THE BARBERTON GREENSTONE BELT
Situated in the Mpumalanga province, Barberton is one of South Africa’s best kept secrets. Tucked away in this sleepy town’s Makhonjwa Mountains is the Barberton Greenstone Belt where some of earth’s oldest rocks are located, approximately 3.5 billion years old.
According to the tourist website, Mpumalanga Happenings, the Barberton Greenstone Belt, also known as the ‘Genesis of Life’, is one of the oldest and best exposed Archean greenstone belts in the world as its rocks contain key evidence of the earliest forms of life on earth.
In order to preserve this unique geological heritage site, the Barberton Makhonjwa Geotrail was launched in April 2014, mainly driven by a local economic development programme called the Barberton Tourism and Biodiversity Corridor (BATOBIC).
“The Geotrail is the road between Barberton and Swaziland, which is Bulembu road. For 27 kilometres, we’ve made 12 laybys where you can turn off the road, park your car and read exactly what you are looking at,” Astrid Christianson, marketing manager of Barberton Community Tourism told cnbcafrica.com in an exclusive interview.
The geosite laybys along the trail each contain a series of vividly illustrated panels with detailed information on key features of the landscape.
GEOTRAIL FUELLING BARBERTON’S TOURISM
While the Barberton Greenstone Belt is already world-renowned, the Geotrail sparked new local and international interest at the annual Tourism Indaba held in Durban this year.
“Tourism has really gone up since the Indaba. Interest has grown phenomenally. The Barberton Geotrail was the biggest thing that I have seen at the Indaba this year,” said Christianson.
“I am getting bookings from all over from interested groups. It’s really the new kid on the block as far as South African tourism goes and it only opened up two months ago.”
She added that foreign tourists from Europe, especially the Netherlands, Germany and Spain have been flocking to Barberton since the indaba. Barberton’s winter months are its busiest period.
AN OLD TOWN SUBMERGED IN ITS RICH HISTORY
Even though the town’s geology remains its biggest tourism attraction, Christianson believes that the town’s rich history, specifically in gold mining, has also drawn in both local and foreign visitors.
According to South African History Online (SAHO) institute, gold mining in South Africa initially began in Barberton after Tom McClachlan, a successful gold prospector, found the first traces of alluvial gold in the area in 1874. The town then experienced a gold rush with fortune seekers flocking in from all over the world.
Consequently, Barberton was also home to South Africa’s first stock exchange, the remains of which can still be seen today.
“One hundred years ago, Barberton thrived as much as Johannesburg thrives today,” said Christianson.
To date, the town still has four active gold mines that are over a century old. According to Christianson, Barberton’s Sheba Gold mine remains one of the richest gold mines in the world.
The town’s forestry also has its own allure as it remains one of the most bio diverse areas of South Africa with around 1,500 plant species, 350 bird species and 80 animal species.
“We’ve got three butterflies that only occur in this area as well as the smallest aloe in the world that only grows here in Barberton,” she added.
As a result, hiking trails such as the two-day Queen Rose trail draws a lot of tourism to the town.
Another big attraction is Barberton’s location as it is situated in close proximity to the Kruger National Park, Swaziland, Mozambique and Gauteng.
Christianson explained that visitors who are on their way to one of the above mentioned destinations usually stop-over in Barberton for a one to two day pit stop, whether it is to drive along the geotrail, join a mining tour or trek along one of the hiking trails.
With a population of over 60,000, the town of Barberton continues to expand and remains one of South Africa’s seven flagship tourism destinations.