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The story of the mountains that trapped earth’s history in stone

  • Sunday, 05 May 2019
  • Linda Chivell

Maknojo Montains

The Makhonjwa Mountains are certainly one of South Africa’s most unique and picturesque areas

Some of the rock formations found here come from the Archean period going back as far as 3.6 billion years. In these rocks, you can see the first evidence of single-celled life forms and their first geomorphic features.

It also shows the evolution of the originally oxygen-free ocean and atmosphere. As well as the origin of the first continental landforms. People in the know, say that the rocks in these mountains can tell us a lot about where we come

UNESCO World Heritage Site

UNESCO proclamation of a World Heritage Site

On the 2nd of July 2018, this area was designated as South Africa’s 10th World Heritage Site.

The United Nations Organisation for Education, Science and Culture, better known as UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee has selected, since 1972, several sites of particular importance to humanity as heritage sites. There are already 1092 heritage sites worldwide, of which SA previously only had nine.UNESCO map

Robben Island, iSimangaliso Wetlands Park, the Cradle of Humankind, the Drakensberg, Mapungubwe, the Cape Floral Region, the Vredefort Dome, the Richtersveld, and the Khomani Cultural Landscape.

SA Site map

At UNESCO’s general meeting in Bahrain this year, they selected only four natural sites worldwide. The Makhonjwa Mountains range was one of these four sites and the only one in Africa that made the list.

The discoveries in these mountains became known as the history of our planet, preserved in stone.

Globally there are only two other places where rocks of the Archean period that are visible. However, both these sites are completely inaccessible whereas in the Makhonjwa Mountains these geological wonders can be found right next to the road.

Rock nect to the road

For decades, scientists from all over the world have been searching these mountains for ancient evidence of life on our planet and it certainly was not a waste of time because they made discovery after discovery.

Pro Heubec

Professor Christoff Heubeck of the Freie University in Berlin was one of the first geologists who uncovered the secrets of these rocks. According to him what is so special about these rocks is that all these black lines that go through the rocks. A sure sign that these rocks are the remnants of microbial mats.

Microbialmat in rock

Microbial mats are the earliest form of life on earth and 3.5 billion years ago when the rocks in these mountains were underwater. The beach deposit is so well defined you can see tidal intervals; trace fossilised biomass in sandstone, the first evidence of life on earth visible to the naked eye; piles of volcanic pillows formed by lava extruding on an ocean floor, or volcanic hailstones preserved in dove-grey chert sediments. Getting answers out of these rocks give humankind insight into where we came from.

Microbial mats. explained

The heavy black, sparkly crystals in the iron rock are magnetite and most of the Japanese car manufacturing industry gets their steel from these rocks. Not a chemical rock, magnetite is a bacterial rock made of fossilised iron-eating, iron-breathing bacteria. As the name says, magnetite is magnetic.


Scientists, like Professor Heubeck, believe that only half of the area has been investigated and that there are still a lot more hidden secrets to be found.

Unique Biodiversity

Another very interesting aspect of the area is the plants that are only found here.


This area is known as the Baberton Centre of Plant Endemism which means that there are many plants that are indigenous here and found nowhere else in the world. There are over 30 endemic species because of the unique mineral composition in the soils and the microclimate. Some plants can only be found on certain mountain tops others only in certain valleys.

Thorncroftia lotteri

A good example is the Thorncroftia lotteri, a beautiful pink succulent found only in two locations in these mountains.

The proclamation of this area as a World Heritage Site provides it with an additional level of protection of its biodiversity as it goes hand-in-hand with geology.

This incredibly beautiful piece of land contains many more secrets that will be an infinite source of inspiration for scientists and naturalists.

So next time you visit the Baberton area, be sure to do yourself a favour and visit South Africa’s 10th World Heritage Site.


Striking and informative roadside panels have been installed along the 40km of tarred road between Barberton and Swaziland. The Barberton Makhonjwa Geotrail tells an astonishing story of the earth soon after it had cooled sufficiently to have a crust and liquid water, but an earth unrecognisable to us – wholly different to the blue planet we inhabit today.

Moutains geotrail

You do not even have to go into the mountains but could simply stop at one of the numerous informative geosites along the scenic road to Bulembu, and on to Piggs Peak and discover what happened over 3.5 billion years ago.

Article Written by Lohan Fourie





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