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Gold Rush Mountain Gambol

Text: Marion Whitehead: Source: This article is from the October 2011 issue of Getaway.

Steep climbs and hairpin bends characterise the scenic mountain passes around Barberton, tucked into a corner of the historic Lowveld gold fields between Kruger National Park and Swaziland.

Steep climbs and hairpin bends characterise the scenic mountain passes around Barberton, tucked into a corner of the historic Lowveld gold fields between Kruger National Park and Swaziland.

The best way to get to know the area around Barberton to is drive one of its three panoramic routes. These offer grand views across the De Kaap Valley and the surrounding Barberton Mountainlands Nature Reserve and Makhonjwa Mountains into Swaziland. Many still follow the original wagon routes in places and, with a little imagination, you can time travel back to the gold-rush days.

Bouldersberg Loop

This easy, half-day drive of 140 kilometres includes two of the main routes to Barberton from the north, plus another two optional but pretty passes that cut out much of the busy N4.

Digger's Retreat Pub host Mark SeadyFrom Barberton, take the R38 to Kaapmuiden. Beyond Digger’s Retreat is Essey’s Pass, a cutting in a rocky cliff above the Kaap River named after the roads inspector during its construction between 1924 and 1927. The pass eliminated a number of river crossings on the old coach road used by Percy Fitzpatrick, author of Jock of the Bushveld, and his transport rider cronies, who had to make eight river crossings before linking up with the Delagoa Bay route from the Mozambique coast. Watch out for the geometric shapes painted on stones beside the R38 just after passing the Esperado turn-off. They’re the work of outsider artist Nukain Mabusa.

Turn left towards Bouldersberg Pass just before the R38 meets the N4 at Kaapmuiden. The narrow, tarred road through the Crocodile Gorge Conservancy climbs into hills, then plateaus out amid huge granite boulders perched on top of bald koppies. The name of the bridge in Gould’s Salvation Valley harks back to gold-rush days when this was a popular route used to reach Barberton from the north and, because it was free of tsetse flies, it was a life-saver for the draught animals used to pull the wagons.

Join the N4 and travel west for about six kilometres before turning left onto the gravel road to Uitkyk Pass. This takes you through the Tipperary region of the Crocodile Mountain Conservancy, where smallholdings and private guest lodges abound. The condition of the road deteriorates as it gains height, with vistas to the east opening up.

Stop at the saddle near the top for panoramic views to the east and west of distinctive pointy koppies topped with big boulders. The descent through bluegum plantations was quite badly eroded at the time of Getaway’s visit, but the road improves as you approach the outskirts of Mbombela (Nelspruit). To avoid the centre of town, turn left at Dr Enos Mabuza Drive and continue for four kilometres to Madiba Road, which becomes the R40 to Barberton.

From the crest of Hilltop Pass, on the rim of the De Kaap Valley, there’s an amazing view but nowhere to stop, which is a pity as you can’t afford to let your attention wander on the steep hairpin bends.

Shiyalongubo Loop

This 84-kilometre route takes in two passes in the mountains south and west of Barberton: one tarred and in good condition, the other a rutted, rough-and-ready road which turns to slippery mud after rain and requires a 4×4 if you’re prepared to risk it.

From Barberton, drive the tarred R40 towards the Josefsdal/Bulembu border post with Swaziland. The first steep ascent is the beginning of Saddleback Pass and provides magnificent views over the De Kaap Valley and Barberton. The route runs through Barberton Mountainlands Nature Reserve, where you can still see the remains of gold-mining excavations.

Road cuttings reveal some of the oldest rocks on Earth’s crust (see below) and, because of its global significance, the area is in the process of being proclaimed a World Heritage Site.

Shiyalongubo DamAt the beginning of the pine plantations, turn left onto the gravel road to Shiyalongubo Dam – it’s bumpy and best to have a high-clearance vehicle. The highlight is a patch of indigenous forest called Pedlar’s Bush, a favourite with birders who come to see Gurney’s sugarbirds, malachite sunbirds, buff-streaked chats and broad-tailed warblers.

The large dam is a favourite fishing and picnic spot, particularly when its glassy surface mirrors the surrounding mountains. At the T-junction, turn right for a view across the dam. If you don’t have the right vehicle, go back the way you came, but if you like a little fun on rough roads, continue down the steep Shiyalongubo Pass where loose ground is the norm and yawning drops on hairpin bends are unprotected by any kind of barrier. Once past a mine and a couple of villages, you join the R38 at the Louieville turn-off, not far from Low’s Creek. Turn left to return to Barberton.

