Schoemanskloof is one of seven spectacular destinations along the Highlands Meander of Mpumalanga. Most people however only think of it as a ‘route’; a long winding road that takes you to the more popular tourist destinations such as the Kruger National Park and Panorama Route towns.
As you drive along the N4 Schoemanskloof highway, you’ll marvel at the subtropical scenery with cascading waterfalls and gorges in magnificent natural forests. You’ll see meticulously farmed orange and avocado plantations, and most people make a point at stopping at the Joubert & Sons farm stall to stock up on world-class produce. And then it’s onwards to their final destination.
Don’t be too quick to dismiss Schoemanskloof as a place to visit for a weekend break or longer holiday. When you do spend some time in this relatively unknown corner of Mpumalanga, you’ll discover an area that has its own unique appeal and places that will restore and refresh weary travelers.
Travel to Schoemanskloof
Where is it?
The N4 split is just northeast of Machadodorp, about 260 km north-east of Johannesburg. The road comes together again about 60 km further, where both roads meet at Montrose. Take the left split and make your way over a spectacular mountain range and down into the gorgeous Schoemanskloof valley.
What to expect?
This entire habitat is home to a host of plants, trees and orchids. The rare cycads Encephalartos humilus and Laevifolius are found on the grassy mountain slopes. Birdlife is prolific and the kloof is a birdwatcher’s paradise.
The crowned eagle that preys on the vervet monkey population is frequently seen and heard. The narina trogon and purple-crested Loerie are also found in the area. We are still very fortunate to have small game such as red and common duiker, steenbok, mountain reedbuck and bushbuck present.
Weather and climate
- Mpumalanga’s weather is naturally defined by its topography. Mpumalanga is a province of two halves; namely the high-lying grassland savannah of the Highveld escarpment and the subtropical Lowveld plains.
- The western side of Mpumalanga, on the Highveld escarpment, is drier and hotter in the summer months and much colder than the rest of the Mpumalanga province in the winter months.
- In the heart of the Highveld, Middelburg experiences summer rain, and has a summer (October to February) to winter (April to August) range of around 19°C with average temperatures in the contrasting seasons, of 26º C and 8º C.
- Nelspruit, the capital city of Mpumalanga, lies at the edge of the Lowveld (an hour’s drive from the Kruger National Park). It enjoys plentiful summer rainfall (an average of around 620 mm falls between September and March) and mild to hot subtropical conditions in the Kruger National Park.
The area earned its name for two reasons. Firstly, the region envelops the edge of the escarpment that then drops down to the low-lying regions of Mpumalanga and secondly, the climate and landscapes closely resemble the beauty of the Scottish highlands. The Highlands Meander is a region for both nature lovers and the adventurous at heart.
Known for cold, misty seasonal days when the hot air of the Lowveld rise to meet the cooler mountain air, the region has been dubbed a “trout mecca” with pristine rivers packed with fat trout. The winter climate lends itself to leisurely days spent fishing or lazy evenings around roaring home fires. Hot summer days revolve around action-packed hours of hiking, mountain biking and walks.
Cliffs, ravines and rolling mountain grasslands offer some wonderful activities which include hiking trails, with some striking views. Visitors to the region enjoy regular sightings of elusive predators such as leopard, caracal and African wildcat, as well as kudu, bushbuck, mountain reedbuck, duiker, otter and hippo.
The entire region is also a birder’s paradise, boasting some of South Africa’s last breeding populations of grey and red winged Francolin and the Gurney sugarbird.
The top 7 destinations on the Highlands Meander
- Belfast is the gateway to the Highlands Meander and situated 2 025m above sea level and is one of the coldest and highest towns in South Africa. A holiday in Belfast usually revolves around trout fishing and hiking trails. It is an agricultural hub and the town supports both the farming and tourism industry. The area is well-known for flower farming and the large fields of daffodils and tulips bloom in September. That’s when visitors converge for the annual trout and tulip festival.
- Burgersfort is located on the border of Mpumalanga and Limpopo provinces. It’s best known for magnificent wild flower displays, rugged mountains and thick bushveld where a few premier game lodges have sprung up.
