After tea and freshly baked scones with relatives in Barberton and a fascinating morning exploring the Barberton Makhonjwa Geotrail, I turned south off the R40 a few hundred metres from the Josefsdal border-post, following the sign towards Diepgezet.
But first a bit of a detour…
Asbestos mining and abandoned towns
If you have your passport handy, continue up to Josefsdal border-post and cross over into eSwatini. One of the quietest and friendliest border crossings you will encounter anywhere. About 20 kilometres of spectacular but sometimes rough gravel will bring you to the busy town of Piggs Peak, a topic for another day.
Only about 2 kilometres after passing through the border, you’ll round a bend and the very pretty village of Bulembu will reveal itself. Neat rows of tiny houses arranged in orderly ranks bask in the sun on the opposite hill. Once painted in a multitude of colours, now faded into pale pastels of their former glory.
Established in 1939, the Havelock Mine produced asbestos here until it was abruptly closed in 2001 when the extreme dangers of this mineral became known. The mine, along with Bulembu, the town where the miners lived, was abandoned and left to the mercy of the elements. Much of the town is still intact but mostly vacant. A sad remnant of a once prosperous settlement. Some effort is being made by an international aid organisation to use the infrastructure to house orphaned children.
Along the drive up from Barberton, you will have passed long lines of rusting pylons sewn together by sagging cables. This deserted cableway was once the artery connecting Havelock to the railhead at Barberton. Due to the mountainous terrain, building a railway to the mine was not a viable proposition and a 20 kilometre-long aerial cableway was constructed to carry the mined asbestos out to the railway at Barberton returning with supplies and coal for the mine’s power station.
This interesting article provides a bit more history of the mining activities and Bulembu as it is now.
Returning to the South African side of the border and leaving the tarred R40, the gravel road to Diepgezet descends steeply down into the valley. The views are spectacular as the road twists and turns its way through the lush and unspoilt Songimvelo Nature Reserve. After 13 kilometres and a descent of more than 700 metres, you arrive at another abandoned town. The story of Diepgezet and Msauli mine is similar to that of Bulembu and Havelock. Started in 1949, a few years after Havelock, this pretty town was also evacuated and abandoned in 2001.
The first time I passed through here in 2010 the town was still almost intact. Brightly painted swings and roundabouts were standing next to a neat but empty swimming pool. The club looked as if it was ready to open and begin serving drinks at any minute. Furniture moved aside as if for cleaning and dusting. The school looked like any school when the children are away on holidays. Lush shrubbery spilled over the garden fences. The bottle store looked like it was just closed for lunch. The only sign of life however were the two security guards who controlled access at either side of the village. A strange, eery sensation reminiscent of a movie scene come to life.
Now, eight years later, the decay of abandonment had set in. Gone were the security guards, buildings were stripped of their trimmings and wiring. Vegetation was reclaiming it’s territory over man-made structures.
I’d heard that a coffee shop and guest house had been opened, but no sign of life was to be seen or heard.
I didn’t stop to take pictures, the scene was just too sad.
South along the border
Continuing south through Diepgezet, the road now levels out as it passes through a lovely lush valley and crosses the Komati River at the Gideon Joubert Bridge. To the east rise steep mountains beyond which lie eSwatini. The road passes through a few rural villages, the scenes are tranquil and the few people I pass wave a friendly greeting. This is rural South Africa at its best. Untouched by the bustle of modern shops and conveniences. I’m really glad I chose this route.
Soon I reach a fork in the road. Going right would lead back to Badplaas. Keeping left parallels the international border till reaching the N17 a few kilometres from eSwatini’s main border-post at Oshoek. I chose the latter and wasn’t disappointed. Soon the road rose steeply upwards with tight turns and grand views. Quickly rising from around 700 metres to above 1 500 metres the lush vegetation gives way to highveld grasslands and the air turns cool with altitude.