A host of labels are associated with the Free State Province in South Africa; the Golden Country for the wheat crops and sunflower fields that extend for miles, Sheep Country for the expanses of natural grazing, Big Sky Country for the clear air that brings out the stars at night and the Granary, an area considered to be the country’s breadbasket. All are accurate, for this flat region of the country has the ideal climate and soil suited to agriculture and livestock farming.
Yet the Free State has areas consisting of giant mountain ranges and ancient historic sites too, there are a number of large modern cities and the region is rich in gold, diamonds and coal. Four of the largest dams in the country are located within or bordering the province and Free State’s capital is also the country’s judicial capital.
Visitors to rural parts of the Free State will appreciate the fresh clean air, the endless spaces and the friendly farmer or farmhand, always willing to stop for a chat.
Top 8 reasons to visit the Free State Province
1. A trip to Free State’s capital city Bloemfontein is essential. The student town is loaded with smart buildings and colourful flowers lining the streets. Stroll through the inviting public gardens and fascinating museums. Bloemfontein is probably the only city worldwide with a nature reserve located within the city boundaries.
2. Probably one of the most photographed sandstone formations is the striking Brandwag Buttress in the Golden Gate Highland National Park. The park has a number of ancient rock art sites to visit and hiking trails meander through steep ravines and via caves.
3. Clarens is a picture-perfect town with quaint eateries and craft stores running along the length of the main road. The town is a springboard to outdoor activities such as mountain climbing in the Maluti Mountains, 4x4 trails and hiking routes surrounding the town.
4. The 12000ha Willem Pretorius Game Reserve encircles a large dam and is the home of the black wildebeest. Rhino and various other small mammals can be viewed. A fine example of a stone hut, built by the Ghoya tribe, is located here and believed to date back to the 15th century.
5. Fishing of yellowfish is a favourite pastime at the scenic Gariep Dam. A tour of the dam wall gives an indication of this impressively engineered project. Travel to nearby Bethulie to see the largest concentration camp site of the South African war, an emotional experience.
6. Once hunted to extinction in the province, 2 male cheetahs have been reintroduced at the Laohu Valley Reserve. The reserve is unique in that it is helping conserve the South China tiger. Tigers born into captivity are released into the park and later returned to their country of origin. The tigers assist to create a balanced biodiversity in the reserve too, as they share the same diet as a lion.
7. The cherry festival takes place at Ficksburg during November. This pretty town attracts thousands of visitors to the festival and is transformed into a party town, celebrating the fruit through food stalls, beer tents, golfing events, street processions and live music. The festival ends with the crowning of a Cherry Queen.
8. Tour the Basotho Cultural Village to experience some of the Basotho tribal customs, sample their beer and enjoy a dance demonstration. Stayovers are possible in traditional huts. Before leaving, purchase a mokorotlo (Basotho hat), cone-shaped and thickly woven from grass, a perfect sunscreen.
Bloemfontein’s international airport, Bram Fischer International, services both international and domestic flights. There are many smaller airports and airfields spread throughout the province for chartered flights, most notable being those at Bethlehem, Welkom and Kroonstad. A vehicle can be hired from car rental agencies at all major towns and airports, or ordered online. The province is vast and trips between major towns are long, a rental is your best option. Overnight bus services operate between Johannesburg and Cape Town with a few stops in the Free State, ask your host for details.
Did you know?
During WW2, the mining town of Koffiefontein was used to hold 2000 Italian prisoners of war. A man named Facio painted pictures of Victor Emmanuel II and Mussolini on his cell wall. The cells were later demolished but the paintings were fortunately saved.
The Ghoya people who inhabited parts of the Free State centuries ago, built their domed huts from rock, packed in a complex sequence that did not require mortar. The entrances were tiny, forcing the owners to crawl in and out, a security risk and fire hazard rolled into one!