acacia blossoms

acacia blossoms

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Swazi Reed Dance

Swazi princesses lead the parade

The Umhlanga (or Reed Dance) takes place in  late August or early September each year. It is a dance which attracts young maidens from every area of the Kingdom and provides the occasion for them to honour and pay homage to the Queen Mother (iNdlovukazi). Most of the participants are teenagers, although some of the girls are younger. Over 20 000 maidens gather reeds from selected areas which they present to the King and the Queen Mother.

The girls wear short beaded skirts with anklets, braclets and jewellery and colourful sashes. The royal princesses wear red feathers in their hair and lead the maidens to perform before Their Majesties. This ceremony can be photographed, provided you have a permit.

Venue: Embangweni Royal Residence (Shiselweni Region)
Date: 17th/18th September 2011
Dress code; NO HATS FOR MAN         
                      LADIES WEAR DRESS / SKIRT AND NO PANTS
(I think they mean trousers)

quoted from

This year we finally made it to the Reed Dance in the heart of Swaziland's mountain kingdom.  Inspired and motivated by our friends from there, we duly donned the respectful gear mentioned above and joined the river of people flowing up towards the Royal Residence and Arena.  It was a beautiful crisp sunny early summer day.  
Sunlight bounced in shards on the people and cars around us. Regiments of swazi maidens waited in groups on the grass, guarded by their indunas. Beyond them, the rugged hills of this mountain kingdom.

regiment of maidens waiting their turn

The Reed Dance is a traditional  ceremony performed annually by the young maidens of Swaziland for their King and the Queen Mother.  It goes on for eight days during which the girls collect reeds to present to the Queen mother.  This was the seventh day, when the girls dress in traditional costume, according to their regiment or the area they hail from, and dance infront of the King. Only unmarried and/or childless girls can perform in this event and there is a strong anti HIV slant that encourages young women to respect themselves.  Traditionally a Swazi festival, this year there were regiments of girls from other SADAC countries. Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe were also represented and  apparently  a record total of 80,000 girls registered this year.

the parade heading to the arena

In the tide of visitors with us, many wore traditional dress. This is a big day for showing national pride and allegiance to the monarch.  Security is tight, and the kings Royal Guard, in their robes and skins, were threaded amongst the crowds clutching their cell phones and radios.  We found a place under a shade tree to watch the procession.  The girls formed a river of sound, colour and light pulsing past in a seemingly never ending flow. Visitors and Royal Guards stood on the roadside watching, admiring and enjoying the youthful energy. There was discipline to the flow and progress was monitored to allow each group enough time to file past.

The mood was respectful and friendly .  We were approached with offers to help us find the best place in the stands .Two young men in traditional gear  introduced themselves. They were members of the Royal Guard and had been tasked to make visitors feel welcome. We chatted for a while, and swapped email addresses. They insisted we each have our photos taken with them.

The arena filled up steadily with swathes of colour and song. The atmosphere continued to build in a vivid festival of young female energy.  Then the Royal Guard formed up and proceeded into the arena singing a different song and bringing a different energy to the event.

Royal Guard enter the arena

The young men were proud and warlike but not menacing.  The regiments of girls made way for them to pass through.  Then there were speeches. A red carpet  rolled out, but there was speculation whether or not the King would choose a new bride this year. He already has fourteen wives.

future dancer

Finally, with our heads full of bright images and songs, we retreated while the river of people continued to arrive. We had expected tradition, but here we found cultural history celebrated in a modern context. The people we met were dignified and hospitable. As we left the country, the border officials thanked us for attending their Umhlanga.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Island Odyssey

To get to the island we have to drive across five kilometers of floodplain. Its a beautiful drive past islands of trees, some dense with monkey vines and creepers, others an arrangement of palm trees on raised termite mounds.  In between, there are white sand beaches, and acres of glossy green marsh grasses.  Sometimes there are elephants, but more often a scattering of free range cattle and donkeys.

Its six months since we have been to the island.  Exceptionally high flood waters from the Okavango River have flooded these plains, making it impossible to drive through.  We are not sure we will make it this time, but Oneman, who lives on the island feels more confident.  He knows this place.  they have been returning to the village by makoro (dugout canoe) in recent months due to the floods. Now the water is too shallow for the canoe. With Oneman on board guiding us on a new route we feel more confident. Even so, launching off the dry sand into long waterlogged marshes is a leap of faith.

