Get your head in the clouds on this Mpumalanga road trip

Posted on 12 March 2018

Panorama Route too busy for you? Try the Barberton geology route on Mpumalanga’s highest roads and explore its impressive heights.

Exceptional sunset views from the Barberton Geotrail. Photo by Melanie van Zyl.

I recently took a disappointing trip to the Panorama Route. I had visions of frolicking in waterfalls, eating pancakes and soaking up tranquil vistas. In reality, I was jammed in among hordes of people who arrived in busloads for the public holiday and long weekend. Sure, it was beautiful, but I wanted something less, um, Instagrammed. And I found just that, south of the N4 – during school holidays, nogal.

I planned a drive from Joburg to the Barberton Makhonjwa Geotrail, a winding mountain route through some of the oldest mountains in the world to the Swaziland border. I threw in a couple more mountain passes for good measure and ended up with my own ‘panorama route’.

Following the N4, the first sweeping mountain pass I found was Schoemanskloof, a well-tarred road flanked by thornveld. After a hearty lunch at Milly’s restaurant, before the Machado Toll Plaza, I meandered my way towards Schoemanskloof Falls Retreat, where I had booked into the Mountain Pondokkie. Most of the farms in the area are planted with citrus (and patrolled by big baboons), but Schoemanskloof Falls Retreat – a working fish farm – has preserved swathes of wild bush. At first glance, the farm equipment and scraps lying about did little to justify the drive, but after climbing up a rugged road (you need a high-clearance car, but the owners are happy to offer a lift if needed), the secluded cottage was a dream.

The Mountain Pondokkie is a relatively easy 20-minute walk from a waterfall where you can swim. Photo by Melanie van Zyl.

Previously an inn, the stone farmhouse was the perfect way to ease into a holiday. No Wi-Fi or TV was needed – just a roaring fire and good company. Evening brought sublime colours to the valley and baboon barks echoed down the slopes.

In the morning I headed towards Barberton and the geology-focused drive that wends its way to the Bulembu Border Post. I wanted to include as many mountains as I could and chose to stay on the N4 to Nelspruit and slip down the appropriately named Hilltop Pass. Even though it was winter and the sweeping grasslands had turned dull, the drive offered wide views and a sense of serenity. In summer it would be even better.

Painted stones outside the entrance to Barberton honouring local artist Nukain Mabuza. Photo by Melanie van Zyl.

I drove past the entrance to Barberton, which is decorated with painted rocks, and changed gears to tackle the incline to the first of 11 stops on the geotrail. Launched in 2014, the aim of the drive is to make the area’s world-famous geology more accessible to non-geologists. Some of the stops have picnic sites and all have excellent views and information boards. To be honest, many of the geological terms on the boards went completely over my head, but it was a fantastic way to spend a morning. There’s something about an immense view that puts life’s problems into perspective.

The mountains on this drive are 3,2 billion years old and haven’t changed much since they played host to some of Earth’s first living things. I saw evidence of this first life in the form of grey-black grains in a piece of rock, believed to be fossilised micro organisms. This alone is worth the trip – even though to me ‘first life’ just looks like a bunch of freckles.

Reading one of the info boards on the Barberton Geotrail and trying to match it to the mountains ahead. Photo by Melanie van Zyl.

The road is tarred for the entire drive on the R40 to Swaziland and twists past pine plantations and embraces wild pockets of indigenous forest releasing trickles of water onto the road.

Once at the Bulembu Border Post, I turned around and aimed the car back towards Barberton. I needed a hunk of cake and some tea, and found both at Die Plaaskombuis next to the town’s museum. That afternoon, I cruised through Barberton, admiring the neon bougainvillea draped along fences and the old zinc mining cottages, before retiring to Buhswhacked, a rustic cottage on a koppie just outside town.


Chances of seeing the wild horses are good on the roads around Kaapsehoop. Photo by Melanie van Zyl.

The next day, I drove slowly into the village of Kaapsehoop, hoping to spot some of the estimated 200 wild horses that roam these parts – even the tarred passes. I was in luck.
After a breakfast pancake at Koek ’n Pan, I met up with local tour guide Enos Zulu and arranged a hike to Adam’s Calendar, South Africa’s own ‘Stonehenge’. I was advised to go on the three-hour walk with an open mind and was blown away by these stones strategically strewn across the mountaintop. Enos, a knowledgeable guide and excellent storyteller, told me about the conspiracies surrounding the stones, one of which posits that they have a link to Egypt’s pyramids and the Zimbabwe Ruins.

Adams Calendar

Enos Zulu tells me about the strange stones at Adam’s Calendar. Photo by Melanie van Zyl.

Even if you’re not a history fan, the walk alone – in the Blue Swallow Reserve – is a good enough reason to go. Although they haven’t been seen lately, these rare swallows commonly breed in the old mine shafts surrounding Kaapsehoop. Enos is also an exceptional bird guide and knows where to find special sightings.

Back in Kaapsehoop, I browsed its few stores, devoured a pizza and found the famous feral horses grazing just outside the village under a lonely windpump. This dorp is truly quaint and charming and the tin homes are reminiscent of Pilgrim’s Rest, but with a far more authentic feel. It has pancakes and hilly passes, peace and quiet, and a good dose of mystery and majestic steeds. With horse tails swinging from side to side like soft pendulums and a pink sunset to myself, I declared my Mpumalanga mountain meander a success.


Joburg to Kaapsehoop

Day 1: Joburg to Schoemanskloof

Distance: 300km
Allow: 5 hours


The famous (and delicious!) trout pie from Milly’s on the N4. Photo by Melanie van Zyl.

