Barberton’s gold-rush guesthouses

Posted by Marion Whitehead on 1 August 2011

If you think Pilgrim’s Rest is a bit twee and touristy, try Barberton. This old gold-rush town in Mpumalanga’s Lowveld is still a bit rough around the edges and offers great value-for-money accommodation options. And in winter, it’s warmer than the rest of the country.

I enjoyed a bit of nostalgia for the gold rush days in some of Barberton’s three-star guesthouses. Each has its story linking it with the adventurers who made and often lost fortunes in this wild place close to the border with Swaziland more than 100 years ago when just getting there was an epic journey in itself.

Old Coach Road Guesthouse

The old stagecoaches and ox wagons from Delagoa Bay and the north used to rumble past this spot off the R38 between Kaapmuiden and Barberton in days gone by. “˜We were told by the previous owner that at night, you can still hear horses going past,’ says Adriaan Nel, current owner of the Old Coach Road Guesthouse, which is about nine kilometres outside Barberton. “˜We didn’t believe her, but one night, the dogs barked like mad and we heard what sounded like horses.’

About half a kilometre of the old road from Delagoa Bay curves across Adriaan and Lili’s property down a gentle slope towards Barberton. A couple of flat rocks break the surface of the grass. Adriaan pointed out a couple of grooves, but isn’t sure if they were made by wagon wheels driven by the old transport riders, such as Percy Fitzpatrick of Jock of the Bushveld fame, or if they are just a result of natural erosion.

In the hills above the guesthouse are the remains of diggings from the gold rush days. You can see them on a four-hour walk in the Barberton Mountainlands Nature Reserve on a trail Adriaan maintains. It offers wonderful views across the De Kaap valley, pretty veld flowers and cool river pools to swim in on the last couple of kilometres.

Many stagecoaches used to stop here at what was then the Jacaranda Hotel. All that’s left of it is a couple of steps and the remains of its foundations, now part of the carport. The present guesthouse came much later, but the Nels’ hospitality remains the old fashioned kind.

The three-star guesthouse has eight en suite rooms, including a family suite, all with own entrances. There’s a swimming pool, cosy pub, TV lounge, dining room and deck where meals are served. B&B costs R365 a person a night sharing, with discounts for children and long stays. Day visitors wanting to hike pay R20 a head.

Tel 013-719-9755
Email [email protected]


William George House B&B

This Victorian wood-and-corrugated-iron house was one of the original homes of Barberton, imported in kit form from England in 1896, ready to assemble. “˜It was like building by numbers,’ said Jenny Scott, proprietor of William George House B&B on Sheba Road.

The house was built for an assayer and his office in the pretty garden at the back of the house is now a cottage with two single beds, a shower in the room where the rock was washed and a tiny loo. Each room has its own entrance off the veranda. The house was originally called Tiger Trap, after one of the shafts at Agnes Mine to the east of Barberton.

The house has seen a few changes over the years and the old kitchen is now the bedroom of one of the two guest rooms in the house. Breakfast is served on the front veranda, with a view over the garden hedge of Barberton’s Makhonjwa Mountains, famous for being the best-preserved examples of the most ancient rocks on Earth.

B&B at this three-star guesthouse costs R250 a person a night sharing.

Tel 013-712-5886
Email [email protected]


Fountain Baths Guest Cottages

Fountain Hotel & Baths, as it was back in the 1880s, was famous for having the first public swimming pool in the old Transvaal. It was fed by the clear water of Rose’s Creek and was a boon to the gold diggers, many of whom lived in tents and grubbed around in the dirt much of the day, hoping to find enough gold to make their fortunes.

“˜When the diggers needed a bath, this was the place to come in 1884,’ says Sue Hicks, present owner of what is now called Fountain Baths Guest Cottages in Pilgrim Street.

Rose’s Creek trickled down the mountain and through a filter into the pool, then back into the stream. There were also six private baths, of brick in cement, with the added luxury of hot water.

On its centenary, The Lowvelder of 8 Jan 1985 reported that Fountain Baths Hotel was built by a Mr Hillary in 1884, long before it was necessary to have plans drawn and approved. The original owner was Mr JW Rose, after whom Rose’s Creek was named. He died of malaria in 1890 and was buried in Barberton cemetery.

An old advertisement for Fountain Hotel and Baths, which appeared in De Kaap Annual in 1896, remains pretty much true today. It read:

“˜The Hotel. – Situated within two minutes of the Market Square, is pleasantly placed, embowered in trees and with charming surroundings, and commodious verandahs. The whole establishment has been redecorated and put in excellent order. Every attention is paid to the comfort of guests, and the cooking is in good hands, cleanliness being a prominent consideration.’

“˜The Baths having undergone considerable repairs are now in thorough order. Hot and cold baths at a moment’s notice, and the swimming bath open from 5am to 7pm.’

“˜The Gardens. – One of the features of the Fountain is the garden “¦ seated in comfortable loungers, the visitor can sip his light wine, quaff the beer of the Fatherland, or imbibe a homely brew of tea.’

One of the great characters of early Barberton to have owned the Fountain Hotel was known to all simply as Granny Klok. She arrived in town as Louisa Guthrie, a widow whose husband had been fatally injured while repairing the wagon on the way from Greyton to the Barberton gold fields with their six children in 1884. It had been jacked up and fell, breaking his back.

His wife continued the journey, even though they had to walk the last 32 kilometres to Barberton over rough terrain and sleep under the stars. She worked as a chambermaid at the Phoenix Hotel for a while and saved up enough to buy a share in Fountain Baths Hotel. She went on to marry Cornelius Klok and took over the hotel.

Louisa was a pioneering woman who, despite having had no formal training, had a formidable reputation as a nurse and midwife, prepared to go anywhere, any time she was needed. During the Anglo Boer War, she is said to have nursed British and Boer soldiers with equal dedication, as well as the children in the Barberton concentration camp during a measles epidemic. She took over Fountain Baths Hotel in 1898 and ran it for a number of years. This redoubtable woman died in 1919 at the age of 75 years, leaving nine children and 54 grandchildren.

The hotel was taken over by Mr and Mrs Thomas Lee in 1908, who renovated the swimming pool and set aside Wednesday afternoons for the use of ladies (no mixed bathing was allowed in those days). According to Eric WG Howard in Nostalgia for Barberton’, the pool was 15 metres by five metres, and 165 centimetres at the deep end.

The original pool was filled in by a subsequent owner, but today a modern pool has been built on the same spot. The luxurious room I stayed in was once the laundry.

“˜The pool here functioned as the town’s public bath until the 1960s, when the municipal pool opened in town,’ says Sue.

This three-star establishment offers both self-catering family rooms and chalets with plenty of privacy in a peaceful garden with 3,6-billion-year-old greenstone rock across a bridge over Rose’s Creek. Accommodation costs R250 a person sharing and R150 for children under 12. A cooked breakfast is priced at R45.

Tel 013-712-2707
Cell 083-700-8825
Email [email protected]

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