The Grasslands & Wetlands region is often referred to as Mpumalanga’s ‘lake district’, and quite rightly so. This mountainous area is fed and watered by rivers, streams and wetlands and is filled with hundreds of silver lakes. It’s set in the south-eastern part of Mpumalanga, bordering Swaziland, KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State.
Grasslands & Wetlands is an important forestry and farming region. It includes the towns of Chrissiesmeer, Badplaas, Carolina, Ermelo, eMkhondo/Piet Retief, Volksrust, Wakkerstroom and Ekulindeni.
There is great beauty and history out here. The Grasslands & Wetlands region has fascinating Bushman paintings, haunting battle sites, ancient African ruins and mysterious giant footprints. But the birdlife is the star of the show. The centre of the Grasslands & Wetlands region is Chrissiesmeer. It has the largest freshwater lake in South Africa, with some 270 lakes and pans making up the whole system.
This habitat attracts hundreds of aquatic birds, including 20 000 flamingos that put on amazing annual displays. The wetlands around Wakkerstroom are also internationally-renowned amongst birders for its extraordinary diversity of wetland species.
Badplaas is a pretty and pleasant resort town in the foothills of the Ndlumudlumu mountains between Enthokozweni/Machadodorp and Carolina. The hot springs are one of the great attractions here are. They pump out some 30 000 litres of warm sulphurous water every hour. These waters have long been known for their restorative and healing properties.
Although nearby Carolina was destroyed during the Anglo-Boer War, it still has some beautiful sandstone buildings. It’s an easy drive to the majestic Komati Gorge and Komati River. These are great for hiking, birding, fishing, swimming and picnicking.
The village of Wakkerstroom is growing rapidly on the back of its popularity as a weekend birding destination. Emkhondo/Piet Retief is a stopover for travellers en route to Pongola and the north coast beaches of KwaZulu-Natal.
Volksrust is a quaint town with many historical battle sites. Lothair, close to Chrissiesmeer and Amsterdam, on the border of Swaziland, is a small town based on forestry and logging.
Another amazing part of the Grasslands & Wetlands region is the Somgimvelo Nature Reserve which is earmarked for World Heritage Site status. It is a 50 000ha mountain reserve with ancient rock formations. Songimvelo lies deep in the Barberton mountainlands. This area contains some of the world’s oldest geological records, dubbed the ‘Genesis of Life’.
Apart from attracting excited scientists, the mountains have also long attracted hikers, walkers and adventurers. They provide a mixture of forest and bush, with waterfalls and streams, underground caves and panoramic views. You can go on foot, on horseback, by mountain bike, quad bike or in a 4x4. There are excellent birding routes. Lone Tree Hill, has long been revered by paragliders and microlighters as one of the best jump spots in the country.
Look out for
Lake Chrissie and the lake district - The heart of the region, this area is steeped in history and beauty. Near to Chrissiesmeer you can also find a giant footprint embedded in rock, matching a similar footprint to be found in Canada. This quirky town wakes up once a year for the re-enactment of the bloody Battle of Chrissiesmeer fought during the Anglo-Boer War. Hundreds of enthusiastic participants dress up in the uniform of either the British army or the Boer Republic. It’s a fascinating spectacle as they fight mock battles. Other significant sites here are Dumbarton Oaks Hotel dating back to the late 1800s, and Billiard Cottage. This cottage was transported in pieces by ox-wagon all the way from Bloemfontein. It was a recreation mess for British soldiers during the war.
Birding at Wakkerstroom - One of the most popular birding spots in Mpumalanga’s wetlands region, the Wakkerstroom Nature Reserve is on the outskirts of a small town on the KwaZulu-Natal border. This is home to the best of South Africa’s grassland endemic species and other grass-loving birds. There is also a good cross section of waterbirds and interesting forest birds make this an exhilarating birding spot.
Frogging - Frogging is another attraction in Chrissiesmeer. The area of Siswati is also known as Matotoland, meaning ‘frog land’. There is a lively annual Frog Hunt event, in which thousands of visitors put on their raincoats and boots and head out to count the frogs.
The Great Outdoors - With so much water and so many mountains, there’s plenty of action to be had. The Grasslands & Wetlands region is known for its scenic hiking trails, horse riding adventures and 4x4 expeditions. There is also a range of water sports to be enjoyed.
Nooitgedacht Nature Reserve - The beautiful Nooitgedacht Nature Reserve is north-west of Carolina and has over 200 recorded bird species. This makes it a popular birding spot. There are wonderful day and overnight trails as well as horse riding.
Somgimvelo - One of Mpumalanga’s most exciting reserves, Somgimvelo is home to the Makonjwa mountains, which date back some 3,6 billion years. This is one of the most well-preserved sequences of sedimentary rocks on earth. The reserve is host to wonderful grasslands, and cave paintings left by the intrepid San people who once roamed here, leaving behind a virtual gallery of the masters of the Stone Age.
Barberton - Born of a gold rush and home to the country’s first stock exchange, Barberton today is charming town with well-preserved buildings, interesting restaurants and hotels. It has a wonderful heritage walk that takes you through the most historic part of the town.
The Anglo Boer War Battlefields - The region is steeped in the poignant history of the Anglo-Boer War. Throughout it there are battlefields and museums, grave sites and historic buildings.
Badplaas - Another great spot to spend a weekend away, Badplaas is known to offer a fairly unbeatable combination of good golfing and spa treatments, especially at Badplaas Hydro Spa. The healing waters of Badplaas are known to the locals as ‘Emanzana’. The beautiful rolling hills that form the backdrop to this resort town are called the Ndumudlumu hills – ‘the place of thunder’.