“This is the kind of town I live in,” says Sheryn Nader, plonking a stack of books on the table. We’re at The Genesis Restaurant for dinner and pink G&Ts. “I just grabbed a few to show you how much has been written about this place. I have more than 200 books that reference Barberton.”
Raindrops start falling on the restaurant’s tin roof. It’s music to our ears since the town is facing a drought.
We page through the books: Dynamite and Daisies by Piet Meiring, Lost Trails in the Makhonjwa Mountains by Bernard John Lovell de Souza, No Time To Die by Grace H Hall, Pioneers of the Lowveld and Cockney Liz: Legendary Barmaid of Barberton by Hans Bornman.
Sheryn is an occupational therapist, originally from Pretoria. “I had better job offers there than here, but when I saw the mountains, I knew that this was home.”
In true Barbertonian fashion, Sheryn is also writing a book. “There are lots of people like me,” she says. “We’re a little bit obsessed with Barberton – its history and the stories.”
Sheryn has lived in town for 22 years – a drop in the ocean compared to her husband Mark’s family, who have been here since the 1890s. Her book will focus on lesser-known histories, from the town’s gold rush origins more than a century ago until modern times. Her research has led her to some interesting tales, like the network of tunnels under the town… “Nobody knows why they were built,” she says. “I have a map and I know where they start. We suspect they might be bunkers and possibly Anglo-Boer War related.”
Then there’s the story of the Nazi spy who lived in Barberton. Lightning flashes and thunder booms as if for effect, while Sheryn explains: “I heard from three people about a crashed German plane found high in the mountains. Barberton had a big military training camp during World War II; an old general told me that the camp was put here strategically: It was where the Nazis thought they could invade South Africa.”
As our pizzas arrive, we switch to the topic of gold. “Barberton had one of the biggest gold rushes South Africa had ever seen, much bigger than the initial Joburg rush,” she says. “The biggest concentration of gold was found at Edwin Bray’s Golden Quarry; Sheba Mine is the oldest gold-producing mine in the world. People came to this little town from as far as Alaska and Australia – at some stage there were a thousand ox-wagons arriving per day. Those who were connected lived the high life. They were smoking dollar bills, bathing in champagne, and they’d use certain plates only once and then throw them over their shoulder. It was literally a fever. Goldrush fever.”
Back to that Nazi spy…
The next morning, I visit the Barberton Private Mining & History Museum, where owner Wynand Engelbrecht shows me old newspaper clippings and empty medicine bottles that were found hidden in the roof of the Full Gospel Church – another possible link to the stories passed on about the Nazi spy.
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