Words & pics Bridget Hilton-Barber
Just south of Barberton in Mpumalanga, lies a mountain range whose ancient green rocks preserve a unique scientific record of the pre-history of the earth. Bridget Hilton-Barber headed out of town to discover the ancient magic of Makhonjwa.
When my ancestors Fred, Henry and Graham Barber discovered gold in the De Kaap Valley in 1884, they broke a bottle of gin over the reef and named the place Barber’s Camp. It later became Barberton; and while there are still those in our family who grumble about the terrible waste of gin, the celebratory note struck in Barberton’s proclamation seems to strike every time I pass this way.
This time it struck hard and fast as we left town and headed for the Songimvelo Nature Reserve, a hundred kilometres away. We crossed over the increasingly urgent Komati River heading for Swaziland and then the ocean - and were soon were climbing up into the most amazing mountain scenery. Endless, soft and green - welcome to the Barberton Mountain Lands, greenstone rocks dating from the dawn of time.
Centrepiece of Songimvelo is the Makhonjwa Mountain, some of the oldest rocks on earth, dating back 3.5 billion years. They were among the first rocks to solidify on the earth’s crust, and contain remarkable evidence of the earliest life forms. Geologists, scientists and boffins from NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Agency) have been coming here for years in search of scientific clues to early earth - but it’s only now that the Makhonjwa mountains are earmarked for UNESCO World Heritage Site status, that the rest of us are starting to sit up and take note. You can’t really help it out here… not only are these mountains old and incredible, they are drop dead gorgeous. So drop dead gorgeous in fact that we pulled over and had a long, slow DIY G&T and drank in the views. You can take the Barber out of Barberton …
Songimvelo is part of the Songimvelo-Malalotja Transfrontier Conservation Area which also includes Malolotja in Swaziland, an equally wild mountain wilderness, characterised by mountains, valleys and floodplains. The accommodation is pretty rustic – either a campsite or self-catering wooden chalets (they sleep six) at Kromdraai in the eastern part of the reserve, with no electricity.
But that’s the magic of Makhonjwa. It’s wild. There’s a reason they call this part of Mpumalanga the Wild Frontier. It’s so wild in fact that at Songimvelo only five percent of the reserve has 4x4 access and most of the rangers here patrol on horseback. It’s the preferred mode and you can take guided rides – and also guided drives – into the dramatic reaches of the mountains.
There are more than 300 bird species – and we saw zebra, wildebeest and frisky giraffe who love the open grassy plains here, and elephant, crashing their way through the shadier wooded areas. You can also go on a guided walk to see some of the circular walls and ruins of small houses and religious structures that date back to 400BC.
Gold has been mined at Makhonjwa for more than a 120 years and some of the oldest gold on the planet is still mined here. (There’s an interesting jewellery project next to the Barberton Museum which promotes local design and craftsmanship.)
But the strongest Makhonjwa magic comes when you take time out to be still and breathe and admire: the forest, the bush, the caves and stream, the views, the last wild population of the delightfully unruly sounding Woolly Cycad. And of course the ancient rocks themselves. “Here in Barberton is the Rosetta Stone for this period of time.” wrote Professor Don Lowe of Stanford University in California. “These rock layers are like the pages of a book that we can read and translate in terms of early Earth’s history”. Eish.
• For more information check out Mpumalanga Parks and Tourism Agency’s website www.mpta.co.za; call +27 (0)13 759 5300/01; fax +27 (0)13 755 3928 or email [email protected]
• Cost: From R450 a chalet a night, plus a one-off entry fee of R15 a person and R25 a vehicle. Self-driving in the reserve is R125 a vehicle and guided game drives are R125 a person.
• It’s also worth checking out Barberton and surrounds, click on www.barberton.co.za or www.barbertontourism.com