Along the R38 between the Mpumalanga towns of Barberton and Kaapmuiden, you would never imagine that the river creeks and gulleys could hold tales of desperados and gold diggers, hippies and outsider artists, and were once home to some of the ugliest women and roughest men.
“I was going to make a booklet and track the route of Jock of the Bushveld,” says
Dr Gerrit Haarhoff, part-time explorer from Nelspruit. “But the bug bit and I realised there were far more stories. The more I went down forgotten tracks and climbed into these mountains, the more I got hooked.” And so the story turned into a book, Forgotten Tracks and Trails of the Escarpment and the Lowveld.
Admire the view
Mountains rise on either side of the road, and there are glimpses of the Kaap River flowing in the valley, crossing small streams with names such as Honeybird and Revolver Creek that hint at untold tales. The road is tarred, but if you want to dig for the real gold, this trip is not for those who like tour buses.
We chose to take a couple of days to explore the 60-kilometre route. At various times this area has been called the Valley of Gold, the Valley of Death and more recently the Genesis of Life. If you start at the very beginning (sounds a bit like a musical) then the Makhonjwa Mountains near Barberton, at more than 3.5 billion years old, are some of the oldest exposed rocks in the world and have recently been added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites.
“I am fascinated by the stories the rocks tell. There is a real gee-whiz factor to all of this,” says Tony Ferrar, an environmental planner and wildlife ecologist by training, but now a keen amateur geologist. He has walked these mountains, and guides many of the geologists who travel here from across the world. The Geotrail (a self-guided drive) is just the other side of Barberton on the R40, but the area, named the Barberton Greenstone Belt, is a geologist magnet.
Fighting, carousing and skullduggery
After the Barber brothers found gold here in 1884, gold prospectors swarmed to the area and many claimed to be ‘expert’ geologists overnight. In 1885, Edwin Bray discovered Golden Quarry, so named because it looked like the rock was made of gold. He started the Sheba Reef Gold Mining Company and Sheba Mine still operates today.
These days it’s not just geologists who wander the hills. “I bring my wife, Theresa, along as co-pilot,” says Gerrit. Theresa is a professional cello and harp player, and does not look like your classic explorer in khaki.
But she has been with Gerrit every step of the way, bouncing and bundu bashing down old roads and across old wagon drifts. “People are used to seeing me dressed up for my music but I love this,” she says.
The women who came here in the early days of gold mining also had their stories. When the gold rush began, J. Sherwood started a butchery and hotel up in the mountains near the mines in a small place that became known as Eureka City. His wife was reputed to be so ugly that she was wryly named the Queen of Sheba. Barmaids abounded and sometimes women were sent there on the train from Delagoa Bay. And sent back again when enthusiasm waned.
Wynand Engelbrecht from Dusty Tracks Off Road Adventures takes tours up to the old Eureka City, where not much is left but ruins and stories. This is not a road you want to do on your own as it’s pretty rugged, but the scenery and mountains are spectacular.
Sit awhile and admire the view and it’s hard to imagine the fighting, skulduggery and carousing that occurred here in the late 1880s. I certainly wouldn’t want to be climbing these mountains in 1885, with my gold-digging equipment and enough food to keep me going for several days.
We drive a little way up the road towards Sheba Mine to the small Sheba cemetery. There we find a peaceful place of trees and wild Barberton daisies, and a memorial built by miner Howard Hill and his wife Agnes for their three children, who all died under the age of three, two of them within a few days of each other in 1905. But the graves tell a story that is not all derring-do and exciting adventure, especially for families. Our view of those days is a little romantic, helped by books such as Jock of the Bushveld.
Astrid Christianson, who heads up Barberton Tourism, is a modern-day adventurer. “I was a 60s hippy and often came here to a friend’s farm. We would go across to Swaziland to buy the green stuff,” she tells me as we bounce over dirt roads in her trusty vehicle. She moved here permanently in the 1980s and is passionate about this area.
“I am taking you to see a completely different kind of green stuff,” she says with a grin, as we drive down a little dirt road into the lush gardens of Esperado Children’s Haven. Sophie Jardim, who started the orphanage, is one of those calm people who seem to make things happen. “I used to be in banking in Joburg but moved here in the 1980s and I have always wanted a farm for children to run free,” she tells me, as she cradles one of the orphans.
The height of the gold rush
Sophie grows moringa trees from seed, as well as other plants, and makes products such as moringa capsules and a tea. “Moringa leaves are high in antioxidants and vitamins and are extremely nutritious,” she tells me. “Lately it has become very popular but I have been growing moringa for ages.” Astrid sells her plants and products to help fund her orphanage.
The farm Esperado is famous for another reason – it’s where the artist Nukain Mabuza painted his Stone Garden on the edge of the R38. Mabuza arrived from Mozambique in the 1950s to join some of his family working in the area. But for him the only reason to work was to earn money to buy paint. He was an unconventional, relatively anti-social man who took to decorating the huge boulders surrounding his hut, using geometric designs and naive animal figures.