Bulembu Loop

This jaw-droppingly beautiful route takes you through Barberton Mountainlands Nature Reserve and pine plantations into big-mountain country on the Swaziland border. You have the option of visiting this neighbouring kingdom and returning on the same 40-kilometre road, or on a 250-kilometre, more adventurous back route through Songimvelo Game Reserve via Badplaas.

Go up Saddleback Pass, continue on the tarred R40 over the causeway past the Mlomati Dam. As the serpentine road winds over the undulating terrain, you pass below the old aerial cable-way from Barberton station to Bulembu a number of times. This 20-kilometre cableway was built in 1937 to carry asbestos ore from Havelock Mine in Swaziland, but is now closed.

Approaching the Swazi border, the valleys get deeper and mountains bigger. After the turn-off to Oshoek and Badplaas, the R40 descends to the Josefsdal/Bulembu border post. Stop in for lunch or overnight at Bulembu Country Lodge, two kilometres down the rather neglected road.

Oldest rocks on earth

The rocks of the ancient Barberton Greenstone Belt, visible in the Makhonjwa Mountains, are some of the oldest on Earth – scientists put their age at 3,5 billion years. ‘This is the best preserved example of Earth’s ancient crust in the world,’ says guide and wildlife ecologist Tony Ferrar.

Geologists have found fossil traces of monocellular organisms, which have pushed the estimated date of the beginning of life back by a billion years. Traces of ancient tidal marks have been used to calculate the interval between spring and neap tides 3,2 billion years ago. Sites of interest along Saddleback Pass, dubbed the Genesis Route, will be upgraded with interpretation boards in preparation for when it’s declared a Worlf Heritage Site.

The long route back to Barberton, via the rough and scenically stunning gravel road to Badplaas, winds through Songimvelo Game Reserve (see June 2011 issue of Getaway). The steep descent above Ekulindeni (Msoli) is a series of badly eroded hairpin bends where you wouldn’t dream of hitting the 40km/h speed limit. After passing through the Ekulindeni checkpoint, the sight of neatly mowed lawns beside the briefly tarred road is rather incongruous in what is virtually a ghost town since the mine closed down.

Once across the Nkomati River, a series of detours for roadworks gives hope of improvements for a surface where potholes long ago gained the upper hand over the ragged tar. Beyond Elukwatini, the condition of the road improves as it joins the R541 to Badplaas, where you link up with the R38 back to Barberton.

From the west, the climb up Nelshoogte Pass is a gradual ascent to an upper plateau covered in pine plantations. Soon after the road starts descending, it curves around the distinctive giant granite knuckles of Nelshoogte Pass. There are a couple of places to stop below the knuckles, but otherwise views of Barberton are restricted by thick pine plantations.


Barberton - MpumalangaGold – the promise of fortunes to be dug out of the hills bordering Swaziland lured many prospectors over rutted tracks down steep mountains and into the bowl-shaped De Kaap Valley in the southern Lowveld in the 1880s. Today’s roads are vastly improved and Barberton is no longer a South African version of the Wild West, but there are still adventures to be had in this corner of Mpumalanga.

However, the town remains a little rough around the edges and offers visitors a less touristy, more genuine experience than the Lowveld’s other gold-rush dorp of Pilgrim’s Rest.

Barberton’s heritage route and gold-panning tours give a nod to its past, while it lives firmly in the present and provides plenty of adventure activities for visitors to enjoy in a lush, scenic environment, from hiking and birding to paragliding and hot-air ballooning,


Best Views: From the R40 just before the Swaziland border with South Africa.

Prettiest Picnic Spots: Shiyalongubo Dam

Top Hike: The two-day Queen Rose Trail. Tel 083-545-0900,


Best Birding: Pedlar’s Bush on the Shiyalongubo Dam road.

Most Heart-Warming Sanctuary: Chimpanzee Eden off the R40. Entrance R120 a person.

Tel 079-777-1514, website.

Quirkiest Art Gallery: Nukain Mabasa’s painted rocks beside the R38 opposite the Esperado


Lushest Garden: Lowveld National Botanical Garden in Mbombela.

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More info on the town of Sabie More info on the Panorama Route area

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