- Dullstroom is world-renowned as the fly-fishing capital of South Africa. Almost everything revolves around fat-bellied trout; if you’re not catching them, you’ll spend your time in delightful restaurants sipping on fine whisky thinking about ‘the one that got away’. Its picturesque neighbour, Tonteldoos, is well-known for its annual Highlands Festival and equally popular fly-fishing and hiking destinations and of course, its peach ‘mampoer’.
- Machadodorp is a quaint town known for its well-stocked dams, fabulous wild flower displays and historic villages. It’s the second cousin to Dullstroom for fly-fishing but equally popular as it’s also a great holiday destination in Mpumalanga for hiking, mountain biking and walks.
- Mashishing (previously Lydenburg) was once a thriving economic hub and the capital of its own independent republic. Today it is an area rich in history drawing visitors interesting in its well-preserved historical buildings and museums, and ruins of stone and iron-age settlements. It is also home to upmarket guest houses and lodges on pristine nature reserves. It is also earmarked for Mpumalanga’s first astrological observatory.
- Schoemanskloof spreads itself across a tranquil valley with farms and lodges scattered along the famous Crocodile River. Its natural surroundings are conducive for action-packed days and lazy evenings spent around a roaring fire.
- Waterval Boven lies nestled in the Drakensberg Mountains on the edge of the escarpment. It is rich in history with sites and buildings that have been proclaimed national monuments. For those looking for a more active holiday; hiking, mountain biking and rock climbing make it a popular tourist destination.
History of farming in the valley
“The first Schoemans arrived here in the middle part of the 19th century when they were allotted the Sondagskraal and Mooiplaats farms just up the road. Farms in the area have subsequently been divided and handed down from Schoeman to Schoeman for six generations.
“But farming here on the edge of the escarpment is not easy. There’s only a small amount of arable land between the mountains and the river, not to mention harsh winter frost and summer hail the size of chicken eggs.
“The Joubert & Sons citrus farm is really the only farm that has made it. The residents of Schoemanskloof are inventive, however, and many have turned to ecotourism, which makes sense considering the kloof’s proximity to Gauteng, its abundant natural beauty and its birdlife.” … as told by Stephen Schoeman, a descendant of the original Schoemans.
Top 10 things to do in Schoemanskloof
Stay at Wolwekrans Eco Lodge – A must experience eco breakaway.
Walk the labyrinth at Old Joe’s Kaia
A labyrinth at a popular guest lodge in Schoemanskloof, Old Joe’s Kaia, was planned and laid-out early in 2010 after the owners removed invasive and alien plant species from the bottom of the garden. The labyrinth is enclosed by some beautiful specimens of indigenous trees and shrubbery, typical of the area.
Labyrinths have been used for centuries as areas where prayer and transformation can take place during dedicated private time. The circuits of the labyrinth are carefully designed to intertwine in a mathematical way, always ending in the centre and leading out by the same way. Walking a labyrinth is often compared to walking one’s path of destiny, a reflective journey of one’s spirit, finding answers and reaching conclusion during troubled times.
Info: 013 733 3045/6 or visit www.oldjoes.co.za
A large painted rock affectionately known as ‘Old Joe’ is the most famous landmark on the Schoemanskloof detour. The rock was erected in 1927 by the original road construction team and named after Joe Barbas, their stout Dutch foreman.
The people of Schoemanskloof began painting the rock to mark various events and occasions, usually keeping the form of a man with a big belly. The tradition continues today, even though the rock has been moved several times as the road has been widened and upgraded. Old Joe has been at his current place near the Patatanek Pass since 2001, and he’s been looking quite professional since 2005 when an artist called Ghost decided Joe needed a makeover.
Over the past eight years, Ghost has painted and repainted Old Joe in various big-nosed and grinning manifestations: a cyclist, a rugby player, the Virgin Mary, a cat, a roast chicken… and even a weeping rhino in aid of conservation.
Home industry shop at Viva filling station
The Viva filling station has clean ablution facilities and a home industry/crafts shop called KUMI where you can buy everything from “Lekkerbek” gooseberry jam to handmade picture frames. The shop supports local arts and crafts folk and your support is welcomed.
