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Songimvelo Nature Reserve & Barberton – Where the sun rises

We are invited to test-drive two long-closed 4×4 trails, experience Songimvelo Nature Reserve, and get a taste of Mpumalanga’s lesser-known natural wonders

Story Jacques Viljoen
Photography Jacques Viljoen & Anton Willemse

Mpumalanga is Zulu for ‘the place where the sun rises’, and its major natural attractions have long been a favoured escape for travellers the world over looking for wildlife and dramatic scenery. But there’s a lot more for the traveller once the Kruger National Park, Blyde River Canyon, and Dullstroom have been ticked off the list. Truth is, many of these places are a long drive from the main centres of Tshwane and Johannesburg, so there is a real need to find destinations better suited as a short weekend escape – with a bit of adventure thrown into the mix. So when the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency invited us to experience Songimvelo Nature Reserve and some of Barberton’s unique mining history, we accepted in a flash. The chance to drive two resuscitated 4×4 routes just added to the appeal.

Established in 1987, Somgimvelo is not on the primary tourist routes, yet at 48 000 hectares, it is the largest in Mpumalanga, near the famously-scenic Barberton Mountainlands (which have been proposed as a World Heritage Site). It’s also strategically nestled against the north-western border of Eswatini (Swaziland), so has long been a prime candidate as a tourism node for the Songimvelo-Malolotja Transfrontier Conservation Area. The latter initiative has been slow to develop, and there have been some hitches related to poaching and a dispute over cattle in the reserve, but we are hoping these are now a thing of the past.

The game plan

So that’s the background to SA4x4’s Anton Willemse and I all packed up in a Isuzu D-Max 2.5 double cab, heading out from Johannesburg early one scorching late spring morning. We are due to meet national nature guide Gideon Stapelberg and his wife later in the day in Barberton, a 350km drive. There’s been a hitch, of course. Before we set off, I realise I have forgotten an essential baseplate for my camera gimbal back in Cape Town, turning it into a very heavy paperweight. After some Googling, I manage to find a plate which isn’t perfect but will do the job. Luckily the shop is very close to the home of our other partner-in-crime, Riaan Jooste from Complete 4×4. After picking up Riaan and stopping at Outdoorphoto to fix my very expensive packing mistake (always make a list), we hit the highway. There’s a bit of a headwind, and our 100kW D-Max is needing frequent downshifts on the hills to keep a decent pace – though with three heavy fellows on board, along with all their luggage, a warehouse worth of camera equipment and a full tank of diesel, it’s to be expected.

After passing through Dullstroom and onto the R38 over Nelshoogte Pass, we roll into a toasty Barberton to meet up with Gideon and Nick Meintjies, a Barberton local. Nick is an interesting character, and he knows his local history. His first stop on the local flavour tour is the Barberton bowling club, the second oldest bowling club in the country. Situated at the top of a mine on a mountain, with views forever in every direction, it is almost enough to make even me consider taking up bowling.

We have a quick prego roll for lunch before making our way across to Cloete mine, an old gold mine about 10km outside Barberton. Nick guides us through one of the access tunnels to give us an idea of what working conditions were like more than 100 years ago. We are fortunate enough to have phone lights and flashlights that can turn night into day, but trying to walk with a phone light in one hand, while holding a camera and gimbal which is recording video in the other hand, in a darkness like I had never experienced before, results in a few knocks and bumps. We only walk about 170 metres in and then down one of the side shafts, but because of the absence of any light, it feels like kilometres.

On our drive up, we jokingly say, “Manne ons gaan goud kry.” True story. Nick shows us how to pan for gold, using the ancient technique in the stream that runs through the mine, and as Nick clears out the pan, we strike it lucky. Granted, it is only a speck as big as the tip of a needle, but it is gold, real gold.

WHO TO USE

Barberton adventures is the company to contact if you want to explore the mines. They will get you access to the mines and have very knowledgeable guides. www.barbertonadventures.co.za

Geological wonders

After experiencing our own little ‘gold rush’ we make our way out of Barberton along the R38 and then turn off to Saddleback Pass, otherwise known as the Barberton Makhonjwa Geotrail. It’s on the R40, a 27km tar road that eventually leads to the Josefdal-Bulembu border post with Eswatini. There are 11 demarcated tourist vantage points along the road, each offering a vastly different view to the one before. At one of these stops, Nick points out lines on the mountainside that don’t look like much until he points out they have been caused by a tsunami.

I can’t believe it, because where we were standing is about 200 kilometres from the nearest ocean, at Maputo. The vantage point at 12.7km is the one with the best view. It has a few information plaques explaining the origins of the various pieces of rock on what is known as Barberton’s Greenstone belt, including that of pillow lava, which is formed when volcanic lava hits cold ocean water giving it a silky smooth texture unlike the jagged texture of normal lava. Some of the ancient volcanic and sedimentary rock around the Barberton area is up to 3.57 billion years old. On our way to our accommodation in Songimvelo, we come across a very steep hill which is used by bikers and 4x4ers to get some action for the day.

