Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland, often remains under the radar for many travellers. However, within this landlocked country lies an enchanting celebration where tradition, culture, and community converge in a spectacular display of unity. The Reed Dance Festival, locally known as Umhlanga, takes center stage every September, captivating both locals and visitors alike.

Journeying to Umhlanga – Getting to the Festival

During my time in Johannesburg, South Africa, I explored various travel options around the country. While options like Kruger National Park and Cape Town beckoned, it was a fellow traveller who introduced me to the idea of attending the Reed Dance Festival in Eswatini, as she herself was attending it for royal duties. I immediately started researching flight options, but being the shameless budget traveller that I am, I chose to take a 5-hour bus ride that crossed the border into this tiny country adorned with magnificent mountain landscapes. As I settled into a hotel perched up on a hill, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Rwanda’s picturesque views and warm sunsets. Of course, this was after almost collapsing on the way there – make sure you’re fit for these climbs with your backpack!
With no expectations or prior knowledge of Eswatini, every sight, smell, and taste became a cherished experience, fully embraced. And I made sure to take in every bit of it!

Cultural Significance and Rituals

Now, back to the dance festival. The Reed Dance Festival is an annual Zulu tradition where thousands of young Swazi women gather to pay homage to the Queen Mother, celebrate womanhood, and promote unity within the community. Taking place amidst the scenic Ezulwini Valley in September in the heart of spring, Umhlanga transforms the landscape into a vibrant display of color, music, and dance. As fresh Reed Grass is cut by the women, they march in synchrony, presenting the reeds to the King and Queen Mother as a symbol of their virginity. The festival lasts around 4 days, and during my visit, I had the privilege of attending the final event with my fellow traveller turned friend. Again, not knowing what to expect, I was briefed on the phone about wearing a Sarong, and I’m glad I did. I made sure I went to the market first to wear something appropriate because wearing shorts here is an absolute no no!

The culminating event was an awe-inspiring experience filled with vibrant costumes, royal encounters, and cultural immersion. Despite initial confusion and surprise, I quickly embraced the traditions, learning and engaging with the local customs firsthand. After meeting my friend, we headed to Ludzidzini Royal Homestead where the start of the celebration took place. I wasn’t mentally prepared. Meeting 13 princes, the King and Queen Mother, seeing all the vibrant costumes and colours at once – I felt like a complete stranger there! So when my friend said, “Kneel, the King is coming!” I was so confused as to why I was suddenly on the floor. It was my express way of learning tradition and customs here, I guess! As we followed the women to the stadium, I was mesmerised by the parade, the chants, but above all, the joy and pride that both women and men carried throughout the event. Once we reached the stadium, we witnessed about 5,000 women parading. My friend managed to get us VIP seats, so I was sat with dozens of royals I had absolutely no knowledge about. As I do when I travel, I always break the ice by dancing, so we went down the steps and waited patiently for our turn to get into the field and dance. I was nervous at first, but my friend said, “Seriously, when and where will you ever do this again?” That was enough to get me living every single moment and soaking up every bit of this unique experience.

Your Guide to Experiencing Eswatini During the Festival

✈️ How To Get There: Direct flights from Johannesburg and Maputo are available (average cost: $100), or opt for a scenic drive or bus journey from neighboring cities as I did. I booked a return bus TransMagnific ticket for Joburg–Mbabane on their website – it is a 5 hour journey one way, snacks provided (price: $50).

🛖Where to Stay: Consider boutique hotels like Mogi Boutique Hotel  where I stayed 2 nights for proximity to local markets, restaurants, and festival venues. 

🥻Preparing for the Festival: As mentioned, make sure you get yourself a sarong to wrap around your clothes, avoiding shorts if possible. I wore a blue dress that I bought in Morocco, and wrapped a Sarong with the flag design on it, around me. Your smile and open mindedness is the most amazing accessory to wear here. If you come across any royals, show signs of respect by kneeling in front of them – the King stands high on the stadium of the event, so it is custom to kneel when passing him and walking on the field. The official dates are never announced until about 4 weeks before, so keep checking to make sure you book the right flights and accommodation.

Recommendation Rating 

As a dancer and enthusiast of cultural celebrations, attending the Reed Dance Festival on such short notice made all the sense in the world. This unique event empowers young women while fostering a sense of responsibility, discipline, and community. Eswatini, often overshadowed by its neighboring South Africa, offers a treasure trove of wildlife and safari opportunities waiting to be explored. For travellers seeking authenticity and off-the-beaten-path experiences, I highly recommend adding Eswatini to your itinerary during the festival period.