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Mpumalanga Lowveld - some call it true Africa

The savannah country of the lowveld depicts the true Africa for a great many people as it is the savannah which is the home of big game and where so many memories linger for old-time slave raiders, ivory hunters, warrior tribes and countless explorers.

The average altitude in the lowveld of the Mpumalanga region is approximately 350 meters and is generally an area of summer rainfall with rivers that are scattered pools in the dry season which swell with the eagerly awaited rains and become surging rivers of life.

In the early years the Mpumalanga lowveld was a malaria death trap for man during the summer months. Sir Ronald Ross, whilst working in India, then isolated the mosquito as the carrier of the dreaded malaria disease. Up until then all sorts of weird suspicions were cast on what could have been the cause of the disease. One in particular was the spectral Acacia xanthophloea, or better known as the fever tree, hence the name “fever” tree. African tribes considered malaria to be a curse inflicted by evil spirits and at the time witchdoctors flourished by prescribing strange but unfortunately useless remedies to try and cure the dreaded disease.

The winter months were the time for expeditions into the lowveld. The mosquitoes were banished by the cool nights and from May to October the climate was healthy with warm, dry days and crisp, frosty nights. In these months the hunters raided the bush in search of their fortune and food.  As spring approached and the kaffirboom bloomed blood red and this was an early warning alarm for man that summer was approaching and it was time to leave the area and by the time the air became heavy with the smell of the prolific Phyllanthus reticulatus shrubs most men were safe on the high ground away from the lowveld and its fevers.

The discovery of gold in the Mpumalanga lowveld bought about some significant changes to the area. Prospectors, supplies and men could not wait for winter and faced the risk of fever and still today low mounds of stones can be seen which marked the wayside graves of so many men who died while trying to cross the lowveld during the dangerous winter months.

Today the Mpumalanga lowveld is beautifully populated with farmers, cattle ranchers and game lodges and is part home to the Kruger National Park, in my opinion, one of the wonders of the world.

Barberton - The Valley of Death is what early prospectors called the Barberton area as thick clouds of mosquitoes haunted the area and many died exploring the valley but the ever present traces of gold in the rivers and reefs constantly attracted the prospectors.

The first serious gold found in the valley was the Pioneer Reef which was discovered by French Bob (Auguste Robert) on 3 June 1883 and this discovery triggered the largest onslaught of fortune seekers to reach South Africa up until then. Graham Barber was among those who first came to the valley from the Natal area accompanied by his cousins Fred and Harry Barber and in June 1884 they found what they called Barbers’ Reef. This was a reef so rich that it glittered with gold and this discovery led to the founding of Barberton.

A hoard of diggers flooded the scene and a conglomerate of shacks, stores, bars  and canteens sprang up and on 24 June 1884, mining commissioner, David Wilson, broke a bottle of gin over a lump of rock to christen Barberton and thus launching it on a lively career.

During 1886 Barberton was at the height of its boom and two stock exchanges traded night and day. This caused the opening of many canteens, liquor shops and music halls which added to the popularity and profits of the town. Flashy beauties such as Florrie, the Golden Dane and Cockney Liz were part of the bustling, jovial night life and back then Barberton was the place to be. Cockney Liz was a particular favourite and would parade on a billiard table and impishly snap her garters causing an enthusiastic stir among the patrons.

All good things had to come to an end and with all the money that had poured into Barberton it was hopelessly overcapitalized with too many investors claiming their stock profits. Gold on the Witwatersrand was also discovered at this time and there was a huge exodus from Barberton resulting in the closing down of the stock exchanges, newspapers, bars and gambling halls. Some mining activity saw Barberton through this crisis but it had to undergo a cleanup transformation and from being one of the infamous glamour towns of the mining world, it changed into the sober and honest town it is today, a charming town with many of the old buildings still standing. Not forgetting to mention the statue of Jock of the Bushveld which stands in Barberton Park.  Jock is South Africa’s most famous dog and outside the town is an acacia tree under which Jock and his master, Sir Percy FitzPatrick, often camped.

Graskop - In the 1850s Abel Erasmus, a renowned old eastern Transvaal character, who was known to the Africans as Dubula Duzé (‘he who shoots at close range’), had a farm called Graskop (‘grassy hill’). From here he exercised rough justice as the native commissioner of the lowveld. Today, Graskop is the terminus of the branch railway from Nelspruit and a centre of a substantial timber industry.

From Graskop the scenic Panorama Route leads northwards along the edge of the escarpment as far as the Blyde River Canyon and is definitely one of the most beautiful routes in South Africa.

