Swaziland: Speed dating for the King

By Chris Pritchard

Thousands of dancing virgins celebrate the Umhlanga festival, and Chris Pritchard is there to see whether the king will take a new wife.

The maidens gather to perform the Reed Dance. Photo / Chris Pritchard
The maidens gather to perform the Reed Dance. Photo / Chris Pritchard

Africa's only absolute monarch smiles broadly as he waves to a cheering crowd, who whoop boisterously and wave back.

Part of the throng, in a separate section of the stadium, comprises several thousand young single women - described by local media as "maidens" and "virgins".

Old women gossip. Will he or won't he? Sometimes - but not every year - the king picks a new bride from among women taking part in the annual Reed Dance, or Umhlanga. The buzz among the matrons is what he'll do this year.

This is one of Southern Africa's most memorable sights. King Mswati III presides over a spectacle that also attracts, besides the dancers, Swazis from all over the country, foreign residents and tourists.

As they dance the young women brandish bunches of long reeds they've gathered from river banks.

Hundreds of the young women dance topless. Swazis tell me parents encourage these displays by their prettiest daughters because there's a chance of becoming part of the royal family.

King Mswati III, a sophisticated and well-travelled 42-year-old, was partly educated at a posh British school. He has 13 wives, including several chosen from those taking part in the Reed Dance festival, held each year in late August or early September. Each wife has a palace.

But the festival's purpose isn't to find potential wives for the monarch; it is to promote chastity before marriage, and the event is one of many festivities in Swaziland, which promotes itself as a year-round destination.

Tourist numbers are rapidly rising. About 1.3 million foreigners visited in 2009, the latest year for which statistics are available - up 13.3 per cent on the previous year.

But tiny Swaziland has a problem, officials confide. Many people think it is part of South Africa - which it isn't.

Ruled by Britain until independence in 1968, it is one of Africa's 53 independent nations.

The country stretches a mere 200 kilometres from its northern to southern extremities (and, at its broadest, 130kms from east to west), covering only 17,364sq kms.

Wedged between South Africa and Mozambique - it is only a 40-minute flight or five-hour road trip from Johannesburg. Swaziland is often an add-on to South African holidays.

The country has a colourful recent past. During South Africa's apartheid era, Swaziland seethed with spies. Its somnolence was deceptive. The capital, Mbabane, and the main commercial city, Manzini, teemed with secret agents from South Africa's racist regime and its outlawed African National Congress rival. When covers were blown, violent deaths ensued.

South Africa's puritanical rulers of the time made inter-racial sex and casino gambling illegal. That both were allowed in Swaziland attracted substantial cross-border traffic - particularly at weekends.

More Swazis live in South Africa than in Swaziland, which has only 1.3 million people.

Almost all of those are Swazis, with small numbers of whites, non-Swazi blacks and Asians in the towns. A minority of parliamentarians is elected - but it's often said that nothing of note happens unless the king and his closest relatives give approval.

In the local SiSwati language, the king is referred to as the "lion of Swaziland" and his mother, powerful behind the scenes, is called "the great she-elephant".

From talking to dozens of Swazis over eight days in the country, it became very apparent to me that the king and royal family are treated with great reverence, much as in Thailand. However, a vocal opposition accuses the Government of extravagance.

Tourists are attracted by exceptionally low crime rates (particularly compared to South Africa), friendly locals, excellent infrastructure (good highways mean it takes only a couple hours to travel the length of the country), dramatic scenery (including Phophonyane Falls and Sibebe Rock), colourful culture (abundant traditional song-and-dance performances), urban diversions such as markets in towns and villages, good resorts (some with casinos), hiking trails and three game parks (Hlane, Mkhaya and Mlilwane).

Swazis often wear national dress for a trip to town (most are rural farmers) - but few now live in traditional Swazi "beehive" thatched huts. However, an old village is preserved to allow tourists to learn about a long-gone lifestyle.

While game parks offer accommodation, Swaziland's compactness means visitors staying at other Swazi resorts can be at these reserves in about an hour.

Game parks boast Africa's Big Five - lions, elephants, rhinos, buffaloes and leopards - as well as hippos, giraffes, zebras, wildebeest, many types of antelope and diverse birdlife.

At Mkhaya, a game-viewing guide points to a muddy pond just ahead of our vehicle. Four gigantic white rhinos clamber slowly from the water.

A half-hour later I see three more rhinos, sleeping in the strong midday sun alongside another pond.

Moments later a couple more are thundering across open grassland. Then two amble across the trail on which we're driving.

Elsewhere in Africa I've seen plenty of other wildlife - which is also present in Swaziland - but few rhinos. This place, however, teems with rhinos.

A steep and winding road takes us up into deeply forested country. Cloud swirls around the vehicle.

We reach the Foresters Arms, one of Southern Africa's great country hotels. It seems out of place, rather like a quaint cottage in a rural English village.

Appearances prove deceptive. The low-slung hotel is much bigger than it appears to be. It is long but narrow. The ambience in public areas is of an upper-class British gentlemen's club (even if most of the tourists are from Germany). Stretching out the back, past this 90ha property's landscaped lawns, is a wing of 30 comfortable rooms.

Next morning thick cloud is even lower. I walk through it to breakfast. Somehow, the offered Scotch kippers seem appropriate - even here in the African wild.

The king, by the way, didn't pick a bride at the Reed Dance. But there's always another year.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: You can get from New Zealand to Johannesburg via the codeshare arrangement between Qantas and South African Airways, with onward connections to Swaziland's Manzini Airport.

What to do: Inca Tours is an Australia-based company which offers tours to Swaziland.

Visas: New Zealanders don't need visas for Swaziland.

Further information: See welcometoswaziland.com.

Chris Pritchard was guest of Swaziland Tourism Authority, South African Airways and SA Airlink.

- NZ Herald

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