I love road trips! But starting a journey before the sun rises is not exactly my cup of tea! Our long journey began at Auckland Park, Johannesburg – right outside the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s (SABC) studios. A group of bright-eyed strangers jam-packed into a mini-bus. Thankfully, I was travelling with my colleague, Alessandro who made the trip so much more fun.
I am no stranger to the beautiful nation of eSwatini. This cultural journey was my second time in Swaziland to witness the Umhlanga Reed Dance. It’s hard to imagine what to expect this time round as the famed ceremony has received negative feedback in the past.
Crossing the South African border was the easiest thing I have seen in a long time. We were met at the border by Melusi, the Communications Officer, eSwatini Tourism Authority. He collected our passports for stamping while we all wait in the car. I was amazed at how professional and efficient the border authorities were.
Upon crossing the border, we went directly to the Ngwenya Glass factory where Radio 2000 will be broadcasting from specifically for the event. Radio 2000 forms a part of the SABC’s Public Broadcasting Stations portfolio. While their work began, Alessandro and I had breakfast and used the opportunity to explore the area. Curiosity and sheer hunger drew us to order Eggs Benedict with an assortment of tasty treats like English muffins, poached eggs and hollandaise to complete the ultimate breakfast!
When we were so full and couldn’t eat another bite, Melusi came and gave us a tour of the Ngwenya Glass factory. The factory is located in eSwatini’s largest indigenous garden and it draws tourists from all over the world. Since 1987, Ngwenya Glass has been making glassware in eSwatini from 100% recycled glass. Building upon a reputation of quality, functionality, beauty & social impact. The unique combination of factors that make up Ngwenya Glass, make it a living & breathing animal in its own right. We spent some time visiting each section of this historic destination. Upon completion of our tour, we were notified that just five minutes away from the Ngwenya Glass Village lies one of Swaziland’s oldest mine, the Ngwenya Iron Mine.
The Ngwenya mine sits in the mountainous and scenic Malolotja Nature Reserve along Swaziland’s northwestern border (Mbabane) and near the northwestern border of eSwatini. It is the last unspoiled mountain wilderness left in Swaziland and the mine is considered to be the world’s oldest. The haematite ore deposit was used in the Middle Stone Age to extract red ochre, while in later times the deposit was mined for iron smelting and iron ore export. The Ngwenya mine is the biggest proclaimed protected in the kingdom, the reserve extends over 18000 hectares. We took a small hike up the top at one of the cliffs. I was very keen to go up the cliff to see the view. The view from the top was breathtaking and for a moment you forget where you are and all you just want to do is drift away with the surrounding mountains.
By the time we were done, it was already lunchtime. We did a quick 36 minutes drive to Mantenga Lodge restaurant were lunch reservations were made.
The Mantenga lodge is located in Ezulwini Valley (Valley of Heaven). The Mantenga lodge is overlooking the beautiful Execution Rock, eSwatini’s. The restaurant proud themselves for its natural eSwatini ingredients and European infusion mixed cuisines. The menu had so many mouthwatering dishes to the extent that I found it tempting to make a selection off the list. It has varieties from oxtail, lamb shank to pap with assorted meats. I decided to play it safe. I ordered the T-bone steak and its accompanied by mushroom with blue cheese, chips and green salad. The t-bone steak was very well done. It was oozing with juice flavours, very tender and chewable. The blue cheese brought the kick with its sweet, moderately spicy flavor. We thereafter went back straight to our hotel.
We were lounged at the George Hotel for the entire visit. The hotel is located in the hub of eSwatini and happens to be the only hotel in Manzini. George Hotel has over 114 rooms of various types. The hotel has facilities which includes two restaurants, a reception bar, poolside bar, sports bar, a beauty spa and four multifunctional conferencing facilities. This hotel is a very good one stop venue for visitors on leisure or business trips.
Umhlanga also known as the reed dance is an annual eight-day traditional event that happens in Ludzidzini Royal Village where thousands of maidens who travel from various chiefdoms. The reed dance was created in 1940s in Eswatini (Swaziland) under the ruling of Sobhuza II and it is a well-respected and still a practiced ceremony till date. The annual event takes place between August and September and it is done in honour of the Queen Mother.
The activities of the first six days is discreet in respect of tradition. However, on the few days preceding the big day, the girls gather at the Ludzizini Royal Village. Upon their arrival, they are dispersed to different surrounding areas at night where they have to collect tall reeds. The next night they gather the reeds in bundles and bring them back to the Queen Mother.
The girls get a day of rest after which they start preparations on their traditional costumes. Costumes vary according to the maiden’s social status. The girls from the royal family are more elaborate than the ones worn by other girls. Each chiefdom comes with a different costume and each year the costumes keep getting better and the maidens try to surpass what they did the previous year. At a minimum all the maidens wear a umgaco (sash) and a indlamu (a small skirt). The maidens are discouraged to wear underwear. Other elements that are seen on the maiden’s costumes are the bird feathers worn on the hair, whistles, coloured tassles hanging from the umgaco, rattling anklets made from cocoons and the elements all have symbolic meaning.
The maidens singing and dancing parade happens in front of the royal family, crowd of dignitaries, spectators and tourists. After the parade, selected groups performs for the spectators. King Swati’s daughters and princesses also partake in the event and you can identify them with red crowned feathers on their heads.
The King, with the help of his mother and other wives will choose 365 girls that will live in the palace. One from these maidens will be chosen as the king’s wife’s but it’s not compulsory as he does not choose a wife every year.
None of the maidens participating in the reed dance are forced into partaking. My colleague and I went to place of residence of the maidens and we spoke to them and most of them said they love partaking because it helps them meet other maidens, form sisterhood bonds and the reed dance helps groom them as young woman which thus help them make responsible decisions as they journey through life.
After a hectic day of rehearsals and preparations for the reed dance itself which happens on the very last day of the annual event, we headed back to our Hotel. I was so exhausted and as soon as I got back to the hotel, I went straight to take a very warm bath in preparations for dinner. Amidst my exhaustion, I was still able to squeeze out time for the Home Brew Carnival that was happening next to the George Hotel. It was an evening with pretty nice vibes were we were pampered with entertainment from Eswatini’s local talents ranging from DJ’s to musicians.
In the morning, we are well aware that we will have a very busy day ahead of us because it was the final day of the reed dance. The king was present alongside other dignitaries, spectators and tourists from all over the world. On this day, the king is supposedly choosing a wife but it is said that he hasn’t chosen a new wife since 2013. The ceremony started at noon and it ended at 18:00. All maidens from the different chiefdoms were parading around the forefront of the stadium paying homage to the Queen Mother. The dancing and singing of the maidens was flawless and in sync. The maidens were stunning in their colourful costumes and every chiefdom wanted to out-shine the other.
People of Eswatini are warm and always love assisting. Every citizen and tourists is treated with respect regardless of their status. The Swatis love their king and it showed on how they spoke about him. Eswatini welcomes tourists from all part of the world. For someone like myself, I was very skeptical at the beginning of the trip but fell in love with this unique destination at the end of the trip. I was educated about the culture and above all, had a royal experience in Swaziland.