The cracked, grey playa of America's Black Rock Desert stretches for kilometres in every direction. The dead, ancient lake bed is a stark place; scorching hot during the day and cold at night. But for a week each year, this flat, barren landscape is filled with exuberance and alive with humanity. All manner of vehicles descend on this part of northwestern Nevada in a riot of colour and noise to celebrate life in a 'temporary community'. This is Burning Man, a festival known for radical self-expression and radical self-reliance. Burning Man, which this year takes place in the first week of next month, is designed to be a participatory gathering. Unlike other festivals, everyone is encouraged to express their creativity. For example, Red, a free-form musician from Palo Alto, California, exhibited her talents by playing her tuba while riding a unicycle up and down the playa. Other Black Rock participants celebrate their individuality with wild performance art, walking poetry, song, drumming, theatre, dance, painting, sculpting and even fire eating. Alongside dedicated artists, an army of carpenters, mechanics and metalsmiths team up to haul and build huge art installations out in the desert. Residents of this temporary city put tremendous effort into designing, transporting and building their artworks and theme camps on the playa. This year's Burning Man art theme is 'Metropolis'. The event takes place near the small town of Gerlach, just off Highway 447. Despite being in the middle of nowhere, thousands of pilgrims return to the desert for Burning Man year after year. The central anchor for the event, a 15-metre-tall wooden man, is erected before theme camps and art installations begin to jut out in ever-widening concentric circles around it. At the end of the week-long festivities, the man is set alight. Burning Man began in 1986 as a small, improvised event of only 20 people at Baker Beach in San Francisco. Co-founder Larry Harvey designed the first man, then burned it down in honour of the summer solstice. It has since evolved into a major annual gathering and is expected to attract 40,000 participants this year. The non-commercial festival brings together a uniquely unpredictable combination of art, energy, mardi gras, fashion show, Halloween, road warrior, light show, grunge, nudity and retro clothing in a boundless, surreal landscape. The mix of imagination, crazy fun and physical challenge is luring more people every year. 'At Burning Man, everyone's personal space is relaxed, you can walk right up to anyone, at any time and it's OK,' says Richard Woodsen from Phoenix, Arizona. Theme camps are fashioned from the boundlessness of the human imagination and include lively raves, broadcasting radio stations, nude mass singalongs, mega-jungle gyms, swimming pools, living sculpture and much more. If you can dream it, someone has probably built it. Virtually every camp invites outsiders to enter and enjoy the show. The concept of barter is encouraged. (Hint: a few tins of Altoids mints can go a long way.) The US Bureau of Land Management administers this arid land and the Burning Man organisation works hard, hand in hand with the bureau, to emphasise the creed of 'leave no trace'. All evidence of humanity must vanish after Burning Man has wrapped up. All rubbish, ashes, cigarette butts, every nail, discarded food container, water bottle - everything - must be trucked out by the participants. Life on the desert playa is difficult and forbidding, even for a short period of time, discouraging small children and animals. The temperatures often reach 40 degrees Celsius and the desert is brutally dry, sapping all fluids and requiring constant vigilance against dehydration. Everyone must bring along all their own food, water and shelter. After the entrance fee of US$300, Burning Man is a totally non-commercial event. 'You can't camp anywhere else like at Burning Man. It's so free and inviting, yet civilised too,' says Jocelyn Kane of Berkeley. The smooth, flat surface of the Black Rock Desert is well suited to the endless array of vehicles that dot the scene. Bicycles are the transport of choice, but other ingenious contraptions move around the desert. Participants bring a vast array of colourful art cars, camper vans, buses, motorcycles and trucks, some cannibalised and then reborn as motorised insects, fantasy features, comic book characters, chariots and rolling, living art. Burning Man is a unique display of Americans' love of the car, bringing together engineers and artists. Some people come to be with their friends, creating artworks and hanging out; others choose a solitary experience. It's an easy place to meet new people and to discover common ground underneath the paint, hair and music that might separate people on the outside. Whether it's naked cowboy croquet, listening to blind poetry or watching 'UFOs' drive around the desert, Burning Man is an incredible sensory feast. An open mind, a good sense of humour and a strong will to survive in the desert are de rigueur. And as Vince Beardsley, an artist from Denver, says: 'This is by far the best party in North America.' Getting there: The best option is to fly to Reno-Tahoe International Airport and hire a vehicle. There are eight car rental firms at Reno airport, including Avis, Budget and Hertz. If you want something big enough to comfortably carry a tent, mobile home comforts and a week's worth of food and drink, Avis offers standard SUVs such as the Jeep Commander for about US$545 a week. Hertz has the Nissan Xterra, or similar SUVs, for about US$525. From Reno, take Highway I-80 east for about 40 kilometres then the Wadsworth/Pyramid Lake exit to Highway 447. Go north for 11/2km to Wadsworth then turn left, staying on Highway 447. After 120km you reach Empire, where there is a service station. Another 5km on and you reach Gerlach, close to the Burning Man site, which also has a service station. Make sure you fill up for the return journey.