Saddleback Pass | Mud, mines and memories
An unplanned dirt road, a hand-drawn map and more mud than you can shake a stick at − Scarlett Steer explores a ring route through Swaziland.
Are you a man or a woman?” I beg your pardon? Squinting through the windshield is a sopping face, and a sodden clipboard is pressed through the tiny slit of the open window. The attached rain-mottled entry form is barely legible.
“You have two choices up ahead – a difficult mountain pass or a tar road. Which one will you choose?”
There is not a hint of humour in his voice. The question throws me.
“The mountain one,” I reply.
“Illogical,” he declares seriously. “Completely irrational. This makes you a woman.”
I am deep inside the Songimvelo Nature Reserve, some 45 km south of Barberton, about to exit the village of Msauli. My plan was to explore a different route from the one via the Oshoek border post most people use to access Swaziland from Gauteng.
The idea was to travel from Johannesburg to Barberton via Carolina (over the Nelshoogte and Bothasnek passes), overnight, and then continue to Swaziland the next day via the Saddleback Pass – a rope of dirt road strung between Barberton and the Josefsdal border post.
But what’s a plan if it can’t be altered?
Pg 2: A dark and stormy night
A dark and stormy night
It normally takes about four hours to cover the 380 km between the Big Smoke and Barberton. True to form, I was well behind schedule.
By late afternoon pewter clouds thick with warm rain leant heavily on Barberton’s shoulders.
There was just enough light for a drive-by shooting in Pilgrim Street of the façade of South Africa’s first stock exchange, a fruitless attempt to locate the Jock of the Bushveld statue, and a visit to the Sheba Mine (one of the richest gold mines in the world), just in time to see it close.
Not what the Lonely Planet would declare a productive afternoon of sightseeing.
Barberton is a relic of the short-lived gold era of the 1880s and feels dated in the best possible way. Some say if you listen hard enough, you can still hear the faint footfalls of a thousand intrepid treasure hunters from years gone by.
If you’re digging a little deeper, you’ll find volcanic rocks in the Barberton Mountain lands as old as 3.5 billion years. Widely accepted to be some of the oldest exposed rocks on the planet, they offer direct evidence of conditions of life on the surface of early earth.
A website dedicated to Barberton assured me the town was a destination to make “my own” – whatever that means – and urged me to “thrill to the wild exuberance of the pioneering spirit”. Gripping stuff.
What did provide a thrill that evening, was a fierce thunderstorm, with rain bouncing wildly about the roof like popcorn in a hot pot.
Adriaan and Lili Nel, hosts at the Old Coach Road Guesthouse, bellowed above the roar of falling water as they told of a long stretch of dirt road skirting the Swazi border on the South African side, branching off the R40 about 1.5 km shy of the Josefsdal border post. Enter plan change number one …
Pg 3: The taming of the pass
The taming of the pass
The morning came to in a menacing mood. Heading back towards Barberton from the Old Coach Road Guesthouse, I took a left turn onto the R40 and headed to the Saddleback Pass and Swaziland.
The 43 km-long R40 between Barberton and the Josefsdal border post begins as a steep, tarred ascent over the Saddleback Mountains behind Barberton. Roughly 9 km on, tar becomes chocolate-brown dirt road. You are now on the Saddleback Pass proper.
Great forests of pine trees swayed and sagged overhead as if the thick mist was adding unbearable weight onto the uppermost branches.
Visibility went from dodgy to dire the higher I climbed.
The feeling of isolation was, however, short-lived. About to be tarred, the pass is being compacted and levelled by a hundred heavy-duty vehicles.
The good news is that the likelihood of encountering the headless horseman of Sleepy Hollow goes from foregone conclusion to highly improbable.
The bad? Your company will be of the mechanised kind.
Thrilling to the “wild exuberance of the pioneering spirit” becomes impossible when you’re dodging day-glo orange cones and diesel road rollers. Your inner pioneer is likely to feel cheated.
Thirty kilometres of well-compressed dirt road later and closing in on lunch time, a sign pointing to the Oshoek border post (50 km away) and Badplaas (75 km) materialised through the drizzle. This is the turnoff Adriaan and Lilli talked about last night.
I took a right turn and bid farewell to the Saddleback Pass until my return journey the next day.
Pg 4: The road to Bulembu
The road to Bulembu
The scenery of lavishly green hills and gushing rivers that followed was enough to inspire even the most melodically challenged to run barefoot and singing through the fields.
I might well have done just that if I wasn’t afraid to brake. It’s not that the Patriot wasn’t holding her own on the slippery surface, but driving through mud has always reduced me to a bit of a wuss.
Roughly 13 km on, the road drops gently in to the deserted mining village of Msauli, deep inside the Songimvelo Nature Reserve.
Home to the now dormant African Chrysotile Asbestos Mine, what was once a prosperous mining community was crouching quiescently in the rain.
In drier conditions this would be an intriguing place to explore. The downpour made this a less than attractive option, and I settled on a slow crawl through, halting where our story began, at a boom on the other side of the town.
This is where the clipboard-wielding guard leaps from a small booth into the rain, salutes the Jeep, and barks, “I am proud because your car is high.”
