On our way to the Bushfire Festival last month, my friends and I spent the night on South Africa’s Wild Frontier. This is the name given by the South African tourist industry to the corner of Mpumalanga province that borders Swaziland, Mozambique, and Kruger National Park. The landscape does indeed have a wildness about it.

The scenic Wild Frontier.

The Wild Frontier includes several historic gold-mining towns, one of which is Barberton. Barberton didn’t win me over right away. We arrived at dusk and checked into the Barberton Chalets and Caravan Park. The chalets were fine and the price was right at about R200 ($25) a person. The one problem, we realized after checking in, was that the Barberton Chalets are not equipped with towels. Uh..no towels? What the hell? None of us had brought towels, so we spent the next 30 minutes driving around trying to find a place to buy them. No luck. We settled for a four-pack of super-absorbent dish cloths from Pick-n-Pay.

Our next goal was dinner. Charl and Adeline switched on their GPS, looking for restaurants. It seemed that our only choices were Wimpy and Debonairs Pizza (think Domino’s, but a notch or two lower). We drove around looking for other options, but Barberton is very dark at night. We gave up and settled for Wimpy.

As we pulled into the shopping centre parking lot and trudged into Wimpy, I posted the following on Twitter: “A word of advice to travelers in South Africa: Don’t ever go to Barberton.”

The next morning we were back at Wimpy for breakfast.

Wimpy coffee. It’s big.

It was a beautiful morning. We decided to give this town one more hour of our time and check out the Barberton Heritage Walk.

Five hours later, we were still there. We could hardly bring ourselves to leave.

To be honest, I’m not all that interested in the history of South African gold-mining towns. But there was something about this historic walk through this quirky town — the interesting architecture, the loving way that the houses were restored and maintained, the earnestness of our guide — that made our tour of Barberton exceedingly enjoyable.

Fernlea House, built in the 1890s. I’m not sure why the house is historically important, but it was nice to walk around. The inside has been turned into a little museum. There’s a path behind the house that goes up to an old gold mine shaft. I was excited to walk inside the shaft, but it was just…dark.

The gate leading up to Belhaven, the nicest house on the Barberton Heritage Walk.

We climbed the stairs of Belhaven House and met Mandla, who became our guide for next 90 minutes. Mandla collected R15 from each of us, looked at our cameras, and politely told us that photos aren’t allowed inside Belhaven House. This just about killed me because the inside of Belhaven House is freaking amazing. As far as Mandla knows, it’s the only house in all of South Africa with pressed steel ceilings AND walls in every single room. Each room has several different patterns of pressed steel, and the steel is painted in every color of the rainbow.

 

Since I can’t show you the pressed steel walls inside Belhaven, here is a shot from the porch. Belhaven was built in 1904. It was completely pre-fabricated in England and shipped to South Africa, which was apparently common practice in those days.

I can’t remember the name of the family that originally lived in Belhaven. But I do remember that Mandla knew everything about them. Mandla is an unassuming kind of guy, not particularly animated. But the more I listened to him, the more I was struck by how much this black South African man, who grew up under apartheid, seemed to care about the wealthy white people who lived here 100 years ago.

 

Mandla on the porch of Stopforth House, the third house we visited on the Heritage Walk. This photo does not convey Mandla’s awesome-ness.

Stopforth house is not as grand as Belhaven, but it has a story that I actually remember. The same family lived here for 100 years, until a few years ago when the last daughter, who never married or had children, was forced to move to an old age home. The house is still furnished exactly as it was when the woman (whose name escapes me) left, and she had hardly changed anything since the house was built. The mattresses are made of straw and there is no interior plumbing. No wonder the old lady couldn’t manage anymore.

At one point, Mandla opened a cupboard filled to the brim with files and papers. “These are the Stopforth family’s papers,” Mandla said. “I’m reading through them all but I have a long way to go.” He looked dreamy-eyed. Apparently the local government tried hard to find another relative to take over the house when the old woman had to leave, but no one came forward. I don’t completley understand why all of her things were left behind.

A pretty (and beautiful-smelling) frangipani blossom outside Stopforth House.

We said goodbye to Mandla, who had a school group to meet, and walked the rest of the Heritage route ourselves.

200-year-old “kerbing”. The sign was more interesting to me than the kerb.

Old Barberton Stock Exchange.

Jock’s Tavern: My favorite building in Barberton, although it is not one of the official heritage sites. We had lunch in the beer garden. The service was slow but my fish and chips were delicious. It was more fun than eating at Wimpy.

On the way out of town, as we chugged toward the Swazi border, I tweeted again: “I take back last night’s assessment. Barberton is cool! Come do the heritage walk and ask for Mandla.”

Read more about the Barberton Heritage Walk here.

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