Things To Do in BarbertonBarberton, via Bulembu, to Badplaas
Where? Route: Barberton, Bulembu (Swaziland), Badplaas, Nelshoogte Pass, Barberton
When? Best during daylight hours
How much? Free
Route: Barberton, Bulembu (Swaziland), Badplaas, Nelshoogte Pass, Barberton
Description: The incredibly scenic mountain pass route to Bulembu, followed by a circular route via Badplaas traverses some of the most beautiful scenery in Mpumalanga
Length: roughly 260 km
Time: a day (the view stops will add up)
Overnight: Barberton and Badplaas
Our tip: drive this route, particularly the pass just before the border with Swaziland, in a 4x4 (although the South African side of the road is in good condition, but steep)
Barberton to Bulembu, via the Bulembu Pass, 43 km
The R40 between Barberton and the Josefsdal border post is the drive's highlight. The incredibly scenic mountain pass is regarded as, arguably, one of the most spectacularly scenic drives in southern Africa. People describe it as 'jaw droppingly beautiful'. It twists and turns its way through one of Mpumalanga's most beautiful valleys and over some of the oldest mountains on earth.
Leave the pretty, historical town of Barberton (one of the oldest gold-mining towns in the country) via Sheba Road (R38) as it curves gently to the right just after passing the Dutch Reformed Church (on your right).
At the t-junction with the R40, turn right, and follow the road out of town. The first 9 km are steep, over the Saddleback Mountains behind Barberton.
This section of the R40, between Barberton and the Swazi border, is also known as the Barberton Makhonjwa Geotrail, a self-drive trail with 11 stops at information boards explaining the various geological marvels on Barberton's Greenstone Belt, the best-preserved example of a 350 million year sequence of Archaean earth rocks (ancient volcanic and sedimentary rocks unique to Archaean earth between 3.2 and 3.57 billion years ago!) in the world. It is probably better to do this as part of a separate guided tour, but if you have time, include the boards as well.
Look out for the T4 tourist route that turns off to Shiyalangubo Dam, ending at Low's Creek roughly 10 km after you join the R40. It is not a long detour (a half hour at most) and an essential road for the views, the beauty and the stops en route. Visit Peglar's Bush (natural forest in the midst of pine plantation) for incredible bird spotting opportunities, picnic at the Shiyalongubo Dam (best picnic spot), and then press on a little further, just beyond Low's Creek, to join the R38 briefly (turn right onto the R38).
Opposite the Esperado turn-off to Revolver Creek are Nukain Mabusa's painted rocks, known as Nukain Mabusa's flower garden, beside the R38 (8 km from Kaapmuiden on the N4). This fine example of 'outsider art' inspired the new portals to Barberton and the Barberton Makhonjwa Geotrail.
If you have time, include Boondocks Mountain Labyrinth (4 km from the N4 turn off from Kaapmuiden). The labyrinth and the nature walks are worth it. Phone ahead to warn Stuart Jensen of your visit.
Head back to the R40.
The road climbs continuously. There are numerous lay-bys at which one can stop to look back at the views over Barberton. This mountainland south of Barberton is beautiful. The area is thick with pine plantations as the serpentine road winds up and down hills. You will pass below the old aerial cable-way from Barberton station to Bulembu (built to carry asbestos ore but now closed) more than a couple of times.
The Bulembu Pass starts to twist and turn in earnest about 18 km from the start of the R40, a combination of hairpin bends and incredible view points. This part of the journey will have you wishing, if you are not already driving one, that you had a 4x4, as the road is steep and though tarred, can be weather worn.
Valleys and mountains get deeper and bigger as you approach Swaziland. The best views of the whole drive are to be had from the R40 just before the Swaziland border with South Africa.
Pass the turn-off to Oshoek and Badplaas to descend to the border post.
From the Swazi border to Badplaas, 80 km
Once over the border you may want to drive the dirt, tree plantation road up to Piggs Peak. This is best in a high clearance vehicle, as the road is not always in good condition, depending on the rainfall. It takes about an hour and is very scenic.
Bulembu sits atop the Malolotja Mountains; an old asbestos mining town in Swaziland. Today the mine is long closed. Locals farm honey in the forests, you will find a bakery in town, a craft centre and an orphanage, home to 350 Aids orphans.
Leave Bulembu by the R40. After 2.2 km take a left onto the dirt road that descends into the Msauli valley to Badplaas. This winding road through the Songimvelo Nature Reserve is a peace of heaven via Msauli, Ekulindeni (something of a ghost town now that the mine is closed). The road gets rather hairy just above Ekulindeni (Msauli) where not only is the road steep, but the series of eroded hairpin bends slow you right down to below 40 km/hour.
The all weather gravel road then skirts the nature reserve's southern boundary to join up with the R541 to Badplaas. This whole section is advisable in a 4x4 vehicle.
Once over the Nkomati River the condition of the road improves as you join the R541 to Badplaas. This little town, famous for its healing springs, lies in the foothills of the Dhlumudhlumu Mountains.
Badplaas to Barberton 71 km
The R38 back to Barberton wends its way past the Vygeboomdam and then up Nelshoogte Pass. Unforgettable scenery is far from over as this last part of the journey will reveal.
Nelshoogte Pass might only be 12 km worth of tarred road, but it offers one incredible vista after another. The steep pass heads through the Nelshoogte State Forest up Nelsberg peak.