The unique landscape is not the only thing that draws geologists to Mpumalanga. This is also gold country. Discovery of the precious metal in the hills in 1873 ignited a gold rush that shaped the whole history of the area. Gold mines are scattered all across the province, and the region still has the feel of the Wild West about it.
This is especially true in the quaint town of Pilgrims Rest. It’s a small miner’s village, really only a short strip of a old buildings. The whole town is now a museum. As a cultural heritage site, it is mostly unchanged from its heyday 150 years ago, except for the large numbers of curios sellers and vervet monkey families that have moved in.
We stayed overnight in the nearby town of Sabie. Sabie is a much more modern mining community, which is to say it’s fairly boring. However, we did happen to come across our first South African micro-brewery, Sabie Brewing Company (Spencer’s review: overall a nice brewery, highlight was the English style IPA.)
South of Sabie is Barberton, a pretty little town set beneath the striking Makhonjwa Mountains. Barberton has a nice mix of modern conveniences among the old gold-rush architecture, and there is an interesting downtown historical walk through the Victorian buildings. The town grew during it’s own gold rush of 1881, when hotels, saloons, and even two stock exchanges opened up. It was a short-lived zenith, though, before even more gold was discovered in the Witwatersrand in 1886, calling all of the prospectors away and leading to the establishment of Johannesburg.
Wanting to get out of the town for the night, we were directed by a local to a wonderful, well-hidden spot in the hills. A bumpy drive down a dirt road surrounded by banana and mango plantations eventually led us to Low’s Creek Mountain Retreat. We were the only guests, and were put up in an adorable stone and thatched roof cottage set into the hillside.
That night we cooked up our very first braai (South Africa’s national meal, basically a BBQ cook-out with lots of meat.) The friendly manager helped us make the fire and prepared the traditional side of pap and sauce for us. Sitting around the fire that night, listening for the sound of the resident owl, we reveled in how nice it was to be out amongst nature. But then nature came a little too close for my liking. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted something moving on the ground near my feet. Spencer, the brave man he is, shown a flashlight in the direction of the scuttling. Caught in the light was a 3-inch long, mean-looking scorpion. One of his claws was missing, so he clearly wasn’t one to back away from a fight. The manager picked him up with metal tongs, and we could hear the loud pings of his vicious stinger hitting the metal.
And now I always check my shoes before putting them on.
Part of the reason we chose Mpumalanga as our first trip was to visit where Spencer used to work, Klipwal Gold Mine. Klipwal is south of Barberton, near the town of Piet Retief (described in our Lonely Planet guidebook as a “dull farming backwater”). The mine closed down shortly after Spencer left 5 years ago, and was just in the midst of reopening the day we drove down. Unfortunately, during reopening it was discovered that illegal miners had been working on the property, making the mine unsafe. Also, there was no longer potable water or electricity. Like I said, Wild West.
We decided to save Klipwal for another visit. Needing a place to stay for the evening, we booked ourselves a room at a local Bed and Breakfast. That turned out to be a great decision. Emahlathini Guest Farm is a farm/guesthouse situated right on the Swaziland border. Dogs, goats, emus, turkeys, and geese roam the grounds. Best of all, there are lots of different types of monkeys to play with. We got acquainted with a very naughty pick-pocketing Capuchin named Lulu.
So the mine visit did not work out this time, but we will certainly be making another trip to gold country. In the meantime, if you want to read a first-hand account of a young miner’s life in South Africa, check out Spencer’s old blog from his time at Klipwal, MacArthur’s South African Ledger.