There is an African saying that “the wise eagle that wants to see tomorrow’s brightest day must be brave enough to shake the great reptile of the past awake”.

The past is alive in Mountainlands and attracts fierce debate, beckoning questions and demanding answers. Some of the questions, which are debatable, are who the ancient ones were referred to as “tindzala” in Swazi – the ones that came before us? Who created all the rock packed routes, left evidence of ancient gold mining activities and built solar stone calendars? Some of the questions and proposed answers elicit different responses – from down right outrage, ignorance, curiosity to an internal knowingness.

Scattered throughout the strata and rocks of Mountainlands are deposits of reef and alluvial gold, and also iron, talc, asbestos and nickel. Not only did the gold attract attention in the 1880’s, but the early evidence of historic civilizations mining for minerals was described in writings by the early Europeans. Firstly, the prospectors found that others before them exploited gold by primitive methods. As D. Wilson (1901) Mining Commissioner and Landdrost of Kaapsche Hoop (then called Duiwels Kantoor), reported:

“Another curious and puzzling find, affording evidence of a very high degree of civilization on the part of the ancient explorers of De Kaap, took place within a few yards of my office at the Kantoor. Running into the side of a steep hill, was the remains of a tunnel, which was opened up in the course of prospecting work, when the diggers unearthed two earthenware pipes about three feet long and six inches in diameter. They had most of the signs one looks for in ancient pottery and were obviously of very great age”.

Who the ancient miners were, still remains an unresolved and tantalizing mystery, and depending on one’s viewpoint, great efforts are made to attribute it to San people, Dravidian merchants form the Indian sub-continent, Arabs, Phoenicians, Egyptians and the Bokoni. Evidence of dwellings estimated to be some 500 years old can be interpreted as part of a culture that traded gold with eastern (Arabic and Indian) communities in the past. At least one such complete Iron Age “village” is found on Mountainlands as well as various other sites still to be verified.

Apart from such glimpses into history, as well as well-made iron and stone artefacts that were collected, little is known about the archaeology of Mountainlands. From July 1952 to 1955 some 1915 artefacts were collected from 20 sites around Barberton, including Mountainlands. These are at present housed in the Barberton museum. The artefacts were collected from open donga sites where material of all ages was mixed on the surface. Earlier Stone Age (approximately 1 million to 200 000 years ago) implements were exposed at various depths in the deep dongas, Middle Stone Age (125 000 to 75 000 years) material occurred in the ferricrete overlying the subsoil, and Later Stone Age (between 30 000 and 40 000 years ago until about 2 000 years ago) artefacts were exposed by surface erosion. Even today many Late Stone Age artefacts  and pottery sherds are encountered on walks in Mountainlands. The Stone Age is so-called because people in earlier times used stone implements, which they fabricated themselves. Wood, bone and rope were also used but because these were organic materials it disintegrated and vanished in most cases. Stone implements are therefore the characteristic remains of these early inhabitants.

During the Early Stone Age period the implements were in general large. Middle Stone Age smaller and more specialized and tools from the Later Stone Age period even smaller and mounted on wood or bone. A variety of potsherds, which vary considerably in type, composition, colour, thickness, texture, finish, burnishing and decoration, occur widespread on old living sites and in protected shelters in the area.


The rock art in some parts of southern Africa such as the Drakensberg, Cederberg and Limpopo-Shashe Confluence area has been intensively studied, but the Barberton area not. This was in part due to its inaccessibility and the fact some have been destroyed. Van Riet Lowe’s (1952) catalogue of rock art sites in South Africa lists only ten in the Barberton and Nelspruit Districts. More rock paintings have been documented since then. These occur on many sites where suitable protected surfaces could be found on granite boulders over the whole area from the Komati Valley, Legogote and in the Kruger National Park. Paintings are both monochrome and biochrome and in different styles. The colours vary from very dark maroon through different shades of red to brown, yellow and white.

There is also proof that the Barberton mineral riches have been worked during the Iron Age (from 2000 years ago) before Europeans came looking for their fortune in this area. Small prehistoric iron mines, smelting sites and slag are found in places, indicating that iron was exploited on a large scale. Unfortunately the gold miners of the turn of the century were not impressed with such antiquities and destroyed most of the definitive proof of their predecessors’ identities through their own mining operations.

