Last weekend I attended the MTN Bushfire Festival in Swaziland. It was my second time at the festival (read about my first Bushfire in 2012) and my seventh trip to Swaziland, one of my favorite countries on earth.
But this was my first time doing the full Bushfire experience, i.e. camping out on the festival grounds and staying for the full three days.
I’m not a hardcore camper nor a hardcore partier, and this generally precludes me from enjoying big music festivals. I went to Oppi Koppi, South Africa’s largest music festival, a few years ago and while I’m glad I did it once and survived, I would never go again. There are far too many people, too much dust, too much ridiculous behavior, and — most importantly — too few clean bathrooms (i.e., none) at Oppi Koppi.
Bushfire is different. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a festival and camping is a pain and people are drunk and the whole thing is exhausting and I came home with a stupid cold. But Bushfire is a delightful walk in the park compared to Oppi Koppi.
The Bushfire festival grounds are clean, the bathrooms are well maintained and plentiful, and the people are so much better behaved than at Oppi. Bushfire even has great food and SHOWERS.
Bushfire also has different demographics. Most of the big South African music festivals are, to put it bluntly, so white. Bushfire is a lot more diverse: Its musical acts come from all over Africa and beyond, and the festival draws very big-name stars.
The legendary Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Also, the majority of Bushfire’s attendees are black. Which makes sense because, you know, this is Africa.
As far as Southern African music festivals go, Bushfire is the one I recommend (at least out of the two I’ve been to). If you’re thinking of going next year, here are a few tips.
1) Leave early on Friday, especially if you’re camping.
If you’re driving from Joburg, the Swazi border is technically four hours away and House on Fire (where Bushfire happens) is another hour. This trip always takes longer than five hours though. The sun goes down at 5 p.m. and everyone tends to arrive right at nightfall, creating a massive clusterfuck.
Do yourself a favor and leave first thing on Friday morning. Then take a leisurely drive to Swaziland, set up your camp in the afternoon, and enjoy the music when it starts at 7:00 p.m.
On a related note, make sure you know how to pitch your tent before you go. Practice in the dark, just in case.
2) Cross at a smaller border post.
Oshoek, the main border crossing between South Africa and Swaziland, is notoriously busy, especially on Friday afternoons. Skip that madness and cross at the Sandlane border post instead; it’s about the same distance from Joburg. You will have to deal with some potholed roads and a slightly longer drive once in Swaziland, but it’s totally worth it. Do the same on your way home, too; We decided to risk Oshoek on our way back on Monday morning and still waited in line for an hour.
On a related note, don’t forget your passport.
3) Hire help to carry your stuff.
The parking lot for the main campsite is a five-minute walk from the actual camp. This means you have to carry all your stuff — tent, food, water, clothes, etc. — from the car to the campsite, which is extremely laborious. (Especially if you arrive after dark: See tip #1.)
Hence, you can hire a porter with a wheelbarrow to ferry your things from the car to the campsite. There are many of these porters around but they are hard to pin down during the busy arrival and departure times. (See tip #1.)
The porters are fantastic and they work their asses off. Tip them well.
4) Bring sleep aids.
As I’ve said, Bushfire festival-goers are relatively well behaved. I didn’t see anyone passed out or throwing up or having sex in public. But people still PARTAY. I was amazed at the stamina of the partiers camping around me.
This conversation, which took place just outside my tent at the end of my first sleepless night, says it all:
PERSON 1: Wow, it’s 5:00 a.m…No wait, it’s 6:00 a.m.! Where did the rest of the hours go?
PERSON 2: We drank them.
Don’t expect the noise at the camp to die down. Like at all, ever. You’ll either have to find a way to sleep through it — earplugs, sleeping pills, whatever — or don’t sleep at all. Plan accordingly.
5) Don’t worry about the bathrooms.
Unlike Oppi Koppi, where the bathrooms are the bushes, Bushfire has lots of clean, flushing toilets stocked with toilet paper. There is rarely a long line. So cross that worry off your list.
6) Shower at night.
Bushfire also offers showers, with actual hot water, at the campsite. However, the shower lines are painfully long in the morning and even into the afternoon. The only time to avoid an hour-long shower line is at night.
7) Dress to impress.
For some reason, when packing for the festival I only thought about staying warm. I brought lots of baggy sweatshirts and jeans and sneakers.
Then it turned out not to be cold and I was envious of all the cute outfits I saw other people wearing.
This is a funky festival so dress accordingly. (Bring warm clothes too because it can get chilly.)
8) Stay until Monday.
Ruth and I initially discussed the possibility of driving home on Sunday. I am so glad we didn’t because all the best music happened on Sunday afternoon/evening and the main acts didn’t finish until about 7:30 p.m.
The best act of the whole weekend was, of course, the last: Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse. I was having too much fun to take pictures during Hotstix’s set; Thanks to my new friend Yoav for snapping this one.
Bring your camping chairs into the tent at night. Mine got stolen, or misplaced, presumably by a drunk person who needed a place to sit and didn’t know any better.
This is basically all you need to know to survive Bushfire. I’m a wimp about camping and festivals so if I can do it, anyone can.
Thanks to my dear friend Ruth for sharing her tent and enduring my whining without complaint. And thanks to Petra, Sian, Marcus, Yoav, and all of our other campmates for including us in their lovely group.
Bring your fire!