Mpumalanga is Zulu for ‘the place where the sun rises’, and its major natural attractions have long been a favoured escape for travellers the world over looking for wildlife and dramatic scenery. But there’s a lot more for the traveller once the Kruger National Park, Blyde River Canyon, and Dullstroom have been ticked off the list.
Truth is, many of these places are a long drive from the main centres of Tshwane and Johannesburg, so there is a real need to find destinations better suited as a short weekend escape – with a bit of adventure thrown into the mix. So when the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency invited us to experience Songimvelo Nature Reserve and some of Barberton’s unique mining history, we accepted in a flash. The chance to drive two resuscitated 4x4 routes just added to the appeal.
Established in 1987, Somgimvelo is not on the primary tourist routes, yet at 48 000 hectares it is the largest in Mpumalanga, near the famously-scenic Barberton Mountainlands (which have been proposed as a World Heritage Site). It’s also strategically nestled against the north-western border of Eswatini (Swaziland), so has long been a prime candidate as a tourism node for the SongimveloMalolotja Transfrontier Conservation Area. The latter initiative has been slow to develop, and there have been some hitches related to poaching and a dispute over cattle in the reserve, but we are hoping these are now a thing of the past.
The game plan
So that’s the background to SA4x4’s Anton Willemse and I all packed up in a Isuzu D-Max 2.5 double cab, heading out from Johannesburg early one scorching late spring morning. We are due to meet national nature guide Gideon Stapelberg and his wife later in the day in Barberton, a 350km drive.
There’s been a hitch, of course. Before we set off, I realise I have forgotten an essential baseplate for my camera gimbal back in Cape Town, turning it into a very heavy paperweight. After some Googling, I manage to find a plate which isn’t perfect but will do the job. Luckily the shop is very close to the home of our other partner-in-crime, Riaan Jooste from Complete 4x4.
After picking up Riaan and stopping at Outdoorphoto to fix my very expensive packing mistake (always make a list), we hit the highway. There’s a bit of a headwind, and our 100kW D-Max is needing frequent downshifts on the hills to keep a decent pace – though with three heavy fellows on board, along with all their luggage, a warehouse worth of camera equipment and a full tank of diesel, it’s to be expected.
After passing through Dullstroom and onto the R38 over Nelshoogte Pass, we roll into a toasty Barberton to meet up with Gideon and Nick Meintjies, a Barberton local. Nick is an interesting character, and he knows his local history. His first stop on the local flavour tour is the Barberton bowling club, the second oldest bowling club in the country. Situated at the top of a mine on a mountain, with views forever in every direction, it is almost enough to make even me consider taking up bowling.
We have a quick prego roll for lunch before making our way across to Cloete mine, an old gold mine about 10km outside Barberton. Nick guides us through one of the access tunnels to give us an idea of what working conditions were like more than 100 years ago. We are fortunate enough to have phone lights and flashlights that can turn night into day, but trying to walk with a phone light in one hand, while holding a camera and gimbal which is recording video in the other hand, in a darkness like I had never experienced before, results in a few knocks and bumps. We only walk about 170 metres in and then down one of the side shafts, but because of the absence of any light, it feels like kilometres.
On our drive up, we jokingly say, “Manne ons gaan goud kry.” True story. Nick shows us how to pan for gold, using the ancient technique in the stream that runs through the mine, and as Nick clears out the pan, we strike it lucky. Granted, it is only a speck as big as the tip of a needle, but it is gold, real gold.
After experiencing our own little ‘gold rush’ we make our way out of Barberton along the R38 and then turn off to Saddleback Pass, otherwise known as the Barberton Makhonjwa Geotrail. It’s on the R40, a 27km tar road that eventually leads to the Josefdal-Bulembu border post with Eswatini. There are 11 demarcated tourist vantage points along the road, each offering a vastly different view to the one before.
At one of these stops, Nick points out lines on the mountainside that don’t look like much until he points out they have been caused by a tsunami. I can’t believe it, because where we were standing is about 200 kilometres from the nearest ocean, at Maputo.
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