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Place of Banditry and Hope

Place of Banditry and Hope

Jun 2016

Words and pics Leon Marshall

In the Barberton area, the Makhonjwa Mountains that straddle the border between Swaziland and South Africa give cause for deep reflection about the meaning of life. This comes to me as I walk among the ghosts of Eureka City, on a hilltop with wide views of a surrounding landscape that has also come to be called the Genesis of Life.

The mountains hold valuable clues to how life started on Earth more than three billion years ago. The fossils left by those first micro-organisms are etched into rocks where they can be seen with the naked eye. Scientists from the world over arrive here to chip away at the ancient rock and study the bits under their microscopes.

All that remains of the mining town called Eureka City that sprung up on that hilltop 131 years ago are scattered ruins. The story it has to tell is as much about the intrepid spirit of humankind as it is about the depravities we as the supposed crowning glory of life on Earth can sink to.

Calling it a city was over the top. It hardly got past being a village before dying a slow death towards the turn of the century, as the diggers moved to the new goldfields of the Witwatersrand. But Eureka City would have had a ring to it in those spirited times, when the rich gold strike of 1884 gave birth to the bustling town of Barberton some ten kilometres away, and brought prospectors and diggers swarming into the Makhonjwa Mountains in search of more riches.

A former butcher from Durban named J Sherwood was first to see the sense in moving from Barberton to cater for the gold hunters’ needs, closer to where they were making promising strikes up the mountains. He named the hotel he opened on that hilltop in 1885 the Queen of Sheba. A short way down the hill, at about the same time, a Yorkshireman named Edwin Bray struck a reef so laden with gold it was classed the richest goldmine in the world.

The mine, also called Sheba, still operates. Theories about the reasoning behind the naming differ. One is that it refers to the Biblical story about the gold the Queen of Sheba brought to King Solomon. Another holds that Sherwood’s wife was so unattractive the diggers mockingly called her the Queen of Sheba, and that her husband, in keeping with the base satire, named his hotel after her.

The rich gold strikes quickly brought Eureka City a liquor store, shops, a butchery and bakery, a post office and several canteens. Soon it even had a racecourse with yet another hotel alongside. Then the brigands known as the Irish Brigade struck. The full story of how particularly one of their number named Jack McLoughlin won notoriety throughout the land is told by historian Charles van Onselen in his seminal book Showdown at the Red Lion.

Jack and his fellow rogues, most of Irish origin, took over Eureka City for a week, drinking, brawling, vandalising property and intimidating the locals. They decided to clear off only once the town’s Justice of the Peace, one Thomas Neale, sought police help from Barberton. Some fled across the border into Mozambique. Others tried to hide in the bushes but were picked up and sentenced to jail in Barberton.

Local tour operator Andrea Botha shows me around Eureka City. We were brought here by Barberton Tourism marketing manager Astrid Christianson, who laughs heartily when I tell her she drives her four-wheel-drive vehicle like a klipspringer up the treacherous track that zigzags up the mountainside.

We wander among the signposted remains of the old town. At the ruin of the Queen of Sheba Hotel, later renamed the Central Hotel, Andrea picks up the thick bottom of a broken beer bottle and weighs it in her hand. “With all the bar fighting that went on here, imagine being hit over the head with this,” she says with a smile, as we stare across the picturesque landscape.

Along the steep track down the mountainside we pass a derelict building with a rusted corrugated-iron roof and a sign that says ‘Sheba School 1886’. At the bottom we park and Andrea leads us up a dry creek to a staircase that takes us into a large cavern named Golden Quarry.

We are at the fourth level of what started there as Sheba Mine back in 1885. Taking visitors there is part of Andrea’s tour around the old digger sites. She holds certificates and has practical experience in various aspects of mining, which makes her telling of what happened all the more captivating.

Standing in dim sunlight coming through a hole high above, she gazes around the enormous chamber and says, “I cannot help marvelling every time I come here at what those old miners accomplished with their simple tools… hammers, chisels, picks and shovels.” Nearly a kilometre below our feet, miners are still following the reef, now with decidedly advanced equipment.

Prospects of a different sort are now beckoning for the surrounding countryside, once dug up by fortune seekers. Altogether 19 646 hectares that harbour much of the region’s geological, archaeological and botanical riches are protected by the Mountainlands Nature Reserve. Plans are progressing towards turning it, along with the wider region, into a major tourist destination.

The landscape’s conservation and tourism worth was already recognised as far back as 1985 when the old Transvaal administration proclaimed it as Phase 3 of the Barberton Nature Reserve, the smaller phases 1 and 2 being separated from it by the R38 that runs from Barberton to where it links with the N4 at Kaapmuiden.

The three phases together amount to 27 800 hectare, but it is the most sizeable Phase 3, renamed Mountainlands Nature Reserve in 2006, that holds the most promise and, at the same time, presents the biggest challenge.

Our politics of transition did nothing to hasten progress towards turning it into a proper nature reserve. Another obstacle has been the diverse ownership of the land. About half of it is held by Mpumalanga province. A third belongs to the Oosthuizen family, who is developing their part into a private reserve named Mountainlands Estate that has 18 secluded stands on which private investors can build their own lodges or luxury homes. Most of the rest belongs to the adjacent Lomshiyo community, whose tourism plans include construction of a lodge.

Negotiations between the various parties towards the consolidation, management and tourist development of the Mountainlands Nature Reserve started about ten years ago. Their agreement is contained in a bulky master plan that sets out their vision for the reserve as a public-private partnership under the administrative authority of the Mpumalanga Parks and Tourism Agency.

The reserve has since been fenced in, game species have been systematically reintroduced and roads have been constructed. But plans for its opening to the public are a work in progress.

For the moment, only guided tours to Eureka City and mines, such as that conducted by Andrea Botha, are permitted. Specialist groups like geologists, archaeologists, botanists and birders can get in by special arrangement through the Barberton Tourism office.

I am given a taste of Mountainlands’ natural delights by Delia Oosthuizen, who manages the marketing of stands in the Oosthuizen family’s private reserve. The region is a Centre of Plant Endemism, and she is an expert on its plants and runs her own herbarium.

The track we drive along crests mountains and dips into deep valleys with bubbling streams and thick forest in parts. “I spend as much time as I can out here,” she says, when we stop to admire the flowers. “I just feel so blessed when I look around me.”

From its hilltop position in the distance, Eureka City holds fort as the ghost capital of Mountainlands. Down the mountain from it, beside the road that leads to the Sheba Mine, is a mausoleum standing in a small graveyard. It holds the graves of the three children of Agnes and Howard Hill whose first child died in 1895, the second in 1903 and the third in 1905. It doesn’t say from what they perished, but malaria was rife. Therein too lies a story about life.

Source: Country Life

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