Highland Treasures | 335km

Golden Gate Highlands National ParkGolden Gate Highlands National Park

BETHLEHEM

...on a South African holiday, visit the oldest and largest town in the region, which is also the commercial centre of the eastern Free State. Established in 1860 on the banks of the Jordaan River (named after the River Jordan which flows into the Sea of Galilee), Bethlehem was likewise given a biblical name. The favourable conditions for the cultivation of wheat induced the first white settlers to name the settlement after the biblical Bethlehem, a name meaning 'house of bread'. The town has numerous beautiful sandstone buildings, while the Wolhuterskop Nature Reserve will appeal to nature lovers. Covering 1 200 ha, the reserve has been stocked with springbok, red hartebeest, eland and zebra, among other species. Adjoining the reserve, higher up the Jordaan River, Loch Athlone is a popular holiday resort offering boating, water-skiing, angling and recreational facilities such as a swimming pool, floodlit tennis courts and a water slide.

FOURIESBURG

...lies within the territory disputed by the Basotho under Moshoeshoe I, resulting in the Basotho wars of 1858, 1865 and 1867. In terms of the Treaty of Thaba Bosiu, signed in 1866 by Chief Paulus Mopeli (Moshoeshoe's brother), the areas of Fouriesburg, Clarens, the Little Caledon River and Witsieshoek were awarded to the Orange Free State. Fouriesburg also figured in the South African War: following the occupation of Bloemfontein by British forces in March 1900, the Boer forces fell back to the Brandwater Basin, establishing a provisional government at Fouriesburg and making the town their headquarters.

The British sealed off five of the six passes giving access to the basin and encountered little resistance from the Boers when they attacked Slabbert's Nek on 23 July. The only remaining exit, the Golden Gate, was sealed off on 28 July and the following day General Marthinus Prinsloo and 4 300 men surrendered. About 20 km east of Fouriesburg, a memorial to the British and Boer forces killed in battle marks the site of Surrender Hill, where the Boers laid down their arms.

General JH Olivier, however, refused to recognise the surrender and escaped with 1 500 men through the Golden Gate. In Fouriesburg itself is the house where President Marthinus Steyn lived during the town's brief tenure as a capital city.

CLARENS

Visit the picturesque highland village of Clarens on your South African holiday. It lies in a pastoral settingáof spectacular sandstone outcrops and streams lined by willow and poplar trees. Established in 1912, Clarens was once a retirement village, holiday retreat and home of the Sotho, but has become popular with artists, whose work can be viewed at several art galleries, workshops and gift shops. The streets of the village are lined by fine sandstone dwellings, two beautiful sandstone churches and an old mill which is still in working order. Children delight in visiting Cinderella Castle, built from 37 000 beer bottles. There are several rock painting sites on farms in the area, and visitors can also undertake guided fossil-hunting trips.

Clarens owes its name to the Swiss town where President Paul Kruger died in exile on 14 July 1904. The Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR) President's historical links with the area date back to 1866, when five men of his Transvaal Commando were killed in a skirmish against the Basotho at Noupoortsnek. The name has also been given to the Clarens Formation, the distinctive cream or beige sandstones of the Little Berg.

GOLDEN GATE HIGHLANDS NATIONAL PARK

...is renowned for its mountain scenery, dominated by impressive sandstone formations and expanses of grassveld. Among the well-known landmarks are the twin bluffs after which the park has been named, the Sentinel (or Brandwag), Mushroom Rocks and Gladstone's Nose which resembles the profile of the former British prime minister. Visitors on a South African holiday in Golden Gate Highlands National Park can explore the vicinity of the two rest camps along several short nature trails ranging from one to five hours in duration. Especially rewarding is the Holkrans Trail, a self-guided trail featuring spectacular caves and sections which have to be negotiated by wooden ladders.

Not to be missed, though, is a guided walk to Cathedral Cave, where a stream plunges some 30 m through a narrow opening in the cave roof resembling the domed roof of a cathedral. As the cave is used as a roosting and nesting site for a bald ibis colony, walks are only conducted outside the breeding season. Other options include horse-riding and leisurely drives along the two game-viewing loops. Among the game to be seen are grey rhebok, black wildebeest, blesbok, red hartebeest, klipspringer and zebra, while oribi can be seen on the short loop named after this species. The bald ibis is a standout among the park's 150-odd bird species, while a variety of birds of prey, including the occasional bearded vulture, can be seen from the vulture restaurant.

