Nevada, USA: America's freakiest festival, Burning Man

We roll into Burning Man in our RV a few days into the event (we figured that eight days in the Nevada desert might have been a bit much for first-timers).

Newbie jitters give way to excitement as we don our costumes, strap lights to our bikes and head out for our first night on the playa – the huge expanse of desert basin where the bulk of the action happens.

The first Burning Man, so-called for the huge effigy that has become its symbol, was held on a San Francisco Beach in 1986 and attended by 35 people.

Today, the annual arts and community festival held at the end of August has blossomed into a huge gathering of more than 70,000 people from around the world, congregating in the Black Rock Desert in the northeast corner of Nevada.

Our first night has it all: the dizzying wonder of getting acquainted with this temporary city in the desert, the scores of truly unbelievable "art cars" (think a giant Rubber Ducky on wheels or a "DiscoFish", with rainbow scales and a mirror ball) lit up and chugging around the playa, and weird and wonderful attractions at every turn.

Like many of the art cars that play music and act as portable dance parties, Robot Heart is a moveable feast – you never know exactly where it's going to be at any given time. Sunrise DJ sets at Robot Heart are legendary, and on our first night, we're lucky enough to spot the car and enjoy an early morning set from Italian DJ Francesca Lombardo.

Our water supplies exhausted (you need to drink five to six litres a day to avoid dehydration) and the temperature rising as fast as the sun, we head back to our campsite for a nap in the RV, then repeat the process for the next three nights.

When we emerge from our RV, usually in the late afternoon, we go for a ride in what remains of the sunshine – this is when you're likely to see the more liberal "Burners" wandering around naked. (The festival has a reputation for being a sexually charged environment, and while it's there if you look for it in the form of "orgy domes" etc, it's generally not in your face.) By the early evening it cools right off, and at night, nudity isn't really an option when it gets as cold as 0C.

One of the core tenets of the proudly non-commercial, anti-establishment festival is the principle of giving, and Burners are encouraged to bring small presents for people they encounter on the playa. The only things you can purchase are ice and unbranded coffee – cocktails at the festival's many bars are free (though donating a bottle of alcohol is encouraged).

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Our idea of gifting lollies is not the wisest – they are wrapped, and this is a huge no-no. MOOP, or matter out of place, is one of Burning Man's biggest taboos. There are no rubbish bins, and you are expected to "leave no trace", collecting every last skerrick of of glitter from the playa before you go.

We're fortunate enough to receive some great gifts though, including a pair of 3D glasses that make all the lights appear as if they are heart-shaped – amazing – and a Polaroid, courtesy of a photographer handing out memories on the playa.

One night we wander into a bona fide movie theatre parked in the middle of the desert.

Another night we stumble across a dome where people are re-enacting scenes from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, swinging from harnesses and duelling with foam bats.

We visit the temple, a shrine to those who have passed away. Walking through the temple in complete silence, reading notes to the dearly departed – people and animals – and looking at their photos is an intense and deeply moving experience.

On the final Saturday evening, we all huddle around the "Man" to watch him burn, then stay out until sunrise one last time, already regretting that we didn't come for the whole eight days. We never get around to checking out the sock-monkey-making tent, or the kundalini rising cosmic spiral dance workshop, or the morning hoedowns held right near our RV.

Going to Burning Man is a massive undertaking that requires loads of planning, an open mind and a willingness to allow yourself to be challenged, physically and emotionally. We drove from LA, from where we hired the RV, to Black Rock City and back – a taxing 2000km drive.

It's also expensive. You might not pay for anything once there, but there's a festival ticket and flights to purchase first, as well as transport, bikes, costumes and food, drink and camping costs.

It's testament to the singular magic of the festival that people leave covered in dust and physically spent but already planning their next Burn. As difficult as the experience is to describe, it's impossible to forget.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

burningman.org

GETTING THERE

Qantas connect to Las Vegas via Los Angeles; see qantas.com.au 

STAYING THERE

Tickets for Burning Man are $US390 ($515) and a vehicle pass is $US50. Tickets usually go on sale in mid-February and sell out in under an hour.There is no paid accommodation in Black Rock City, visitors must provide their own tent or  campervan in which to sleep. RVs usually come with hefty cleaning fees; keeping as much dust out as possible is essential (and extremely difficult!).

Annabel Ross travelled at her own expense

FESTIVALS:  FIVE MORE OF THE BEST

RIO CARNAVAL

In Rio de Janeiro, every February, it is essentially a four-day celebration of the samba where competing samba schools parade through the city, scantily clad (with the exception of a lot of sequins). See rio-carnival.net

LA TOMATINA

Bunol, Spain, on the last Wednesday in August for the biggest food fight you'll ever take part in. BYO tomatoes, old clothes and goggles (juice in the eye stings). See latomatina.info/en

DIA DE LOS MUERTOS

In Mexico, November 1, the Day of the Dead is a bit like a massive communal wake, celebrating those who have passed away with elaborate costumes and culture. See dayofthedead.com

GLASTONBURY

In Glastonbury, England, in late June, this is the biggest and arguably best music festival in the world. The likely rain and mud is all part of the fun. See glastonburyfestivals.co.uk

HARBIN ICE AND SNOW FESTIVAL

Harbin, China, from January 5 to February 25, this is a themed winter festival featuring the world's biggest ice sculptures, lit up in technicolour by night. See icefestivalharbin.com

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