Home Youthful 2005 Suikerbosch- fontein
Mpumalanga magic, walking amongst the stones ...
From 18 to 20 November 2005 a group of enthusiastic youthful hikers undertook the Suikerboschfontein trail, a 2 day backpack
On the Mpumalanga highveld the Dullstroom / Sabie area tends to steal most of the limelight. The rest of it tends to be passing scenery on one’s way to better places, such as the Panorama Route or the Kruger National Park. Yet south of the N4 highway and fairly close to Johannesburg and Pretoria lie some largely undiscovered and definitely worthwhile places that are usually such turnoffs to nowhere along the main route. One such place is the farm Suikerboschfontein, some 20 km north-east of the town of Carolina. On the journey there, through the vast, flat land and black open-cast coal mines west and north of Carolina one certainly won’t be blamed for wondering just what kind of hiking trail awaits. Yet upon arrival at the overnight facility all is revealed and any ideas of the area as a flat, featureless ‘platteland’ that only a farmer could love are quickly dispelled.
Like a few giant sword strokes into the flat highveld a network of steep ravines slice through the otherwise gently undulating plains of the area, and this system of incised gullies and gorges forms the centre of the Suikerboschfontein hike. The hike itself consists of two 10km legs between the two overnight facilities: in other words you park your cars at one and stay your first night there, walk to the next one for the following night and return to the first one on the last day to collect the cars and return home. There are also shorter day hikes for the less physically-fit and one can spend one, two or three nights on the farm.
The two overnight facilities are as different to each other as they are charming and sensibly equipped. ‘Rooikrans’, definitely the most unique of the two, is situated on a rocky point overlooking the main valley on the farm. It is literally nestled in between a patch of strangely weathered rocks, with natural passages leading to and fro between the four huts, kitchen / dining area and the toilets. Everything is built of local stone as to blend in with the surrounds, and that it does very well, creating a truly distinctive venue. The other facility (‘Oom Japie’s’) is a converted farm house and is somewhat more conventional. Both overnight stops accommodate a total of 21 hikers and have donkey-boilers with ample wattle wood on hand to create a well deserved steaming-hot shower experience after a day out on the trail. Kitchens are equipped with cast-iron pots, braai facilities (nice braai-grills, but take your own tongs and utensils), sinks and washing up equipment.
With adequate planning one can turn what would normally be a fairly frugal culinary experience into whatever you want it to be – braais, potjiekos etc – all without the need to carry heavy cooking equipment. Instead of carrying it all on your back you can drive around to the second-night stop and leave all necessary equipment there, so when you arrive later in the day after a 10 kilometre walk you can spoil yourself with cold beers, snacks and a hearty meal. Or you can have a cup of herbal tea and the re-hydrated chicken and smash that you carried along with you – the choice is all yours.
Walking the Suikerboschfontein hike provides a chance to partake in a lesson on natural history and a study of hues and textures. The trail winds down into shaded ravines where ferns, mosses and small aloes adorn the trunks and boughs of the larger trees, where clear streams trickle, flow and percolate on their rocky downhill journey. In other places you suddenly emerge into the sun high above the valley floor, where Protea caffra, or ‘Sugar Bush’ / ‘Suikerbos’ (the farm’s namesake) dot the hillsides and myriad wild flowers poke up through the grass – Barberton Daisies, Paintbrushes, Candelabra flowers and numerous unidentifiable others. In terms of feathered fauna the area is a highveld grassland endemics hotspot. The endangered Southern Bald Ibis breeds on the cliffs of the gorges, Eastern Longbilled Larks call from elevated perches on the grassy slopes, Cape Longclaws flit between the termite mounds. Forest specials such as Cinnamon Dove and Cape Batis are also well represented, as are those associated with cliffs and rocks – Black Swift, Jackal Buzzard, Mocking Cliff-Chat, Rock Kestrel etc.
Many of the more prominent trees along the route are labelled for easy identification and can help one along the way to improved floral knowledge. Look out for the Real Yellowwood Podocarpus latifolius, Cheesewood Pitosporum viridiflorum, Cabbage trees Cussoinia sp and the Red-leaved figs Ficus ingens growing in cracks and crevices among the rocks.
Human history in the area is also remarkable, to say the least. According to experts, as far back as the first millennium BC, Dravidian goldseekers from south India prospected and mined in the area in cooperation with the original Quena or Hottentot people, and later with the Bantu-speaking tribes that came from the north. They left behind many stone ruins, which can be seen along the trail. These ruins are not merely old dwellings or homesteads, but rather temples, shrines and other places of worship; more like something of an African Stonehenge. These structures include the complex ‘Dying Sun Chariot Temple’, which was set up to align with the setting of the ‘dying sun’ on the afternoon of June 21st - the winter solstice. Ancient worshippers gave thanks for the abundance of the previous year and prayed for a return of the ‘new’ sun on the next day. A special seat for the suri or priest was set up to face directly the path of the new sun rising on the 22nd of June. Other features include the Sun and Moon Temple, Penance Triangle and Pilgrim’s Way North, which all interconnect with the Dying Sun Chariot and are spread over a huge area. Many moons after the construction of these temples, in 1870, the area was registered as the farm Suikerboschfontein, where after it was sub-divided when gold was ‘discovered’ in the area. When more profitable prospects were found on the Witwatersrand the farm was once again bought by Afrikaners for farming rather than gold mining, and legend even has it that when, on a neighbouring farm, one son brought home a large nugget of gold the father threw it away for fear of the English moving back into the area and appropriating his farm. Rock art on some of the cliffs on the northern leg of the trail suggests an intermediate historical occupation of the area by indigenous peoples, who painted Eland, Grey Rhebok and hunting scenes in red ochre. Although faded, they are still quite discernable today.
All in all there is a lot to keep one occupied at Suikerboschfontein besides the hiking. Historians, naturalists and those keen on exercise will be well pleased with the venue and will more than likely leave wishing that they had more time in which to fully appreciate all that is on offer.
For those with no one to go with the Johannesburg Hiking Club has expeditions to Suikerboschfontein on its yearly calendar (among numerous other trails and day outings), which are open to non-members. Beverly Brockman is in charge of the ‘youthful’ section, where (most) hikers are between 25 and 40 years ‘young’, or, if older, are at least young-at-heart.
As published in the Saturday Star Travel on 3 December 2005. Article by Leon Marais