However, the remains of ancient cultures that must once have thrived in the area are numerous. Terraces and stone walled structures can be found in Mountainlands and research by Dr. Cyril Hromnik has it that the Dravidian merchant caste of southern India mined gold here 2000 years ago, resulting in these stone structures, celestial calendars as well as temples. Since 1984 interest in the early history of the Barberton goldfields has been revived by Dr. Hromnik’s controversial research and his discovery in this area, of what he claims to be ancient megalithic Dravidian religious structures.  Hromnik is of the opinion that an area known, as Komati-land was the trading zone of the Dravidians and that their presence in fact predates the appearance of the first Bantu in this part of Africa by centuries. The oral tradition of the local Swazi people has little to say about these early gold miners. However the Swazi people are almost unanimous in attributing the stone enclosures, stonewalled roads and other stone structures that occur in the vicinity of the gold workings to the beSutfu. By calling these ancient stone-builders beSutfu the Swazi traditions do not refer, as is popularly believed, to the modern Bantu-speaking BaSotho.. –Sutfu is not just a Nguni variant of the name Sotho; the reference is, rather, to people of the uSutu River.

More recent research, led by archaeologists from Wits University, is being done into the stone- walled sites in the Badfontein area between Mashishing (Lydenburg) and Mbombela (Nelspruit). They attribute most of the ruins to the  Koni, an African farming and trading community who settled in the area in the middle of the second millennium.

Lion of the north

In the days before the arrival of Europeans in this area, the Zulu, Swazi and the BakaNgomane (meaning the people of Ngomane) were too occupied with their own local operations to come into conflict with each other, but conflict was inevitable as power changed hands.

It was later written that King Sobhuza I laid the foundations of the Swazi nation and at the time of his death in 1839 his kingdom stretched from Pongola up to Barberton and from the Lebombo Mountains to Carolina and Ermelo. He was succeeded by King Mswati II, the great fighter king of the Swazis who managed to unite the various clans into one nation under one ruler. Immediately after Mswati ascended the throne he began with raids as far as Zimbabwe. It was also during this time that the Swazi’s first made contact with Europeans.

Mswati’s people were known as bakaMswati, meaning “the people of Mswati” while among the Europeans who had by then moved into the Transvaal, they were known as the Swazis and their land as Swaziland. At that time, the foothills of the Drakensberg, westwards from Malelane and Low’s Creek to the Barberton Mountainlands were occupied by the Mbayi tribe, also known as the Maseko people, who were held in subjection by, but were not incorporated with the BakaNgomane.

The rich traditions of the Swazi people still permeate the area.

Oral tradition has it that the Mbayi left curious souvenirs of their occupation, which is very much in evidence in the Songimvelo and Mountainlands Reserves, south and east of Barberton. Along the gravel slopes below the mountains from Barberton to Hectorspruit, a distance of over 80 km, all loose surface stones were gathered and stacked in neat piles about two meters in diameter and about a meter in height. Many of the early settlers believed this was done in the course of cultivation of land, but the soil is too gravelly to permit cultivation and there were no signs of bush clearing. Older tribesman offered an explanation that the chiefs of the Mbayi instructed the young men to collect these stones to keep them occupied and to restrain their fighting ardour. However, Dr Cyril Hromnik attributes some of these structures to activities of the Dravidians.

The Barberton area has been witness to many battles over territory by the different tribes. The Swazi regiments drove the Mbayi from this area a couple of times and a battle which took place near Low’s Creek, at the north eastern corner of Mountainlands, between the Swazi regiments and the Mbayi was so fierce that the creek ran red with the blood of the slain. After this battle the Swazi named the creek the red (or blood) river (Mantibovu) and the mountain Mbayiyane, meaning the mountain of the EmaMbayi.

Mswati II also attacked the Bapedi tribes living south of the Crocodile River and the Kaap (Umlambongwane) Rivers, who fled into the present day Kruger National Park and into the mountainous area of Crocodile Gorge (Mphakeni) and the Three Sisters mountains (Mbayiyane).

This great king built a line of military outposts from west to east along the “Little Crocodile River “(Kaap River). At each outpost he stationed some of his regiments to watch and stop the Bapedi returning to their old haunts. But as soon as the Swazi army retreated, the Bapedi returned to reoccupy their old stomping grounds.

The outposts were Mbhuleni, on the upper Komati River at the foot of the Mkongomo Mountains, south of Badplaas, and at Mekemeke, just east of the Mbayiyane Mountains (Three Sisters), situated east of Mantibovu (Low’s Creek). From Mswati’s further attacks on various tribes it is clear that he had a formidable army. The death of Mswati II in July 1865 ended the era of Swazi conquest, territorial expansion and resulted in unification of various people into one nation.

