Gold | diggers Footsteps | 345km

Rock climbing at Waterval BovenRock climbing at Waterval Boven

NELSPRUIT

Nelspruit, capital of Mpumalanga province, lies in the fertile valley of the Crocodile River in an area known for its production of a variety of tropical fruit (pawpaws, bananas and avocados), nuts (pecan and macadamia) and citrus fruit. The town's development was closely linked to the building of the railway line between Pretoria and Lourenšo Marques (Maputo). The section of the line from Komatipoort on the Mozambican border reached Nelspruit in 1892 and a town steadily developed around the railhead. During the final phase of the South African War, Nelspruit briefly served as the capital of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR). Proclaimed in 1905, the town's name honours the Nel brothers, who used the area for winter grazing in the 1870s and in 1890 bought the farm on which the town developed.

KAAPSEHOOP

Situated on the edge of the Escarpment, Kaapsehoop appeared virtually overnight following the discovery of alluvial gold on the farm Berlyn (Berlin) in 1880. Originally named Duiwels Kantoor (Devil's Office), it was renamed Kaapse Hoop to reflect expectations of rich finds. By August 1882 there were 250 diggers at Kaapsehoop, and by early 1884 their numbers had swelled to some 4 000.

In its heyday, the village had two hotels, several bars, 15 shops, a school, post office and an assortment of corrugated-iron cottages and clay-brick houses. Most of the diggers abandoned the settlement when the Pioneer Reef was discovered near Barberton. After the discovery of Barber's Reef and the Sheba Reef in 1885, only a handful of diggers remained behind. Reminders of this colourful era include the remains of the old government building (1885) and the magistrate's office at the town square (known as Kommisarisplein), corrugated-iron miners' cottages, the old pear orchard with its unbelievably huge trees and the cemetery. The descriptive names of the area's many creeks and streams, such as Poverty Creek, Starvation Creek, Fool's Rush and Battery Creek, with its delightful waterfall, evoke memories of gold-rush days for tourists on South African holidays. The montane grassveld plain to the southeast of the village is the most important habitat of the endangered blue swallow in South Africa, while small groups of wild horses still roam the area; these are said to be the descendants of abandoned mining ponies and horses used in the South African War.

NGODWANA

The Ngodwana village is located on the northern Drakensberg escarpment at an altitude of just under a thousand meters above sea level. The village is a nature conservation area which boasts a diverse variety of birds and indigenous trees and plants. All flora and fauna within the village area are protected. The Ngodwana area is steeped in history, and is home to a natural heritage site and several national museums such as the old lime kilns that were erected in Ngodwana during the gold rush, in the late 1800's. Ngodwana is also home to Sappi's Ngodwana mill, the largest integrated pulp and paper mill of its kind in the Southern hemisphere. The Elands River that meanders through the Ngodwana area and passes by the Ngodwana mill, has been classified as a Class B river, both in the vicinity of the mill and down-stream. This river is a popular tourist destination favored by especially yellow fish fly-fishing enthusiasts.

WATERVAL ONDER

...owes its name to its location below the nearby waterfall on the Elands River. After evacuating Pretoria on 29 May 1900 to escape the advancing British forces, the government of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR) initially moved to Machadodorp. On 30 June, the ailing President Paul Kruger moved to Waterval Onder from where he conducted the affairs of the Republic for nearly two months. The historic presidential residence, named Krugerhof, can be seen close to the Waterval Onder railway station. Spanning the Dwaalheuwelspruit ('wandering hill stream'), a tributary of the Elands River, is the handsome Five Arch Railway Bridge. The stone bridge was opened to traffic in June 1894.

WATERVAL BOVEN

From Waterval Onder the road ascends steeply up the slopes of the Elandsberg and about 2 km before reaching Waterval Boven passes the old Nederlandsch Zuid-Afrikaansche Spoorweg Maatschappij tunnel. In the early 1890s, the steep gradient of the Escarpment presented the biggest challenge to the engineers tasked with building the railway line between Pretoria and the Mozambican port of Lourenšo Marques (Maputo) to provide the ZAR with an independent outlet to the sea. To reduce the gradient, a tunnel of about 400 m was built through the Elandsberg. Drilling started from both ends in October 1892 and the two teams met in September the following year. A viewsite near the entrance of the tunnel provides a fine view over the 90-m-high Elands River Falls 4.