I gesture for him to come out of the deluge and he jumps into the passenger seat, apologises for his muddy boots, and introduces himself as Louis.
After accepting an offer of coffee from the thermos, Louis explains that he worked at the mine from 1984 and was placed on boom duty when it closed in 2001.
I’m not sure why, but he stops everyone on their way out of Msauli. Nevertheless, his advice on the road ahead would turn out quite useful.
He sketches a map of my intended route to Oshoek, some 30 km on, and scrawls his cellphone number at the bottom of the page.
“This is in case you play the fool and need my assistance, madam,” he explains. “I have the strong arms to deal with disaster. I am too happy to help.” This trip has taken an unexpected turn – in more than one way.
Post Msauli, the dirt road becomes noticeably wider and is peppered with potholes as you enter the communities of Ekulindeni and Ekwalatini.
Just beyond the Komati River, I bump into Comfort, a goat herder. I ask him if he thinks I’m a man or a woman. His look of indecision offers little of what his name suggests.
Finally, the road splits – this is obviously the choice of routes Louis the boom controller referred to. Both roads lead to Oshoek – one is an unpredictable route through the mountains, the other a fairly tame, if potholed tar road.
Play it safe or be potentially sorry? It’s raining hard, there’s no cellphone reception and I’m very much alone.
Reason triumphs over inherent irrationality and in defiance of the gender stereotype, the Jeep’s tyres stay straight on the road through the Badplaas district.
The road soon turns to tar and, following signs to Mbabane, I arrive at Oshoek just after 4 pm.
The border crossing is a breeze, and 14 km later I take the Piggs Peak turn-off onto the MR1 from the tar highway to Mbabane.
The weather is foul, the tar road narrow and concentration is at an all-time high – so much so that the passing greenery of softly-sloping hills and shifting grass go largely unnoticed.
The better-known town of Piggs Peak materialises 40 km on, as does the sign to Bulembu right at the end of the main road opposite the police station. Turning left towards Bulembu will deposit you back on gravel road.
At this point, you may well feel you’re on a random logging road – you are, but you haven’t made a mistake. Bulembu is a little over 15 km down this track and, if the weather is wet, the going is slippery and slow.
Pg 5: Once upon a time …
Once upon a time …
Bulembu tops the Malolotja Mountains, virtually on the border of Swaziland and South Africa. It is home to the now non-operational Havelock Mine, which at its day was one of the five biggest asbestos mines in the world.
Back in the ’30s, the mine provided jobs for around 4 000 people. Today only a few hundred remain, although if the enchanting Bulembu Country Lodge has anything to do with it, the village is unlikely to remain scantily-visited for long.
In the ominous weather, the village is a unicorn short of a Brothers Grimm storybook – craggy mountains, red-roofed buildings and the aging grace that fables are made of. It feels like I should be wearing a bonnet and having a conversation with a bluebird sitting on my shoulder.
But what kind of fable, you may ask, is built on an asbestos mine? Okay, none spring to mind, but Snow White and the Seven Dwarves comes close.
Seriously though, Bulembu feels an era away from everyday life. I loved the cobwebbed 285-seat cinema that has been left in its original state, as well as the old unoperational (pardon the pun) hospital and its equipment dating back to the 1930s.
I have every intention of tackling Emlembe – at 1 863 m the area’s highest peak – the next morning, but the Bulembu Country Lodge’s beds prove too darn comfy and the alarm clock gets duly ignored.
The border post between Josefsdal and Bulembu is scarcely a kilometre from the village, and is well sign-posted as you leave the town.
The urge to do it all again is a real temptation, and the Jeep’s all-terrain treads almost leave the R40 as the Oshoek/Badplaas turn-off reappears through the fog.
A choice like that would be irrational. But then again, I am a woman.
Pg 6: Quick facts
What did you drive?
Jeep Patriot 2.0 CRD
The good and bad of it?
I’ll admit I quickly became rather attached to this vehicle. Its handling was impressive, even in the muddy conditions, and I appreciated the surprisingly no-nonsense interior layout. Aesthetically, the aggressive front bumper won’t be to everyone’s taste.
How far did you drive?
A 760 km roundtrip between Johannesburg and Barberton, and roughly 200 km of dirt road from Barberton to Bulembu and back.
Condition of the roads?
Wet, but mostly good
Did you use diff-lock or 4×4?
It wasn’t necessary.
AA Touring Guide of Southern Africa and a hand-drawn sketch by Louis the boom controller.
Exploring Bulembu on foot and meeting Louis Lowlights? The tar stretch from Oshoek to Piggs Peak.
Which is the most beautiful place to stop at?
Probably the valley on the South African side just past the Josefsdal/Bulembu border post
And the worst?
Perhaps the least picturesque is the Oshoek border post
Best meal on the road?
Ripe papayas bought from a roadside stall just outside of Barberton
Where do I stay?
- Old Coach Road Guesthouse, Barberton:
013 719 9755; www.oldcoachroad.co.za
- Bulembu Country Lodge:
+26 84 37 1998/3888
The Oshoek border post is open 8 am-10 pm, and the border post between Josefsdal and Bulembu from 8 am-4 pm.
- Remember, South African vehicles are required to have a ZA sticker on the back.