Falls Fish Farm
Falls Fish Farm was established over 39 years ago by the late Harold Cort, who was later joined by his nephew, Myron, the current owner. Goldfish were the first type of fish to be bred and grown on the farm, and were later joined by Koi. Through many years of trial and learning, the farm has become a modern and successful producer of ornamental fish with a reputation for good quality.
Falls Fish Farm sells on a fortnightly basis, using air and road freight to ensure quick and efficient delivery to most places in South Africa. A variety of goldfish and standard grade koi are sold to wholesalers, retailers and individuals. Book an appointment prior to arriving.
Info: email@example.com or + 27 (0) 79 885 3509
Guided tours of Croc Grove Farm
Recently re-opened, Croc Grove Crocodile Farm is a world-class tourist attraction for the whole family. Visitors can enjoy daily tours, feeding and an opportunity to touch a crocodile. A tour of the farm generally lasts from 1 to 1.5 hours, providing history and information about the behaviour and breeding habits of the Nile Crocodile followed by a guided tour through the dams and enclosures.
The bravest can touch the crocodiles and count their conical razor sharp teeth. A feeding show is done daily at 3pm and is not to be missed. Meet some of the Crock Grove Farm legends, including Half Jaw, Buck Tooth and Howzit. Scar is 52 years old and almost 5 meters long. His friends are Stompie and Barbie.
Daily tours run from 9am to 4pm
Info: Like them on Facebook or contact Croc Grove Farm on 072-658-7395
R539 N4 Schoemanskloof Mpumalanga GPS: 25°25’45.7″S 30°38’27.2″E
Lowveld Croc Canoe Marathon
Schoemanskloof is the starting point for a hugely popular canoe marathon that is held annually in February when the Crocodile River presents a challenging ride after the summer rains. The Lowveld Croc Canoe Marathon offers a thrilling combination of technically-demanding rapids and weirs, set in the breath-taking beauty of the valley.
This A+ grade race brings paddlers back year after year. Try it and see why it has developed a cult status amongst its regular participants.
Info: Like them on Facebook or contact:
Rudi Jürgen Hälbich on 083 800 7744 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Bruce Templeton on 082 322 1140 or email@example.com
Drakenzicht, the Mountain Links Golf Course
Drakenzicht is a privately-owned golf course in Schoemanskloof that offers keen golfers a challenging 9-hole/18-tee ‘mountain links’ course. It is set high up on a mountain top, right on the edge of the Drakensberg Escarpment where the grasslands of the Mpumalanga Highveld meet the warm Lowveld. From here you have uninterrupted views of the Schoemanskloof Valley with its spectacular sunrises and sunsets.
This popular tourist destination in Mpumalanga is a mere 7kms off the N4 road to Nelspruit. The clubhouse is open daily for breakfast and light lunches and both the club and halfway house are fully licensed.
Info: +27(0)83 708 1994 Mobile: +27(0)79 893 3505
Joubert & Sons farm stall
Joubert and Sons is one of the larger citrus farming enterprises in Mpumalanga. The farm has 350 000 trees on 2 500ha and can deliver a million cartons of citrus a year. Take the time to stop off at their farmstall on the N4 highway to pick up a pocket of juicy plump oranges, naartjies and a box of Halls avocadoes.
Experience the warmth and hospitality of the Schoemanskloof community at their annual Citrus Festival, which is usually held in July. Participate in the runner’s half-marathon, golf and an arm wrestling tournament.
There’s also bow and pistol shooting, horse riding, quad biking and a tug-of-war competition. Enjoy a delicious feast at one of the many food stalls and spend a lazy afternoon in the beer tents. There are more than 130 citrus-themed stalls displaying their products. The fun starts at 9am and ends late at night with live music and much-loved traditional ‘boeredans’.
Day trips from Schoemanskloof
Sudwala Caves (22.5 km from Schoemanskloof)
The Sudwala Caves are an incredibly deep system of caverns lying in the Mpumalanga region of the Drakensberg escarpment. Considered the oldest known caves in the world, this astonishing unplumbed complex of passages and giant chambers extend into the mysterious Mankelexele massif.
The caves are situated in the Precambrian dolomite rocks of the Malmani Group, formed over a period of some 3 000 million years, capturing in stone an era when this place was a shallow inland sea.
