The Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains in South Africa are the newest and 10th heritage site in South Africa.
Ask any typical tourist going to South Africa and they probably don’t know about these mountains, but ask geologists and you’ll find a different answer.
The Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains in South Africa is a geological and biological treasure chest, showcasing the genesis of life on earth.
The site has some of the oldest rocks and earliest signs of life to occur on the planet, and we stayed in a rondavel for three nights on our month in South Africa, let’s give you a tour of our tour! 🙂
The Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains: They Rock, and Here’s Why!
The Barberton Makhonjwa Mountain ranges are no ordinary mountains as they contain some of the oldest and most well-kept sequences of sedimentary and volcanic rocks on Earth
The rocks are exposed and are dated to between 3.2 and 3.6 billion years ago, and have been dated to a geological period known as the Paleoarchean era, making it a World Heritage site in Africa.
Just a little bit on the Paleoarchean era:
During this geological period, the earth was impacted by a large asteroid of between 37 to 58 km ( 23 to 36 mi).
This asteroid collided with the earth about 3.26 billion years ago in the area that is now South Africa leading to the creation of the Barberton Greenstone belt. This small bit of information just underlies the importance of the Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains.
According to geologists, the rocks in the mountains, go back to when the first continents were beginning to form.
The rocks in the mountains may not hold the oldest set of rocks on earth ( this accolade belongs to rocks found in the Acasta Gneiss Complex in Northwest Canada at just over 4 billion years), but they are the most well-preserved rocks, giving us a dated look at a young, extremely hostile earth.
These well-preserved mountains, showcase the early Earth environment in which the first cellular life on the planet begins to form.
Apart from this finding, the rocks in the Makhonjwa mountains also show how hostile the environment was back then to early life, such as more intense solar radiation.
There are a large number of features and rocks in the Makhonjwa that are incredibly well preserved making them of outstanding value.
A Small History of the Barbertons Makhonjwa Mountains Site
Before this area was a geologist play area, it was better known for its Gold deposits.
In 1884, settlers, Henry, and Fred, ( these two were brothers) and their cousin Graham Barber discovered rich gold deposits in the Makhonjwa Mountains. This discovery led to a gold rush and the formation of Barberton town.
According to some reports, the gold deposits found particularly in Golden quarry, which was part of the Sheba mines near the town were so large that miners had to extract soil and debris from gold instead of the other way round.
To verify the validity of these reports, one only has to plan a trip to the Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains.
My Rondavel Experience in the Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains and our activities!
So, during our epic month-long South African escapade, we kicked things off with a three-night stay in the charming Barberton Mountains. Our humble place to stay? A fantastic rondavel, booked on Booking.com.
And guess what? Our hosts, a lovely couple we affectionately dubbed ‘Mamsie’ and her hubby (well, we read the name in the reviews lol), made us feel right at home from the get-go.
Our rondavel was like something out of a storybook, complete with a big ol’ bathtub and an outdoor shower that let us soak up the wild beauty of the place and the stars at night.
Mamsie, the kitchen wizard, dished up some hearty English breakfasts and feasts for dinner that had us begging for mercy – we actually had to ask her to tone down the food, believe it or not!
Here’s the kick in the stomach: when we stayed in October 2023, we found out that back in the summer of the same year, a fire had ripped through the place, taking out one of the rondavels and their little home.
We were basically the only guests because they were rebuilding the place. You can see what it used to look like on Booking, and I’ve got some pics that show the ‘now’ situation. So if ever you want a quite place to stay in the Barberton Mountains, be sure to support the renovating of the rondavels!
Momsy dropped some wisdom on us – turns out fire insurance is no joke expensive in South Africa, a hard lesson they had to learn. But they’re not giving up.
Our time in the Barberton Mountains was an absolute blast. We went full-on geology geek, checking out all the cool rock formations in the mountains, and some sightseeing.
And, get this, we decided to go rogue and drive to a tiny fishing lake with our basic 4×2 rental car. Mamsie had a good laugh about us crazy tourists trying to tackle the dirt road to the lake, to do what? Well, just stand there for about 30 minutes to watch the fishermen LOL!
Also, one day, in classic “crazy tourist” fashion, we got the idea to check out Swaziland. As we were staying very close to the border of this country, we decided to take a drive and check it out with our light SUV.
We show up at the border, and it feels like we’re in the middle of nowhere. There are only a handful of people around, and we stroll up to the office desk to get that all-important stamp on our passports to officially cross into Swaziland.
Now, those border officials couldn’t help themselves either. They had a good chuckle at our choice of wheels and warned us that we probably wouldn’t get very far with our rental car. But you know what they say about stubborn tourists – we got that stamp, flashed them a determined grin, and off we went, headed into Swaziland.
But guess what? Not even an hour into our Swazi adventure, we realized we might’ve bitten off more than we could chew. The road on the Barberton Mountains side of things was like a wild rollercoaster – not exactly what our SUV was built for. So, we pulled a U-turn and high-tailed it back to the border, with our tails tucked between our legs – you could say we were the entertainment of the day!