I remember as a child stopping to see this tourist attraction in the 60s and 70s. Now it’s faded and you have to look hard to find his famous pieces. The grass waves around the partially overgrown garden but I am delighted to see that Barberton town has a Gateway project, part of which has been to copy some of Nukain’s designs and paint them on boulders at the entrances to Barberton.
Another artist who left his mark on this area in the late 1800s and early 1900s was Conrad Frederick Genal. Originally a soldier in the French Foreign Legion in North Africa, Genal jumped ship in the Suez Canal and swam to shore. He walked his way south through Africa, paying for his board and lodging by painting friezes on the walls of hotels. At Digger’s Retreat, one of the original pubs and hostels built in the 1880s on this road, the dining room has his friezes depicting African scenes.
Owner Mark Seady points out some of the old photos as I sit in the bar of Digger’s Retreat. The visitors today are geologists, scientists, miners and tourists but tall stories are still told. In the height of the gold rush there were more than 40 ‘hotels’ and pubs along this route and it soon picked up the nickname Leopard’s Crawl for obvious reasons.
A massive explosion
One of the more colourful characters was Carl Serino, a Czech who made pots of money mining gold in Swaziland and then drank it all away. He would ride his horse Frans from one pub to the next along this route and, when he fell off, Frans would patiently hang around until Carl could clamber back into the saddle. “I found the ruins of his old house along the road,” Gerrit tells me. “Carl was buried under the floor of his house but treasure hunters kept digging up his body, so he was eventually buried in the Barberton cemetery.”
Gold is what made these hills come alive with people, but life wasn’t easy. Gerrit takes me down to the river to show where the ox wagons crossed. “Wagons and coaches took different routes,” he explains. “Wagons were heavy and needed gentle slopes or they would tip over, so often they had to go further on flatter land. Coaches carrying mostly people travelled faster and were lighter and could handle steeper slopes.” He shows me tracks on the rocks where hundreds of wagons carved grooves as they crossed the river.
We stand among the reeds at the second wagon drift, looking at a Jock plaque on a large rock, to commemorate the routes that transport rider Percy Fitzpatrick and his dog took. “Fitz heard a massive explosion one day and thought it was just explosives at a mine, but then came around the corner to the fifth drift and found the area blown apart, with trees barked and flesh scattered everywhere,” says Gerrit. “Dynamite at that time was extremely unstable and a wagon had exploded.”
Transport was in huge demand in the late 1800s, and the enterprising Scot Bob Pettigrew started a wagon-transport business and created new wagon routes. When tsetse fly killed all Fitzpatrick’s oxen and he was forced to abandon his wagons and walk back into Barberton, it was Pettigrew who collected the wagons and kept them for Fitzpatrick in Lydenburg.
One of the narrow sections of road is still named Pettigrew’s Nek. We stop there and Gerrit chips a piece of slippery grey rock off the hillside. “It’s magnesite, which makes the rock really slippery in wet weather and the wagons struggled here,” explains Gerrit. “Pettigrew had to find other routes.”
We can see into the Kaap Valley where the railroad winds its way along the river, and I can spot one of the bridges in the distance.
“It may be peaceful now, but Pettigrew’s business was bankrupted when the first major railway bridge he built here was destroyed by floods,” says Gerrit. Gerrit is still on a mission to find Pettigrew’s grave in the Barberton cemetery. Rumour has it he was buried alongside his three-year-old son, but it seems the grave is unmarked.
“We still have desperate, illegal miners in this area – the zama zamas [Zulu for ‘those who want to get something for nothing’],” says Adriaan Nel, owner of the Old Coach Road Guest House, where we spend the night. The original house was built in 1902 and became the Jacaranda Hotel in 1910. The tracks of the old coach road can still be seen in the garden.
“Later it became a ball valve factory and we still find ball valves in the garden. There might have been big parties here in its heyday but now, having a ball takes on a whole new meaning,” jokes Adriaan. His wife Lily produces delicious food for guests and the hotel rooms look out over indigenous gardens to the mountains.
The last section of the R38 near the N4 is filled with rich farmland. Pawpaw and banana trees stand in organised rows, all thanks to an Italian who saw the potential. Giacomo Tonetti came from Italy in 1892 to work on Pettigrew’s railway project and came across pawpaw trees growing wild (then known as donkey fruit). No one knew how they got there but he found them delicious and collected seed.
While working on the railway line he noticed how good the soil was. His railway work allowed him to invest in land and he planted pawpaws and vines. The first pawpaws were sent to Johannesburg in the late 1890s and were a huge success.
Giacomo and his family moved between Italy and South Africa and built up a large Italian community in the Kaap River area. In 1935, he was supervising the construction of a little church near the Tonetti railway siding when scaffolding collapsed and he was sadly killed. I stand in the church surrounded by pawpaw plantations and can’t help but admire the foresight of a man who pioneered farming in this area.
As I take my leave, I think back on my discoveries along such a short stretch of road, and how many more lie waiting to be uncovered. All it takes is a little time and a bit of digging.