South Africa has some of the most beautiful and ancient mountains in the world, a number of which are either on the list of the New Seven Wonders of nature, like Table Mountain, or are World Heritage Sites.

Deep in the Mpumalanga Province, which translates from the Zulu as ‘the land of the rising sun’, stretches the Barberton Makhonia Mountains, nicknamed ‘the Genesis of Life’ – not least because of the rocky hills, wide grassy plains, verdant valleys, and mysterious forests, as well as the rich diversity of birds and wildlife. Rising to 1800m above sea level, this enigmatic range contains the oldest, best-preserved sedimentary and volcanic rock layers in the world. Estimated to be as old as 3.6 billion years, they also contain 3.1-billion-year-old fossilized bacteria – the oldest on record.

The Kaapvaal Craton, on the eastern border of the range is the oldest piece of the Earth’s crust from the Archean period. That’s 3875 to 2750 million years ago, when the Earth’s crust had cooled enough to allow the formation of continents and supposedly the beginning of life. The mountains contain evidence that Australia and Africa were, at one point, one land mass. One million-year-old Early Stone Age artefacts reveal how the mountain range has been home to pastoral people from then up until the 1860s. Numerous archaeological sites include 1000-year-old ruined, walled villages. San rock paintings suggest that once Davidian temples, typical of South India and Sri Lanka were built here, as well as the presence of Phoenician merchants and Egyptian slave traders.

The Barberton Makhoniwa Mountains are a place of wonder and antiquity. How to explore them is the question. The answer lies between the town of Barbeton and Swaziland’s Bulembu Border Gate. It’s known as the Geotrail. This is an approximately 37km self-drive trail which opens up the mysteries of the mountains, making them accessible to the public. There are also guided tours available. If you choose to explore on your own, a well-illustrated guidebook is available as is the website. Both of which we highly recommend. Along the route, which can take 2 hours or a full day to explore, are 12 landscaped lay-bys with information panels. There are also picnic stops, combined with rock specimens, geological features and stunning view points telling the story of Earth’s geological start.

It’s a fascinating trail. We suggest packing an abundant picnic basket so you can linger, take in the view, step back in time, explore this ancient land, gaze in wonder at the San rock art, marvel at the drama of the history and geology of the Barbeton Makhonia Mountains to your heart’s content. You may even see elephant, rhino, leopard and Cape buffalo. It’s perfect for outdoor adventurers, history buffs and geology nuts, but it’s also a wonderful trail for families thanks to its sheer beauty.