From Joburg, drive on the N4 towards Middelburg, stopping for fuel and trout pie at Milly’s restaurant (1). Kids can feed the fish in the dam. From here it’s an easy hour’s drive on the N4 highway to your first night’s accommodation at Schoemanskloof Falls Retreat. After the Machado Toll Plaza, keep left to drive the Schoemanskloof Pass. Before turning off to your accommodation 10km later, stop for freshly squeezed orange juice from Kumi Restaurant at the Viva Fuel Station (2). Spend the night at the retreat’s Mountain Pondokkie (3).

Day 2: Schoemanskloof to Barberton

Distance: 170km
Allow: 4 hours


Sunset at the first stop on the Barberton Geotrail. Local runners tackle the steep incline at this time so it’s a great chance to meet the townsfolk. Photo by Melanie van Zyl.

Carry on along the N4 towards Nelspruit and take the R104 to stop at Halls Farm Stall (4) for avos and other local produce. Drive through the town of Nelspruit (I always forget how big this city is – it even has an H&M store now – and turn right onto the twisting Hilltop Pass on the R40 towards Barberton. After 45km, pass the town and head towards the Geotrail (5) in the direction of Swaziland. Stop to read the info boards along the way, and once you hit the border, double back to Barberton. The town’s museum is full of mining information and there’s delicious carrot cake next door at Die Plaaskombuis (6). If you want to stay in Barberton, Bushwhacked is a decent budget stay (7).

Day 3: Barberton to Kaapsehoop

Distance: 50km
Allow: 1 hour


Wild horses roam the gardens of Kaapsehoop. Photo by Melanie van Zyl.

From Barberton, turn off the R40 after about 11km – a sign points left to Kaapsehoop. It’s a long, bumpy dirt road past plantations to get to there, but scenic enough (alternatively, drive back to Nelspruit and around on the N4). Find great pancakes at Koek ’n Pan (8) and fuel up for the walk to see Adam’s Calendar on the Blue Swallow Reserve (9). The Saddle Up Eatery (10) is on the outskirts of town and the Bohemian Groove Café (11) in town – I didn’t eat at these two spots, but have it on good authority that both are excellent for lunch or dinner. While away the afternoon looking for the feral horses and stay at the lovely self-catering historical home, Lambourns (12). There’s a big kitchen, lovely living area and a flower-filled garden.


Do it differently


The delightful interiors of Lambourn’s Guest House in Kaapsehoop. Photo by Melanie van Zyl.

Stay at Kaapsehoop for the entire trip and do the various drives during the day. This town had the best accommodation variety, is close enough to the geotrail and under four hours from Gauteng. This route is also perfect for journeys to and from the southern gates of Kruger National Park. You can also add another mountain pass onto the trip – take the N4 past Middelburg. 10km after the Alzu Petroport, turn right at the R33 sign for Carolina. Take the R38 (Genesis Route) out of Carolina and stop for a break at the top of Nelshoogte Pass.


Road trip directory and map

1. Milly’s. This stop is on the N4 and open seven days a week for breakfast and lunch. It closes at 17:00. Try any of the trout specialities such as the smoked trout pie (R74 with chips). Tel 0132560718

2. Kumi Farm Stall. At the orange Viva Fuel Station, freshly squeezed orange juice from neighbouring farms is sold for R25 per litre.

3. Mountain Pondokkie. This old stone cottage, originating from around 1900, has a big stone fireplace, farm kitchen and wrap-around stoep that looks into the garden. There are ruins on the property and guided walks; those from the cottage are best (plus they are further away from the main road). There are also two gorge walks. From R1090 for two sharing. Tel 0798853509

4. Halls Farm Stall. An institution in Nelspruit, Halls is the place to find local padkos such as creamy macadamia nut butter (R68), mango jam (R40) and avos (R60 for a box). Tel 0137522142

5. The Barberton Makhonjwa Geotrail. It starts at the top of a hill on the R40 just outside of Barberton. The 37km self-drive route takes you more than three billion years into the past.

6. Die Plaaskombuis. It’s unassuming from the outside but is set in a delightful nursery and has well-priced toasties, salads and plenty of Banting options. Meals from R30. Tel 0761549629

7. Bushwhacked. Set on a hill with good views, this accommodation is just outside of the town centre. The open-plan, self-catering garden cottage is private and, although basic, is clean and good value for money. R325 per person for two sharing. Tel 0736915646

8. Koek’n Pan. Sweet and savoury pancakes with generous fillings are served here, and you’ll get a blanket to keep you warm when the mist rolls in. Meals from R40. Tel 0137344580

9. Adam’s Calendar. The series of rocks are believed by some (but this is controversial) to be the oldest man-made structures in the world. It’s also known by African elders as ‘The Birthplace of the Sun’. Do a tour with Enos Zulu to learn more. R285 per person. 0846742525

10. Saddle Up Eatery. Here, you’ll be served delicious meals from a gypsy caravan on a fabulous sunset stoep. From R75. You can also go horse riding as it’s on the property of Kaapsehoop Horse Trails. R315 per person for an hour. Tel 0799341675

11. Bohemian Groove Café. A Sunday lunch hotspot for locals and sometimes there’s live music. Meals from R65. Tel 0137344545

12. Lambourn’s Self-Catering Guest House. This beautifully maintained, historical six-bed accommodation belongs in the gold-rush era. Atmospheric light fills the rooms and the sprawling rock garden is home to tall aloes, rock dassies and Gurney’s sugarbirds. From R1400 for four people on weekdays. Tel 0834178398


This story first appeared in the December 2017 issue of Getaway magazine.

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