Pilgrim’s Rest was once a thriving mining town in the last 1800s, and today provides visitors with an opportunity to visit a well-preserved village, with many authentic and original buildings.
The area is richly imbued with a diversity of natural, cultural and historic gems. The uniqueness of this historic village is vividly evident in its museums and historic sites. It offers the visitor a fascinating window into the past and captures the spirit of a bygone era and its people in their quest for gold.
The entire time of Pilgrim’s Rest was declared a national monument in 1986 as a living memory of the early gold rush days in South Africa during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Since then, a dedicated team of historians, architects, curators and special interest groups closely monitor all developments and refurbishments in the village to maintain its historic appearance.
The village evolved into two distinct halves, the upper and lower villages. There’s a short, uninhabited zone between these two sections. There are many fascinating old buildings to see, which transport the visitor back to the heady old days of the gold rush in 1883. The well-preserved village is perhaps a little spoilt by the large number of local vendors and car guards, whose numbers by far exceed the number of visitors.
Pilgrims Rest is located on the tarred R533 route between the towns of Graskop and Ohrigstad in Mpumalanga. The village was once brimming with life in the late 1800s, with eager prospectors swarming into the area to find alluvial gold. Today it’s a quiet little tourist town, trying to preserve its rich and diverse history.
The Pilgrims Rest Joubert Bridge
Towards the northern end of the lower village, the pass ends at the crossing of the Blyde River, via a 120-year-old single width bridge, named after Mr. J.S Joubert, the Mine Commissioner in the 1890s. The foundation stone has G.B Giletti as the contractor, but also Celso Giri, an Italian contractor who worked for the ZAR. The bridge is constructed of local dolerite, initially planned for three stone arches of nine meter each, but extended by one to the current four. It suffered storm damage to the eastern buttress in 1909, which was then reconstructed. The bridge was proclaimed a national monument in 1968, and is now a provincial heritage resource in the Mpumalanga province, since 1999. It’s still functional on the route from Pilgrim’s Rest to Ohrigstad.
The Pilgrims Rest Cemetary
If you have the time, take a drive up to the local cemetery, a little higher up the hill, where the real heartache of Pilgrim’s Rest history is portrayed through the engravings on the tombstones. What is remarkable is how young the people were who died from a range of illnesses, and particularly from malaria. Dead people from all over the world, in particular from Canada, Wales, Ireland, and England, are buried here. All part of the cosmopolitan diggers’ community, who were seeking their fortune during the gold rush days. Most of the graves are from those that did not make a fortune on the goldfields. The few who did left Pilgrim’s Rest whilst the going was still good.
The most visited grave site in South Africa is the Robber’s Grave. It’s not difficult to find, as the grave runs along the north-south axis compared to all the other graves, which run east-west. Most people believe that the robber who’s buried here, was the famous highwayman who robbed the stagecoach, and after whom Robbers Pass was named. This is incorrect, as it’s actually the grave of a prospector who was caught pilfering in other prospectors’ tents. All the heartache aside, this must be one of the most beautifully-sited graveyards anywhere in South Africa.
Mining in this region of Mpumalanga dates back many centuries and unknown miners worked quartz reefs in the area for gold. Proof of these diggings can still be found in this area. The history of this small, delightful village dates back to 1873 when a miner, Alex Patterson, discovered alluvial gold on the farm named Ponieskrans. He had left the Mac Mac area to search for a place that was less congested. Though the discovery was kept a secret, the inevitable happened and a second prospector, William Trafford also discovered gold close by. What they had found in this beautiful valley drew optimistic gold panners and prospectors from all over the country and the world. News of gold strikes of this magnitude traveled fast.
On the 22nd of September 1873, Pilgrim’s Rest was officially proclaimed a gold field and a scatter of tents and rudimentary shacks soon grew into a flourishing little village complete with sturdy brick houses, church, shops, canteens, a newspaper and a well known royal hotel. The diggers called it Pilgrim’s Rest because here at last after so many false trails and faded dreams, they had truly found their home. In due course, the alluvial deposits were depleted and the locals turned to forest. But their village, its residents still number in the hundreds, has been painstakingly preserved as a living museum and major South African tourist venue. Enjoy a leisurely scenic drive, traveling down winding roads, and ease into a bygone era where time stands still in this, our valley of gold.