To look at the slumbering little settlement of Waterval Boven these days, it’s hard to imagine that once more than 600 children attended the local primary school, and steam-puffing locomotives stopped here for maintenance and coal. Modern-day Waterval Boven – now renamed Emgwenya – is an adventure traveller’s getaway and an angler’s delight.

Did you know?

A local rock-climbing cliff has been dubbed the ‘restaurant at the end of the universe’.

The sleepy little Mpumalanga village of Waterval Boven (now Emgwenya – 'place of the crocodile') was once a bustling railway centre serving the great Eastern Line between the old Transvaal Republic and Mozambique.

Back in the 1930s, Waterval Boven was populated by steam locomotive drivers, firemen, guard cleaners, firelighters, ‘wash-outs’ – men who cleaned the steel behemoths – and their families.

Locals occupied little red-brick railway houses, called ‘P95s’, and worked in shifts in the town they called ‘Boven’.

‘Boven never slept,’ an old-timer named Fred Geyser recalls. ‘There would be people awake at all hours, men coming on or off shift, and their wives baking cottage pie or macaroni and cheese for them in portable tins.’

Most of the houses had shutters, to keep sound out so the men could sleep during the day.

Each driver had his own special whistle code that he blew coming into town, so his family would know he was arriving.

‘We used to be really noisy on New Year’s Eve,’ says Fred. ‘The preacher would have to stop his sermon just before midnight, when the train whistles, town sirens, car hooters and assorted bells went off.’

Steam was phased out in 1966 and Waterval Boven went into decline.

The locomotive teams and their families left and their little homes were later sold to pensioners for a pittance.

Waterval Boven (which means 'above the waterfall' in Afrikaans) was established on 20 June 1894, and has a sister town a few kilometres away called 'Waterval Onder' ('below the waterfall), where President Paul Kruger of the Transvaal Republic once lived. Waterval Onder is also worth a brief visit.

Waterval Boven's primary purpose was as a locomotive depot and marshalling yard. It soon boasted a population of more than 3 500.

To haul the one-in-20 gradient up the escarpment, a 4km length of rack railway was built between Waterval Boven and Waterval Onder.

Three rack engines for hauling and shunting the trains at a blinding speed of 8km/h were used, but the passengers didn’t mind because of the lovely views outside their windows.

Do the Geysers miss the era of steam?

‘Not at all,’ says Fred. ‘Boven was polluted from all the train soot and smoke. And it was often so noisy on a Sunday you couldn’t hear the preacher.’

Today Waterval Boven, in its new guise as Emgwenya, is an international rock-climbing destination and a favoured trout-fishing spot.

But it’s quiet in town these days, except for the memories of the raucous railwaymen who once thrived here.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

Waterval Boven Tourist Info
Tel +27 (0)13 257 0444/0122

Roc 'n Rope Adventures
Tel: +27 (0)13 257 0363
Mobile: +27 (0)82 753-3695

Mpumalanga Tourism & Parks Agency
Tel : +27 (0)13 759 5300/01

How to get here

Waterval Boven, now renamed Emgwenya, lies just off the N4 highway, approx. 280km east of Johannesburg and approx. 80km west of Bombela, which used to be called Nelspruit.

Best time to visit

The weather around the Emgwenya area is generally temperate, but if you’re planning to fish for trout, come if you can in winter (May to August), when conditions are best.

Around the area

Waterval Boven/Emgwenya is close to many Mpumalanga travel hot spots like Mpumalanga's Panorama Route and the towns of Lydenburg, Dullstroom and even Bombela (Nelspruit).

Tours to do

The most popular tour in the area is the Panorama Route, which takes in towns and attractions such as Sabie, Pilgrim’s Rest, Graskop and Bourke’s Luck Potholes.

Get around

Mpumalanga is a prime travel destination, so there are many tours available. But it’s also a very good self-drive destination.

What will it cost

Accommodation ranges from approx. R250 per person per night (self-catering) across the board to the five-star-lodge level.

Length of stay

The area is definitely worth three days of exploration.

What to pack

Pack according to the season (hot in summer, from September to April, cold in winter, from May to August). Include a light raincoat if you’re travelling in summer.

Where to stay

Check listed websites for accommodation options, ranging from farm stays to guest houses to self-catering units.

What to eat

There are two good restaurants in the town: the Whistle & Trout and the Shamrock Arms.

What's happening

Check out the listed rock-climbing websites for events and competitions in the area. Rock climbing is the main sport around Emgwenya and most of the cliffs are well known to the global rock-climbing fraternity.

Best buys

Wood carvings are sold along the Panorama Route and in the small Mpumalanga towns as well. Some of them are of excellent quality.