The very earliest-known life forms are preserved in fossil form in these rocks. In the cave are fossils of the first oxygen producing plants on the earth called collenia – fossilised bacterial colonies that date back 2.2 billion years! And there’s a Dinosaur Park too. Kids will love the life-size monsters guarding the cave entrance.
Keen for adventure? Time your visit on the last Saturday of the month and join the popular Crystal Tours inside the deeper chambers. You will be required to crawl through some sections so be prepared to get wet. It lasts for six hours and bookings are essential. Info: +27 (0) 13 733 4152
The Panorama Route gets its name from the spectacular scenery and panoramic views over the Klein Drakensburg escarpment that characterise the route. Viewpoints with names such as God’s Window and Wonder View paint a picture of the beauty of the scenery.
A popular tourist destination is the Pinnacle, a single quartzite column rising out of the deep wooded canyon, and the ‘Three Rondavels (also called Three Sisters). These are huge spirals of dolomite rock rising out of the far wall of the Blyde River Canyon. Looking down from the top at the Three Rondavels also includes the spectacular sight of Swadini Dam glistening in the sun.
Blyde River, which means ‘river of joy’, and the Treur River (river of sorrow) converge at a point known as Bourke’s Luck Potholes. The water erosion that occurred is one of the most unique geological phenomenons in South Africa. The strange cylindrical sculptures formed over thousands of years, carved by swirling water where the two great rivers converged.
The region is rich in animal and plant life, including klipspringers and dassies that find shelter and food in the rocky outcrops. A wide array of buck, reptiles and birds enjoy the extensive grasslands and natural forests.
Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve is also home to five of South Africa’s primates; the somango monkey, nocturnal greater and lesser bushbabies, chacma baboons and vervet monkeys. The rivers are home to hippos and crocodiles, and the rivers and dams home to water birds and otters. All three South African species of Loerie can be found in the reserve.
Stone Circle Bistro
Author, scientist and explorer Michael Tellinger has created a haven for travellers and tourists on the N4 to Nelspruit. The Stone Circle Bistro is situated on the Elands River in the mountainous town of Waterval Boven and is the perfect stop-over for the hungry and the curious travellers.
Scattered throughout the mountains of Waterval Boven and Mpumalanga lie the hidden ruins of the most mysterious and misunderstood ancient civilisation on Earth. Michael’s aim is to educate and inform the world of this ancient human heritage that can be traced back to the earliest times in human history and shine a light on activities and harsh lives of early Homo sapiens. This is one of a few places you can see examples of the mysterious stone ruins that have puzzled historians and archaeologists for many decades.
Consisting of a small country bistro, bar, bookshop and museum, Stone Circle Bistro is a place where new-age thinkers meet and share ideas, and host regular talks and events with fascinating guest speakers.
Lone Creek Falls (40.4 km from Schoemanskloof)
Lone Creek Falls is a well-known tourist spot in Mpumalanga and one of many magnificent waterfalls in the area of Sabie, Mpumalanga. A short 200 m walk from the parking will take you to the foot of the 68 m waterfall. If you’d like to experience the falls in solitude and away from the crowd there is a path from the parking leading to the top of the falls. The walk is not too difficult and there are a few picnic sites.
Bridal Veil Falls (43.6 km from Schoemanskloof)
The Bridal Veil Falls is approximately 6 km from the tranquil and attractive town of Sabie. The waterfall resembles a bridal veil and roars down from a spectacular height of 70 m. There is a challenging 750 m walk through a luscious indigenous forest before one can see the waterfall.
Rocky Drift Nature Reserve (30.9 km from Schoemanskloof)
Rocky Drift Nature Reserve lies in the valleys of the Waterval Boven area in Mpumalanga. The spectacular mountain terrain is a popular destination for rock climbing and hiking. There is a fresh water stream which is nourished by the Joubert Spruit tributary of the Elands River. The nature reserve boasts a wide variety of animal and birdlife.
The Elands River Falls
The Elands River Falls is one of the highest waterfalls in Mpumalanga and is situated on the outskirts of Waterval Boven (also known as Emgwenya). The falls plummet 70 m from the Drakensburg escarpment to the Lowveld below. The falls have become one of South Africa’s top rock climbing destinations.
