‘I was at Burning Man 2023 – here’s what really happened’

angela peacock attends burning man festival during the 2023 storm
'I was Burning Man 2023 - here's what happened'Courtesy tiktok - Hearst Owned

With over 70,000 followers descending onto the Nevada desert every year, Burning Man is one of the world’s biggest (and most bizarre) festivals.

The nine-day counterculture event celebrates alternative music and art; while it claims to eschew commercialism in the ‘mini metropolis’ that is constructed in the Black Rock Desert, tickets can cost as much as $2750 (£2190), making Burning Man a favourite among the rich and Insta-famous hoping to see and be seen.

However, this year’s Burning Man was more of a wash out than a red hot ticket, after freak heavy rain resulted in festival goers being trapped on site, knee-deep in mud and with dwindling supplies: think Fyre Festival 2.0, only without the supermodel endorsements.

One man has been confirmed dead at the festival. While little information has been released by investigating officers, it has been reported that his death was not linked to the extreme weather.

For mental health consultant Angela Peacock, who managed to escape Black Rock after seven hours’ worth of queues, it was a Burning Man she’s not going to forget in a hurry. Here, she shares her story of what really went down in the desert.

It was almost by accident that I found myself attending Burning Man. I’d had no plans to go, but then I met a group of people at a hot spring a few days before the festival. They invited me to join their camp, so on a whim, I said yes. I’m that kind of person that if something cool comes up, I find it really hard to say no. I was in the Reverbia camp, a live music camp which relies on volunteer service, so we had to do around 14 hours labour at Burning Man – greeting guests, cooking, helping on the sound stage – in exchange for our tickets.

I’d never been before, but when I arrived, it already felt like I was in another world. There’s no logos or branding anywhere. People are so kind and thoughtful – when you get to the festival site, greeters tell you ‘welcome home’. It’s a place of total free expression – there’s all kinds of costumes, outfits and then totally naked people, all in one place. You’re in the middle of the desert, so you’re baking hot – there’s often sandstorms and applying sunscreen is a must.

None of us were prepared for the rain, not once did we even check the weather forecast. You’re not preparing for wet weather when you’re heading to the desert. But when it rained, it poured: Black Rock received around three months worth of rainfall in just 24 hours. Everything was caked in thick, clay-like mud. Entire tents were flooded out, the underside of my tent was soaking wet and I ruined eight pairs of shoes that I’d left outside. I stuffed my clothes into plastic bags, hoping for the best. Others had it far worse – one girl had her tent completely flooded and had to sleep in her car. People caught up in uninhabitable campsites were hastily relocated to wherever there was space.

sunset at the burning man festival after torrential rain
The Washington Post - Getty Images

We knew things were serious when the music, which had been playing non-stop throughout the festival, was silenced over fears of electrical damage. The camp director told us it was no longer safe to leave the site and we had to seek shelter, ration our food and water and stop all showers to conserve supplies.

It sounds scary, but one of the 10 principles of Burning Man festival is practicing ‘radical self reliance’. It meant we had to make do with the little we had and pull together. With around 250 people in camp, we held a small meeting where we divided up jobs and shared out what we had with each other. As a service camp, we did have access to food, but as we just didn’t know how long we were going to be stuck out there, we made our portions smaller and relied on soup and stews to stretch out meals.

As I had fruit and yoghurt, going hungry wasn’t the main concern for me: it was the toilets that worried me. The rainwater meant the portable loos filled up quickly, and with no vehicles able to empty or clean them. It got to the point we were told the toilets were for poo only – we otherwise had to pee in bottles and keep them. It was disgusting, but Burning Man asks for revellers to ‘leave no trace’, and there was a real fear that wastewater could overflow in the middle of the desert. Thankfully, things never quite reached that point – but it got close.

I’m ex-military; I was literally deployed in Baghdad, so I knew I was going to be fine. I know others really struggled. It was clear that a lot of the Instagram models were finding being in the elements difficult. There was little phone signal, meaning some people couldn’t let their loved ones know they were alright. There were rumours that went wild on social media – that there was Ebola in the water or we were being fenced in: obviously, none were true, but so few of us could access signal to disprove anything.

Many people tried to leave in the rain, leading to even the bulkiest SUV’s being caught in the thick mud. We were told on Monday the road to leave the site would be open that evening, so at 8.30pm I watched the torching of ‘the man’ figure – the event that marks the end of the festival. I was packed up and ready to go from around 10.35pm on Monday, but as it turns out, everyone else had the same idea. I was sat in an exodus of cars, slowly inching towards the exit. I started to fall asleep at the wheel – I was so nervous I was going crash into the car in front of me, I knew I had to drive off the track and grab an hour’s sleep. It wasn’t until 7.30am on Tuesday morning, around seven hours after I initially tried to leave, that I got out of Burning Man. People are still queueing around four hours to leave even now. Others, who lost their vehicles, were hitchhiking - likely having walked for miles.

festivalgoers look at a rainbow after heavy rain during burning man festival 2023
JULIE JAMMOT - Getty Images

But that didn’t mean the festival was bad – far from it. The bad weather meant for a more tender atmosphere. Before the storm came, people went off and did their own thing. But when all the activities were called off, we sheltered together. We got to know each other and played games to keep our spirits up. There were spontaneous events breaking out: one group dressed up in inflatable bull costumes and did a mock running of the bulls in the mud. Another group organised a naked mud hike. Some people who got stuck in other parts of the desert held dance parties in the middle of nowhere. With all the mud around, the more artistic people made a collection of phallic mud sculptures.

It may not have been the Burning Man people expected, but it hasn’t put me off going next year. The festival allows people to unapologetically be themselves, despite the conditions. It’s a mind-blowing experience, and I was struck by the kindness of strangers. Not even overflowing toilets could put me off. I’m already saving up to buy my ticket for next year.

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