on that - the fiery steeple is plummeting to earth, strangely silent as if muted by the collective reflections of the gathered crowd. It's a poignant and heart-wrenching moment, and an incredible finale to a thought-provoking week that has, in many ways, restored my faith in humanity.
BURNING MAN ESSENTIALS
Enough water for a week, for drinking and washing. Six litres a person a day minimum.
Non-perishable food, especially if camping.
Small gifts — these could be as simple as water spritzers, food or handmade tokens. The "lifesavers" gave the gift of zinc, liberally spread on noses.
Goggles, bandannas, large hat for sun protection and jacket for evenings as it does get cold.
Buy a cheap bicycle from Walmart on the way to the event or rent one.
Flashing lights for body and bike.
Spare fuel for the generator.
Earplugs and crazy outfits.
Baby wipes, both as a shower substitute and for the Portaloos.
Photo gallery: Burning Man 2012
United Airlines has a fare to Reno for about $1300 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne including taxes. From Sydney, fly to Los Angeles (13hr 30min), then to Reno (90min). Melbourne passengers transit in Sydney. See united.com. Australians must apply for US travel authorisation before departure, at esta.cbp.dhs.gov. From Reno, shuttles and buses are available, though renting a car is recommended to make carrying gear and food easier. See DriveAway Holidays, driveaway.com.au.
Camping or RV accommodation. We hired an RV online from Alberts RV Rental for $3500 a week, delivered to site. See albertsrvrental.com.
Burning Man 2013 is staged from August 26 to September 2. The first 40,000 tickets cost $380, with 4000 tickets available for $190 for those who can prove financial hardship. Pre-register for tickets February 6-10 (required), with sale of tickets on February 13. See burningman.com. First-time Burners should read the survival guide on the website.