We later found out that crossing into Swaziland is a whole lot smoother from the other side. Live and learn, right? It’s all part of the adventure.
Also, we had a short visit to Barberton city itself, with its beautiful art, where we had some lunch on a picnic table.
Next time, we’re definitely renting a beefier 4×4 ride. But I’ll tell you what, we’re rooting for Mamsie and her husband to get their rondavels back in action soon. I’d shout from the mountaintops for folks to give their place a shot, especially if you would like to go on hiking trails in Africa, without too many dangers from wild animals!
Where is the site and how do you get there?
The Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains are in the northeastern part of South Africa in the province of Mpumalanga.
The mountains are part of the Greenstone Belt and an actual extension of the Drakensberg, and about 70% of them are in Mpumalanga while the rest can be found in Swaziland.
The Mountains cover an area of about 7200 km² ( 2780 mi²), and have an altitude of between 600 and 1800 m (2000 and 5900 ft) above sea level.
The main town in and around the mountains is Barberton which is surrounded by mountains on all sides.
The other nearest town is 50 Km to the North of Barberton known as Mbombela ( formerly known as Nelspruit. Don’t be surprised to find it is still called by that name, as it is quite common and well-known).
You can also jet in from Johannesburg which is the largest city closest to the mountains. The distance between them is about 284 km ( 176 mi), and a journey by bus will take about 7 hrs.
The easiest and fastest option would be to take a plane from Johannesburg to Mbombela and then use the road to reach Barberton.
Wildlife in The Barberton Mountains
The Makhonjwa mountains are full of diversity and life, making them more versatile as they are a wildlife viewing destination as much as they are a geological viewing experience.
Within the mountains are reserves both private and public that play host to a variety of endemic bird and plant species, these include:
1. Mountainlands Nature Reserve.
This reserve sits 4 km (2.4 mi) above Barberton town and has an area of about 18,000 ha (69.5 mi²). It lies in the De Kaap Valley and is included in the Geo trail.
The terrain is hilly and rocky, containing forests in the valleys, with grasslands covering the plateaus and ridges. For bird viewers, the bird species to spot include black storks, Drakensberg Prinia, half-collared kingfisher, Narina trogon, long-billed pipit, and buff-streaked chat.
2. Songimvelo Game Reserve.
Located deep within the Makhonjwa Mountains, the Songimvelo Game Reserve is one of the largest protected areas in the province with an area of over 50,000 ha ( 193 mi²).
The Game Reserve is 100 km (62mi) South of Barberton. Unlike other areas of the mountains, the reserve is relatively hidden and not well known to travelers.
This has led to a pristine natural environment that is free from human disturbance. It is also part of the Barberton Greenstone Belt, and as such is a favorite yearly destination for scientists who come to study the billion-year-old rocks for hints of what the earth was like.
The Reserve consists of open plains, rolling hills, hidden valleys, and forested gorges and ravines. It also lies in an area of high plant diversity with a huge number of endemic species.
It is home to more than 300 bird species, making it a good place to visit for avid bird watchers. Birds to spot in the reserve include Brown snake eagle, martial eagle, croaking Cisticola, sharp-billed honey guide, Red Throated Wryneck, African Black Duck, Red Billed Oxpecker, Broad-tailed warbler, and African finfoot.
Are you thinking about buying binoculars to have a good look at all the magnificent birds of Africa?
3. Nkomazi Game Reserve
Nkomazi Game Reserve lies closer to Barberton town than other Game Reserves. The name Nkomazi means ‘the place of water’ and is a site rich in fossil remains.
It also has a high plant biodiversity, higher even than the neighboring Kruger National Park and only second to the cape fynbos. The park is also home to some 300 bird species.
4. Barberton Nature Reserve
The Barberton Nature Reserve is located 30 (18.6 mi) km from Barberton and 15 km (9.3 mi) from Nelspruit.
The reserve is situated in an area of natural beauty and high species diversity, and the Noord Kaap River runs through the middle of the reserve.
The reserve has an area of about 2500 ha (9.65 mi²) and is one of the more accessible reserves in the Makhonjwa mountains. The vegetation in the reserve consists of a savannah bushveld biome, that is home to about 300 species of birds and a variety of animals.
Accommodation in Barberton Makhonjwa.
- In Songimvelo Game Reserve there are campsites and self-catering accommodation at Kromdraai camp, which is 14 km (8.7 mi) East of the reserve’s main gate.
At the camp, there is also a 130-bed facility that is self-catering. There are also 30 self-contained chalets, with each chalet featuring 3 bedrooms, a kitchen, and an ablution block.
- If you would like a taste of staying in a rondavel, you could try where we stayed for three nights at Mountain Aloe Den.
- In Nkomazi game reserve there are well-kitted-out tents that range from simple to luxurious with every amenity you could wish for.
