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Towns of the Highlands Meander

 
13 January 2017 by Katy Louise Johnson

The Highlands Meander is a treasure trove of attractions, activities and adventures just waiting to be explored and over the next twelve days that is exactly what we will be doing. However, before we set-off on the journey into what you can do in this versatile region of Mpumalanga we need to first look at where you can stay!

Main Image credit: Gustav Janse van Rensburg

eMakhazeni, formerly Belfast

Image credits: Ludwig Sevenster

Originally named after Irishman, Richard Charles O’Neill, who owned the farm that Belfast was originally built on. eMakhazeni is also known as the ‘Gateway to the Highland Meander’, just 210km drive from Pretoria making it the perfect weekend away anyone wanting to escape the chaos of Gauteng. 

Image credits: Ludwig Sevenster

One of the first things you will notice when coming into eMakhazeni is the dramatic scenery change that unfolds, transforming the flatlands of Middleburg into rolling grasslands with rocky hilly outcrops, lush riverine valleys and babbling streams. While the area is often covered by a layer of mist during the winter months, it undergoes an incredible metamorphism from November to January, when the highlands’ flowers spring into life and turn the green grasses into a colourful canvas that has captured many an artist’s imagination.

Image credits: Ludwig Sevenster

Located on the edge of the Drakensburg escarpment, eMakhazeni is famed for being one of the coldest places in South Africa. This is due to its impressive elevation - over 2,000 m above sea level. While the sub-alpine climate might make the town a bit nippy during mid-winter, it ensures the town provides a welcome escape during the summer months from the balmy heat of the Lowveld.

This is when thousands of anglers flock to the town to try their luck at fly fishing. Part of the Highlands Meander’s famous ‘Trout Triangle’, the crystal-clear, ice-cold water that flows through eMakhazeni’s rivers and fills it’s dams provide the ideal spawning ground for both brown and rainbow trout. The cool water will also ensures that anyone brave enough to take a dip in one of the town’s many dams, pools and waterfalls will have an invigorating experience!

Image credits: Ludwig Sevenster

The town is by no means a one trick pony and like so many of the other Highlands Meander towns there is far more to do here than simply fish. Outdoor enthusiasts can enjoy exploring eMakhazeni and the surrounding area on horseback, mountain bikes or hiking it on foot.  While history buffs can immerse themselves in the regions rich Anglo-Boer War history, from the British concentration camps to the Berg-en-Dal monument located just outside the town.

 

Image credits: Ludwig Sevenster

Some interesting facts, the town is home to the world’s biggest bulb grower and distributor with over 6 million tulip bulbs leaving eMakhazeni every year, it is where South Africa’s oldest Blue Gum plantation can be found and every spring enjoys the most impressive display of tulips and daffodils found anywhere in the country.

 

Image credits: Ludwig Sevenster

eMakhazeni, or Belfast as locals still refer to it, is a cold town with a warm heart, somewhere to enjoy cool misty mornings exploring nature or taking in the historic sites before retreating for long lazy evening next to a crackling fire!

Town’s GPS Coordinates: -25.676641, 30.035019

Dullstroom

Image credits: Ludwig Sevenster

Undeniably the most famous of all the Highlands Meander Towns, Dullstroom is a tourist mecca that attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year to ‘Scotland’s Only Outpost in Africa’. Just 25 minutes’ drive from eMakhazeni, Dullstroom makes up the perfect long weekend retreat for people wanting to escape either the Lowveld heat or the noise and pollution of Gauteng.

Image credits: Ludwig Sevenster

Trout has had a huge part to play in this small town’s success. Proclaimed a town by Paul Kruger in 1892 and referred to as the ‘Place of Eternal Mist’ by the first Dutch settlers. Dullstroom had a volatile first few decades, caught in the cross fire between the Boer and the Brits during the Anglo-Boer war where the town was virtually raised to the ground. It was only with the release of trout in 1916 and the further stocking of dams in 1927 that Dullstroom started to make a name for itself in the fishing world and people began to see it as more than just a sleepy village in the mist belt.

Image credits: Michele Meacher

Yet it is the mist belt, the high-altitude setting that provides Dullstroom with the cool climate and clean air that make it both a tourist magnet and floral oasis. The town is rich in plant life, with many rare and endemic species being found here including numerous orchids and the exquisite golden Arum lily, as well as the Country’s only decent population of elm and birch trees. During the spring and summer months the grasslands surrounding the town come alive with an explosion of floral fireworks that turn the green hills into rainbow of colour. It is also one of the few regions of South Africa where you will find all three species of endangered crane.

Image credits: Michele Meacher

The cooler conditions make it a hiker’s paradise, whether you enjoy gentle strolls along the riverbanks or stretching jaunts up rocky escarpments, you will find the most breath-taking scenery while being immersed in the silence and tranquillity of this beautiful location.  Dullstroom is a hiking haven no matter the season, or dare I say it the weather, as even during grey sky days where the mist is down to the ground the place has its own special magical type of beauty.

