Barberton in Mpumalanga is almost on the border of Swaziland, which is now officially known as Eswatini (which means home of the Swazi people). A few kilometres of bush is all that separates the old mining town and the tiny independent country.
‘Welcome to Barberton!’ proclaims the sign near the brightly painted rocks at the entrance to the town, which is reached by taking the R38 from the N4 in the north, or the N17and then the R541, if you’re coming from the south. If you don’t like taking the smaller rural roads, you don’t have much of a chance of visiting Barberton, as the national highways are far away.
This Mpumalanga town was first known as Blandstown, named after a Mr Bland, then the Barbers who were wealthy miners arrived and the name changed.
Barberton, one of areas where gold was first found in South Africa, was a boom town that attracted gold miners by the thousands. Once upon a time it had a pub for every 15 residents.
Barberton is famous for having been the seat of South Africa’s first Stock Exchange, one of the two that the small town boasted. The façade of the De Kaap Gold Fields Stock exchange is still intact, although both stock exchange buildings were demolished. Not that many old buildings still stand, but what there is, give the town a quaint atmosphere.
Barberton proudly commemorates Jock of the Bushveld, the feisty little dog that went everywhere with Percy Fitzpatrick, a transport rider who eventually became involved with mining and politics.
Not that well known, is Cockney Liz, the high class call girl who travelled from England to South Africa to find her fiancé. Not finding him, she started off as a barmaid, and eventually earned fame and fortune; the fortune having started when a night with her was auctioned off – sometimes payment was made by the highest bidder in gold mining shares. She later became a businesswoman, owning one of the hotels. Her fiancé turned out to be the hapless person who was buried in the famous Robber’s Grave in Pilgrim’s Rest. He was falsely accused by his drunk friend, who killed him. Only after his burial did the truth emerge.
A must-do, is a visit to Die Plaaskombuis (The Farm Kitchen), which is a delightful café combined with a shop which sells delicious locally produced goodies, and a museum. In a corner of the museum section, in between all sorts of interesting items, is a collection of rarely seen Free Mason regalia. The Barberton Masonic Temple which was consecrated in 1898, still stands in Harris Street.
The emblem of the Blue Bulls Rugby Team, when it was originally called the Northern Transvaal Rugby Team, was the Barberton daisy, also called the Gerbera. This plant, which is now a stock component of florists, and is also a popular houseplant, was first discovered here in 1884.
In 1886, this town, which was the largest in what was then the Boer Republic of Transvaal, had its own newspaper, The Barberton Herald, and also was the first to have a post office.
The gold discovery on the Witwatersrand, caused many prospectors to move there, and Barberton suffered, with a number of businesses closing. The outbreak of the Anglo Boer war in 1899 caused further deterioration of the town when many gold mines closed.
Barberton’s cemetery is a stark reminder of the atrocities carried out by the English; there are a number of memorials to the women and children who died in the Barberton Concentration Camp. The cemetery is extensive, with graves dating back to the early days of Blandstown. Wandering around it, is a history lesson in itself.
A train line between the town and Kaapmuiden was built. It was part of the network to Lorenço Marques (now Maputo) Harbour, in what is now Mozambique. In those days, all sorts of goods were carried in both directions; nowadays, mostly agricultural products are transported on it. Proudly displayed in town is the steam locomotive which worked the line. Having been lost for some years (how do you lose something as big as a locomotive?), it was found in Port Elizabeth, and was impressively driven back to Barberton under its own steam.
Rail transportation was not the only manner in which goods were moved in and out of Barberton. Completed in 1939, was an aerial cableway which stretched 20km (as the crow flies) from the Havelock asbestos mine in Swaziland to Barberton. As the topography made it impossible to build a road, the cableway ferried asbestos ore from Havelock to the Barberton railhead, over the hills and mini mountains, and returned to Havelock laden with supplies for the mine. The cableway was abandoned when the mine closed.
Enjoy a wander around the town; the Local Tourism Organization’s recommended Heritage Walks are well signposted, and there are lots of information boards everywhere. Photograph the statue of Jock at the municipal offices, and wonder just how the pioneers of old managed to create towns out of nothing, and appreciate the legacy that they left behind for us to enjoy.