Komatipoort - The principal route between South Africa and Mozambique is a gorge that leads the Komati River through the Lebombo Mountains and the town of Komatipoort lies on the western edge of the gorge.

During the Anglo-Boer War Komatipoort was the base for the celebrated Colonel Ludwig Steinacker and his so called Forty Thieves. Today the town is much more sedate and peaceful with streets lined by flowering trees and summer temperatures often reaching 40 degrees. The town is beautiful and only 11 kilometers from the Crocodile Bridge entrance to the great Kruger National Park.

Long Tom Pass - The Long Tom Pass runs from Lydenburg over the top of the Transvaal Drakensberg to Sabie 57 kilometres away. The summit is 2 149 meter above sea level and is one of Southern Africa’s most valuable scenic treasures.

The early days of the pass go back to early 1871 when a wagon trail was built to connect Lydenburg with the lowveld and from there on to Lourenco Marques in Mozambique. Today this old trail runs close to the modern tar road and can be seen in places. The gradients were a huge challenge and the Devil’s Knuckles (four consecutive steep summits) became the demise of many transport vehicles and their drivers. The Blyderivierspoort Hiking Trail takes hikers around the slopes of the 2 115 meter Mauchberg which was named after Karl Mauch, the renowned German geologist. Not forgetting 2285 meter Mount Anderson which is the the highest mountain in the Mpumalanga area.

The pass was named after a 15 centimeter field gun used by the Boers in the Anglo Boer war. The Brits nicknamed the gun Long Tom and on the 7 September 1900 General Redvers Buller and his army captured Lydenburg. The Boer forces withdrew to the summit of the Drakensberg, set up the Long Tom gun and bombarded Lydenburg and the British with shells.

Early the next morning the British soldiers set out up the pass to dislodge the Boers. After a succession of fierce battles, the Boers gradually retreated, fighting every inch of the way. After a long hard day and a cold, misty night, the British reached the summit soon after dawn on 9 September 1900. But the Long Tom gun was already well down the pass and ready to engage the British on the summit with more shells. For the whole day the Boers stubbornly shelled the British and the sound of firing echoed through the mountains like a continuous thunderstorm.

That night after, the British finally managed to haul some of their own artillery up to the summit and at dawn on 10 September 1900 they opened fire on the Boers. The Boers quickly withdrew and sadly 13 of their transport wagons tumbled over the Devil’s Knuckles but they were able to drag the cumbersome Long Tom gun with them. The last position of Long Tom in action is marked by a sign and the craters made by its shells can still be seen today.

Lydenburg - In 1849 the survivors of the malaria-stricken town of Ohrigstad established a town named Lydenburg in an area known to the Africans as Masising (‘place of the long grass’). The new town was named Lydenburg (‘town of suffering’), in memory of the hardships of its founders from Ohrigstad.

Although for the first 10 years the town grew slowly despite the fertile surroundings but the place was remote and few people wanted to live there because it was surrounded by the truculent Pedi tribe and always threatened by the presence of the deadly fever.

Today the Department of Inland Fisheries has its hatchery in Lydenburg and from these hatcheries trout and other fish are supplied to rivers and dams all over South Africa. Near the hatchery is a freshwater aquarium which contains more than 60 species of fish. Soya beans, tobacco, fruit (notably yellow peaches), wool, cattle, dairy produce, wheat, barley, maize and lucerne are all produced in the district. The local rivers such as the Spekboom and the Sterkspruit are powerful, clear and offer excellent fly fishing, camping and relaxation.

Marble Hall - In 1913 a hunter by the name of Christoffel Visagie became ill with the fever while he and his wife were hunting in the area. His wife put him in their wagon and started the homeward journey back to Pretoria.  On the way she stopped to examine some prominent white rocks and because one of her children had recently died, she loaded enough of the rock onto the wagon to make two gravestones one for the child and the second for her husband whom she thought was not going to pull through.

Back in Pretoria Mrs. Visagie took the stone to Tom Taylor who was a tombstone expert and he, excitedly, identified the rock as first-class marble. Christoffel Visagie did recover from his fever and his wife took him and Taylor to see where she found the white rocks. Visagie and Taylor started mining the marble but transport difficulties made the venture uneconomic and they had to abandon the place. But their discovery did not go unnoticed because in 1929 the Marble Lime Company was formed to work their find at Marmerhol, hence the name Marble Hall, and a railway was built to the mine in 1936.

