15 May 2012 by Dianne Tipping-Woods

Heavenly Suikerboschfontein

Discover gorgeous forests, deep ravines, pristine, aloe-strewn grasslands and some ancient ruins on this Mpumalanga hike.

To say that we walked the Suikerboschfontein Hiking Trail near Carolina in Mpumalanga would be an understatement. We did walk of course, but we also climbed, slid, scrambled and waded through bits of it, loving every kilometre of this fantastically laid out and diverse hike and, loving it even more once each day’s walk was complete and we could relax at the comfortable, but basic, accommodation provided.

Setting off on the hike. Setting off on the hike.

There was wood (alien wattle) for the donkey boiler and the braai, mattresses to sleep on and stunning views of the setting sun which, at one stage was parrallel with the rising of the full moon.

When sharing our plans for the hike, many people were perplexed, some incredulous. “Carolina? Why would you want to hike there?”, we heard time and again.

One of several ladders on the trail. One of several ladders on the trail.

Admittedly, from the N4 highway the area’s landscape does look monotonous; 'just' highveld grassland really, but what we discovered on the private nature reserve that the hike traverses, was something completely different. There are steep climbs through fantastic rock formations, rope assisted scrambles up rocky river beds, rough descents into lush and cool pockets of indigenous forest and views that seem to stretch as far as the lowveld, as hypnotic as the walking rhythm we fell into on the flat stretches that skirt the grassy hillsides teeming with life and diversity.

There are pockets of Marloti aloes (just starting to bloom in May) and still pools, lined with ferns and clear enough to drink from (which we did).

There are steep climbs through fantastic rock formations, rope-assisted scrambles up rocky river beds, rough descents into lush, cool pockets of indigenous forest and views that seem to stretch as far as the lowveld.

A series of ladders took us down over waterfalls and some well-placed ropes helped us up a few. There are boulders to hop between and cliff-side paths to navigate, from which we looked down on rock martins and other birds, from a vantage point 47 metres above the valley’s floor.

Re-filling our water bottles from cool, clear streams. Re-filling our water bottles from cool, clear streams.

Some of the ascents and descents are tough with a loaded backpack but as Oom Okkie, who is the third generation owner of the farm, confirmed before we set off – no-one has died on the trail yet and it’s accommodated more than 25 000 hikers. Other than a few aching shoulders and stiff quadriceps, we managed fine.

Oom and Tannie van Niekerk. Oom and Tannie van Niekerk.

It was easy to stretch out the relatively short, but technically challenging kilometres as there was just so much to see – vegetation-wise, geography-wise and animal-wise; the birders in our group recorded 65 species – not bad for the region and the time of year. We had one of South Africa’s top birders under 20 with us, Dylan Vasapolli, who has seen more than 740 birds in Southern Africa so far, a few birds ahead of my husband's 698. We saw a klipspringer too, troupes of baboons and herds of healthy-looking cattle.

Our comfortable hiking huts. Our comfortable hiking huts.

There is also rock art to see along the trail – such a privilege as Chris’s beautiful blog reminds us - and some fascinating ruins, referred to as the Dying Sun Chariot Temple which, as I’ve since discovered, have attracted some controversy and are the subject of academic investigation and speculation.

They are one of a series of ruins that traverse the Mpumalanga escarpment and part of a cultural landscape that stretches north beyond Mapungubwe, into Zimbabwe. I wasn’t convinced by the explanation given at one of the trail huts as to the history of the ruins. It seems to reflect thinking that would today be considered out of date so I decided to google around. I discovered a whole new field of study, known as archaeoastronomy. Richard Wade completed his Masters thesis at the University of Pretoria on the topic, which very simply put “investigates how the ancients applied astronomy in their lives, as well as in their art and architecture.” It seems our group of hikers may not have been the only ones to turn our eyes to the heavens in this beautiful part of the world.

The Dying Sun Chariot Temple  ruins. The Dying Sun Chariot Temple ruins.

Some of the most famous archaeo-astronomical sites are Stonehenge in England, Chichen Itza' in southern Mexico, and Fajada Butte in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico USA but cultural astronomers have paid relatively little attention to Africa. The discipline of archaeoastronmony emerged as people studied sites like these and ascertained that their architecture was aligned with the sun on important days of the year. The sites provide compelling evidence that whoever built them had sophisticated knowledge and could recognise the equinoxes and other events on the calendar.

Interesting geology. Interesting geology.

I’d be lying if I said I’d read Wade’s complete thesis, but he’s looking at the sites in South Africa specifically to work out a way to ascertain if some of the many ruins you can encounter on hikes like ours say more about the people who built them than meets the eye…To quote from his synopsis “This thesis presents a method of identifying astronomical expressions inherent within the spatial geography, cultural landscapes, and layouts of structures with a view to implementing the systematics in an African context." His review deals with oral tradition, rituals, formative calendars, fertility, meteorites, eclipses, bio-diversity, sustainable agriculture, rainmaking and the general star lore. As if these sites weren’t interesting enough to start with!

I contacted Wade whose prompt and gracious response included the information that he will be doing a survey and submitting a report on the ruin fields and that, there are “plans to investigate the archaeological as well as any possible astronomical aspects.” I plan to stay in touch with him and find out more.

Gorgeous sunsets. Gorgeous sunsets.

The hike was anything but monotonous and I wish I’d paused at the ruins a little longer than I did – to reflect on the moment, the place and its mystery. The last lines of the fourth paragraph of the poem by Sarah Williams: The Old Astronomer to His Pupil seem apt “Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light; I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.”

Mpumalanga's highveld skies, that much crisper in the winter, along with its ancient ruins, somehow seem to bear her sentiments out.

Moonrise. Moonrise.

Category: Routes & Trails

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