The greater Barberton area is one of the most intriguing tourist destinations in South Africa. The number of guesthouses and lodges in and around the town attests to its attraction, as do plans inspired by the local business and tourism community to get it listed as a World Heritage Site.
Get to know Barberton’s past
History and the scenic beauty and natural wonders of the surrounding mountains, known as the Makhonjwa, are its defining features.
The history part has several facets, starting with the town itself. It was born during the wild days back in the 1880s when the discovery of gold brought fortune hunters swarming into the region.
It has retained much of its old world charm. A Heritage Walk map obtainable from the town’s tourist office guides visitors to 24 historic sites, including a museum, charming homesteads and even kerbstones dating back to those early times.
Hikes and geological, birding and mine and panning tours are among the regional activities on offer.
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Another historic site is on a distant hill were scattered ruins are all that remain of Eureka City which in the mid-1880s had its own race course, two hotels, a post office and several shops. Visitors can only get there by guided 4-wheel-drive tours along a road that zigzags steeply up the mountain. Tours include a visit to the original cavern of what is still functioning as the nearby Sheba gold mine.
History of a more incredible kind can be experienced by following the Geotrail, as the R40 is known that winds for 40 kilometres up the mountainside from Barberton to the Josefsdal-Bulembu border post with Swaziland. It has a series of laybys with excellent interpretive panels and rock samples that paint a picture of Earth’s surface more than 3.2 billion years ago, including minute strips of fossils left by organisms that might represent the beginnings of life on our planet.
Flanking the road are two nature reserves that incorporate the scenic beauty and the natural attributes that are responsible for the region’s classification as a Centre of Plant Endemism and an Important Bird Area.
The 19 646-hectare Mountainlands Nature Reserve to the north-east of the Geotrail can be visited by specialist groups like geologists, archaeologists, botanists and birders, but is not yet open to the general public. It is made up of provincial, community and private land and the owners are working towards turning it into a tourist destination.
Stretching off to the south-east is the 50 000 hectare Songimvelo Nature Reserve that offers rugged 4-wheel-drive routes through spectacular mountain scenery, with wildlife like rhino, elephant, buffalo and a number of antelope species.
On its eastern border is a camp named Kromdraai which is run by the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency. It has attractive self-catering log cabins set among shady trees and offers hiking trails and picnic sites on the banks of the nearby Komati River that flows through the park. The park’s main gate, named Doornhoek, is on its south-western side where game drives can be arranged.
- For a guided tour of the Geotrail, contact Tony Ferrar at 072 376 2581, or [email protected]. For more information on the Geotrail see geotrail.co.za
- To make bookings for Songimvelo’s Kromdraai Camp, contact Betty Mnguni at 013 759 5432, or 072 778 1648, or email her at [email protected]. For more information on Songimvelo, go to mpumalanga.com. To phone Kromdraai Camp directly, dial 017 884 0047.
- For information on Barberton tourism, contact Astrid Christianson at [email protected] or phone 082 959 6670. See barberton.co.za
- For tours to Eureka City, visits to the old mines and the Songimvelo Nature Reserve and 4×4 trails, contact Dusty Tracks dustytracks.co.za.
- For gold panning and hiking trails contact Andrea Botha at 079 180 1488
Words and Photography Leon Marshall