The legendary festival's rapturous appeal and zeal is lost on Zoe MacFarlane.

I'm back from Burning Man and I'm irked. Expect no gushing commentary about how Burning Man changed my life, or that I miss "home". In fact, if you've attended "the Burn", you may want to turn the page now because my experience of a week in one of the USA's most inhospitable places has me riled up.

There's a desert, then for a week, there's a city . . . Photo / Zoe MacFarlane
There's a desert, then for a week, there's a city . . . Photo / Zoe MacFarlane

This was my first time at Burning Man, an event famous for uniting a free-spirited community with deep reserves of creativity. After five years of "maybes" on attending, I decided to journey deep into the Nevada desert. I love festivals and the experience of camaraderie they bring, and Burning Man has long been applauded for its pioneering and innovative ethos. It's the MacDaddy of events, drawing a crowd of 70,000 international participants. A place where festival organisers travel to pilfer ideas for their own events (not that Burning Man is a festival, how dare you utter the "f" word). So why did it disappoint?

Burning Man runs on 10 key principles. They are spouted forth eagerly and often by Burners, with the goal of ensuring that Burgins (Burning Man virgins), can learn these holy tenets before setting foot on the mythical dust that makes up Black Rock Desert.


New arrivals are lectured that it's about "Gifting", not "Bartering". And that brands and advertising are not welcome due to Decommodification (tell that to Converse). There are rally cries of "Immediacy" and "Participation". In truth: it's like that manager who always told you what to do but then did the complete opposite. This was the Burning Man I experienced.

Radical Inclusion is one of the most popular Burning Man creeds. Hear tales of hugs with random strangers over free booze and grilled cheese, or deep and meaningful conversations at sunrise atop an RV roof.

There's a desert, then for a week, there's a city . . . Photo / Zoe MacFarlane
There's a desert, then for a week, there's a city . . . Photo / Zoe MacFarlane

What many fail to omit is that these "random strangers" are the buddies they made at their camp, mini-neighbourhoods that form based on common interests and hefty camp fees.

The vibes I experienced were of radical exclusion; weak connections at best, or "got any hook-ups" vibes at worst. And don't get me started on the snobby socialites found at sunrise atop the Robot Heart and Mayan Warrior art cars.

Too fabulously put together to have spent more than five minutes at Burning Man, these It girls and hedge-fund managers won't be hugging you, in your dust-covered thrift-store fur.

If you're even marginally interested in the alarming amount of plastic in our oceans you'll quickly observe that the principles of "Leaving No Trace" and "Radical Self Reliance" are conflicting. On site you may be picking up your MOOP ("material out of place" — that's every bit of litter you find, including that false eyelash that fell off Paris Hilton as she pranced to Carl Cox), you sure as hell are leaving a trail in the lead-up to the event.

Blogs and Reddit posts encourage the removal of all packaging at home. That includes all your Amazon Prime boxes that once housed a thousand LED lights, that awkward battery packaging that no one can ever open, and getting all those Wholefoods fruit cups into Tupperware containers. The nearby Reno Walmart looks post-apocalyptic on the shelves, but head to the nearby bins and you'll find them overflowing so much that two adjacent parking spaces are unusable.

Why is everyone over-packing? "Radical Self Reliance" means you're expected to bring everything you're going to need for your eight-plus days on the Playa because you sure as hell can't buy anything there (except ice and coffee — the organisers aren't heathens).

A footloose Converse at Burning Man. Photo / Zoe MacFarlane
A footloose Converse at Burning Man. Photo / Zoe MacFarlane

Checklists and Google sheets exist with the purpose of aiding the Burgin on their pathway to Radical Self Reliance. Sure, some food, sunscreen, socks, and a packet of wet wipes will be helpful, but these sanctimonious lists advise packing items like vitamin chews (for stamina), enough LED lights to rival a Franklin Rd home in Auckland in December, two or three pairs of socks for every day, and so much more. I packed half of what they recommended and used half of what I took, and because I'd come from overseas, it immediately became waste on exit. I'd like to rename these principles: "Leaving No Trace Here", and "Zealous Over-Prepping". You can't succeed in one without unbalancing the other.

I've attended events all over the world and excess waste, cliquish groups, and VIP attendees exist at them all. My gripe is not with the friends who prefer to hang with their crew, or the noble concept of ensuring the event space is left as it was found; it's the hypocrisy from the Burning Man community to revere and sermonise the 10 principles but uphold so few of them. Whereas they may have once reflected the ethos and culture of Burning Man, the shift I experienced has morphed the event into one with a more shallow and self-aggrandising ideology.