But his death also lead to the fleeing of many people from wholesale killing as described in “Short history of the natives tribes of the Transvaal”: On the death of Mswati many natives fled from Swaziland to escape being sacrificed and sought protection of the Transvaal Authorities in the Barberton District. Among these were two wives of Mswati, viz:

Nyanda alias Mac-Mac who established herself on the slopes of the mountains overlooking Low’s Creek; and Nomqciza alias Nompete, who occupied the ground extending from the southwest of Barberton to the Crocodile River. These two chieftainesses were joined from time to time by their followers or their refugees from Swaziland and have remained there ever since.

Today most people in the Barberton area are still Swazi and their traditions are strong and vibrant even in modern times. Most of these Swazi’s still consider themselves subjects of the Swazi king under the old tribal system.



A bit of rock encased in solid gold

In 1884, Fred and Henry Barber, who were well infected with gold fever set off on a hunting trip in the Valley of the Kaap – and instead of elephant they found gold. They excitedly pegged their claim and on 21st June reported the find to the government. Within days, hundreds of other diggers heard the news of what was known either as Barber’s Reef or the Inkenkisa Reef, from the African name, Nkhenkesa or The Gap, for the ravine in which it was found. Some ten thousand diggers descended on the Kaap Valley. They came from far and wide: the Klondike in Alaska, Cornwall, Ireland, Scotland, California and even Russia, not to mention from all corners of South Africa.


For a digger’s town, Barberton could hardly have had a more auspicious christening. The reef was rich in gold; the liquor was strong and only prospectors were around to break a bottle of gin and name the place Barberton. It became a prosperous and probably the rowdiest town in Transvaal. It also became the town famous for flashy, buxom barmaids who were “sold” to the highest bidder for a night. As TV Bulpin described them in his book “Storm over the Transvaal” many of them, including Cockney Liz, “were, like well read books, slightly thumb-marked due to circulation”. It was a town of saloons, as many as one to every 15 people. A rough, tough town that had three newspapers, two stock exchanges (where shares in one mine leapt from £ 1 to £105 in a day), ten hotels, two clubs and a public house on every corner. It had all this long before the first church or courthouse could be built.

The hectic story of gold in Barberton only lasted some four years, but they were four years packed with dreams, many lost hopes and where shovel merchants probably made the most money of all – provided they did not give credit. Not that the gold has ended in Barberton. The discovery of the Sheba Reef north east of Barberton and bordering Mountainlands was destined to become the most famous gold mine in the world. It was sensational in its richness and became at once the greatest blessing and curse of Barberton. It turned a gold frenzy into utter mania. Yields of twenty ounces to the ton were quite common and by 1898 this wonder mine had returned 519, 565 ounces of gold, valued then at over £2, 000, 000. The discovery also resulted in a fresh flood of racketeers who rushed into the Kaap Valley. Claims were indiscriminately pegged and bogus companies were flooded with lavish capital. New villages sprang up to contain the influx of people. In the center of the numerous companies on Sheba Hill, an ex-Durban butcher named J. Sherwood established a butchery and hotel in December 1885. His worn out wife was notoriously the most hideous woman in the Kaap Valley. The diggers knew her as the queen of Sheba; and Sherwood named his hotel in her honour – The Queen of Sheba Hotel. His establishment became the nucleus of what became Eureka City, the ruins of which are today in the northern section of Mountainlands Nature Reserve. Eureka City was probably one of the world’s shortest-lived cities.

Only a few walls of this once flourishing mining town remains in Mountainlands. It was a town, which, at the height of the boom in 1886, held a roaring population of about 650 diggers. It had three stores, three hotels, a dozen canteens, a chemist’s shop, a baker, a racetrack and a music hall. It was a boomtown always noted for its fights. Its climax came in February 1887 when the once celebrated band of thugs, known as The Irish Brigade, took the town over for a hectic week and practically wrecked it. Bars and stores were smashed up and a succession of free fights and assaults took place, until police reinforcements from Barberton broke into the town and arrested four of the principal hooligans. Eureka should have been the South African golden city. The diggers had meant to live in the heart of the mountain ranges with glorious views from every doorstep, but this dream vanished as the gold ran out.

Situated on the edge of Mountainlands, the famous Golden Quarry is a short way down the steep mountain from the crazy road leading from Eureka City’s remnants to Sheba mine, which is now the oldest working gold mine in South Africa. Also known as Bray’s Golden Quarry, its huge silent galleries are eloquent of a golden yesterday when Eureka was alive on the mountain above. This awe-inspiring site was sculpted by hand and portrays a giant underground “Swiss cheese”. It is a man made wonder worth visiting.


Early transport routes etched in stone

The way to Barberton was a bitter one for many. In the beginning there were no beaten roads. Whichever path people took from Delagoa Bay (now Maputo) or Natal, they risked heat exhaustion, predatory animals, solitude and human cutthroats who would murder a man for his pack and money-belt. Going away from Barberton was even more risky than reaching it, for the travelers were then more likely to be carrying riches.