We cross a small stream, and squeeze our 4x4 vehicle through a tight alley of rigid thorn trees. The unforgiving thorns shriek against our paintwork like nails on blackboards. We hit water almost immediately, but its clear and we can see sand underneath so we press on.  Flocks of waterbirds, open billed storks and egrets, take flight sending up showers of bright wet diamonds.  We make it through that one. It wasnt deep.  

We emerge onto an island and dip into water again on the other side. Its all going well so far and we start to enjoy the view.  The air is softly hazy and all around the trees are full of blossom, filling the air with their heady scent.  We drive across some dry white sand that squeaks and sings under our tyres.  These plains are dry, and we suprise a herd of elephants who emerge from the dark shaded islands - suprised to see a vehicle approaching after all these months.  A youngster charges out of the bush trumpeting, the adults make their way deeper into the flood-              plains finally vanishing into the haze of water and blossom laden trees.

We have to cross a small gully.  The water is tanin stained coasting over white sand. Looking down I see that we have only just skirted the edge of a really big hole. That was lucky.  We make it through the next few long water crossings, ploughing steadily through bright water dotted with lillies and birds.

"This might be a little bit deep - lets go this way" Oneman points with authority and we dip around the side of a small island to face the final challenge. It looks innocuous enough but soon our heavy tyres are skidding on shiny marsh grasses, barely finding purchase. Somehow or another we move, oh so slowly, along. Half way we bounce through some holes made by elephants crossing the soft mud.  Miraculously we do not get stuck...this time... and just around the corner, the island with its little village of tents, and the Catfish houseboat snuggled into a bay with a lemon tree full of flowers. It feels like we are far far away.  

Monday, September 5, 2011

Wedding on The Pans : my version

Some people choose funny places to tie the knot or make their vows. Some jump out of planes strapped together;  find the highest mountain, or deepest lake.  Others choose the most romantic church they know,  or their favourite spot in the garden with their nearest and dearest gathered around.  The possibilities are endless.  Recently , our friends Craig and Cheryl , chose the majestic cathedral of the Makgadikgadi Pans in central Botswana to share their celebration.

driving onto The Pans

Familiarly known as 'The Pans' - its real name Makgadikgadi Pans is far more evocative. It bounces around the mouth like the thirst for water in this ultimately arid zone.  I have known teenagers try to say Makgadikgadi while burping. Its an enigmatic name for a place of magical mystery that defines the terms 'wide open' and 'curve of the earth'.  16000km2 of bleached white salt pans fringed with spikey marsh grasses. Dryer than bone during the winter months  it fills with shallow water from the Nata River during the summer rains and becomes an important breeding site for pelicans and flamingoes on their migratory paths. Strange creatures live here like meerkats and brown hyenas. Bigger ones pass through from time to time, like elephants and lions.  It is like a vast empty page on which to conjure up your own creative endeavours.  Write your story here.

Which is what Craig and Cheryl decided to do.

Their eclectic group of friends and family members gathered at Gweta Lodge  - an oasis in the center of Gweta Village north of The Pans.  We, who had the least distance to cover, probably arrived last on the saturday evening.  We arrived as the giant red ball of the sun slipped below the earths fringe of mopane trees. The party was in progress as we stepped through the gloaming to the warm welcome of a happy crowd.  There were old pals to reunite with, and many new ones to meet. There were parents and cousins, and grandparents, and toddlers. All of whom, apart from the young, seem to have tapped into the elixir of eternal youth.  I sipped my delicious glass of red  hoping this was it, and tried to meet as many as possible.