 

Image credits: Ludwig Sevenster

The micro-climate found here also provide the perfect conditions for trout to thrive, making Dullstroom another corner of the ‘Trout Triangle’ and one of the ‘must-visit’ fishing hotspots in South Africa. Thanks to the towns countless dams, river, streams and rapids, where fisherman are offered the options of catch-and-release or keep what you catch, ensuring every fisherman is catered for.

Yet there is so much more to Dullstroom than simply flowers and fish. There are the countless fireplaces that visitors find themselves relaxing in front of after a hard day of sight-seeing, the incredible range of restaurants that will ensure even the fussiest of foodies is satisfied and huge array of artisan shops set in the town’s wonderful 19th and 20th century architecture, each unique, quirky and truly Dullstroom. With bird of prey shows, clay pigeon shooting, horse riding adventures, mountain bike and trail running routes, art galleries and health spas, you could stay a year in Dullstroom and still not run out of activities to do!

Image credits: Ludwig Sevenster

It is no wonder that this once ‘sleepy town in the mist belt’ which has now become the tourism hub of the Highlands was a finalist for Kwela’s Town of the Year this year. This is a town that prides itself on being distinctive, original and all inclusive, it manages to cater for the needs of everyone, while not falling into the ‘same-old, same-old’ tourism trap many other towns have succumbed too.

GPS Coordinates: -25.4184, 30.2041

Tonteldoos

Image credits: Ludwig Sevenster

It might not strictly be in Mpumalanga any more, but we like to think of Tonteldoos as one of our own, after all it was until very recently. Just a couple of kilometres over the Limpopo border, this is a tiny hamlet with a huge Highlands heart! A thirty minute gravel road adventure from Dullstroom, this is a tiny town is a must for your bucket list, it’s definitely worth the trip.

While the origins of the town’s name are still disputed, legend has it a land surveyor lost his tinderbox here while surveying farmlands. The town may not have grown much from those early days, with still only around 40 permanent inhabitants, yet it has a wonderful small town charm and an incredible community drive that means its reputation for ‘punching above its weight’ is well deserved!

Image credits: Ludwig Sevenster

Everything about Tonteldoos is unique, inspiring and totally original, from the incredible Highlands Festival that is held every year and celebrates the area’s Scottish heritage, to the wacky names of the local shops and huge array of great activities that go on there. So whether you long for an adventure biking escapade, donkey carts, to taste some of the best cheeses in the province, or to do one of the countless bespoke courses on offer at Flintlock Grange, there is something for everyone and whole lot more besides. Just remember, no trip there is complete without visiting the Thirsty Walrus, having a drink while admiring the bikes at Highside Tavern and trying to tempt a trout at the Woolly Bugger!

Image credits: Ludwig Sevenster

Image credits: Ludwig Sevenster

 

GPS Coordinates: -25.4037, 30.0851


eNtokozweni, formerly Machadodorp

 

Image credits: Ludwig Sevenster

Now known as eNtokozweni, meaning the place of happiness, Machadodorp was originally named after the Portuguese Major Joachim Mahado who was a prominent engineer on the Pretoria to Delagoa Bay railway line.

A picture perfect town set in a spectacular mountainous back drop, with the Elands River running through it, eNtokozweni provides the perfect weekend-away bolt hole. It’s somewhere to withdraw from the hustle and bustle of modern day life and enjoy the peace and tranquillity that envelopes this town.

Image credits: Ludwig Sevenster

The ideal destination for both nature lovers, wanting to bask in the breath-taking scenery and rich variety of plant species and bird life, and outdoor enthusiasts wanting to get their blood pumping on invigorating walks, rock climbing adventures or even marathon training routes. This town has a lot of history too!

Image credits: Ludwig Sevenster

One of the most historically interesting aspects of the Highlands Meander is also found just outside eNtokozweni, the baKoni ruins. Scattered throughout the hills that surround eNtokozweni are thousands of stone walls, some suggesting buildings, others pointing at terraces. There are a number of explanations with the most universally accepted being that these were a vast complex of settlements, fields and roads. However more controversial explanations by both renegade scientist Michael Tellinger and Hindu-expert Dr Cyril Hromnick also provide plausible alternatives if you are willing to open your mind to them.

Image credits: Ludwig Sevenster


eNtokozweni, or Machadodorp as the locals commonly refer to it, is the essence of an Mpumalanga town that provides the perfect setting for anyone looking for a bit of rest, relaxation and rejuvenation, something most of us could do with!

GPS Coordinates: -25.6673, 30.2455

Schoemanskloof

Image credits: Ludwig Sevenster

The Schoemanskloof highway probably wins the award for the most underrated destination in Mpumalanga, if not South Africa. Yet it if you do take an hour or two to explore this well-known road route, you will see that it has much more going for it than simply being a bypass!

Image credits: Ludwig Sevenster

For a start it is one of the most spectacular driving roads in the province that takes drivers through a spectrum of beautiful scenery marking the transition from the Highveld to the Lowveld. From the craggy gorges, cascading waterfalls, magnificent natural forests and rocky outcrops where aloes seem to hang on precariously, to the almost subtropical scenery associated with citrus, nut and avocado farming. There is also plenty of bushveld to marvel at too.