QWAQWA NATIONAL PARK

...was proclaimed in 1991 as a nature conservation area of the QwaQwa homeland. Covering 22 000 ha of highland mountain scenery, the horseshoe-shaped park borders the Golden Gate Highlands National Park to the north, east and the south, where it also borders Lesotho. The park's main attraction is the imposing outcrops of Clarens sandstone. QwaQwa, the flat-topped mountain after which the area is named, is a prominent landmark in the east of the park. It has been suggested that the Khoikhoi name means 'vulture', a reference to the Cape vulture colony living on the cliffs. A variety of outdoor activities are offered and 4x4 enthusiasts have a choice of three routes which can be completed in three to four hours. Accomplished equestrians can explore the park by joining two-day horse rides conducted over weekends, while hikers can tackle the two-day Avondrus Hiking Trail, which covers 27 km.

BASOTHO CULTURAL VILLAGE

Situated within the QwaQwa National Park, the Basotho Cultural Village consists of a collection of homesteads ranging from reed-and-stick beehive structures to more modern constructions featuring colourful geometric patterns. Cultural activities are staged at an amphitheatre, and there is also a shop and restaurant. The village is a living museum where visitors on a South African holiday can learn about the history and culture of the South Sotho people by participating in traditional games and watching clay pot-making, weaving and the grinding of maize. A tour of the village takes about an hour, but visitors can also join the Ngaka (traditional healer) on a two-hour guided walk focusing on the medicinal and customary uses of plants. Well-preserved rock paintings along the route provide an added dimension to the trail. At the restaurant visitors can sample a traditional Sotho meal of maize meal, meat, wild spinach and pumpkin.

STERKFONTEIN DAM

...lies in the upper reaches of the Nuwejaarspruit and forms part of the Drakensberg Pumped Storage Scheme, which supplements the water supply of the Vaal Dam. Commissioned in 1977, the 2 290-m-long earthfill embankment was extended to 3 060 m in 1980, while the height was increased from 69 m to 93 m. Up to 630 million m3 of water a year is pumped from the Woodstock Dam on the Thukela River up the Escarpment to the Sterkfontein Dam. The water is stored here and is released into the Wilge River, a tributary of the Vaal, only when there is a need to augment the water level in the Vaal Dam.

The rationale for this is that, being very deep, the Sterkfontein Dam loses much less water through evaporation than the much shallower Vaal Dam. The dam wall contains 17 million m3 of material, making it the largest dam wall in South Africa in terms of volume. With a surface area of nearly 70 km2 when full and a capacity of 2 656 million m3, Sterkfontein is the third-largest reservoir in South Africa. It is popular with anglers, and windsurfing and boating enthusiasts. The dam is the focal point of the 18 000-ha Sterkfontein Dam Nature Reserve, which is dominated by grasslands and cream-coloured sandstone outcrops.

HARRISMITH

Harrismith, on the banks of the Wilge River, is dominated by 600-m-high Platberg to the northeast of town. Horse-drawn carts are still a common mode of transport among the local rural people 1. Established in 1849, Harrismith was named after the British Governor of the Cape, Sir Harry Smith. In addition to its central location midway between Gauteng and the KwaZulu-Natal coast, the town is also an important agricultural centre. The 5 000-ha Platberg Nature Reserve, extending from the edge of the town to the summit of the flat-topped mountain, is stocked with a variety of game including blesbok, black wildebeest, eland, springbok and red hartebeest. The blockhouse on the slopes of Platberg was built by the British in 1901 as part of their strategy to isolate and capture the Boer forces during the South African War. Also of interest is a 150-million-year-old, 33-m-long petrified tree trunk in the Harrismith Town Hall garden. The imposing light-brown sandstone building, with its towered fašade, was completed in 1908.

KESTELL

...lies amidst a patchwork of maizelands and cattle farms typical of the eastern Free State. The town was established in 1905 and named after a Dutch Reformed minister, Reverend John Daniel Kestell. Kestell is noted for its beautiful sandstone buildings, dominated by the Dutch Reformed Church, which was commissioned in 1909 and consecrated on 31 March 1928. During the South African War, the town saw fighting at nearby Groenkop, when a Boer force under the command of General Christiaan de Wet launched a surprise attack. Leaving their horses at the base of Groenkop, the Boers ascended the mountain under cover of darkness and attacked the British forces on Christmas Day 1900. British casualties were 58 killed, 84 wounded and 206 captured, while the Boers lost 14 men.

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