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Finding peace in the Highlands

Travel

There’s a rumble, a scratching crescendo - like hail on slanted zinc - and the drumroll of a stormcloud bursting overhead.

Outside, the Brandwag Buttress, a stately outcrop of sandstone 100 metres tall, is shrouded in a wispy veil of mountain mist. The effect, for lack of a better word, is atmospheric.

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View of the Golden Gate where Paul Eksteen recently spent some time.

I shut the sliding door to the impending turbulence, and in the nick of time as well, for directly overhead a thick, hairy pair of lips, pursed in curiosity, dangles over the gutter .

No inclement weather then, but should the unsuspecting visitor to Golden Gate Highlands National Park carelessly leave their door open, a troop of marauding baboons will most likely leave the room looking like a tornado hit it.

As the sun pokes through the misty curtain, a peace once more descends on the area.

This national park, with its vast, undulating grasslands ringed by sheer cliff faces, seems within touching distance of heaven’s underbelly and is blessed with an almost tangible tranquillity.

That will almost certainly be the experience of the rat-racing city dweller, so practised in the art of blocking out the background hum of traffic, ringtones and noisy neighbours.

Here, you can hear yourself think.

Paul standing at the top of the Brandwag Butress. 

Situated half-way between Johannesburg and Durban, a three-hour slalom through pretty flowering farmland and concentrated stretches of potholed roads, the hotel at Golden Gate Highlands National Park certainly has the feel of a rest-stop - a moment in between your adventures in which you can breathe.

To one side lies the quaint town of Clarens, named after the place in Switzerland where the first president of South Africa, Paul Kruger, spent his final days.

On the other awaits a picturesque meander through a winding stretch of road that takes in stunning geography and the occasional sighting of wildlife, leading you even further into the past to the doorstep of the Basotho Cultural Village.

A stopover here is highly recommended and was the highlight of our stay.

The Basotho Cultural Village comprises a souvenir shop, a restaurant and a living museum at which the visitor can interact with history, rather than peer at it through glass.

Here, we were encouraged to share in the customs of the Basotho, sipping sweet-tasting sorghum beer with the village chief, casting for our fortunes at the feet of the resident sangoma (for a nominal fee, he will tell you what your future holds), and playing dress up in the royal households, all while the history of the Basotho, reflected in their changing dress styles and architecture, was narrated by our friendly guide Twice (so called, because his name and surname are the same).

A short distance from the cultural village is the Highlands Mountain Retreat, a settlement of beautifully appointed, self-catering chalets, an eccentric pastiche of loud colours and deafening silence.

Outside the Basotho Cultural Village where visitors are encouraged to learn more about the cultural practices of the Basotho. 

It is here you want to be if you truly want to get away from it all, where distractions like TV and cellphone reception belong to another era, and even the wandering buck keep a respectful distance.

Back at the Golden Gate hotel, it’s much the same.

The rooms are cavernous, as if the walls are pushing back against the advance of the technological age, though not so much that modern amenities such as air-conditioning and satellite TV are excluded. But outdoors, the pursuit of rest and relaxation requires some vigour.

There are a number of hiking trails, each one safely navigated without a guide, taking between two and four hours amidst burst of breathtaking beauty.

Virtually on the hotel’s doorstep begins the trail towards the buttress that dominates your view from the hotel.

At the summit, you can drink in a 360° view of the area as the sun plants sporadic but sumptuous kisses on the valleys and crags.

The weather, grey and chilly with the occasional spikes in warm weather, suits these outdoor pursuits, but it makes sense to pack warm clothing and sensible shoes as the footing could prove challenging.

Should your wanderlust demand more, you could also take in a horse ride at the Glen Reenen Rest Camp, a short drive from the main hotel, which also boasts a revitalising natural pool crying out for you to take a refreshing dip in.

In Clarens, the pace is positively genteel. The town is a lot like Melville, but with more old-world charm.

That, however, might soon change if one takes the influx of spiky, multi-coloured haircuts of thrill-seeking university students as an indication.

But with its art exhibitors, markets and languid eateries, and the fact that it isn’t far from the hotel, Clarens should be factored into your trip - if only for the change of pace.

And the food. Seriously, I’ve never had pizza or Portuguese trinchado as good as was served to me in Clarens.

The region has not been immune to the craft beer craze either, sporting its own Highlands varieties, and an eccentric imported selection at the local liquor store.

There’ll be lots more to toast in the future as well.

Near the Basotho village, plans are in place for a herb trail - in which interested visitors will be given a guided tour of the regions indigenous plants and their properties.

Paul trying out Basotho traditional dress at the cultural village. He wears a mokorotlo and is donned in animal skin. 

Future tours will also take in a dinosaur fossil find, ancient rock paintings, and an endangered bird species nesting in the caves further into the Maluti mountains.

The hotel also intends to expand, with an indoor pool.

It makes sense in that it gives your children somewhere to play. But, for now, the Golden Gate Highlands National Park is a place you can get away from it all, and sometimes that includes them.

Living in the big city, we tend to forget what it means to really unwind - and then the stress knocks our health for a six.

Up in the mountains, in a land that time seems to have forgotten, there exists a place where you can rediscover yourself, without anyone’s pampering: just you and the great outdoors and the sound of your breathing.

It’s only when you set foot back in the city that you realise how much you needed that.

For more information on Golden Gate Highlands National Park, call

Tel: +27 (0)58 255 1000, or visit www.sanparks.org/parks/golden_gate.


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