being meerkats

Morning dawned bright and clear. A beautiful clear desert day with skies a true blue, and air as fresh as a mountain stream.  The camp site was a flurry of activity.  Early risers watched the late ones emerge from canvas rubbing their eyes and heading for showers. The Gweta team were busy loading camping gear onto safari vehicles ready to head off and set up camp on site. The catering team were a blur of activity. Its no mean feat to put an event like this together.  I set off for Nata to buy fuel as Gweta was out of diesel. It was a 100km trip and once there I met pals from Kasane and Francistown and linked up for the return run.  Back in Gweta more guests had gathered and time was running short to get to the venue in time for the ceremony.  In haste we flung stuff in to vehicles; made space for lifts, packed more stuff in, started up and waited for the convoy.  Then we were off.  Its so easy to get lost in The Pans so we all needed to follow someone who knew the way.  Those that had them primed their GPS machines. We opened cold beers and tagged on to the dusty tail of the line up.  Our way took us  through villages and kraals on a spaghetti bolognese of sandy tracks, past stunted trees whose branches whipped our windscreens.  Some Kalanga horsemen stopped us to ask for food and drinks. We gave them whatever we had to hand.

Bride To Be on her way, with daughter who later deliverd a great speech
looking fabulous

An hour or so later the landscape opened wide to grasslands peppered with distant cattle herds and kalanga horses.  We met up with friends leading another arm of the convoy who had lost a vital member of their tail - the grooms parents.  We stopped on the edge of the wide salt pans and climbed on vehicles searching for dust clouds that would suggest a vehicle driving around.  We posted sentry on the highest piece of ground and made like meerkats scanning the horizon.  Soon the bride's car came past, followed by the VIPs who were to perform the ceremony.  'Well they can't start without the parents eh?"  we thought as on they went.  We waited and looked and searched, and chatted, and eventually decided to press on and see if they were at the wedding. They were. They had a GPS.  We were late and missed the actual ceremony, which was held in a guazy gazebo bedecked with fairy lights on the edge of a grassy island overlooking the vast vastness of shimmering white.

The speeches were tear jerkers.  There were giant bonfires to hold back the cold desert night;  cool boxes galore and feasty food deluxe.  Caig's cousin cranked up the music system and the party on the Pans eased naturally into being.

Being a Harley man, Craig had invited his Harley to the party.  It was parked on the edge of proceedings, the chrome gleaming enticingly. The keys were in and it was a small matter of time before the first adventurer fired up the big engine and opened the throttle.  The Pans are notorious for an unstable surface however. What looks like endless miles of calcrete - like that place in Australia where they set the land speed records - is however a crust that in places conceals glutinous grey mud. Its always a safe option to follow someone else's tracks - but when you are riding free who cares about the safe option?  They went down, one after another. Despite the fact that Craig's brother already had a massive deep burn on his leg from falling with the Harley the day before - there were several attempts. Most of the falls happened within view of the party - some were impressive. Luckily, and by some quirk of fate, there were no more injuries.

so far so good

It grew dark and the fires blazed cheerily. The music was great. I remember thinking it a particularly appropriate place to listen to Dark Side of the Moon. The camp fires created two different atmospheres. The one in the hub was crowded with people sitting, walking around, chatting, laughing.  The other fire was a bit further away and here was a more circumspect crowd - or so i thought. but trouble was brewing.  Some people wanted to make this fire enormous - piling on huge leadwood boughs without a thought for the environmentalists.  In the crowd was one who particularly cared for the disappearance of Africa's hardwoods. He works with wood, and knows how scarce it is.  They couldn't agree and it became a game. More wood was piled and then pulled off, and then piled on again. Our pal tried to explain his viewpoint, and eventually, in extreme frustration climbed into his bakkie and drove it right through the fire. Thank heavens he didn't get stuck on the top.  I just saw people scattering, grabbing chairs, looking shocked.  The people at the other fire, turned. They saw that it had turned out fine and no one was hurt, and they resumed their conversation. 'Is there any more wine?'. The people at the circumspect fire regrouped and the moment was gone.

oh wait, are those headlights in the distance?

There were some in the party that needed to return to Gweta that night, so that they could be at work in Francistown the following morning.  Against all advice they set off into the night in completely the wrong direction. It is so easy to get lost here in daylight. Night time is a given. There was half a moon still but that didnt seem to help.  For three hours the wedding party watched their headlights driving back and forth in the distance, like some phantom creature or UFO , they drew closer apparently mistaking our lights for Gweta, then took off again reappearing from random directions.  Finally they pulled in again to pick up a guide.  

One by one, and two by two, people drifted away from the fire to climb into their bedrolls and sleep under the magnificent stars. 

*names have been omitted to protect the innocent