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Yemi and Ladysmith Black Mambazo at MTN Bushfire Festival in Swaziland

Swaziland’s Bushfire Festival: My Top 8 Tips

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.

Bushfire crowdCrowds at Bushfire.

Sunset at the Bushfire festivalSwazi sunsets are the best.

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.

House on FireHouse on Fire, the wonderfully eclectic, funky venue where Bushfire takes place.

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.

Nakhane Toure at BushfireSouth African singer Nakhane Toure.

Ladysmith Black MambazoThe legendary Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Yemi Alade at BushfireNigerian pop sensation Yemi Alade.

Also, the majority of Bushfire’s attendees are black. Which makes sense because, you know, this is Africa.

People at BushfireHaving fun at Bushfire.

Encore at BushfireEncore.

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.

Bushfire 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.

Ruth and Heather at Bushfire
Here I am with my best buddy Ruth, rocking my Salty Dog hoodie. I could have done better. (Photo by Yoav Dagan)

Fun people at Bushfire
These ladies dressed to impress. (Ignore the men — they are photo bombers.)

Blue wig at BushfireBlue wig — love it.

Beautiful hat at BushfireThis hat is everything.

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.

Salif Keita at BushfireMalian star Salif Keita (right) performs on Sunday evening. I loved his music although I was disappointed he only played two songs.

Sipho Hotstix MabuseThe 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.

Bonus tip:

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!

Insider Tips for the Joburg City Festival

I love downtown Joburg. Everyone knows this. I am constantly singing the inner city’s praises and defending it against detractors. I visit the inner city as often as possible and I love discovering fun things to do there.

Lister view

Downtown Jozi at its best, viewed at sunset from the top of the Lister Building on Jeppe Street.

Imagine my excitement when I learned there will be an entire week-long festival devoted to having fun in downtown Jozi, and that I would be involved in helping promote this festival to the world.

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An OppiKoppi Survival Guide

As I told you in my previous post, I survived OppiKoppi 2012. It was challenging at times but totally worth it. For those of you considering a maiden OppiKoppi voyage next year, here are ten tips for a successful experience.

1) Come prepared, but make sure you have enough space in your vehicle for everything you plan to bring.

In the car on the way to OppiKoppi

Can you see Lungi tucked in among all that stuff in the back seat, feet folded under her because there’s no space on the floor? That was me on the way home.

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Oppi! Koppi! I Survived.

Last night I returned from OppiKoppi, South Africa’s largest and most legendary music festival.

“Oppi Koppie” means “on the hill” in Afrikaans.

About 20,000 of us gathered for three days on a dusty farm in rural Limpopo province. We listened to dozens of mostly South African musical acts of multiple genres; most of them were good, and some of them were outstanding. We camped out. We inhaled massive amounts of dust. We peed in prickly thorn bushes. We danced, and we got lost, and we walked, for miles and miles and miles. We did not shower. We made lots of new friends.

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A Fiery Swazi Weekend

Before this past weekend, the last music festival I attended was the legendary HFStival — sometime around the turn of the millennium in a grimy, beer-sodden stadium in southeast Washington D.C. It was oppressively humid and there were more than 70,000 attendees, mostly suburban kids aged 14 to 25. There was moshing. With the exception of my favorite ska/punk band, Goldfinger, I don’t remember who played.

The Bushfire festival is as far from the HFSTival as a music festival can get, but equally awesome. Bushfire is a laid-back affair, held in an otherworldly creative compound in semi-rural Swaziland called House on Fire. The performers are diverse, as is the audience. I saw my share of stoned teenagers and 20-somethings, but the crowd was also filled with young families, 30- and 40-something development workers, and a smattering of retirees. Accents were primarily South African, American, and Swazi. Skin colors were black, white, and everything in between.

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After the Fire

I’ve just returned from a weekend in Swaziland, my second-favorite African country. The main reason for my trip was Bushfire 2012, a huge music and arts festival at Swaziland’s House on Fire. I saw and did a lot of other stuff though — too much for one post.

I’m too tired for even one full-length post at the moment, but I can’t sleep tonight without posting at least a couple of photos from the weekend. Here are three of my favorites.

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