The best place to view the Elands River Falls is from a wooden viewing deck at the back of the NZASM road tunnel. Both the waterfall and the tunnel are national monuments.
Top 5 hiking trails close to Schoemanskloof
Kaapsehoop Escarpment Walk (36.5 km from Schoemanskloof)
Hike through a maze of unusual rock formations for 20 minutes from Kaapsehoop and you will find yourself at the edge of the escarpment with jaw-dropping views. Here the landscape plunges 1 000 metres into the Barberton Valley. At night the twinkling lights of Nelspruit and Barberton are visible. Early birds can watch the sunrise over the Swaziland range of mountains.
Steenkampsberg Hiking Trail in Dullstroom (43.5 km from Schoemanskloof)
Situated 4 km northwest of Dullstroom on the Tonteldoos Road is the start of the two-day Steenkampsberg Hiking Trail. The grasslands of Steenkampsberg are home to a huge diversity of mammals. Larger antelope you may see include eland, blesbok, black wildebeest, Burchell’s zebra, and red hartebeest.
Steenkampsberg is also an important refuge for the endangered wattled crane, blue crane, crowned crane and the delicate Oribi antelope. Facilities include tent sites, firewood, water and toilets. The hike is rated moderate.
Mountain Reedbuck Route (43.5 km from Schoemanskloof)
Gorgeous views, a 10 metre high waterfall and huge natural pool make the 6-hour effort of the Mountain Reedbuck Route extremely worthwhile. This 13 km circular trail rambles along rocky crests and above cliffs with jaw-dropping scenes.
Five Assegais Country Estate hiking trails
A 50 km network of trails on the 1 500 hectare nature conservancy take hikers through incredible scenery that includes ancient grasslands, yellowwood forest, waterfalls and sand stone mazes. The estate is already well known for the five-day Num-Num Trail that runs on both Assegai and Bermanzi country estates.
The network of trails has been built by Albert Bossert, Chairman of HOSA, where eco-conservation is a priority. A dendrologist has identified and marked over 109 different species of tree on the estate. Game has been reintroduced and is often sighted along the routes. There are two campsites – God’s Window Camp and Candlewood Camp.
The Escarpment Trail is a one-day 13.5km hike that starts and ends at God’s Window camp; passing waterfalls, the Bankspruit river, a sandstone maze and ancient stone terraces.
Hell’s Bells Trail is a one-day 8.4 km hike, also circular, from God’s Window camp. The highlights are Helskloof Gorge, waterfalls and Purple-crested Loeries. The short cut is advisable.
Pongola Express Trail is a one-day 15 km loop that passes Mac Falls and numerous gorges but is not sign posted – use a map and other path signs.
Oom Paul’s Trail is a two-day 20 km circular route past Uitkomste Falls, along the escarpment, through indigenous forest and past sandstone formations.
Pongola Express and Candlewood Trail is a one-day 16 km loop past both Mac Falls and Uitkomste Falls, through ancient grasslands.
Elangeni Holiday Resort (18 km east of Waterval Boven)
Call + 27 (0)13 257-7071
A guided trail at this popular holiday resort in Waterval Boven forms part of a three-day educational programme. While it is designed for school children, it’s also popular with adult hikers.
Day 1: 12 km, roughly 6 hours
Start early. The start of the trail heads along the banks of the Elands River before heading up the mountain. This part of the hike is rather steep – worth it for the views from the top, but you will probably spend half your time on the incline (it can feel exhausting). Take plenty of water along, and look forward to the rock pools at the waterfall, which you reach after heading along the mountain’s edge and then downhill.
Overnight in a mountain log home with fully- equipped kitchens and braai facilities, warm showers, gas oven and gas lamps. There are eight Wendy houses, each sleeping four people in two bedrooms, and a communal lapa.
Day 2: 8.4 km, roughly 4 hours
The trail of day two is not particularly challenging. The trail starts with a short climb, again offering spectacular views over the valley. The path home through a pine forest offers respite from the heat, before reaching Elangeni Falls. Take your time here as the rest of the trail is easy. The falls are quite beautiful.