It isn’t the most challenging section, but it’s rutted and very steep in places. After throwing the Isuzu in low range, Riaan gets up with ease. This is where we gain a whole load of respect for the D-Max 2.5. Our drive takes us to Ekulindeni, a very small town about 54km south of Barberton which borders the eastern entrance of the Songimvelo Nature Reserve. To get to Songimvelo, follow the R40 from Barberton for 36km then turn right onto the gravel road. This road takes you straight into Ekulindeni, where you follow the signs to Songimvelo Nature Reserve.

Our lodgings are at Kromdraai campsite, which sits next to the Komati River. They offer campsites and log cabins, and when we find out that our cabins have air-con, a universal sigh of relief murmurs through the car. It has been a long and achingly-hot day. It is a pity, then, to discover the said aircons are ineffective at anything more than a 1.5-metre radius, and only work at night. It is, unfortunately, part of a general theme of neglect, along with room fans that don’t work, ill-equipped kitchens, loose toilets, and very noisy locals.

WHERE TO STAY

LUXURY

If you are looking for luxury accommodation in the area, consider staying at Mountain Aloe Den. It offers more luxurious cabins than Kromdraai and has a near 240° view, but capacity is limited.
Location: 25°56’40.6″S 31°06’54.0″E
Price: R700 per room
Bookings: Isaac – 072 088 7098

CAMPING

If you want to camp, Kromdraai has plenty of sites available about 14km into Songimvelo Nature Reserve.
Location: 26°02’31.9″S 31°00’15.1″E
Price: R200 per site (max 6 people)
Bookings: Robert – 013 759 5300

FOR THE AUTHENTIC EXPERIENCE

Want to fully immerse yourself in the culture with a dab of luxury? Ebutsini Cultural Centre offers Swazi huts that have been converted into very comfy accommodation with electricity, water, and ablutions.
Location: 26°05’05.5″S 30°59’38.7″E
Price: R350 per person/R595 sharing
Bookings: Thuli – 082 815 4744

Songimvelo and the Dunbar Trail

Eventually, we settle down for a braai and a few cold ones to discuss our agenda for the next day. The first challenge will be to drive the out-and-back Dunbar 4×4 trail, an Eskom service road turned trail inside Songimvelo Nature Reserve.

We are also able to garner some knowledge about the reserve and get to understand why it is a destination for many international scientists. Apart from the ancient geological wonders hidden in Makonjwa Mountain, the highest peak in the reserve, there is also a fascinating stone-walled formation dating back to 400 BC. Botanists are perhaps more interested in the 1 400 known plant species, which range from several recently-discovered species to the last wild population of the Woolly cycad. The landscape is spectacular too, and ranges from savanna plains to high grassy mountains and rolling hills, whose broken landscapes make this reserve one of the most aesthetically attractive areas in the province.

We are surprised to find Songimvelo is home to four of the Big Five, with the lion being the only absentee. With its dramatic deep valleys and gorges leading into the Komati River Valley, the reserve is home to over 60 species of mammals. The reserve has, for many years, been an important breeding centre for white rhino. After an early breakfast sarmie, we are ready to hit the Dunbar Trail, a relatively easy route, despite its seven river crossings. We discover that some 4×4 experience and low range is essential. There is one very loose incline with big rocks, so pick the wrong line or carry too much speed and you are going to leave your car there. It’s at this point that Anton insists I get some seat time in a manual 4×4. At the bottom of the climb, Riaan simply says, “Put it in first in low range, release the clutch, and watch the magic happen.” With a bit of trepidation, I follow his instructions. And here the Isuzu amazes all of us. With the confidence of the proverbial mountain goat, and without much driver input other than steering, it simply walks up the loose ascent. Facing a steep descent a while later, Riaan gives me the same instructions, “Just release the clutch and let her go on compression.” No problem. The D-Max makes it all look like kindergarten stuff. We have a great picnic stop next to a river at the 7km turnaround point, taking a break from the bumping of the vehicle, while surrounded by the incredible green mountains that mark this area. After some 3.5 hours of ups and downs, we end back at the departure point.

AT A GLANCE: Dunbar 4×4 Trail

Cost: R330 per vehicle
Start point: 25°59’56.2″S 31°03’57.2″E
Distance: 14km
Time to complete: 4 hours
Terrain: Jeep track with a few rocky sections and river crossings
Difficulty: Grade 1 up to 2 at places
Bookings: 013 759 5300

An abandoned town

Our next stop is a ghost town, reached off the twisting Diepgezet Pass, winding down through indigenous forests. Known as Msauli (and also Diepgezet), this was once a thriving asbestos mining community, abandoned in 2001 when the mineral’s health issues came to worldwide attention.