Image credits: Ludwig Sevenster

A relatively unknown corner of Mpumalanga, Schoemanskloof has a number of surprises up its sleeve. There is the absolutely beautiful, and one of a kind, Mountain Links Golf Course at Drakenzicht. This nine-hole course, with 18 tees, is no walk in the mountains! So don’t be fooled, as this course can create a challenging round for even the most talented of golfers. Then there is the relaxing and rejuvenating labyrinth at Joe’s Kaia, where you can let the stresses of modern day life simply slip away as you embrace nature and the calm aura that surrounds the labyrinth. For those looking for adventure, the Lowveld Canoe Marathon starts in the Kloof. This challenging route always draws a crowd along with some of SA’s best canoeists. Perhaps one of the most tantalising stops is at the Joubert and Seuns farm stall, where you can get freshly harvested oranges during the late autumn and winter months. While Lowveld icon, and cult figure, Old Joe stands patiently marking your passage out of Highlands and into the Lowveld and always ready for the odd selfie!

Image credits: Ludwig Sevenster


Emgawenya, formerly Waterval Boven

Image credits: Ludwig Sevenster

Emgawenya, formally Waterval Boven, can be found at the top of the escarpment and as its original name suggests above the Elands River Waterfall and is the sister-town to Waterval Onder. The 75m Eland Falls can be viewed from viewing platform just outside the town, accessible from the Netherlands-South African Railway Company’s (NZASM) tunnel. This platform gives great views of the stunning escarpment, rich in plant life and bird species.

 

Image credits: Ludwig Sevenster

Established in 1895, as a supply town along the NZASM railway line that took goods from Pretoria to Delagoa Bay in Mozambique, Emgwenya soon grew into a flourishing town where locomotives would be brought for refuelling and repair. It was a thriving community, where over 600 railway children were schooled and shifts never ended but just merged into one and another. Tales of raucous New Year celebrations are still told in the local pub, as old timers reminisce about noisy nights where the air was filled with train whistles, car horns and sirens.

Image credits: Ludwig Sevenster

Only in the Mid-60 did Waterval Boven run out of steam, as the locomotive industry slowed down and the Town had to look for alternative sources of income. Now it is not the railway that draws the crowds but the rocky escarpment, as Emgwenya is heralded as one of the top climbing destinations in Africa, if not the world. With over 700 testing routes, that suit both novice and experienced climbers alike, it is easy to see why so many people are attracted to the town’s “Restaurant – on the edge of the universe!” There are also a number of amazing hikes through the Elands Valley, choose your routes carefully as some are perfect for beginners but others will challenge the fittest of hikers. This is however one of the best ways to see the area surrounding this fabulous town. For those who prefer four feet to two, there are also a number of great horse trails and for the less adventurous there are wonderful trout fishing opportunities too.

For those looking to stretch their minds rather than their bodies, the town is home to a number of National Monuments. These include the beautiful sandstone 5-Arch Bridge and NZASM tunnel, leftovers from a bygone era. For the even more mentally adventurous, take a trip to the Stone Circle Museum and Bistro, where the story of Adam’s Calendar is told. Possibly the oldest man made monument known to man, some believe this could be the proof needed to challenge both creationism and Darwinism when answering the age old human question – who are we?

Image credits: Ludwig Sevenster

Emgawenya, which means place of the Crocodile, or Waterval Boven as most locals still call it is one of those towns that as soon as you start looking around it you realise you needed to stay for longer. There are so many fascinating buildings, tales, activities and adventures to be had here. So make sure you book your stay for longer than a day!

Image credits: Ludwig Sevenster

GPS Coordinates: -25.63921, 30,33657

Waterval Onder

 

Image credits: Ludwig Sevenster

As the name suggests, the village of Waterval Onder is set at the bottom of the impressive 75m Eland Falls. Unlike its big sister at the top of the Falls Waterval Onder never developed into a town and kept its village charm.

While small in stature, Waterval Onder has a big history. This was the last home of ex-President Paul Kruger before his exile to the Netherlands and his once home, Krugerhof, is now a museum and National Monument.

 

Image credits: Ludwig Sevenster

It is also home to one of South Africa’s greatest mysteries, involving lost gold and resulting in one of the world’s greatest treasure hunts – “The Search for The Kruger Millions!” The story goes that President Paul Kruger removed around R1.5million of gold from the national treasury. While some was used on the war effort and some taken into exile, legend has it a substantial amount was buried in the Lowveld in readiness for his victorious return. So where does ‘X’ mark the spot? Best guess is between Waterval Onder and eNtokozweni, formerly Machadodorp – so are you ready to get digging?

 

Image credits: Ludwig Sevenster

This is a small quaint village with a huge heritage and certainly somewhere for any South African history fan or treasure hunter to explore.

GPS Coordinates: -25.64744, 30.38.275