Barberton buzzed with gold prospectors in the 1880s and in comparison may seem a sleepy town these days. But from the first stock exchange to an abandoned playground, there’s plenty of historical treasures to uncover. So hop in the car and start ticking off our list of things to do in Barberton.
1. Walk Back in Time
The Barberton Heritage Walk is an interesting 2km walk beginning at the Barberton Museum. It takes you past some of the beautiful old houses, a few of the famous taverns and bars (that made the town a rowdy place in gold prospecting days) and the first stock exchange in South Africa. It’s worth picking up the brochure at the Museum and encouraging the various guides at the stately old houses to give you a tour. They will show you the interesting titbits that you are liable to miss.
Barberton Museum; 013 712 4208
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2. Drive back in Time
The Makhonjwa Geotrail is a 40km self-guided drive from Barberton up to the Josefsdal border post into Swaziland. Although geologists have been interested in these rocks for the last 40 years, this area has only recently been declared a World Heritage Site because it has some of the oldest exposed rocks in the world. Collect an information book at the Barberton Museum in town, take a picnic and head for the hills. The information boards along the way are excellent and make ancient history come alive.
To find out more about the Makhonjwa Mountains and the geotrail, visit the trail’s website.
3. Loop the Loop
For those who like dirt there is an untarred road near the Swaziland border that is signposted to Oshoek and Diepgezet. This is a beautiful pass down towards the more well-known Swaziland Oshoek border and is a pretty drive. About 20km from the turn off is the ruins of the old Msauli asbestos mine. Owned by Gencor it was abandoned about 15 years ago and the ruins of the old club and buildings can be seen. A kiddies’ playground still has a jungle gym, skatepark and seesaw. Down in the overgrown bushes a small Ferris wheel stands rusting in faded yellow and red and I swear I could hear the echoes of children playing and laughing. This road has an eerie atmosphere but is fun for those who like to feel they are off the beaten track. It crosses the Komati River and you can then loop back to Barberton on the R38 via Badplaas.
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4. Across the border
Another interesting visit is to go across the border at Josefsdal and only 2km further on you come to what is now known as Bulembu. Formerly Havelock after the asbestos mine, the old village has been turned into an orphanage. In 1939 this mine was developed when asbestos became the new wonder product for fire retardation but the mine was finally closed in 1991 after the world recognised the dangers inherent in the mineral. The most interesting part of Bulembu is its museum at the main cable car headgear where the asbestos was sent in buckets over the mountain to Barberton. The museum is interestingly laid out and the old equipment is well preserved.
You can overnight at Bulembu Country Lodge or just ask them for the keys to the museum and let yourself in.
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5. Drive the Gorge
The Crocodile River runs through Nelspruit and then cuts its way through a spectacular gorge known as the Crocodile Gorge on its way to the sea in Mozambique. It was originally thought it would be too difficult to build a railway line through this steep gorge made of granite. But in the 1890’s the line was eventually built taking its heavy toll as 127 people died of fever and 500 donkeys were lost to either the tsetse fly or lions. The national road, the N4, through the gorge was only built in 1927. Look out for remains of old forts built to protect the railway line in the Anglo Boer War. The best way to drive this scenic road if you are staying in Barberton is to drive to Nelspruit on the R40 then take the N4 east through the Gorge and loop back on the R38 to Barberton.
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Words and Photography Sue Adams
A journalist by trade, features writer on occasion and now the digital editor of SA Country Life. The first chance she gets, Leigh will tell you about a podcast she was recently listening to and how you simply have to make the move from radio. In a previous life, she once taught English on Jeju which left her with an insatiable craving for kimchi.