- At Eco Trails Adventure Park, is a mix of cabins, ranging from self-catering log cabins, where you bring your own bedding to fully kitted out but self-catering log cabins.
- Other better and more luxurious accommodations can be found in Nelspruit and Barberton towns.
Have a look at the Songimvelo Nature Reserve:
Activities To Do while in the Area
1.Barberton Makhonjwa Geo-trail.
The Barberton Makhonjwa Geo-trail is 37 km ( 23 mi) and winds up the Makhonjwa mountains on the R40, starting from the town of Barberton to the Swaziland border at Bulembu.
The trail is part of the Mpumalanga Genesis route that connects Barberton, Badplaas, and Low’s Creek.
The Geo-trail showcases what the Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains are all about; a history of the early age of the earth.
The trail takes you either a full day or half a day’s journey, and along the trail, you’ll view the earliest signs of life that are visible to the naked eye. Along the trail are about 11 roadside geosites located along viewpoints and panoramic stops
Along the trail, you’ll get the chance of viewing the three major rock formations of the Barberton Greenstone Belt. These are the Onverwacht, Fig Tree, and Moodie’s group.
2. Queen Rose hiking Trails.
The Queen’s Rose hiking trails are hosted by the Queen’s river adventure camp which is situated 30 km (18.6 mi) from Barberton in the Nelshoogte Forest reserve.
The trail is particularly scenic in the region and leads hikers through water crossings, wooden bridges, and pools through natural and pine forests. The trails are divided into several trails depending on the length and difficulty of the trail.
Some of the trail options at Queen’s Rose hiking trails include; the 3 km Cupid trail, 7 km Matumi trail, 14 km circular Ou Kraal one-day trail, and 26 km two-day Montrose overnight trail.
3. Ebutsini 4X4 Trail.
The Ebutsini trail can be found between Songimvelo and the Swaziland border and provides some impressive sightseeing options across the Makhonjwa mountains.
The trail is about 30 km ( 18.6 mi), with a variety of terrains from rough gradient roads, gravel service roads, muddy sections, stream crossings, and rocky mountainous sections.
The self-driving course is circular and takes about 4 or 5 hours to complete. The trail starts at the Ekulindeni tourism center, and to partake in the trail, permission must be requested from the Ebutsini cultural village.
4. Barberton Heritage Walk.
The Barberton town offers a self-guided tour of the cultural and historical highlights of the town, known as the Barberton Heritage Walk.
The heritage walk starts at the local history museum and winds through several attraction points in the town such as the Garden of Remembrance, the war memorial, the steam locomotive, the market square, the Belhaven house museum and the Blockhouse.
- Guided Game drives.
- Paragliding of Lone Tree.
Rates To Access The Barberton Makhonjwa Site.
- For Songimvelo Game Reserve the entry is R50 for adults and R25 for children below 12 years and pensioners. When entering using a vehicle, it is R100 per vehicle.
- To access the Barberton nature reserve, the entry fee is at R50.
- The Geo trail is free for everyone to access, and you can enjoy it more by having a packed picnic to eat at three designated picnic sites, Lebombo Makhonjwa, volcanic lapilli, and Greenstone.
Things To Note
- In Songimvelo Game Reserve, only 5% of the reserve is 4X4 accessible, as the rest is rough and is usually accessed on horseback.
- The Barberton Nature Reserve is accessible by normal 2wd vehicles but only to the amenities area. Past that you may need a good 4wd vehicle.
The park is also sparse in terms of accommodation amenities as it only has a braai (barbeque) area and an ablution block. So you’ll have to bring everything with you if you intend to camp here.
- If you plan to any hiking trail, then carry comfortable walking shoes, a hat, and sunscreen no matter the season.
- If you plan to take on the Geo trail, then you should definitely get a well-illustrated guidebook from the tourism office. This guidebook will make the trail much more enjoyable and interactive.
- The Queen’s River Hiking trails can be quite taxing on the body, so before embarking on any challenging trails be sure to be physically fit. But for all those taking the trails here, you are provided with a means of communicating with the camp in case of accidents or you’re unable to complete the trail.
FAQS Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains in South Africa
- When is the best time to visit?
Early spring which is usually from September to October is a time when flowers bloom and carpet the mountainside. Summer temperatures can be quite high, especially for those who want to go hiking. The temperatures in Autumn and Winter (April to August) are lower and cooler and much better for hiking.
- Why is it called the cradle of life?
The Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains contain exceptionally preserved rocks, that showcase the oldest undisputed signs of life on earth.
- Our trip to Sodwana Bay: watching the whales!
- Our visit to Pongola game reserve: being chased by an elephant!
- Our visit to Addo Elephant National Park: let’s see some garantied elephants!
- Our trip to the Drakensberg mountains!
My Final Conclusion.
I hope that I could inform you enough about the Barberton Makhonjwa mountains in South Africa, but if you have any more questions, please feel free to leave them down below in the comment section or join me on (one of) my social media channels for more pictures and stories of my travels to Africa 😉
I wish you happy travels!
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