Nelspruit - When the Eastern Railway Line was constructed up the Crocodile River Valley in 1892 a station was built on a farm owned by the Nel family. The farm was called Nelspruit (‘Nels’ stream’) and the station became the centre for travellers on their way up the valley. Stores were built by traders and the farmers recognized the rich soil in a level valley floor with ample water for irrigation.

Men such as Hugh Hall settled in the area and Hall’s farm in Riverside became one of the top companies in South Africa. He cleverly combined the tomatoes and mangoes to make the trade name Tomango for his fruit juices and other food products. Nelspruit became the second largest grower of citrus fruits in South Africa and nuts, litchis, mangoes, avocados, papaws, vegetables, cattle and timber are also produced on a large scale.

In the early years Nelspruit was cursed with malaria but control of the disease in the1930s enabled the Crocodile River Valley community to surge ahead which has made Nelspruit what it is today, a substantial town, situated amid orange groves and dominated by a cluster of granite domes. The neat and clean streets are shaded by flowering trees and in the months of December and January the town is aflame with the brilliant scarlet of the poinciana flowers. Nelspruit is an ideal stopover on the tourist route to the Kruger National Park.

Ohrigstad – Sadly the town of Ohrigstad died in 1849 only to be reborn almost a century later. A Boer by the name of Andries Hendrik Potgieter rode from Potchefstroom to Lourenco Marques in mid 1843. A cargo ship carrying the name of Brazilza had arrived from Holland with gifts for the Voortrekkers which were sent by a merchant named George Ohrig. On the ship Potgieter learnt of a new British law which extended British authority northwards to latitude which included Potchefstroom and a good part of the Transvaal. Potgieter was furious and immediately decided to move north and establish a new town which would be closer to Lourenco Marques. The site of the settlement was a moist valley on the western side of the Berg.

In June 1845 Potgieter led his followers to the new area and a town was built out with a fort, water furrows and broad streets. It was named Andries-Ohrigstad and eventually abbreviated to Ohrigstad. Unfortunately things did not go well and it became apparent that the choice of the site was a disaster. The summer rains brought millions of mosquitoes and that combined with the relentless heat was a recipe for fever and disaster. After much illness and unrest Potgieter led some of the townsfolk north to the Soutpansberg Mountains and the remainder of the people finally abandoned Ohrigstad for good after 1848 when many died of malaria.

Pilgrims Rest - Wheelbarrow Alec was the nickname for Alec Patterson because he carried his belongings in a wheelbarrow and in 1873 he pushed his wheelbarrow into a deep valley on the western side of the edge of the Berg. After many hours of prospecting the stream he found gold in the middle reaches and immediately William Trafford, another prospector, joined him and they named the place Pilgrim’s Rest.

As the news spread there was a frantic rush to the area and the gold found in Pilgrim’s Creek was the richest payable alluvial deposit found at the time in Southern Africa and it lured fortune seekers from all over the world including Australia and California.

In 1876 productivity began to decline and things slowed down and when there was news of discoveries elsewhere there was an exodus from Pilgrim’s Rest. The companies that remained in Pilgrim’s Rest produced good gold and eventually they amalgamated into the Transvaal Gold Exploration and Land Company, which successfully mined gold for some 50 years longer. A museum is housed in the old post office building and the entire town is one glorious living museum of old mines and memories of the old gold rush days. On the banks of Pilgrim’s Creek today is a beautiful and peaceful caravan park.

Sabie - In 1895 H. T. Glynn was entertaining friends on a picnic at the waterfall on his farm on the upper reaches of the Sabie River. During a target shooting competition after the picnic some bullets had chipped the rock and revealed indications of gold. One of the guests, Captain J. C. Ingle, who knew something of mining, proved over the next few days the existence of a substantial gold reef.

The Glynns-Lydenburg Gold Mining Company was formed to work the discovery and the town of Sabie was formed to service the mine. It became a municipality in 1924 and today it is the centre for the timber industry. In the Sabie district today there are numerous sawmills and the government tree breeding station. Patches of indigenous forest survive in some of the valleys and the banks of streams are covered with wild flowers and ferns.

White River – A farm called Witrivier (‘white river’) was used as a settlement at the end of the Anglo-Boer War for demobilized soldiers. It was established on fertile land and a 26 kilometer canal was built to channel water from the Manzemhlope River (‘white water’), to smallholdings of 40 hectares each which were offered on easy terms to the soldiers.

Unfortunately the holdings proved to be too small and uneconomical so in 1914 a syndicate purchased the area and planted 6o coo citrus trees and soon it became a profitable agricultural industry. Vegetables, sub-tropical and tropical fruits, flowers and timber are also produced.