Nokuthula Shezi is not only excited about the festival because she is attending it for the first time, but also because it coincides with her 16th birthday.
It is Friday and the Sunday Tribune team is on board one of the 70 buses ferrying young Zulu maidens from all over KwaZulu-Natal to King Goodwill Zwelithini's Enyokeni Palace in Nongoma.
Nokuthula says, "I'm very excited - it's my first encounter. Umkhosi Womhlanga is very important because it not only unites young people, but is also a cultural celebration which emphasises the importance of abstaining from sex.
"If we continue like this, I believe that in 10 years we'll have an Aids-free generation."
The Grade 11 pupil from Haythorne Secondary School in Pietermaritzburg is among other young girls inside the bus who sing songs about the pride of remaining virgins.
She takes out two bandanas, marked with HIV/Aids messages.
"Take one and give the other one to your friend," she tells me, pointing to photographer Khaya Ngwenya.
On Saturday, more than 6 000 young maidens from across South Africa and neighbouring Swaziland gathered for what was said to be the biggest festival since its revival by King Zwelithini 20 years ago.
The main thrust of the ceremony, which dates back to King Shaka's reign late into the 19th century, is to encourage young women to remain virgins until they get married.
Dignitaries and high-ranking government officials, including Deputy President Jacob Zuma, Nigerian Vice-President Alhaji Atiku Abubaker and his cabinet ministers, Premier S'bu Ndebele, amakhosi, indunas and IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, attended the event.
The day started with the virgins bathing in a river, before picking reeds which they later presented to the king.
KwaZulu-Natal Arts, Culture and Tourism MEC Narend Singh said the ceremony was very important to the Zulu people.
"This old tradition was revived by King Zwelithini to defend his nation against diseases and moral regeneration. This event also falls in Heritage month."
International media crews and tourists were also among those who attended.
Security was tight. There were fears at last year's festival that images of the half-naked maidens were being posted on pornographic internet sites.
The reed dance was followed by a concert to mark the king's 56th birthday.
was originally published on page 4 of Tribune on September 12, 2004
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