As I am trying to capitalise on the limited cell phone signal available, Riaan walks up to me and says, “Come check this out, I feel sick.” I see a sign that says ‘Recreational Club’ as Riaan takes me through a door made of railway sleepers. A stunning spectacle greets me; a bar where everything is made with sleepers. While we are walking through the room, dodging pieces of broken furniture and glass bottles I find myself trying to imagine what the bar was like when it was operational, but I am interrupted and brought out of imagination station by Riaan saying, “You haven’t seen the best part.” As we pass the secondary private bar and kitchen I see a snooker table slowly appearing around the corner. I am not quite ready for what appears as I enter the room – a full-size slate snooker table. Here, in a town where the people stealing cables are waving at us as we drive through, is this gem of a bar with an untouched snooker table.

The town also has a nine-hole golf course and a swimming pool so big you can launch jet-skis from it; well, that’s according to Moses, the Chief of Council, from the local tribe who accompanies us on this visit.
At the end of another scorching day, with little hiding from the sun, we make a quick re-supply trip to Elukwatini, 37km away from our base at Kromdraai. It’s the closest place to find major shops like Spar and various restaurants. In the evening, a few Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency employees join us for a braai at Kromdraai, where we have some very interesting conversations about the area and specifically Msauli village. There is so much rich history in the Barberton area, much of it associated with the changing fortunes of the mining industry, and I sit for hours listening to the locals telling stories with a passion that is hard to beat.

The Ebutsini Trail

At 07:00 the alarms go off, and we groan out of bed as we have planned an early video shoot with our guests from the previous night. After the shoot and a quick breakfast, we move out of the reserve and head south to the Ebutsini Cultural Centre to meet Amos, who will be our 4×4 route guide for the day. Ebutsini proves to be a more difficult trail with a few tricky ascents, very narrow sections, and slippery grass descents. Once again, experience and low range are compulsory. The trail rewards us with beautiful vistas and various types of rock, especially white quartz. We even find mushrooms so large they dwarf two big DSLR cameras side by side. Everywhere you drive in this area you are reminded of the mining industry. One of the hills has 13 shafts dug into it, but with no success, according to Gideon who is driving with us.

We eventually make it to ‘white quartz donga’, a part of the trail that you can only go through if you have a winch. Neither of our vehicles has winches, so we think we will just look at it and find an alternative route. Riaan, then, has the great idea of driving down into the donga, turning the car around and then driving out the way the car came in. Anton isn’t keen on the idea, but after some persuasion, he agrees that it can be done safely, and once again, the Isuzu impresses us with its ability to crawl over obstacles.

There are plenty of scenic viewpoints to stop at along the route, which is not all challenging, plus we come across a number of villages comprising round beehive huts, where we are given a friendly welcome.

After another long and hot day of being thrown around in the car, we make another supply run with the Isuzu making easy-going of gravel roads, before we head over to the western entrance of Songimvelo, to meet up with Gideon. Our plan is to take a west-east route through the reserve to get back to Kromdraai campsite. However, the vague directions from the man who runs the luxury lodge on the western entrance (“Just follow the main route”) soon have us lost among the many options through the reserve.

AT A GLANCE: Ebutsini 4×4 Trail

Start point: 26°05’05.8″S 30°59’38.6″E
Cost: R350
Distance: 30km
Time to complete: 5 hours
Conditions: Mostly Jeep track with a few narrow rocky sections
Difficulty: Grade 2-3
Bookings: +27 (0)17 884-0352

A fitting finale

Time is a problem, as we have to get back to Ebutsini Cultural Centre for dinner and a Swazi “cultural experience”, so we get back onto the main gravel road linking Elukwatini and Ebutsini. After a quick stop to freshen up, we get back to the centre. We are not quite sure what to expect. We are treated to a half-hour of various powerful Swazi dances, which is more than enough for me on video duty, holding a heavy camera and gimbal.

We also have no idea of what food we will be served, but as we walk into the gogo’s hut we are met with various hearty aromas of great food, prepared with a Swazi twist. But my personal highlight of the trip is still to come. As we sit down for dinner our hostess says, “Jacques this is for you,” and the entire room proceeds to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ for me. What’s the deal? My father had phoned the centre and asked them to do it. So to have something like this done for me, in such a beautiful part of our country, made my first trip with the magazine a special event. For all you other travellers, there is much on offer in or near Songimvelo. Apart from the incredible views wherever you drive, with two 4×4 trails in proximity, a large nature reserve to explore, and a variety of accommodation options on the cards, this is a great area worth exploring.

WHAT WE DROVE

Our vehicle for the trip was the Isuzu D-Max 2.5 double-cab, in a very stylish ‘Pepper Dust’ hue that really blended in with the environment. With 100kW and 320Nm on tap, the 2.5 is more suited for trails than fast highway cruising but will get the job done. It had no problems climbing up steep, rocky hills in low range. Its road-holding abilities on gravel roads are very impressive, and here it shines as an overlanding suited vehicle. Our test unit was fitted with a canopy, which kept all our travel gear safe. For many, the price saving offered on the 2.5, as against the flagship 3.0-litre, is the right way to go, enabling one to still fit a selection of accessories – even with a tighter budget.

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