This section of the railway line also incorporated more than 3 km of rack railway to assist the locomotives. The rack railway incorporated a middle rail fitted with a rack that engaged a pinion on the locomotive to provide extra traction. A 32-ton rack engine, capable of hauling 140 tons, was coupled behind the train to push it at a speed of 8 kph; part of the original rack system can be seen at the Waterval Boven Station. Also of interest at the station is one of the original locomotives used on this route and a monument commemorating the construction of the line.

MACHADODORP

Established in 1895 on the farm Geluk, Machadodorp (Machado's town) owes its name to Joaquim Machado, who surveyed the route of the railway line between Pretoria and Lourenšo Marques (Maputo) in 1883. Machado later became Governor-General of Mozambique. At the end of May 1900, the ZAR government retreated to Machadodorp where it conducted its business from a railway car. When President Kruger moved to Waterval Onder on 30 June, the Executive Committee remained in Machadodorp and travelled to Waterval Onder by train every day. Machadodorp remained the seat of government until it was moved to Nelspruit on 28 August, a day after the Battle of Bergendal.

BARBERTON

Situated at the foot of the Makhonjwa Mountains in the De Kaap Valley, Barberton is a picturesque town with a profusion of jacaranda, flamboyant and indigenous trees. The town owes its existence to the discovery of gold in the hills around the present-day town in 1883. A rush of miners and fortune-hunters ensued. The town was officially named on 24 June 1884 after Graham Barber and his two cousins, Fred and Harry, who discovered a rich reef in a creek to the southeast of the town, naming it Barber's Reef. Among the town's many links with the past is the classical fašade of the Kaap Gold Fields Stock Exchange building, built in 1887. Its existence was short-lived, however, as most of the brokers left Barberton following the discovery of the rich goldfields of the Witwatersrand.

Other historic buildings include the Lewis and Marks Building (1887) - the town's first double-storey building - and the neogothic Masonic Lodge, built in 1884 as the Union Church and taken over by the Freemasons in 1887. The town's three house museums - Stopforth House (1886), Fernlea House (early 1890s) and Belhaven (1904) - provide a fascinating picture of life in Barberton in the gold-mining days.

Also of interest is the statue of Jock of the Bushveld, the aerial cableway and the corrugated-iron blockhouse, built in Rimer's Creek in 1901. Far less elaborate and smaller than the first double-storey stone blockhouses built in March 1900, the rectangular corrugated-iron building is the only surviving example of this type of blockhouse in South Africa. The Fortuna Mine Trail incorporates a 600-m-long tunnel built in 1907 to transport gold-bearing ore from the Fortuna Mine to the mill where the ore was crushed.

Best known among the rich diversity of flowering plants occurring in the area is the showy Barberton daisy (Gerbera jamesonii), which has become world famous. Other noteworthy plants to see for those on South African holidays include the Barberton Lowveld sugarbush (Protea curvata) - endemic to the area - the Barberton mountain sugarbush (Protea comptonii), as well as several rare aloe species.

DE KAAP VALLEY

The valley is said to have been named by the Voortrekker leader Marthinus Pretorius because of its resemblance to the Cape on misty days. Situated in the Lowveld, it also became known as the Valley of Death, because of the numerous miners and prospectors who died of malaria. Along the route is a plaque erected at the site of the famous Jock's Tree, where transport rider (and author) Sir Percy Fitzpatrick used to outspan under a large umbrella thorn (Acacia tortillis). Further along, the road passes Clutha, Joe's Luck, Sheba, Eureka and Revolver Creek - all reminders of the days when the valley was the scene of frantic gold-mining activity.

In 1885, Edwin Bray discovered the Sheba Reef, which turned out to be the richest gold-bearing formation in the world. The first 13 000 tons of ore produced an astounding 50 000 ounces of gold, and the so-called Golden Quarry became famous. A mining town called Eureka City soon developed around the Queen of Sheba Hotel, built on the plateau above the mine. Although Eureka City is now nothing more than a ghost town, the Sheba Mine is still in full operation, more than a century after the phenomenally rich reef was first discovered.

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