Barberton, a small unassuming town in Mpumalanga’s Kruger Lowveld region, is world-famous for two different reasons. The first is for Golden Quarry, the world’s richest gold mine, where as the joke goes the rock had to be removed from the gold! The second, and more significant, is for the treasures of the Barberton Geotrail.
The Barberton Geotrail
Officially known as the Barberton Makhonjwa Geotrail for the mountains through which it cuts, the geotrail offers a glimpse into the best-preserved example of the Archaean geological period in the world. These are some of the Earth’s oldest preserved rocks, and examining them and the secrets they reveal is like looking back towards the beginning of Life.
Visitors to the Barberton Geotrail have the opportunity to explore these ancient rocks, and with information panels at every geosite, have the geology interpreted for them on-site. As well as these geologically-significant sites, there are also a number of view sites from which visitors can enjoy breathtaking views of the Makhonjwa Mountain range and its plants and animals.
Global geological significance
The Makhonjwa Mountains, through which the Barberton Geotrail cuts, are made up of volcanic and sedimentary rock of the Barberton Greenstone Belt, part of the Barberton Supergroup from the Archaean period. This site is the best-preserved example of some of the oldest rocks on Earth. It is also the most accessible, unless you want to journey deep under the ice in Greenland or hundreds of kilometers into the desert of Australia – the only other locations to view them!
Of huge global geological importance, studies of the geosites over the last 30 years have provided clues as to the Earth’s early atmosphere, and some of the earliest forms of life. The rock formations provide evidence of devastating volcanic activity, huge asteroid impacts, inland oceans and microbial mats (made by cyanobacteria).
Each of these features are clearly illustrated among the geosites along the geotrail. Each geosite is accompanied by informative signage that explains the significance of the site, and how it fits into the broader geological timeline in a way that is easy for the lay visitor to understand. There is also additional in-depth information for the more serious visitor. As well as illustrating what geologists think the world must have been like during the Archaean period, these information panels help the visitor understand how the landscape became what it is today.
Visiting the Barberton Geotrail
The Barberton Makhonjwa Geotrail is on the R40 between Barberton and the Josefsdal / Bulembu border post with Swaziland. The road is tarred and suitable for all vehicle types. It is narrow and winding however and has occasional traffic from heavy vehicles, so it is recommended to drive slowly and carefully on this route.
The estimated time to drive the geotrail is 6 hours, if you want to stop a most of the geosites. For those wishing to take it even slower, pack a picnic lunch and make a full day of the trail! There are picnic facilities at the Greenstone, Lebombo Makhonjwa view and the Volcanic lapilli sites. The Lebombo viewsite also has toilet facilities.
The geotrail is open year-round and, with its informative signage, can easily be completed as a self-drive. Going with a guide always enhances the experience however. We’d highly recommend Pieter and Wynand of Dusty Tracks for their knowledge and professionalism. Alternative guides can also be arranged through Barberton Tourism.
Don’t forget to look out for the fauna and flora of the Makhonjwa Mountains too, much of which is endemic and highly varied thanks to changes in the altitude and weather of the area. Larger game includes antelope, leopard and caracal. Some noteworthy endemic plants include the critically endangered woolly cycad (Encephalartos heenanii) and endemic protea (Protea comptonii), and there are a number of endemic butterfly species like Barbara’s copper (Aloeides barbarae) or Jeffrey’s blue (Lepidochrysops swanepoeli).
Map of the Barberton Makhonjwa Geotrail
More things to do in Barberton
Apart from the Barberton Geotrail, there are plenty of other things to do in Barberton. Among the most highly recommended are exploring some of Barberton’s colorful gold rush history, or adventuring through the nearby wild spaces in a 4×4. There are also interesting buildings, a museum and restaurants and other attractions in Barberton itself.