Formerly known as the Eastern Transvaal, Mpumalanga is one of South Africa’s top tourist destinations. People are drawn to Mpumalanga by the magnificent scenery, by the fauna and flora and by the saga of the 1870s gold rush era and a wealth of fascinating tribal legends.
Aptly known as “Paradise Country”, mountains, panoramic passes, valleys, rivers, waterfalls and forests characterise the landscape. This is also Big 5 game country, the setting for dozens of sanctuaries teeming with wildlife and birds. Among them, the Kruger National Park is world renowned, as are several of the luxurious private reserves on its western boundary.
The entire Mpumalanga area offers exceptional opportunities for bird-watching, hiking, quad biking, mountain biking, horse-riding and fishing. Streams once panned for gold have become the haunts of eager anglers and lazy trout.
Steeped in the history of pioneers, hunters and fortune seekers, the area is a fascinating voyage back in time to the gold rush era. Barberton and Pilgrim’s Rest are among the most famous towns that played a central role in the gold-panning days.
History of Schoemanskloof
Former Machadodorp resident Hannes Bezuidenhout (born in 1930) recalls how, in the 1940s, only big, mostly American cars such as Chevrolets, Dodges, Buicks and Packards used the dirt road through Schoemanskloof. Until the 1970s, when the Waterval Boven tunnel was built, this was the only practical route to Nelspruit. In those days, he recalls, the speed limit was just 50 km/h.
In 1848 Watervalshoek (now Sondagskraal) was allotted to Johan Schoeman. In the same year the farm Somerset was given to JJH Viljoen. The kloof is a narrow valley barely 1.5 km across at its widest.
In this valley there were soon so many Schoemans (and the family so attached to a few first names) that almost all the men were given nicknames to differentiate them, for instance, Deaf Fanie and Fanie Colony (the latter coming from the Cape).
Descendants of the original Schoemans continue to live in the kloof. From the mid-19th century Schoemanskloof was informally divided into two. The part above Patatanek was known as ‘Bo-Schoemanskloof (Upper Schoemanskloof) and that below as Schoemanksloof Onder. The long trek up to Patatasnek was known as ‘Langasem’ (‘deep breath’) because of the time and effort it took to get to the top.
The name Patatasnek dates from the days when there used to be an outspan area (where oxen would be unyoked and allowed to graze while the wagon riders rested) and where it was the custom to roast sweet potatoes on the camp fire.
Schoemanskloof has always been well known for its sweet potatoes. Decades ago locals used to bake sweet potatoes in the oven, then grate them and add sugar and hot water to make a drink that they called ‘Fango Coco’, although no-one now recalls where the name came from.
The first proper road through Schoemanskloof was built in the 1920s under the auspices of a Hollander, Joe Barbas. Most of that road was superseded by a new alignment begun in the 1940s – essentially today’s road.
For decades, long-time residents of Schoemanskloof chuckled about an incident that occurred when the road was being tarred in the late 1940s. The driver of the tarring truck forgot to switch off the gas heaters that kept the tar liquid. As the tar was being sprayed onto the road it burst into flames. Unable to put out the fire, the driver kept driving and his truck kept tarring – until all the tar had been sprayed on to the surface. The result was that 3km of road, at Mooiplaas, was on fire – a thick cloud of black smoke hovering over the area.
Joe Barbas, or at least a likeness of him, is still seen here on the side of the road in the form of a painted rock affectionately called ‘Old Joe’. Born in Hilversum in the Netherlands in 1883, Barbas came to South Africa at the age of nineteen.
Local farmer, educationalist and part-time historian Dr Faan Coetzee has counted the following occupations pursued by this energetic man: bookkeeper, teacher, farmer, army paymaster, road builder, insurance agent, shopkeeper, butcher and tax collector. Whatever he did, it appears that Barbas was a likeable man.
In 1927, the men working for him discovered a rock near Patatasnek that they thought looked just like Barbas. They hauled it up to the road, painted it white and labelled it ‘Joe’. The pot-bellied rock has since become an institution with motorists who stop to have their photos taken with Old Joe. A tradition of painting Joe has endured for many years. The real Joe died in 1974.
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