"The Free State landscape gladdens my heart, no matter what my mood. When I am here I feel that nothing can shut me in, that my thoughts can roam as far as the horizons." Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom
The Free State landscape is characterized by vast, level, open spaces but in the South-Eastern corner of the province, the flat plains share the earth with hills and mountains, and towering sandstone cliffs. At sunrise and sunset, shades of gold and ochre are cast upon these cliffs, bathing them in a golden light. This is where Golden Gate Highlands National Park gets its name from.
On a recent road trip from Lesotho to Johannesburg, I spent two nights in the park with my family. The scenic drive from Clarens took us just 20 minutes, and we were in the park soon enough. Owned by SANParks (South African National Parks), Golden Gate Highlands National Park is nestled in the foothills of the Maluti Mountains. The park celebrated its 50th birthday, a few years ago. It is renowned for its natural splendour, a photographers dream.
We drove around for a while, admiring the breath-taking scenery, imposing cliffs, expansive grasslands, and forested ravines. The park was basking in its winter glory, but it is a beauty in all seasons. On the Oribi Loop, we found a path leading to the vulture hide, perched at one of the highest points in the park with incredible views. The hide is one of the best places to see the Cape Vulture and the endangered Bearded Vulture. Black-bearded jackals are often seen here too.
We drove up the mountain, parked our car and took a walk to the hide, where we spent some time. The vultures did not grace us with their presence however, although we did see some old carcasses and a swift eagle flying overhead.
We then drove to our home for the night, the Basutho Cultural Village. The village is a recreation of an 18th century Basutho village, with beautiful settings and decorations. Below the tourist attraction is the accommodation, which consists of clusters of neat self-catering rondawels (round huts) set high in the mountains. We had 2 rondawels for our family. They were clean and comfortable with either twin or double beds, en-suite bathrooms with showers, a fully equipped kitchenette and some armchairs. It was quiet and peaceful, with no TV to disturb the serenity, and the only sounds being that of the howling wind outside. The kids loved the open spaces and my husband and I loved the panoramic views.
After making ourselves comfortable, we set off on a tour of the village. First, we had to get permission from the chief. He graciously invited us in to his Lekhotla (the gathering place for men), through his emissary and we proceeded through the village with our local tour guide, who explained the culture, symbolism and rituals in each section we visited.
The village is a living museum with reconstructions of traditional homesteads from the 1700s to the present. We met the chief’s first and second wives, and the Ngaka (Traditional Healer), and saw their houses too. It was a unique experience and one that I’d highly recommend for a glimpse into traditional Basutho life.
The next day, after exploring more of our surroundings and visiting the vulture hide again, we headed for the Golden Gate Hotel and Chalets. The hotel is located in a stunning setting, facing the iconic Brandwag Rock. Behind it are more rocks and cliffs, standing like sentinels. The hotel’s entrance lobby and coffee lounge were elegant public areas that drew the guests in like moths to a flame. Everybody around me looked happy and relaxed as they sipped on their milkshakes, hot chocolates and coffees while cold winds raged outside.
We stayed in a 4-sleeper chalet. It had a bedroom with a double bed, and another open-plan bedroom with a dining area and a kitchen. There were electric blankets and panel heaters to keep us warm. The full-length glass sliding doors provided an amazing view of the golden mountains and rocks, and I found it hard to tear myself away from them. The kids, on the other hand made themselves comfortable in no time and ran up and down to the main lounge in the hotel, having fun.
The park has several hiking trails and nature trails, some leaving from the hotel, but we didn't have enough time to do them. It is also home to many species of plains game. Unfortunately, the cold seemed to have deterred them from roaming around and we didn’t see much wildlife -except for some wildebeest in the distance - although we did see a fair amount of cattle.
Golden Gate Highlands National Park is one of South Africa’s gems. Sadly, too many South Africans have not been there yet. It is possible to drive from one end of the park to the other in an hour if you’re in a hurry - although I’d recommend doing it at a more leisurely pace and staying over for a more intimate encounter with nature. With no dangerous predators around, it makes a great family getaway.