The Barberton-Makhonjwa Geotrail offers another attraction just an hour away for White RIver visitors, and you don’t have to be a geology student or enthusiast to enjoy the winding road, spectacular views and the wonder of touching rocks which remain in place, frozen where they were when the genesis of life of earth occurred 3.5 billion years ago. Should the Geotrail become Mpumalanga’s first World Heritage Site, this attraction will draw visitors from across the globe.
Construction on the Geotrail began in 2011. The self-guided trail tells the story of the earth 3.5 billion years ago, in the Archaean Eon, where the genesis of life on our planet began at around 3.2 billion years. There is some of the earliest evidence of life on earth, visible to the naked eye, in the enormous sandstone boulder at the Dycedale Syncline and Biomats site. Tentatively listed for World Heritage Site status, the Geotrail was officially opened on the 30th April 2014 by the Deputy Minister for Tourism, Ms Tokozile Xasa and President of the Barberton Chamber of Business, Mr Nico Oosthuizen.
The Makhonjwa mountain range squeezes between the de Kaap River and Crocodile River basins in the north and Swaziland in the south. Travelling on the R40 from White River towards the Josefsdal / Bulembu border gate, you pick up the beginning of the Geotrail at the colourful Barberton Gateway.
The Gateway – Greenbelt stone walls forming a silhouette of the Makhonjwa Mountains and built in layers of assorted rock from the Barberton Greenstone Belt – offers a striking welcome to Barberton. Representing the genesis of life which stirred here eons ago, the indigenous plant garden features white-painted rocks laid out as strands of DNA.
Gaily painted boulders which pulled us from the car for a photo shoot. The geometric designs were inspired by Nukain Mabuza, one of South Africa’s few recognised ‘Outside’ artists whose Painted Stone Garden drew tourists to nearby Low’s Creek in the 1970’s and 80’s. His life ended as dramatically as he’d lived it, when he hanged himself in a tree within sight of the daily bus.
Call in at the Barberton Tourism office to buy the Geotrail guide book written by Tony Ferrar and Christoph Heubeck. Clearly laid out and easy to use, the book explains every site and viewpoint in such an interesting and comprehensible way even the scientifically challenged fossils in our group could understand and follow it. However, guided tours can be arranged through the Barberton Tourism Office (Tel 013 712 2880) if you prefer.
The trail has 15 geosites and viewpoints, of which 11 have been developed so far. There are picnic facilities at three stops – Greenstone View, Makhonjwa/Lebombo View and Volcani Lapilli/Black Chert. Be warned, though, there are no shops, toilet facilities or petrol stations on the 37km route so fill your picnic basket with refreshments and the car with fuel before leaving home.
For the self-guided, the trail is equipped with more than the guidebook. All the sites have information panels explaining not just the geology you are looking at; they include the surrounding fauna and flora as well. The Makhonjwa/Lebombo View site has samples of all the rocks on plinths, and there are also information plaques in Braille.
Brainchild of the Barberton Chamber of Business, the Geotrail was born when the old dirt road to Bulembu was resurfaced in 2007.
The Geotrail ends at the border, but that doesn’t have to be the end of your tour. Take your passports with you and pass through the minimal formalities at the sleepy little border post before driving into Bulembu just inside Swaziland.
Originally known as Havelock, Bulembu was once a bustling asbestos mine and town, home to 10 000 people. The 20 kilometre cableway between Barberton and Havelock Mine, built in 1938, carried asbestos out. On the return trip, the cocopans were filled with coal and all the supplies needed by the mine and town. When the cableway was closed due to bad weather, residents dug in and waited it out.
The mine went bankrupt in 1991 and the assets were bought by HVL Asbestos who renamed the mine Bulembu. The new name brought no better luck, and with asbestos losing its shine, the mine was finally closed for good in 2001. In 2006 the town was placed into trust for Bulembu Ministeries Swaziland, who re-established the town as a shelter for AIDs orphans and vulnerable children. The neat and colourful town attracts many voluntourists from across the world, all eager to spend time in this green and quaint little town.