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Eureka! Exploring Barberton's Treasures

The town of Barberton in the Mpumalanga Province has appealed to me ever since reading the epic South African novel, The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay. The young protagonist Peekay goes to live with his mother in Barberton. The German scientist, musician, and prisoner of war, Doc takes up Peekay's intellectual, mystical, and natural science education. The prisoners and the guards at the local prison, train Peekay up to become a boxing champion. As I explore Barberton, the aloes are in bloom, the prison is, sadly, fully occupied and there are rumors of Doc’s crystal cave burial site just a little way up into the mountains. If I close my eyes and listen closely I wonder if I will hear the sound of someone playing the piano.

Barberton is the first place in South Africa where gold was discovered in the modern era. It is also the indigenous home of the floral Gerbera jamesonii, or Barberton daisy. The town has that gold rush memory of boom and bust. It is late fall and the flowers are consistent in their blooming.

The Barberton Rotary Club has sponsored an annual mountain bike race for the past 27 years. A few friends have competed and have come back with glowing reports of the mountain biking in the area. I have circled the 2023 race date on my calendar and hope to come back to race! Much of the race happens on private property, including the Mountainlands Nature Reserve, which is only accessible to the public during the race.

I arrive in Barberton and make my way to a lovely family-owned campground called Bushwacked/Under the Stars. Situated just on the outskirts of town, the campground offers a peaceful haven to travelers. The tiered campsites offer privacy. Campers share a clean, hot solar shower and bathroom. The owners’ dogs, chickens, and geese regularly inspect the campsites and make me feel entirely welcome. They are a natural, ecological alarm system, as well, erupting into a raucous cacophony with any changes. The cheeky rooster likes to share my meals and peck at my plate while I am eating! Sunsets from the campground astonish. The sun dips behind ridge after ridge of mountains. The sky goes orange and the mountains a dark purple/green. Smoke rises from the homes in the valley, where I imagine people are busy living life and preparing the evening meal. The sun goes down, the temperature drops precipitously and stars appear as pinpricks of light in the velvet, black sky.

Every weekday morning, a little ritual unfolds just down below camp. I hear the sound of a diesel engine firing up. Then the sound of a woman calling out repeatedly, “Goodbye. I love you.” A tiny child’s voice echoes, “Goodbye. I love you.” The first time I hear the chorus, I imagine that the driver of the diesel is going away for a long time, thus eliciting this vocal and loving farewell. As the days go by, I discover that it is a daily ritual. I find myself anticipating the exchange and appreciating this little family.

Johan, a 76 year-old runner from Polokwane is staying at the campground for over a month in order to do Park Runs in Barberton and neighboring communities. Park Runs are an inclusive, world-wide phenomenon where people join together on Saturdays to run/walk a 5km route. Johan is a life-long avid runner and is training for his 14th Comrades Marathon. The Comrades Marathon is the world’s oldest and largest ultra-marathon event. The 90km/56mile race between Pietermaritzburg and Durban is capped at 20,000 runners and is a truly South African institution.

Johan regales me with stories of his adventures in running, traveling, and in his professional career as an advocate and esteemed law lecturer. Johan’s personal history and the history of South Africa are interwoven. He grew up on a farm in what is now Soweto. The family farm grew food for the surrounding communities. The Apartheid government appropriated the farm to create racially segregated communities. Johan and his family moved to another farm where he excelled at a tiny farm school and continued running and enjoying sport. By the time he got to a private secondary school, he excelled in academics, ultimately becoming Head Boy as well as the Javelin Champion. Fast forward through the decades and Johan crafted a distinguished career in law. Most of the current sitting judges in South Africa were his students.

We share the campground with two secret service-type operatives who use the camp as a base when they are working in the area. They are congenial and friendly, without sharing details of their work. Mhlo is Zulu. Mhlo and I go for a cycle through the rural community and are met with smiles and confusion.

Pete, one of the owners of Bushwacked, cycles with me to Lone Tree, the viewpoint high above town where paragliders come and launch themselves into flight. He has another commitment so he heads down. I continue on up through the forestry plantations to get to the towers on Elfantskop. It’s nearly 1000 meters of climbing. Loblolly Pines and Eucalyptus grow straight and tall, spaced as a crop on the red clay, African earth.

At a local coffee shop, I meet Heidi. Spare and lean with a quiet fervor for cycling, Heidi shares a bit about her life in Barberton. She arrived 40 years ago for a job at a bank and found the tiny city overwhelming after having grown up in a rural area. Heidi arrived alone on a motorcycle and made enough of an impression on one of the local fellows that he asked her to marry him. She did. She has a rapturous quality of devotion and gratitude when she speaks of her life in Barberton, especially when it comes to cycling. With some health issues, she decided to continue her cycling career with the support of an electric assist, E-Bike. She teams up to cycle with the other cyclist in town, Dawie, a paramedic some twenty years her junior. Cycling partners share a special bond. These two seem to cover a lot of territory.

The next day, I head out in the direction of the Agnes Mine, an active gold mine. At the gate, the guards let me pass and I climb up past the mine on a forestry road and catch some sweeping views of the area.

I plan to spend just a few days in Barberton, but each day I find that there is more to do and explore. From town, I can see the beginning of the steep, curving road that leads to the Josefdal Border Post with Swaziland. 41km each way with a total vertical gain of 2,400 meters. I set out early one very cold morning and am glad for the first 5-6km brutal climb that warms me. I am grateful for the low gearing on my bicycle as I crawl up the mountain. I am on the Geo Trail route, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site that has markers along the way detailing the ancient, visible geology of the Makhonjwa Mountains. I am enthralled by the vastness and the rolling green mountains that fill the horizon. There are long climbs with occasional descents. Occasionally, there is an oasis of lush green, replete with ferns and indigenous foliage growing alongside clear streams. I pass through grasslands, plantation forests, and the occasional homestead. I am surprised by how few vehicles are on the road. A few bakkies/pickup trucks and later in the day some motorcycles and people out for a Sunday drive. When I arrive at the Josefdal Border post, I surprise the guard. The Border is closed due to Covid, which explains the lack of traffic on the road. I share some wine gums with the guard and we chat in the warm sunshine before I turn around to cycle back to camp.

The next day, I decide to check out the route to the quaint, little town of Kaapsehoop , known for its natural beauty, wild horses and gold mining history. I set off late, having thought I would want a rest day. I cycled up the R40 towards the Nelspruit/Mbombela pass and then turned off on a dirt road to head towards Kaapsehoop. As much as I wanted to get to Kaapsehoop, I realized that I would run out of daylight hours, so I loop back to Barberton on forestry roads and have a warm welcome from my campground neighbor, Johan. Given our solo outings, we are both relieved to find each other safe and sound back at camp.

After eight nights in Barberton, I realize that I am getting complacent and that I need to think about moving in or moving on. I have a long list of places that remain to be explored in the area including the Mountainlands Reserve, Eureka City, and the Barberton Nature Reserve. I would like to ride the Genesis route from the border with Swaziland through the Songinvelo Reserve. I would also like to hike the Queen Rose Hiking Trail in the Nelshoogte Nature Reserve. So much to do!

Packing up camp takes time and focus. I am eager to explore and get to the hot springs at Badplass and my next adventure. It is bittersweet to say goodbye to my little community of human and animal friends. I have enjoyed Barberton and have felt very much at home.

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