Each May Swaziland’s Ezulwini Valley reverberates with song and the thundering sound of thousands of stomping feet and clapping hands, as Bushfire Festival goers dance to Africa’s soulful tunes and most prolific voices. Don’t make the same mistake I did, don’t let it take you 10 years to get to Bushfire. If last year is anything to go by, the 11th MTN Bushfire festival (26-28th May) is going to be lit!
Scroll down to the bottom of the article for more practical information about attending the festival.
I danced, with a craft beer in hand, among 16 000-odd festival goers from 58 countries during the three-day, weekend music festival. No matter if you claim not to dance in public, as you’ll be tapping your feet and swaying – or gyrating – your hips (whichever comes most naturally) to funky beats from across Africa and the world.
It’s not unheard of for die-hard music fans to plan their southern African holiday around the annual event. It seems that news has gotten around that The BBC called Bushfire “Africa’s top festival” and that CNN claims it’s “one of the seven African music festivals you have to see”. And hear.
Ezulwini means place of heaven. Here, in the luscious farmlands that surround the eclectic House on Fire venue, it’s hard to believe it’s only 25km from the capital city of Mbabane. With its faux Gaudi-esque architecture and garden sculptures, House on Fire is a fantastical playground for the imagination, where you’ll find dancers, performers, puppet masters and flame throwers, singers walking around with guitars strapped over their shoulders, drumming circles, hippies, and the brave on the open mic stage.
The three stages are laid out across the vast festival grounds, so one never feels crowded despite the thousands of attendees, who lay out picnic blankets and camping chairs on the grass. The bar area, global food village, craft market – the best place to buy local, handmade souvenirs and festival memorabilia – and the kids zone are wisely spread out.
I spent most of my time in front of the main stage, singing and dancing. It’s quite something seeing thousands of strangers unified through music, as they link arms, sing to the skies, and throw their hands up in the air. We stood side-by-side as lovers of good music, all differences forgotten. And indeed Bushfire is a cultural affair. One where I made friends from around the world. I spontaneously danced salsa with an Angolan, shared drinks with German and French expats, ate lunch next to a Zimbabwean, and had Dutch neighbours (older than my parents) at the Bandwagon Galmping campsite, a short walk from the festival grounds.
Only once the sun goes down behind the Luphohlo and Lugogo mountains, do I realise I’ve been having too much fun to eat. Bushfire serves the best selection of festival food I’ve tried. Besides the regular food you’d expect at any music event, from boerewors rolls to chips and curries, the global food village also has an impressive selection of vegetarian and vegan options. I never even make it to Malandela’s Farmhouse Restaurant (for golden circle ticket holders). Its exclusive seating area has good views of the main stage, LED screens, a waiter service, and heaters to warm the crisp autumn evenings.
I find myself flooded with lights as Mafikizolo arrives centre stage. They steal the show on Saturday night with their outfits, pyrotechnics and high-energy performance. The crowd’s applause resonates across the bowl of the Ezulwini Valley. Indeed its name “place of heaven” is apt, it’s a place of heaven for music lovers.
Over the last decade, MTN Bushfire has become somewhat of an institution among African music festivals. It’s the cleanest and most well-run festival I’ve attended. Plus all vendors and suppliers have to be environmentally-friendly and use recyclable materials. I even spied recycling efforts going on behind the scenes.
Not only did the festival win a gold star for best responsible event at the African Responsible Tourism Awards in April 2016, but it’s also working towards becoming carbon neutral and starting conversations about sustainability. Play your part by planting an indigenous tree at the nearby Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary; listening to Alex Paullin, from Conservation Music, record a song about climate change; or watching solar-powered environmental documentaries screened at Sunshine Cinema.
The festival will also leave you with a feel-good feeling as a percentage of proceeds are donated to two worthwhile local charities. And you’ll leave with a long list of newly discovered artists to add to your iPod playlist. Ghana’s Blitz the Ambassador, South Africa’s Bombshelter Beast, Togolese Vodun Funk band Vaudou Game and French DJ Julien Lebrun made my list of new favourites. 2017 will see just as many nationalities on stage as in the audience.
Back in the crowd, the flame burns into Sunday evening as Oliver Mtukudzi’s husky voice lullabies the stars above Swaziland to sleep.
How to get there
If you’re driving in, all of Swaziland’s borders are open seven days a week. It’s best to avoid long waiting times at Oshoek border post by arriving before or after Friday afternoon/evening, or consider using a lower volume border post. South Africans only require a valid passport. Here’s more info about driving and flying into Swaziland.
What to pack
Besides your camping gear (camping chairs and blankets), don’t forget sun cream, a water bottle, head light, warm clothes for the autumn evenings and light clothes for the warm day. You can use South African rands as well as Swazi Lilangeni. There are a number of mobile South African ATM machines too.
Where to stay
Once you have your tickets, book your accommodation as soon as possible, as the closets and best accommodation options fill up first. Find more options on the Bushfire website.
Luxury: Royal Swazi Spa: www.suninternational.com/royalswazi
Bed and breakfast: Silverstone Falls: www.silverstonefalls.com
Self-catering: Buhleni Farm Chalets: www.buhlenifarm.co.sz
Pre set-up campsite: Bandwagon Glamping: www.teambuildalliance.co.za. This is where I stayed, only a short walk from the festival grounds, but not too close to disturb your sleep. The cost includes a set up tent, stretcher, mattress with bedding, hot showers, toilet facilities, an on-the-go breakfast, as well as tea and coffee.
Camping: Hlane Royal National Park: www.biggameparks.org
Backpacking: Sondzela Backpackers: www.biggameparks.org
2017 Bushfire lineup
Read more about the lineup here. I’ve emboldened my favourites.
80 Script, Baloji, Batuk, Ben Dey and the Concrete Lions, Bholoja, Black Rhino, Bombino, Chico Antonio, DJ Bob, DJ Chynaman, DJ Fred Spider, DJ Mixmash, Dusty and Stones, Easy Freak, Faada Freddy, Femi Koya, Flameboy Universe, Floewe, Goodluck, Gren Seme, Hanwah, Hugh Masekela, Itallo Dlamini, Jagermeister Brass Cartle featuring Reason, Jah Prayzah, Jeremy Loops, Jojo Abot, Karla Kenya, Kids n Cats, Kwesta, Lee Thomson Quintet, Lodanda, Matthew Mole, Michael Canfield, Msaki, Petite Noir, Root Afrika, Rootwords, Sands, Seba Kaapstad, Shepard Brothers, Siyinqaba, Sutherland, Swazi Reggae Legends, The Exchange, The Kiffness, The Mute Band, Theatre for Africa, TkZee, Trenton and the free radical, Vukazithathe, Zahara.
Which other African festivals have you enjoyed and do you recommend I visit? Please tell me in the comments below.
I received a press pass to Bushfire Festival and my accommodation was provided by Bandwagon Glamping. Photographs courtesy of Bushfire Festival. All opinions are my own and I retain editorial control of all content on this website, but you already know that! ;)