The transport riders, through sheer necessity, were forced to do something about the roads. In 1886 Robert Pettigrew made into a road the wagon trail which branched off from the Jock of the Bushveld road at Nellmapius Drift across the Crocodile River. It then went up along the south bank of the Crocodile River until the Kaap River at Kaapmuiden joined it. His road then followed the Kaap River through the hills and into the great Kaap Valley. In 1888 Pettigrew made a new road, known as French Bob’s Road. It branched off from Pettigrew’s Road at Fig tree Creek and it went into the mountains up the creek, nowadays named Low’s Creek. The road climbed the heights of the Makonjwa mountains, crossed over into Swaziland, past the 4, 776 feet high mountain landmark known as the Bearded Man and eventually joined the Jock of the Bushveld Road at Furley’s Drift across the Nkomati River.

These two roads kept Barberton supplied; and throughout the twenty-four hours, heavy transport wagons rumbled from them into the town, loaded with all the provisions and impedimenta required for mining. Unique remnants of the trade routes are still visible in Mountainlands and portray the sheer toughness of maneuvering an ox wagon over the mountains as evidenced by the ruts cut into solid rock ledges. It was customary to “lock” the wheels with thick branches wedged between the spokes that enabled the wagon to be dragged behind the oxen. Many of these marks are now protected within Mountainlands while sadly some of those outside are being destroyed by 4×4 enthusiasts.

But elephants are even better civil engineers than humans and are probably the best in the animal kingdom because their migration routes never exceed a gradient of three in one. Even before the coming of the Europeans earlier people sometimes used elephant routes from the east coast inland, as these were easy to traverse. Recently, conservationists came across an elephant migration route that stretches from Chrissiesmeer, where some of their pastures are presumed to have been, passing through the Kaap Valley, over the Makonjwa Mountains through Mountainlands into Swaziland. An interesting footnote is that when elephants were reintroduced in the adjoining Songimvelo Nature Reserve in the 1980’s, after an absence of nearly a hundred years from this area, they rediscovered an ancient elephant migration route and crossed over the previously presumed impassable mountain area into the Malolotja Game Reserve in Swaziland.


Interesting facts and fables

Many weird, wild and wonderful legends still remain alive in the mountains and valleys in this corner of the world, once inhabited by people with colourful names such as Charlie Tinker, California Wilson, Yankee Dan, Harry the Sailor, Northern Territory Jack and Canada Joe.

There is ample evidence that in ancient times a sizeable population graced this area as can be seen by the collection of stone artefacts found in the region. The San left their paintings on the rocks and Stone Age and Iron Age man is represented here in a rich legacy of relics that are turned up from time to time, such as porcupine quills still carrying evidence that gold dust was carried inside it and used for trade at the east coast.

This is the world where many stories are told about the beautiful, the brave and the ugly: Cockney Liz, Jock of the Bushveld and the “Queen of Sheba” who was the wife of the then owner of Sheba Hotel.

And the story about the intelligent mule. Harry Culverwell was a digger and apparently the owner of an exceptionally intelligent mule. This animal attended all the diggers’ meetings and used to be a respected “citizen” that knew all the prospector paths as well as the bars in town; and was said to be impervious to sickness. But one day it did become sick, very sick. Sir Harry Graumann offered Culverwell 5 pounds for its chances. Culverwell accepted whereupon the remarkable animal promptly recovered!

Yankee Moore was a shop owner. If any line of goods was in short supply then it was only sold to regular customers; Yankee was no profiteer, he kept his prices as low as possible; a reasonable man he was. One day a newcomer walked into his shop and bought himself two drinks and a new suit. He drank both drinks, put the suit on and then confessed not having any money. Yankee was not impressed! He forced the newcomer to undress right there and then and threatened to get the drinks back via a stomach pump!

Often wondered where the term “rat race” came from? In the late 1800’s “rat races” were held in De Villiers Street in front of the old Transvaal Hotel in Barberton where the diggers would use the rats that they had caught in their dwellings or diggings as “bait” for their dogs to chase. Huge sums of money were gambled on these races! Great entertainment in a place where there was a pub a mile; twenty-seven pubs between Barberton and Sheba! A route that could take a week to complete; a record that can hold itself anywhere in the world!

A few useful tips when visiting this area: If you encounter a “hanging tree” you know that you are next to the De Kaap River just north of Mountainlands where justice was swift; when you unexpectedly walk into a “cathedral” you are in the Sheba mine, the richest mine the world has ever seen and when you read “Duiwels Kantoor” you know you have arrived in Kaapsche Hoop”.