Location: Lobamba, Swaziland
Dates: late August/early September.
Level of participation: 2 - join Swazi royalty and watch the debutantes’ ball in the bush
Swaziland may be a pint-sized country, but Umhlanga attracts up to 30,000 participants. They’re all women, they dance with umhlanga (reeds) swaying above their heads and, like many ritual gatherings, the event is all about finding a partner.
The women converge on Lobamba to help repair the house of the queen mother, who rules alongside the king and is known as Indlovukaki (Great She-Elephant). They spend days and nights searching for reeds before handing their finds to the queen mum and performing the dance, watched by potential suitors. Clad in traditional beaded skirts and sashes denoting their tribes, the dancers must be careful not to drop or damage their reeds. Princesses wear red feathers in their hair, and hard-working participants who searched for reeds by night carry torches.
The women are fuelled by the presence of the monarch and the knowledge that the Swazi queen mother must not be of the royal clan. As at the Ncwala ceremony held in late December or early January, there are signs that identify the unchaste - an incentive to avoid premarital sex. King Mswati III already has one Umhlanga dancer among his 13 wives.
Local attractions: Swaziland is one of Africa’s smallest countries but boasts wildernesses such as the Mkhaya Game Reserve, where you can spot black rhinos in the wild.
See other top festivals in September here.