“The King, officer. Where is the King?”

We are at a crossroads of dirt tracks somewhere in Eastern Swaziland and the last signpost to the Hlane Royal Residence was 27km back. With no map and two South African marijuana smugglers driving us in their battered bakkie, the chances of success in this particular mission were always going to be slim. Even so, we are genuinely surprised when the police officer tells us that the His Majesty Mswati III is not here at Hlane, but at his other Royal Residence at Buhleni, in the north of the country and at least another two hours’ drive away.

We are on a quest to find the Marula Festival, a cultural event little known outside the smallest country in the Southern Hemisphere, but of great importance to Swazi culture. Whilst the marula fruit can also be found in most other Southern African countries, here it is the proud focus of a national harvest celebration. The fruit is distilled into a homemade ‘beer’ that ranges between 10% and 20% in strength, and the King holds an entire festival weekend at each of his two residences. Only after His Majesty has adjudicated over the finest marula gifts presented to him by his adoring subjects may the beer be consumed and the party begin.

After a brief negotiation with our drivers, my hostel roommate Iris and I agree to cover the entire fuel costs in order to get to our destination. I have cancelled a rafting trip to discover this festival, and the coincidence of our timing makes this too good an opportunity to miss. Besides, another two hours in my favourite mode of transport – the back of a pick-up truck – is an unexpected bonus that allows me more time to appreciate this unexpectedly beautiful country. As we bounce around the beautiful rolling hills with a beer in hand, we are treated to some stunning alpine scenery reminiscent of the country’s European near-namesake. That the panorama is accentuated by a distant backdrop of almost constant lightning makes this a truly unique experience.

We finally arrive at the festival grounds to find a scene of carnage and devastation. It is clear that much marula has been consumed as swaying bodies trip over the already prone. We are stopped by every single Swazi group we encounter, for photos and a taste of their own homebrew. Having sampled its delights the previous night, I have come prepared with my antacids to counter the effects of the beer. To no avail: the liquid slides down my oesophagus like lava and I experience self-immolation from within. After what feels like a lengthy papal tour of duty, we beat a hasty retreat to the ceremony grounds and witness a breath-taking celebration of Swazi national identity. More than five thousand women in national dress stand in formations of Roman battalions, their chanting and swaying accompanied by the entire crowd.

Your cup of liquid napalm, Sir…

Girls just wanna have fun

An older gentleman sitting to my right strikes up conversation with me, telling me of his six months spent in London in the 1980s before asking me how I am enjoying the ceremony. It is a genuine delight and honour to witness such a cultural event first hand, I reply, but what I would really like to do is meet the King. Unexpectedly, he gets up and signals to me to follow him. We approach the telecommunications vehicle of the country’s national broadcaster, and enter into conversation with a senior production manager who appears to have had one cup of marula too many. For the hand of a white English girl, he will help me meet the King. Thinking quickly, I ask whether a white French girl will do the trick, my Anglo-Saxon resources being pretty thin on the ground. He agrees, remarkably, and places a Swaziland Broadcasting press pass into my hand. “Come back at 9pm and we will go to meet His Majesty.” I return to where my friends are sitting and smile innocently at Iris. A quick toilet break, I tell her.

The lads are enjoying the show

Just as I am starting to work on my curtsey, however, the winds of an approaching storm pick up dramatically and the sandy floor of the festival grounds takes to the skies. At first, it is only the lesser hardy amongst the crowd that shuffle back towards the safety of the marquees, but a hurried announcement over the PA signals an abrupt end to the proceedings. The King and his entourage adjourn to the nearby palace and the plebiscite returns to their vehicle for the two hour drive home. As the night flashes with electricity, I reflect on what might have been. Never mind, Your Majesty, you may get to meet me next time.

The only way to travel

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