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For the ride of your life

Free State
“Welcome to our mini Serengeti,” grinned Willie Nel. I’m sure he’s said it thousands of times and I’m sure it never gets stale.

Watching the wildebeest gambol, the biggest herd of eland I’ve ever seen and many more antelope on the plains ringed by the horseshoe of the Witteberg Mountains at the four-star Moolmanshoek Private Game Reserve, I doffed my mental cap to Willie.

It took commitment, skill and vision to transform and develop his productive livestock farm into a wildlife retreat. It’s a family affair and passion, this hidden gem beyond Fouriesburg in the eastern Free State. The whole Nel family is involved, with Willie’s son Wiesman and wife Mafie your hosts.

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Moolmanshoek’s boereperd and endurance Arabs have an outstanding reputation. With more than 200 horses, they have something to suit riders of any ability and tough as teak Wiesman will arrange an easy ride or challenge you to your utmost.

It’s certainly one of the best ways to enjoy the plains game. Besides those I mentioned, there are springbuck, blesbuck (white blesbuck too), zebra, red hartebees and gemsbuck in abundance.

With no large predators, the animals are relaxed and heading out on your own is not foolhardy.

Horse and hiking trails, from 2.2km ambles to several days, get you to a range of views, including Lesotho’s Maluti mountains and San paintings, and Moolmanshoek also offers a special wedding venue with a spectacular horse run.

For the anglers, there are black bass and carp dams or you can fly-fish in the natural springs.

Moolmanshoek is host to some extreme events - the Four Peaks Mountain Challenge foot race and Skyride mountain bike race, and you can test your 4x4 skills on several routes, scale cliff faces and abseil down them.

I was glad to note that, although many visit to up their adrenalin and test their fitness, there were others (most it seemed) who were as content as we were to simply soak up the views morning, noon and after the Witteberg finished changing colours in the sunset. It was then the absence of light pollution in the mountain basin revealed the stars brilliantly.

We enjoyed sharing the lovely swimming pool, a 10-minute walk from the buildings, with tadpoles, fed as it is by the same stream that flows past a bird hide from which you can spy some of the more than 230 bird species.

The lodge is built from the eastern Free State’s characteristic sandstone, with 15 en-suite bedrooms, including fireplaces or Queen Ann stoves.

The lodge has an honesty bar, library and silence room for contemplation and sunroom for chilly winter days.

We stayed in the Mews, converted stables a little apart from the lodge, alongside the functions room (a converted barn) which hosts wonderful wedding receptions. Ceremonies and services are held in a grove of trees a couple of hundred metres away.

The rooms are my kind of thing. Not too fancy and fussy but rustic and very comfortable with everything just right, especially the beds. The info book has extensive information on the myriad activities and a birding checklist.

Meals are served in the old house, with hearty buffet breakfasts on the veranda, which has views of the mountains.

Picnic lunches are by arrangement and evening meals are in two different dining rooms, one more formal and the other an amazing room full of character, memorabilia and big open fires.

The “boere cuisine” dinners were excellent, enhanced by fresh farm produce and flavours like fig and pomegranate. I wasn’t the only one to comment that I had never tasted such good fillet steak - with potato purée and baby marrow.

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The wine list is also a goodie - not run-of-the-mill choices - and the service with a smile was great too.

Two kilometres away from the main lodge complex is a more rustic Langesnek Development Centre, with accommodation for about 100 people, for team-building and large groups.

I have a few regrets, generally regarding not having enough time here, not being able to ride and hike due to injury and also not being well enough equipped for a stellar 4x4 experience.

In the words of WegRy writer Phillip Sackville-Scott, who managed three of the four routes: “I was bowled over and you will also be. That’s a promise”.

Call: 0519332220 or 0827886623 

Website: visit www.moolmanshoek.co.za

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